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The World, in Eight Weeks

As news organizations pare down their foreign bureaus, the Johns Hopkins-based International Reporting Project tries to bridge the news gap between Americans and the rest of the world.

By Michael Anft
Photo by David Rochkind

The images that appear in this story are by photojournalist David Rochkind. He completed his IRP fellowship in South Africa, where he spent five weeks with gold miners. These laborers suffer high rates of mining-related lung diseases and are 10 times more likely to contract tuberculosis than other South Africans. Yet, the mining industry is poorly regulated and miners rarely receive health care. "Everywhere I went, it was clear that the workers have little understanding of TB and get little help from government or industry," Rochkind says. "It looks like the problem isn't close to being solved." During Macarena Hernandez's journey along the Guatemala-Mexico border last fall, she clawed through inhospitable jungles, wandered through regions haunted by outlaws, and talked with Hondurans who earned only $5 a day and had to flee their country and travel north for work. As they crossed rolling frontier rivers atop perilous rafts made from lashed-together driftwood, Hernandez rode with them, even though she can't swim. The trip was worth the risks, she says. By filing a video report on the 700-mile-long border for PBS' Frontline World, she would bring a largely untold story of one part of the world to viewers around much of the rest of it. And, just as important to her, the excursion — financed by a Johns Hopkins-affiliated fellowship program called the International Reporting Project (IRP) — gave her a chance to redirect a career in journalism that had been spent working the hardscrabble stories of newcomers to America into gripping newspaper copy.

Hernandez, 34, won awards as a reporter for The Dallas Morning News for a series on immigrants and on the death of her family's homeland in Mexico. But these days, as the media landscape roils amid the heat of economic and technological changes, that kind of accomplishment is no longer enough to hold a job. Amid a rapid stream of buyouts and layoffs in Dallas, she left the paper one day before her IRP fellowship started last August. "I haven't been happy at newspapers for years," Hernandez says. "If I'd have stayed there, I might have been laid off. When I started, newspapers were places where reporters challenged things. Now, we're idealists lost in a corporate world."

In the face of such uncertainty, she eyes documentary video work as one way to fulfill a new goal: to use a variety of media to cover the stories of people whose lives are in transit. Hernandez believes she got a glimpse of what might be the future of the news industry. "People are trying to figure out what a multimedia journalist will look like," she says, adding that she is now capable of producing newspaper, radio, television, and Web-based reports. "More than anything, I like the possibility of telling a story in several different ways." And while she remains cynical about the influence of money on a profession teeming with high-minded scribes, her foreign experience has made her feel a bit better about the state of reporting.

"It's not the end of the world," she says of the hazy new media picture. "It's a mutation."

As the genetics of the news business are jumbled and transformed, the IRP has also sought to remake itself. Formed 11 years ago, the Project has helped ready more than 150 journalists for careers overseas, whether they have ended up there or not. It has offered a handful of others the time and space to write books on foreign affairs and the United States' role in them, and sent more than 100 editors and news producers to countries American readers and viewers hear little about in hopes that they will see the value in running more international news stories. Its initial goal was to teach young and midcareer reporters how to become old-fashioned, shoe leather-expending foreign correspondents.

But no more. A downturn in international journalism, reflected in a 25 percent decline in the number of American newspaper reporters based in foreign countries since the turn of the millennium, led the IRP to shift gears. Merely educating journalists about international reporting is no longer enough. "If our mission in the past was to train the next generation of foreign correspondents, well, maybe there won't be a next generation of them, at least in the traditional sense," says John Schidlovsky, the Project's founder and director, and a former Asia correspondent for The Baltimore Sun. "So, we've changed. We increasingly see ourselves as content originators in this new style of nonprofit journalism."

What that means is that the IRP now places a premium on helping experienced photojournalists and reporters, like Hernandez, devise stories that will interest media outlets, report them using many media platforms, and then place the stories where they will be seen. With the amount of foreign news coverage at a nadir, Schidlovsky sees the eight weeks that IRP fellows spend not just as academic fieldwork, but as groundwork laid for stories that American readers and viewers would no longer see otherwise.

Foreign news voices have been muted at a time when, some argue, Americans should be learning more about the world, not less. More Americans now study, travel, or work overseas than ever before. U.S. soldiers toil in more than 150 countries. Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born. And finance and trade have never been more global. "And yet, the mainstream media has decided to cut back on foreign reporting this decade," Schidlovsky says. "There's a disconnect there."

