Expanding News Borders 

Americans are increasingly using Internet news sites from around the globe.

Six weeks ago international affairs hardly seemed to matter. Before September 11th some Americans were aware that CNN was becoming Earth's first omnipresent television station while competing American media outlets were cutting back on their international reporting. But back then it didn't make much difference that a commercial news empire with global reach was being established at the same time most media companies were turning away from the rest of the world.

Oddly enough, at the same time most news organizations' marketing divisions were polling Americans and finding they were indifferent to or even supportive of the reduction in expensive foreign affairs coverage, something I call "news borders" were traveling the opposite track: They were expanding.

News borders refer to the consumer side rather than the producer side of gathering information and the increasing ease of finding disparate sources of news outside traditional or local boundaries. Think, for example, about living in New York and taking a friend's e-mailed recommendation to read a story online at the U.K.'s The Guardian Web site. Now think about trying to do this 10 years ago.

In recent years satellites and the Internet have been the two primary technology vehicles for expanding news borders. In the future, broadband and better translation services could push news borders even further.

But while access to international news outlets was certainly more available, it didn't necessarily mean that large numbers of Americans were ready to utilize it.

But then came September 11th.

Suddenly Americans went from passive consumers of news from outside our borders to active hunters. Television news producers, scrambling for ways to follow the once-neglected and now-hot story of Central Asia and the Gulf states, resorted to all sorts of tricks to feed the public's appetite. These included hiring personnel from rival stations (FoxNews recruited CNN's main man in Afghanistan, Steve Harrigan) and ignoring licensing agreements by patching into Qatar-based Al-Jazeera's television feed.

Meanwhile, the viewing public was far from satiated by the offerings of flag-waving U.S. networks. According to traffic reports from Jupiter Media Metrix, the BBC's online news site has suddenly become quite hot, jumping in American readership by approximately 260 percent since the attacks. DebkaFile, a Web site devoted to Middle East intelligence, has suddenly become the Drudge Report of the new era. The site, run by a former Economist foreign affairs writer, reports its traffic has tripled in the last month and that Americans make up more than 60 percent of its readership as opposed to the less than 45 percent before September 11th. Even Web sites whose primary language isn't English are reporting increased traffic patterns from the United States, such as a 68 percent surge in Russia's leading news sites, The Russian Issues and GHU, and a 267 percent growth at Pakistan's The Daily Jang.

Perhaps what recent interest in international affairs has shown us is that it doesn't really matter that U.S. media organizations have pared their foreign operations. Nor might the media question of the moment -- should American media outlets conceal information that threatens American security interests? -- matter much either. Expanding news borders may already have provoked those who are interested to find information elsewhere.

It's also worth pointing out that open news borders are hardly one-way affairs. Reports over the last few weeks have shown that international citizens are plugging into American news sites more than ever. The New York Times' Web site, nytimes.com, attracted nearly 2.2 million unique visitors from outside the U.S. in August, accounting for 26 percent of its total audience. In September non-U.S. hits climbed to more than 5.2 million visitors (a 136 percent rise) and accounted for 29 percent of its audience.

American media corporations worried about the fragmentation of their audience will likely try to capitalize on the fact that whole new audiences are opening up. But capturing and building sustainable relationships with international news consumers will require an increased sensitivity they may not be capable of. This week, in comparing the news telecasts of CNN vs. the BBC, the Indian Express, a Bombay newspaper, declared CNN "biased" and BBC "balanced." This despite the fact that Indian Express is probably basing its analysis on the Asian version of CNN, which in trying to appeal to an international audience broadcasts without the American flag waving beneath its call letters.

It remains to be seen whether increased awareness of international affairs will breed increased sensitivity in American media news operations. Now that they know we're watching them, it will probably help for us to know that they've been watching us. The privilege of being ignorant is not as easy as it once was.

Eriq Gardner is the New York editor of Upside magazine. This article first appeared on AlterNet.

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