Africa the first to lose in Media’s ‘Shrinking World’

The coverage of international stories in four of the UK’s leading newspapers has shrunk by nearly 40 per cent in the past 30 years, according to a new report.

These papers—the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mirror, The Guardian and the Daily Mail—have also relegated international news to the remote pages of their print editions.

“International news reporting, though still a feature of the front page, has almost entirely fallen out of the first 10 pages of the papers,” says Shrinking World, published by the press watchdog Media Standards Trust.

The report, an indictment of the status quo as much as an exploration of its challenges, says this condition is a sign of the times. “You could argue that the decline in quantity and prominence of international news is symptomatic of a wider malaise in traditional news,” the report says. “Yet we live in a far more globalised world than in 1979, one in which our work, our social networks and our travel are vastly more international than they were. Over 5 million Britons live overseas.”

In one illustration in the report, the Daily Telegraph had 21 correspondents in March 1979. At least four of those journalists were based in Africa, including one in Nairobi. By March 2009, the broadsheet had only six correspondents abroad. Crucially, they had none in Africa.

David Loyn, a BBC foreign correspondent, wrote in the foreword to the report that this decline in foreign reporting has consequences. “What is going on, for example, inside the emerging economies of Asia and Latin America is transforming global architecture,” Loyn said. “Britain needs to be nimble-footed and flexible to cope—and that requires engagement.”

The effects of a global recession and the continuous force of technology have combined to undermine the business model that has long sustained newspapers in the UK and beyond. The pain has been greatly felt in America, where prize-winning newspapers have either shut down or laid off many editorial employees. In 2009, for example, McClatchy’s last correspondent in East Africa closed the organisation’s Nairobi bureau and returned home to become a national correspondent.

In a remarkable piece written before he left Africa, the correspondent, Shashank Bengali, waxed nostalgic about his time in Africa. “The rich are getting richer, the poor more desperate, the climate more unpredictable and the population growing faster than any politician seems to reckon,” Bengali wrote on the blog Somewhere in Africa. “So it might seem an inopportune time for a journalist to pack up and leave. We will always need more reporters in Africa, not fewer.”

McClatchy operates about 30 daily newspapers in the United States, and the stories of its foreign correspondents are often syndicated in these outlets. Bengali was not replaced in Nairobi.

Western coverage of Africa was the subject of a recent panel discussion at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. Howard W. French, a journalism professor who used to be a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, noted that international coverage, especially of Africa, was usually the first to suffer in bad economic times.
“We must demand more ourselves as consumers of the news,” French said.

The report on the UK newspapers says the availability of free international news online and a lack of editorial resources have caused a “fundamental lack of confidence” in how to cover international news. “Given all the reasons outlined above, perhaps rather than being surprised at the decline in prominence and breadth of international news in the papers, we should be surprised that it has not almost disappeared altogether,” the report says.

About the Author: Rodney Muhumuza is a Ugandan journalist pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University in New York.