Like other nonprofit entities — ProPublica, an investigative reporting outfit in New York, and a handful of local news outlets, such as — the International Reporting Project now exists in part to cover stories that the troubled for-profit news industry no longer does. Most of the new breed of international journalists will freelance, either accepting assignments for pay from news organizations, or dreaming up their own stories, then trying to sell them in a fickle, undercapitalized market. Often, they'll need to "repurpose" their stories in audio, print, visual, and webcast formats to make a living. Schidlovsky claims that the Project has been out in front of new technologies, training people to use digital video equipment for a decade. This year, IRP plans to significantly upgrade its Web site so its fellows' stories can be read and viewed on the medium that is threatening to make print news obsolete. "We've been trying to respond to the needs of the new media world," he says.

The trouble is, like the globe his fellows cover, no one knows which way that world will spin.

Ruxandra Guidi didn't apply to be an IRP fellow — three times, in all — to learn the foreign-reporting ropes, but to stretch them out a bit. Like most of the people the program has accepted in recent years, Guidi already had international reporting bona fides. A native of Venezuela, Guidi, 33, has spent much of her career covering Latin America for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), and National Public Radio (NPR).

Although her reports frequently air, including ones on coca growers in Bolivia and brutal police crackdowns in poor neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro, Guidi rarely has the freedom to pick a spot and travel to it. It comes down to money: While living in La Paz, Bolivia, Guidi racked up huge travel bills. Being a freelancer also means picking up the tab for health benefits and other work-related costs. When she makes trips on her own, she sometimes finances them with a credit card, then hopes she can sell her work to pay the bills.

"There's nothing cheap about doing foreign reporting work," says Guidi, now based in Austin, Texas. "And if you go somewhere to report and no one wants your story, that's a loss." In days past, it was more likely Guidi could have earned a paycheck as a newspaper or television reporter at a foreign bureau. But most of those jobs are gone. The Baltimore Sun, The Boston Globe, New York's Newsday, and The Philadelphia Inquirer are among a dozen or so papers that have completely dimmed their foreign outposts. Observers say there has been a major sea change in foreign coverage in the past decade.

"We are now effectively down to five papers — The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Washington Post — that have bureaus, and television networks have cut back their bureaus by more than half," says Tom Rosenstiel, director for the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, a nonprofit group in Washington that performs research on the news media. Even though the Associated Press, CNN, and NPR have maintained a strong overseas presence, international coverage has suffered a downturn overall, even as the United States fights wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"A few years ago, I had an editor at The Baltimore Sun tell me that the Tribune Company [which owns the Sun and several other daily papers, and which filed for bankruptcy protection in December] wanted to cut its Middle Eastern bureau [in Jerusalem]" while maintaining its level of local coverage, Rosenstiel recalls. "He told me that a significant part of their readership was Jewish or Arab, and that news from that bureau was hardly foreign to them. In the end, local isn't what's in the neighborhood, it's where your interest is."

Nevertheless, as newspapers have been bought by stock-owning media groups, typically after years of ownership by well-heeled local businessmen who were often happy with nominal profits, they have become obsessed with creating a bottom line that makes shareholders giddy. All too often, this has meant journalists losing their jobs and longtime beats left uncovered. At the same time that news organizations have sought to keep their profits up, they have reduced the amount of news they offer. The goal of the modern news industry has been to make more profit while producing less news.

In the age of the World Wide Web, when most newspapers are served up free to anyone with a computer and an Internet account, fattening a newspaper's bottom line has proven elusive. Newspapers essentially give away the news online, or to other news organizations that don't treat the content they borrow as intellectual property, using it on local radio or television newscasts without paying for it (and often without attribution). Online ads bring in only a fraction of what print ads do. Nearly 90 percent of the industry's revenue comes from its print editions, which draw fewer readers and advertisers every year, forcing the industry into a corner. No one has figured a way out of it yet. Traditional network news shows, meanwhile, have seen their profits (and their audience) eaten into by cable competitors, such as CNN and Fox, and have cut their news budgets accordingly.

