"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
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
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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. The Globe'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
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
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.
Star's Schiller hasn't had to deal with a news-hole
squeeze as big as those faced by the Post and
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
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.
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."
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.
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."