“Perfect timing,” exclaims The Globe and Mail‘s boyish foreign editor as he whisks me up to the second-floor newsroom. “You’re here just in time for a crisis.”
John Stackhouse seems frazzled-wide eyes and nervous laughter belie his usually cool demeanor. The headlining feature for the weekend foreign section, just 36 hours from deadline, has lost its main source. At his desk, Stackhouse fires off some urgent e-mails and makes a few fast phone calls before dashing into the 10:15 a.m. story meeting a few minutes late.
In the windowless boardroom, the Globe‘s top editors are quietly perusing lists of this morning’s headlines from key news outlets. They’re also taking turns going over their proposed lineups for tomorrow’s Halloween paper. Stackhouse’s tentative schedule: the attacks on Palestinian olive pickers in the West Bank, the looming collapse of the Israeli government, and the story of the young victims and survivors of the Chechen rebel attack on a Moscow theatre. “It’s an amazing, beautiful A1 story” about hope and courage, waxes Stackhouse in an attempt to stake out prime space for foreign news.
But across the large wooden table, associate editor Neil A. Campbell isn’t impressed. “I give it a 10 percent chance of survival,” he says, smacking his lips into a frown. Another editor mutters that the piece “sounds as if it’s a couple of days old.” Such negative first impressions can often start the process that sees international stories squeezed down to briefs and relegated to the back of the paper, or axed altogether.
At the root of Stackhouse’s problem is diminished space for world news. Over the past two years, the size of the Globe‘s foreign section has been cut dramatically. As a result, he has had to struggle to ensure that news from all parts of the globe-not just hot spots like Iraq-be given appropriate space. Stackhouse, however, isn’t the only foreign editor with problems. Shifting priorities and economic constraints have meant cuts to news holes and foreign bureaus at the National Post, the Toronto Star, and the Globe-the three Canadian papers with the biggest budgets for international news.
And while September 11 revitalized appetites for foreign news in Canada, the unrelenting focus on the so-called War on Terror, and now Iraq, meant that features on, and analyses of, less “sexy” places in the developing world have been increasingly ignored. But such gaps in the coverage of the people, places, and issues outside the glare of CNN’s cameras, says CBC Radio producer Bob Carty, can have grave consequences. The world can miss the warning signs of great tragedies, as happened with the Rwandan genocide and September 11. And it is a problem that may only get worse as newspapers cut back coverage and close down bureaus.
“One of the great risks that we’re facing as the media,” adds Stackhouse, “is that we’re missing something possibly quite huge that’s emerging elsewhere-and not necessarily on terrorism, but something just as significant.”
When two jets rammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, foreign coverage changed overnight. As the initial shock and horror faded, journalists everywhere recognized the tragedy as the biggest story of the new century. New York’s crumbling skyline sparked a mini-renaissance in foreign coverage by Canada’s big three newspapers.
“We just went crazy,” recalls Drew Fagan, the Globe‘s foreign editor at the time. “The issue of news hole disappeared.” On September 12, the Globe turned over a whopping 52 pages to the terrorist attacks. The Post did something similar, devoting all three of its regular sections, except for a bit of nonrelated business news, to the unfolding crisis. While carloads of reporters and photographers were sent to New York and Washington, D.C., foreign editors reassigned their correspondents from around the globe to positions in Pakistan and Afghanistan to await the war. “Not since the Second World War,” declared the Globe‘s Shawna Richer in an article that appeared one month later, “has an event demanded such staggering newsroom resources,” a recognition of the big bucks newspapers had shelled out for such extras as satellite phones, hotel rooms, translators, drivers, even bribes.
Yet the new onslaught of foreign coverage came with serious limitations. Stories from the rest of the world were often relegated to a few token inches. “I wasn’t paying any attention to what was going on anywhere else because it [9/11 and the “War on Terror”] was an all-consuming story,” says Kelly McParland, the Post’s foreign editor. “It made everything else seem fairly unimportant by comparison.”
The media’s concentration on only one or two stories is by no means a new phenomenon. It is the nature of the “spotlight effect,” says Carty. “The spotlight, which is in itself a gatekeeper, generally keeps stories out of the lineup from Latin America and Africa and big parts of Asia. Right now, there are death threats to human rights workers in Guatemala. But you’re not hearing about it. There are elections coming up in Argentina. But most people don’t know about them.”