News operations might not be able to afford to search for deeper meanings in stories from the far corners of the world. "The American journalism model has been based on advertising — and that's got to change," says Rosenstiel. Otherwise, news operations might not be able to afford to search for deeper meanings in stories from the far corners of the world, or to function as watchdogs of corporations and governments, which takes a lot of labor and time. As things stand now, media owners find it hard to justify large amounts of spending on gathering news when profits are plummeting. What's more, surveys taken by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and other groups have found that the American public isn't exactly clamoring for more international coverage.

"You've really got to make an affirmative argument as to why these stories matter," Rosenstiel says, although making that argument is no guarantee of more coverage, he admits.

Charles Lewis, SAIS '77, a member of the IRP advisory board and the founder of several Web-based, nonprofit investigative news sites, salutes the independent journalists, like Guidi, who have done what they can to replace the function of foreign bureaus. "That international reporting can be done at all, at any level, is a bulwark against the storm the industry is going through," he says. "One of the great things about the International Reporting Project is that it helps to maintain an important community within journalism." Nonprofits drive journalism more and more, Lewis adds. ProPublica has $10 million in foundation money to spend on investigative stories.

But no one can say for sure that nonprofit news sources will fare any better than the for-profit entities whose functions they are only partly replacing, or that their operations will grow anywhere near large enough to make up for decimated newspaper staffs. Fledgling start-ups have proven to be chancy.

Kira Kay, a 2004 IRP fellow who shot and reported a story on anti-terror operations in the Asia-Pacific region, founded the not-for-profit Bureau for International Reporting (BIR), in New York, with a partner two years ago. Like Schidlovsky, Kay sought a new way to stake a place amid a dwindling market for foreign news. A former news magazine producer at ABC, Kay decided to court financial help from the Ford Foundation and other nonprofit sources after her overseas story ideas went unapproved by editors, who told her they could no longer afford plane tickets and other costs for would-be correspondents. "The Bureau was born out of frustration," Kay says, adding that her work only recently has netted her a salary, partly because BIR has landed some regular clients, most notably The PBS Newshour. "Business goes up and down. We started the Bureau because, while we're not anticipating the complete death of foreign reporting, we're already seeing a serious demise of it."

She and her partner have used grants to finance trips to places where little recent reporting has been done, such as Uganda, and where the two can produce stories in a variety of platforms, so they can run in numerous places. "We keep our costs down, so we can stay someplace for two to three weeks and really report on it. Our hope is that, in a couple of years, people will see this as a way to do things and that they dial the stories up on their iPhones," Kay says.

Like Kay, Guidi applies for fellowships and grants to support her work. And because the bulk of her experience has been in Spanish-speaking Latin countries, Guidi took the chance to do her IRP work in Haiti to expand her reporter's palette. "Growing up in Caracas, I always heard about Haiti and all that was going wrong there," she says. "It has this grand history of being the first republic to abolish slavery but has been on this downward spiral for 200 or more years. The country has never gotten the attention it deserves — and not just from the media."

But money also had a lot to do with her decision. The $4,500 travel stipend that each Project fellow receives pays for five weeks on the ground, including food and lodging, as well as language interpreters and "fixers" — natives who help reporters navigate their way through cultural and geographical thickets. "The Project is one of very few fellowships to give money to freelancers," Guidi says. "Even though there are a number of talented freelancers out there generating their own stories, it's an expensive thing to do. So a lot of people end up teaching English or taking on side stories to make ends meet. It's rare to get the chance to concentrate on just one story for any length of time."

Her trip to Haiti reminded her that the country does receive attention from international relief groups, but that the government maintains little more than a military presence. Electricity and running water are more rumor than fact. Eighty percent of the country's food is imported, but that is hardly enough: Children buy 15-cent "mudcakes" to quiet roiling bellies. "The United Nations and relief groups are effectively running the country," Guidi says. "These groups rarely work together."

When hurricanes devastated several towns in September, Guidi was on hand to document the damage on a blog that the IRP maintained. Since returning to Washington in October, she has sold stories to Frontline World, the BBC, and NPR. True to the IRP's newfound emphasis on refashioning stories in multiple ways, she is trying to sell a lengthy magazine piece as well.

"The trip gave me a sense of confidence in what I'm doing and let me know that I can avoid falling into some kind of formula, which is always a risk in this kind of work," she says. "The fellowship allowed me to mix things up. I told John [Schidlovsky] that the whole experience reminded me of grad school, but better. We got into the real-world experiences very quickly."

