How The New York Times Covers the World

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Dozens of people, from staff to stringers, coordinate to rapidly deliver quality, reported journalism on international issues

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It is now a month since the New York Times launched its long-awaited paywall plan. Predictably, there have been scattered initial reports about a dip in page views. The need to register an enormous number of digital subscribers has also led to some delays and confusion, or so the anecdotal evidence suggests. In its first weeks, Times Company executives say they have signed up more than 100,000 digital subscribers. "Early indications are encouraging," a statement said. As a long-term home print subscriber, already registered to view the paper online, I've noticed no difference in access.

If you believe in the importance of quality journalism, the success of the New York Times plan is essential.

Meanwhile, the newspaper and nytimes.com are in the midst of one of the most complicated periods of international news in decades. With wars and upheavals in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, the catastrophe in Japan, and a continuing run of major news from China, Haiti, Russia, the Ivory Coast, plus the Washington end of all these security and financial stories, the resources of the foreign staff have been challenged in every way. Arthur Brisbane, the public editor for the Times, recently spent a day monitoring the activities of the foreign desk. Watching an editor on the early shift, he wrote: "I look through a window onto a news-gathering operation pushed to its limits--not only by the volume and urgency of the news but also by the rapid changes brought on by digital technology."

Supporting all these people in the field, and blending the elements of news, logistics, and security advice, is clearly a formidable enterprise.

So what does it take to produce the New York Times daily foreign report? I called Joe Kahn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Beijing bureau chief who is now the deputy foreign editor. He patiently took me through the elaborate network of correspondents, contract writers, stringers, local staff, photographers, and Washington-based national security reporters. In the most turbulent regions, such as Afghanistan and, lately, Libya, correspondents have been held captive, and in others, such as Egypt, Syria, Iran, and elsewhere, they have been detained or harassed (with less public notice). In three cases, translators and drivers have disappeared in these situations and are presumed or known to be dead. One of the Times' most experienced contract photographers, Joao Silva, had to have both his legs amputated after he stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan. The Times immediately put him on staff so that he could receive medical benefits. He is now in rehab and fully expects, he says, to return to his job.

Kahn's diagram of the foreign staff is complex, but of necessity also discreet, protecting the identity of reporters (local stringers, mainly) who are operating in situations where they are at daily risk of disclosure, ouster, or worse. Here then is a rundown of what it takes for the New York Times to compile its daily report from around the world--updated regularly for nytimes.com--and multiple editions of the newspaper, which now circulates throughout the United States and arrives at the same time in most places as it does in New York.

There are 50 staff correspondents, operating out of bureaus, and a dozen or so who work primarily for the International Herald Tribune and are now fully integrated into the overall news report. There are another 25 contract writers and super-stringers who, while not on staff, contribute regularly. In one case, Laura Kasinof, a young stringer in Sana'a, Yemen, one of the most volatile of the ongoing Middle East crises, received local accreditation and is, from all indications, doing an excellent job. No staff correspondent has recently received a visa there. The local reporter in Damascus for the past few years, Katherine Zoepf, is now in New York and works with sources in Syria who are not identified for their safety. In Iraq, there is still a rotating group of staff correspondents and photographers, despite the slow-down in military activity, and to provide adequate security for them, the paper employs forty Iraqis full-time. In Afghanistan, the rotating team of correspondents is supplemented by reporters embedded with U.S. military units and correspondents on special assignment. The Kabul bureau also maintains a substantial number of local staff as stringers and for security.  All New York Times personnel are given training to cope with the risks and hardships of work in these bureaus before being sent to them.

In China, the Times now maintains six staff correspondents plus a contract writer and support staff. In India, there are three correspondents and a contract writer. These bureaus have been steadily upgraded in recent years. Clifford Levy and Ellen Barry of the Moscow bureau won a Pulitzer Prize this year for their courageous reporting on the corruption in Russia's judicial system. For crises such as the earthquakes in Japan and Haiti, constant redeployments are necessary, with staff on loan from other locations as far afield as the metro, sports, and business news desks. In Washington, there are highly experienced former foreign correspondents at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, and a team of investigative reporters working on long-term intelligence and national security stories.

Reflecting the scale of this international operation, many pieces now carry double bylines, with a list of additional people at the bottom who assisted from multiple datelines to round out what, for the reader, is supposed to be a seamless narrative. Supporting all these people in the field, and blending the elements of news, logistics, and security advice, is clearly a formidable enterprise. The foreign desk in New York has 15 editors, led by Susan Chira, the foreign editor, and Kahn as her deputy. A separate copy desk handles the final stage of preparation, and there are web editors whose role is to guide the developing stories, photography, and videos online. For his account of the foreign desk's work, Brisbane's headline was "Juggling the World, Wearily."

The New York Times foreign report has always been one of its most distinctive features, but compared to the work of a generation ago (when, as a correspondent for the Washington Post, I considered myself a competitor), today's operation is vastly more complicated. It is not merely that the operation handles a 24-hour news cycle in which quality and accuracy must now also include speed, but today's stories, especially in the war zones, are as dangerous as journalism has ever been. The chaotic shifting of lines of battle, the constant possibility of suicide bombers and roadside bombs, and the realization that, in many situations, merely declaring yourself a reporter is no assurance of safety all increase the risk. "We have many of our most experienced people in the field," said Kahn, "and yet, in an instant, they can find themselves in captivity," as recently happened to Anthony Shadid, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner with 15 years of experience in the Middle East and fluent in Arabic, who, with three colleagues, spent a harrowing week in Libyan military and official custody and whose driver has disappeared.

My annual subscription in Connecticut to the New York Times, which provides the newspaper and all of its digital versions, now costs $769.60 ($14.80 a week). Setting that not insignificant figure against what it must cost the Times to cover the world in the way it does, the debate over whether news should be free seems ridiculous.

Image credit: photojenni/flickr


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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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