Why does this happen? Because, explains Carty, “Editors are defensive in the sense that they don’t want to miss the story that the next guy has. If they’re covering Iraq, you’ve got to cover Iraq. The ability to set your own news agenda is very, very minimal these days.” Adds the Post’s McParland: “You don’t really have to make as many choices. You come in in the morning and see ‘Huge Horror in Middle East,’ and say, ‘Oh, we should cover that.'”
But the trouble with this approach, says Stackhouse, who admits to doing the same thing, is that it becomes what he calls “the McDonald’s/Burger King phenomenon.” Like fast-food franchises, he explains, you get pretty much the same thing from each paper, menu for menu, lineup for lineup.
“Not good,” says Carty. “It doesn’t help the diversity of news sources if they’re all covering the same thing. They may have different perspectives on things, but many times they don’t. This is not good for democracy-or for public discourse.”
In a windowless corner of the Toronto Star‘s lakefront newsroom sits 52-year-old Bill Schiller, who took over as the paper’s foreign editor several months after September 11, 2001. With his crisp, navy blazer trimmed with gold buttons, neat blue jeans, and shock of wavy white hair, Schiller looks more as if he’s lounging stern-side than running the foreign desk. But the dusty blue bulletproof vest sitting on a nearby shelf is a reminder that he’s a journalist with 10 years’ experience as a foreign correspondent, someone who has manned bureaus in strife-ridden countries like South Africa.
Like many editors of his generation, Schiller believes bureaus are the cornerstones of solid international coverage: “I think any newspaper that wants to engage in foreign news has to demonstrate it by investing its talent, resources, and money in foreign bureaus. Otherwise I don’t think they can be taken terribly seriously.” And staffing those bureaus with Canadian reporters, he adds, is essential: “We’re Canadian. We should be bringing our Canadian perspective and values to world news.”
Schiller explains that this perspective is missed when papers rely too heavily on American or British news services. He also mentions the warnings of Madelaine Drohan, the Globe‘s former economics columnist, who, in her March 2001 farewell column, cautioned: “If we leave our foreign news coverage to others, we disappear-even from our own map of the world.” Schiller says he worries about the example the Post is setting in running a foreign news section with only two bureaus (one in New York, the other in Washington). “The fewer foreign bureaus there are in Canadian media,” he says, “the more pressure people like me will ultimately come under to close them.”
But that pressure has already been applied. Since the late ’80s, the Globe has shut down bureaus in Tokyo, the Middle East, Africa, Mexico City, Rio, Los Angeles, Berlin, and, in 1999, New Delhi. Today, it has just four overseas (Moscow, London, Beijing, and the recently reopened Middle East) as well as two in the States. Over the same period, the Star closed four bureaus (Moscow, Africa, Latin America, and Tokyo). Only those in Jerusalem and Hong Kong, along with the standard Washington and London bureaus, remain active. Why? The huge costs of overseas bureaus-around $250,000 annually-make them easy targets in times of financial restraint and economic downturn. “The problem with foreign bureaus,” offers Fagan, now the Globe‘s Opinion editor, “is you get a lot of bang for your buck for closing them.” And with most of the bureaus closed by the Globe and Star situated in developing countries, the closures were largely unnoticed by the public.
But with no bureau chief to champion stories to the editors back home, great swaths of the world no longer have full-time Canadian representation from our three major dailies. The entire continents of South America and Africa, for example, have no permanent reporter stationed there from the Post, Globe, or Star. TheGlobe‘s full-time bureau in Africa closed in 1989. The Star boarded up its Africa bureau in 1995. And over at the Post, which in 2000 became the only daily to open rather than close a bureau in Africa, it sacked the posting in March 2003. All in all, as of September 11, 2001, there were only 12 full-time Canadian correspondents in the world from English and French TV, radio and print outlets working outside of London and the United States-a decrease of 40 percent from the early ’90s. With nearly as many correspondents stationed in the U.S. as there are covering the rest of the planet, the foreign news spotlight has largely shone south of the border. And so foreign editors like Schiller must increasingly rely on wire services (which can lack context and analysis), local stringers (whose quality and reliability can be spotty) and parachuted-in reporters (who may not know the local issues terribly well) to help them cover breaking stories from the far reaches of the globe.