Schidlovsky formed the IRP after turning in his real-world credentials. After leaving his foreign correspondent post, he spent much of the 1990s teaching journalists from Asia and other parts of the world how to report on other cultures. As part of a program affiliated with the nonprofit that now runs Washington's Newseum, Schidlovsky says he saw the connection between American media and the rest of the world fizzling out. He thought that giving young and midcareer journalists the chance to learn about international reporting firsthand might be one way to keep the flow of news from abroad back to the United States alive and vital.

In 1998, he pitched an idea to an old reporter pal who had ditched his notebook to work for the Pew Charitable Trust, a foundation that then made grants to programs that encouraged the development of so-called civic journalism. At the time, nonprofit news-centered organizations were few and far between. Nonetheless, Pew bit on Schidlovsky's proposal, and after investigating several universities to use as a potential base — "Schools are always on the lookout for grant money, so I had my pick of where to go," he says — he chose Johns Hopkins, in part because of the wooing of Paul Wolfowitz, the dean at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at the time, and because trips to several cities, including Boston, New York, and San Francisco, convinced him that Washington was the best place for a program with its eyes cast resolutely on the rest of the world to camp out. Hopkins beat out Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

"We were looking for an academic base with bright students and faculty whom our journalists could interact with and learn from," Schidlovsky says. Fellows spend their first two weeks in Washington, where they plan their trips, arrange for flights, hotels, fixers, and interpreters, and talk to people about the region they'll be reporting from. Besides being able to tap SAIS and its faculty of international experts, students can walk out the front door of the Massachusetts Avenue campus and travel next door to the Brookings Institution, a venerable nonpartisan think tank, or amble mere blocks to interviews at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Institute for Peace, the World Bank, and numerous embassies and government offices.

Lewis, the IRP adviser, says that the program adds some vitality and perspective that SAIS would otherwise not have. "When I went to SAIS, students were looking to go to work for the CIA, the State Department, academia, or multinational corporations. There was no talk about journalism. Now, journalism is right down the hall, and IRP fellows are everywhere," Lewis says. Adds Jessica Einhorn, dean at SAIS: "We're not a school of journalism, but journalism is very important to international affairs. The IRP represents a wonderful rounding out of what we do."

But as the Project has moved forward, it has run into temporary troubles. Pew pulled its support in 2006, forcing Schidlovsky and SAIS' leaders to find new money from other grant-makers. Thanks to large philanthropies, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and nonprofit media programs, like Frontline World, IRP is now flush enough to pay about $20,000 to house, teach, and transport each fellow, to finance two foreign trips for editors annually, and to cover salaries for Schidlovsky and his staff of three.

Among the chief expenditures is a safety program that fellows must take before they fly off to their assignments, either while doing their fellowship or before they enter IRP. For some, the information learned can prove indispensable. Delphine Schrank chose the war-torn eastern section of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as the subject of her fieldwork. It's hard to imagine a more dangerous assignment: More than 5 million Congolese have died in fighting between the country's army and rebel factions. Hundreds of thousands of girls and women have been raped as part of a program led by rebel "vampires" who use sexual crimes to chase people away from areas they want to control. More than 1 million people have been displaced. Much of the country's considerable riches, particularly from mines where the cobalt, coltan, and tin needed to build the Western world's missiles and high-tech gadgetry are found, have been looted.

Schrank, who quit a full-time stateside job as a reporter and editor at The Washington Post to accept a fellowship, knew she might need to know more than just the lay of the central African land. The security course "was useful in the sense that I had a lot more confidence going in," she says. "Even though you never know what to expect, you learn to stay calm and keep your wits about you, and that served me numerous times when I was encountering drunken toughs with rusty weaponry. It's sort of a confidence game."

During the class, fellows suffer through mock kidnappings and checkpoint interrogations. They are taught to recognize types of weaponry and how to decipher what direction gunfire is coming from. They are told what to do if they are kidnapped, how to stay safe during a riot, and how to handle an interview with an armed teenaged rebel when a machine gun menacingly looms over them.

IRP instituted the security course in 2002. Since then, only one fellow, who traveled in the Republic of Dagestan, in Russia, has been detained and had her notes and passports taken. "We've been lucky," Schidlovsky says. "We don't take chances. We check in with fellows every week they're out there. We tell them, 'Stay in touch.'"

