18 months ago, just a few weeks before Reuters announced its "Mobile Journalism Toolkit" ABC News made a shocking announcement to the belt-tightening world of foreign news. ABC News was apparently "bucking the trend by creating one-person operations that will dramatically boost its coverage in Africa, India and elsewhere." Eighteen months later, its difficult to see how ABC's coverage has been "dramatically boosted." It's certainly easy to see how this may have boosted their return on investment.
In mid-August last year, the New York Times excitedly proclaimed "TV Networks Rewrite the Definition of a News Bureau." Unfortunately these types of articles continue to be code words for restructuring plans aimed at increased revenue with decreased risk and outlay of capital.
The Boston Globe and other papers' recent closures of their foreign bureaus have demonstrated that this is not an issue that is isolated to television news coverage. As events like Somali Pirate hijackings, mass farmer suicides, and the crumbling of State power in key strategic areas like the Swat valley demonstrate, Globalization means a world where we have more, not less, need to understand the nuances of the world around us.
These are not issues that snuck up on us. Let us not permit any world leader, academic, or news company president or CEO excuse themselves with a "Woe are we the shocked and surprised. We could never have seen this coming."
Unfortunately, in 1993, a year before the Rwandan genocide, there was a reason we "never saw it coming" as many have been so quick to claim. That reason? There were only three television networks with bureaus anywhere in Africa, CNN, Reuters, and BBC World Television-which did not broadcast into the United States. In 1993 and 1994, CNN's sole correspondent for covering the entire northern half of Africa was Gary Streiker, who produced the only piece from Burundi during bloodshed that left an estimated 50,000 dead after the assassination of President Melchior Ndadaye.
Fast forward to 1994, when there were never more than 15 reporters in Rwanda to witness these atrocities - though no fewer than 2500 were celebrating the birth of South Africa's new democracy a little further south. Although hindsight is 20/20, its not difficult to see why the world never knew what was coming in Rwanda.
In 2000, a panel of African and American journalists at the Smithsonian Institution gathered to discuss and largely condemn the failure of news agencies to adequately cover the entirety of the African continent.
In 2003, the American Journalism Review predicted, quite accurately it appears, looking back more than 5 years later, that it would become a vicious circle: When the public knows less about places in Africa or Asia or Central America, then it is going to demand less, and then the networks say the people aren't interested, and that becomes the pretext for dropping off."
Now let's take a look at that revolution that ABC News told us was coming, where they'd be able to re-invigorate their foreign news coverage by sending one-man-bands to Mumbai, Nairobi, and others. Let's take a look at ABC News' own "world" or "International" section. Despite this revolution in digital news-making, we find that out of the top three articles on Wednesday evening / Thursday morning in the United States, one is an ABC "GMA Exclusive," one is an article by "Spiegel Online," and the third is an AP report.
Looking further at ABC's coverage doesn't improve their standing. Of the ten stories below, 7 are wire stories, two are fluff pieces, one about a 47 year-old woman on American Idol, and one a video piece about "Diet Shoes," and the tenth piece, photos from the Somali hijacking, weren't even produced by a journalist, but are sourced from a "crew member of the U.S. flagged Maersk Alabama."
All of this begs the question, where is the media revolution we've been promised? I'm here to tell you not to worry, because its coming. But its not coming from the old media agencies, and its not coming in the form of tech news, or entertainment news, or cute girl talks about X news. The only way it will happen is if the need to be adequately informed about our world, our politicians, our enemies, the global threats, becomes a funding priority for everyone.
What is our expected return on investment? I can't tell you that yet with certainty, at least not in financial terms. What I can tell you is that funding local producers to create content for the international community may help prevent the next genocide, the next growing terror threat, the next ecological disaster.
It may mean that the world takes notice before 1500 more farmers commit suicide due to lack of access to water, or worse, became suicidal soldiers seeking vengeance.
What if the return was world peace?
How much would you invest toward the eventual goal of world peace? That is the kind of return I'm talking about, the ability to sleep better at night, knowing your funding a better world for your children, a world where we can't kill each other, because we understand each other.