One of Schiller’s colleagues, former foreign editor Jim Atkins, is angry about the loss of Canadian bureaus in the world. In a cramped, windowless office down the hall from the bustle of the Star newsroom, the burly, spectacled Atkins sits wedged between a large plastic tree and a small-screen TV. He believes that without such bureaus, foreign coverage tends to centre on conflict and sensational angles and fails to examine the full story behind the immediate headlines.
Atkins is insistent that bureau staff play a vital role in pushing aggressively for a wider range of stories and keeping the chronicles of a region in an editor’s line of vision. “If we could send reporters to follow around the prime minister in Africa, then we should have a bureau there,” spouts Atkins gruffly in his baritone South African accent. “Instead all we do is foot the bill for expensive photo-ops with no fucking substance.” Without those bureaus, he warns, it’s as if the region and its stories don’t exist.
Only a few blocks away at the Globe, former Middle East correspondent and foreign editor Patrick Martin has witnessed the dangers of pulling out of a region. The Middle East bureau was boarded up in 1995. “That was a real disservice,” says Martin, now the editor of the Comment section. “I think we missed the background to the entire Middle East and the advance of terrorism as a result. Not that we would have predicted September 11 necessarily. But we would be in a better position to cover it properly if we had been there consistently during the ’90s.”
Stackhouse is clutching a steaming Styrofoam cup of coffee in a quiet corner of the Globe‘s top-floor cafeteria. He has been out of the field for three years, after spending eight covering South Asia and Africa from a home base in New Delhi, India. As the Globe‘s first, and perhaps last, permanent development reporter, his mission was to get past death and destruction headlines and pass on a richer understanding of the issues to his readers back home. But now, sitting in Toronto, his frustration lies in the fact that he has little room for the type of stories he himself used to write: features, softer news of incremental developments, human-interest stories that segued into the broader forces at play. Stackhouse took over as foreign editor just as coverage of September 11 was starting to die down. Throughout the news industry, ad sales had plunged dramatically in the wake of the U.S. tragedy, and the ensuing fiscal restraint forced Stackhouse to work with a much-reduced news hole.
“You used to have the luxury of doing news and features in the foreign section,” recalls the slightly disheveled 40-year-old editor, who is dressed in faded brown cords and a blue denim button-down. The longer features and in-depth analyses that characterize development stories, he adds, have been largely elbowed out. Still, he has had some successes. Toronto-based reporter Stephanie Nolen has been sent out a handful of times on Stackhouse-style assignments in Africa. A three-week excursion to the continent in the fall yielded intimate stories of the child victims of Uganda’s civil or of Ethiopian farmers fending off hunger. But with room for just six to eight international stories per day-and at least one or two of those slots usually going to Iraq, one to Israel, and maybe one to the “War on Terror”-it’s hard for the rest of the world to get in, he says. Numerous conflicts and catastrophes must be tucked into 80-word briefs.
Though the Star‘s Schiller hasn’t had to deal with a news-hole squeeze as big as those faced by the Postand Globe, constraints still force him to cut news from countries like Zimbabwe every day, despite his personal attachment to the region from his days as a bureau chief. At the Post, says McParland, “millions” of key stories are getting tossed aside because there just isn’t room for them. “You can do an entire section on developing countries every day,” he adds.
But with fewer column inches, overseas stories have no room to breathe, says the Post‘s first foreign editor, John Racovali, now the paper’s chief news editor. “Because space is constrained, stories get cut. But all the foreign stories are incremental developments in which you need the context to make sense of what’s happening and to understand why it’s important enough to put in the paper.”