Schrank was one of the lucky ones. During a night she spent in a refugee camp, unruly Congolese Army soldiers detoured through, looting cans of sardines, rubber boots, and whatever else they could find. Once they heard that Schrank was in the camp, they called out for the muzungu, or white woman, to show herself. She stood beside her tent with a flashlight and allowed her fixer — an eastern Congolese journalist whom she had hired as a guard, guide, and mentor — to handle things. "He literally saved my life. He persuaded an Army leader that it would be better for him to take a $20 bribe than have fun with a white chick," says Schrank, adding, "It didn't seem necessary for me to provoke anything by saying something, and that was something I reckon had percolated from my security course."

In a sun-baked room on the top floor of SAIS, an audience of a few dozen packs around a 25-foot-long table and eats Chinese food, waiting to hear stories from seven fellows who, just a few days earlier, flew back to town from thousands of miles away. If the IRP's success could be measured in the interest it generates, it would certainly qualify as one. Schidlovsky and staff receive more than 100 applications for the seven to eight fellowship spots each year. (In the past, they received around 40 to 50.)

Before they break back to work rooms where they'll spend their last few days in Washington selling their stories, the Project's fellows talk about what they've learned. An editor at Foreign Affairs magazine reports on her trip to the frosty eastern edges of Russia, where energy pipelines are being built in a complicated process that has largely excluded the development of a lucrative market with neighboring China, whose masses and military power intimidate Russia's leaders. Another correspondent, from The Christian Science Monitor, tells of how Japan has quietly exported its pop culture enterprises, including graphic novels (manga) and animation (anime), and of how the country has become a leader in developing solutions to worldwide environmental problems. And a radio reporter for American Public Media's Marketplace recounts stories from a Stockholm suburb, where Iraqi refugees have found a new home — albeit one where they can't use their skills as doctors and engineers, and where educated men talk of opening hot dog stands to survive.

Fellows are told what to do if they are kidnapped, how to stay safe during a riot, and how to handle an interview with an armed teenaged rebel. The fellows receive a warm reception — one that points up an irony wrought from IRP's recent transformation: Change in the program adds up to fewer fellows. Citing a need to involve more editors in IRP trips, Schidlovsky in 2007 decided to offer two so-called gatekeeper editors' trips per year, instead of the one undertaken each year since 2000. In order to afford to do that, IRP fellowships are now awarded once each year, instead of twice, and now involve half as many fellows.

Persuading editors of the need for more international coverage became a priority early on in the program, Schidlovsky says, "when we saw our early-career reporters going back to their newsrooms with these fantastic stories and their editors just wouldn't get it." Doubling that aspect of the program makes the most sense at a time "when the media is in crisis," he adds. "I think the most effective response is to go to those in positions of power to get them to understand that international news is vital, rather than investing mostly in people whose career trajectory might take them more than 10 years to get into that position."

Lisa Mullins, host of The World, took part in an editors' jaunt to North and South Korea in 2007, calling it "the trip of a lifetime." She says that, though her program focuses on international news, the trip also turned some heads among stateside editors who might otherwise consider non-domestic stories subordinate sources of news. "People who had no international experience at all were very engrossed in what was going on," Mullins says. "Even if they go back to their desks and don't run international stories immediately, they'll become more interested in them. Their ears will prick up when they hear 'Korea,' which means there's likely to be more coverage eventually."

Charles Lewis adds that the cumulative effect of educating people about international reporting will also come to make a difference. "Having developed a cadre of these kinds of people throughout the world of journalism will do wonders for coverage," he says.

All of which fails to answer the question central to reporters' careers and the program itself: Will the IRP be able to survive a market-driven de-emphasis of journalism? Schidlovsky's not 100 percent sure, but while an entire industry wrings its hands and keeps a corner of its eye on the lookout for the occupational Grim Reaper, he sees the new, if unformed, world of media as an opportunity.

"The lack of foreign reporting enhances and increases our role," he says. "We can be even more of a go-to group for news organizations that de-emphasize their staffs' involvement in foreign reporting. We can fill that void because there's never going to be a time when people don't need to know what's going on in the rest of the world."

Michael Anft is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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