Edward R. Murrow Does Not Need An Elegy
If we cannot rely on our classic economic models to make in-depth, investigative journalism—and, in particular, foreign reporting—possible, what can be done? Are there models in other countries of gathering news while staying in business—while thriving? How are business and reporting compatible in an era of economic duress and technological change? Why do we keep asking the same questions over and over? From Foreign Affairs, a very in-depth and still very successful publication, a thoughtful consideration of how to save the legacy of Edward R. Murrow.
Peter Osnos’s piece in January/February 2010 issue (which is in fact his review of two other new books out on the topic) addresses the question of journalism’s future by focusing on foreign reporting, traditionally at once the crown jewel and the major cost center for newspapers. “An Elegy for Journalism? The Colorful Past and Uncertain Future of Foreign Reporting” is brief, but optimistic. And Osnos should know, having had a formidable, and uniquely impactful, career in journalism himself.
The books he reviews, Alex S. Jones’s Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy and John Maxwell Hamilton’s Journalism’s Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting provide a framework for considering the challenges of providing international news, and the opportunity to remind us who has paid for foreign coverage, and when, and and why, historically. Osnos points out that perhaps eventually the private sector, or philanthropy, or “even the government” might help where more traditional revenue streams—advertising, subscription fees—have lagged. Because the question is one of resources, not desire.
The rigor and rewards of being a foreign correspondent remain, as do the dangers. The videotaped murder of The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl and the kidnapping, jailing, and harassment of other reporters in crisis zones are modern versions of what has always happened when reporters are caught in the crossfire or ignore caution. But, as Hamilton shows, the lure of correspondence is stronger than the vicissitudes of funding or even public interest. There will always be young men and women eager to go abroad and make their names as reporters, and the best of them will make an impact whatever the technology of the time. For all its turmoil, journalism’s current chapter is not its last.
This is outside of economics: the will to uncover great stories; the need to hear them. Will those stories be told and sold in the same ways, through channels with the same names we know now? Unclear. But given that the question is asked—and debated—constantly, it seems hopeful wise entrepreneurs will uncover solutions. Foreign Affairs itself is a case in point: excellent, and still thriving.
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