The sign on the dusty pink office door reads, “Come in and ask about the campaign for access to essential medicines.” Within, a tiny hallway is smattered with posters dissecting “The World of Refugees” and “Where Our Funds Go,” with arrows on broad, colour-coded maps. Volunteer-based M?decins Sans Fronti?res, or Doctors Without Borders, is an international humanitarian organization that delivers medical aid to victims of conflicts, disasters, isolation, and epidemics in over 80 countries that fall both in and out of the media spotlight. Here in the cramped Toronto office of communication director Tommi Laulajainen, which is piled just shy of the ceiling with cabinets and newspapers, much time is spent trying to convince Canadian editors that the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Liberia’s civil war, the man-made famine in Angola, or the dramatically escalating conflict in Colombia are worth featuring. But faced with a shrinking forum for the stories it wants to bring to the world’s attention, a lack of contacts abroad due to bureau cuts, and a chilly reception from editors preoccupied with Iraq and the Middle East, MSF is finding it harder to secure coverage of many stormy overseas issues.
Consider what happened with MSF’s campaign to bring public attention to the patents and trade deals that prevent the world’s poor from accessing essential medicine, explains Laulajainen. The organization was making headway, with many papers starting to give space to the problem. Then came September 11, and suddenly anything outside the “War on Terror” fell off the radar.
Laulajainen serves up another example: the humanitarian crisis in Chechnya. After September 11, and particularly after the Moscow theatre hostage drama, Chechens were suddenly cast as terrorists. Though some undoubtedly were, he says, MSF volunteers in the region have been witnessing “the terror that the Russian troops have been inflicting on the civilian population” for years. Few newspapers, adds Laulajainen, bothered to report on the deeper context behind the conflict, which is why Chechnya was included on MSF’s list of the Top 10 most underreported humanitarian stories of 2002 for the third successive year.
The 32-year-old aid organization, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, is highly conscious of what can happen when a crisis is forgotten year after year. In 1998, drought-stricken Afghanistan was placed on MSF’s list of underreported stories. (It remained there until the U.S. invasion in 2001.) At the time, then executive director of MSF-U.S.A., Joelle Tanguy warned the press that “without adequate information, we [the public] lack the ability to form responsible personal and societal responses to events that affect many and may one day affect us.”
Tanguy’s warning is one that many international nongovernmental organizations-often the eyes and ears alerting the press to global troubled spots-have been echoing for years. With dozens of countries engaged in armed conflict and, by MSF’s count, at least half the world’s nations saddled with humanitarian crises of some form or another, downsized foreign news divisions are more likely than ever to miss any warning signs of future disasters. And as former foreign correspondent Jonathan Manthorpe cautioned in the pages Media Magazine the very month of 9/11: “If we don’t pay attention to what is happening in the world around us, we leave ourselves open to nasty surprises.”
It’s half past six in the Globe boardroom. This is the final showdown of the day, and standing in for Stackhouse while he finishes up some editing is assistant foreign editor Philippe Devos. His job: to guard the space claimed by foreign only a few hours before. The lanky, goateed assistant has his back up in what quickly dissolves into a rapid-fire negotiation between foreign, layout, and Neil A. Campbell, in which slug names and page numbers are hawked as currency. At the end of the day, foreign has done well: four front-page stories and three pages’ worth of editorial inside. A rare occurrence, whispers deputy foreign editor Guy Nicholson in the halls outside the boardroom. And though the story of the young Moscow theatre mourners didn’t make A1, it will lead the Review section. What’s more, it will get a front-page skybox, photo and all.
Back in the newsroom, Stackhouse is buoyed by the fact that space for his section has increased somewhat of late, thanks to a mild upswing in ads ushered in by the pre-Christmas buying season and to the decision of new editor-in-chief Edward Greenspon not to let foreign news slip. Yet for Stackhouse, the increase is still not enough. As he escorts me out through the maze of pillars and cubicles, Stackhouse seems tired, his sloped brown eyes fixed on the floor. “Every day is more about frustration and about what we can’t do, what we can’t get in,” he confides.
That same world-weariness was in his voice during our final conversation, on the day after U.S. President George W. Bush announced to the world that Saddam Hussein and his sons had 48 hours in which to leave Iraq. Stackhouse admitted to sometimes missing his days as a development reporter, when he could get to the issues and people who are usually ignored by the mainstream press “despite the fact that they make up the bulk of the world’s population.” By visiting villages such as Biharpur in India, as Stackhouse did 25 times during the ’90s, he believes he was able to get under the skin of a community and understand the real complexities of development. “It’s not usually as simple,” added Stackhouse, “as the media portrays it.”