Between a great vacation on the high seas with nothing but blues music all day (and night) and the U.S. election party in Honduras, it took me a while to catch this little gem from the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.
Dudley Althaus, the Houston Chronicle’s former Mexico correspondent, understands that his reporting on Mexico has local impact in Houston.
KC: There is a strong connection between Mexico and Texas. Were stories about Mexico not driving newspaper sales?
DA: I don’t know, I think it’s a good question. I think there’s a misperception about what the demands are. I think the importance of Mexico to Texas readers is obvious but in general it fits into this trend of going local, very local. Papers across the industry are doing it. They’re making the bet that most readers only care about their own city and they can pick up the wires. I think there’s wider interest in the world.
The problem with these papers is that they’re trying to cover these huge metropolises and their staffs are reduced and they have to find a way to be relevant to most readers, to be relevant to the newsstand, to be relevant to people facing higher subscription rates. It’s really a problem. They don’t have the staff to cover their metropolitan area and the bureau stands out as a major expense. I don’t envy their choices.
Note his comment — “They’re making the bet that most readers only care about their own city and they can pick up the wires.”
The bean counters at news organizations keep reading the numbers wrong.
Usually the reports say readers/viewers want better coverage of local events. What the bean counters see is readers/viewers want only local coverage. After all, it is easier to cut budgets for a foreign bureau (or overseas stringer) than it is to cut the local sports section.
And before people think that reporting from Mexico is just for Mexicans living in Houston, Althaus dispels that notion right away:
I think that it’s a mistake to think that the only people interested in Mexico in Houston or Texas are immigrants or second or third generation Mexican-American families. I don’t think that’s true at all. There’s a lot of business interest in what’s happening here. A lot of people vacation in Mexico. There’s a tremendous amount of business ties to Mexico. People are concerned about what’s going on in Mexico, as far as the violence and the drug war, but also a number of different issues. I think I had a broad spectrum in mind while I was writing it.
Again, note how he looks at business and leisure as reasons for continued reporting from Mexico.
Here are just some numbers to ponder:
- Mexico was the United States’ 2nd largest goods export market in 2011.
- U.S. goods exports to Mexico in 2011 were $197.5 billion, up 20.8% ($34.1 billion) from 2010, and up 76.8% from 2000.
- The top export categories in 2011 were: Electrical Machinery, Machinery, Mineral Fuel and Oil, Vehicles, and Plastic.
- U.S. exports of agricultural products to Mexico totaled $18.4 billion in 2011, the 3rd largest U.S. Ag export market.
Looking at it another way, individual states benefit greatly from exports to Mexico (2011 figures):
- Texas – $198 billion
- California – $87 billion
- Michigan – $26 billion
- Arizona – $6 billion
- Louisiana – $6 billion
Please note that Michigan is not a border state with Mexico but it is #3 in exports to Mexico.
Those are some serious numbers to consider as to why LOCAL business concerns are interested in what is going on in Mexico. These are serious numbers for anyone concerned about the U.S. economy and jobs growth. And that means more reporting than just the narco-wars, beach reviews or parachute journalism.
Speaking of parachute journalism, Althaus discusses this as well.
KC: Do you think “parachute reporting” can fill in the gaps left by the disappearing foreign bureaus?
DA: If you come down and you speak the language you can still do parachute reporting, especially if you keep pretty focused on the story you’re trying to cover. But if you’re just dropping into a country and you don’t know the language, don’t have the background, it easily goes into stereotypes and generalizations. I think it’s very easy to criticize parachute reporting but that’s what the model is going to have to be. There’s no infrastructure on the ground for many U.S. news media around the world now.
Somebody sent down a young reporter to do a story about an orphanage in Matamoros that was being supported by somebody back [in Dallas]. He had a line high up in the piece that said the finances were so bad at the orphanage, that they were so poor, that they were eating cactus. Now, in Mexico, nopales (cactus) is a favorite dish, everybody eats it. So it was a small thing and a good reporter trying to do his job but he sees something that’s so foreign to him.
You can do it but you have to be humble and be like a sponge and realize that you don’t know what you’re looking at a lot of the time.
Yes, “you can do it” but I would add that the reporting will not be as good nor will the context for readers/viewers be as good as if the piece was done by a reporter working the beat day in and day out.
And the issue is not just making sure the local-international business connection is made clear. The American people need to know what is going on in the world because — face it — we are the 500-pound gorilla. What the U.S. does and thinks matters to the rest of the world. And we need to make sure that policy makers — elected and appointed — know that we know what they are doing.
DA: I think if [the United States is] the world’s only super power, the citizenry needs to know this stuff; they need to know what’s at stake. That kind of power is impressive and awesome but the citizenry in a democracy needs to be very well-informed about world affairs. I think the more you silence diverse voices in foreign news, whether it’s provincial papers like in Texas or the main East Coast papers, I think that’s got to be detrimental to the U.S. public.
We have to find a way to continue doing this the best we can with the current models and hope that something else will come out of the crisis in mainstream media to replace what was really a very small window in foreign correspondence in U.S. media. We all say we lived the golden age of foreign correspondence. Hopefully, something new will come out of it. Some phoenix will rise.
Democracy cannot long survive without free and independent media. Likewise, the United States cannot continue to be a major player on the world stage if its people do not understand why and how the U.S. is involved in international affairs.
The first line of education about events past our doorsteps are the media. If the press refuses to cover the rest of the world and put world events into context for Americans, then the American people should get ready for more international “surprises” and disappointments.