Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Canada’s foreign correspondents are almost extinct

News

The news media in Canada is in crisis. Policy responses to date are failing to solve for the information that citizens need to make informed decisions about important issues and debates. The Future of News series brings together leading practitioners, scholars, and thinkers to imagine new business models, policy responses, and journalistic content that can support a dynamic future for news in Canada.

Foreign bureaus keeping Canadians informed about the world beyond our borders have all but disappeared. According to new data collected by The Hub, there could be less than 60 full-time journalists from the major outlets reporting on world events, with 45 of those working for the CBC.

There now appears to be no permanent Canadian correspondents from the major newspapers or broadcasters based in the Middle East, in the midst of an Israel-Hamas war now entering its sixth month. There seems to be no permanent Canadian journalists on the ground in Russia, two years after it initiated the largest attack on a European country since the Second World War. There also appears to be no Canadian foreign correspondents stationed within the world superpower that is mainland China.

“It’s really really disheartening,” says Global National News senior correspondent Jeff Semple when shown the numbers. Semple has reported from more than 40 countries and has worked as a Europe bureau chief and a London correspondent. “These foreign bureaus are closing at a time when our need to understand what’s going on in the world is only increasing.”

“It’s sad. It’s discouraging,” says journalist and author Andrew Cohen. “It leaves us less informed. It misses nuances. It misses angles. It misses the kinds of stories that a Canadian audience might want to read.” During his career, Cohen filed stories as a journalist from Washington, London, and Berlin. Since then, he taught international affairs reporting at Carleton University’s journalism school for 23 years.

“I could [now] no longer in good conscience teach a course in which I could say to my students, ‘Work hard, dream big. And maybe you’ll be a foreign correspondent one day for Canada,’” he says. “Because those jobs essentially no longer exist.”

These vanishing foreign bureaus are a result of news outlet cost cutting, as the media industry suffers massive layoffs and reduced viewership and readership. But, it may also be a reaction to a Canada that has a shrinking footprint on the world stage, say experts.

Canadian media once had multiple foreign bureaus dotting the globe in places like Beijing, London, Washington, Los Angeles, Berlin, New Delhi, Kampala, Moscow, Mexico City, Jerusalem, Sydney, Pretoria, and Brazilia.

When Cohen was a The Globe and Mail correspondent from 1997 to 2001, he described reporters being posted throughout the U.S., with a “large happy Canadian contingent” in Washington.  

“This is 25 years ago. We were serious. Journalism in Canada was serious about the world. We no longer are,” he admits.

Canadian bureaus today

The Hub reached out to the major Canadian newspapers and broadcasters and asked them how many foreign bureaus they still have in operation.

Up until a few years ago, CTV News operated international bureaus in 10 cities around the globe. Last year, it closed the doors of its London and Los Angeles bureaus. Since then, it announced major layoffs in its TV and radio divisions. It now has just one bureau left, with one journalist in Washington covering the U.S.

The Toronto Star recently closed its last foreign bureau, also in Washington. It has one writer covering international affairs, in Paris, France. 

Global News has two permanent employees in Washington and two journalists in London.

The Canadian Press has one foreign correspondent, in Washington. 

Postmedia, which includes The National Post has no foreign bureaus remaining.

The Globe and Mail now has one reporter based in London and another in Rome covering all of Europe. One journalist in Johannesburg covering the continent of Africa. One covering all of Asia from Hong Kong. One journalist in Washington covering the U.S. And two general international correspondents. 

In 2012, CBC shuttered its bureaus in Africa and South America. But approximately 45-full time journalists still work abroad for CBC/Radio-Canada, out of New York, Washington, London, Mumbai, Paris, and Taiwan.

The world through ‘Canadian eyes

Canadian outlets are increasingly relying on newswire coverage from foreign news outlets, freelance “stringers,” and even reporters based in Canada so that they do not have to pay for Canadian correspondents on the ground. It means some events get coverage, but this comes at another cost, says Semple.

“When you live in a faraway place you come to understand that place in a way that you simply can’t by visiting or by reading a note from afar,” Semple says. The veteran journalist said it was only by being stationed in the U.K. during the Brexit debate that he was able to escape the bureaucratic discussions being held in London, travel to rural Britain, and hear directly from residents why they felt left behind and would be voting to leave the EU.

According to Cohen, fewer Canadian journalists abroad means fewer Canadian perspectives and the loss of a more critical detached take on the foreign country they’re covering. He says there is a “Canadian sensibility” that our correspondents bring to their coverage. That they act as a sort of “interpreter” for Canadians back home.

“Will they [the public] hear about what Canada is doing? Will they really hear about the world through Canadian eyes?”, he asks.

“A Canadian will do a better job of explaining something to other Canadians,” adds Semple.

Without Canadian reporters on the ground, Canadians’ actions abroad can also go unreported, says journalist and filmmaker Michelle Shephard, formerly the Toronto Star’s national security reporter. Shephard insists stories around human rights abuses involving Canadian mining companies operating abroad, or the Canadian government providing humanitarian aid to Yemen while allegedly providing weapons to that war, likely would receive far less coverage without Canadian journalists being there.

Dominic Barton, right, Canada Ambassador to China, speaks to reporters after meeting with Canadian Michael Spavor at a detention center in Dandong, China, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. A Chinese court has sentenced Spavor to 11 years on spying charges in case linked to Huawei. (Ng Han Guan/AP Photo)
Budgeting for bureaus

Foreign bureaus are expensive to operate and appear to be first on the chopping block when cuts arrive.

“It’s a costly endeavour,” admits Brodie Fenlon, CBC’s general manager and editor-in-chief, in an email to The Hub. Fenlon adds that costs include support staff, licenses, foreign taxes, office space, and gear.

The costs only increase when you’re a Canadian on the ground in a conflict zone. During Semple’s visits to Ukraine, he is accompanied by a full-time security guard, who is often former special forces. That’s on top of pricey insurance coverage. It raises the question that if Canada enters another armed conflict, will Canadian outlets be able to afford putting reporters on the ground?

Nevertheless, others say the public should be more concerned about putting local reporters on the ground in Canada, who will cover our own country.

“I still mourn the cuts to local news more than I do foreign news,” Shephard tells The Hub in an email. “The whole industry is hurting and I understand why foreign news is often on the chopping block first. It’s expensive and while it’s not the same, at least there are other outlets covering it.”

Banished by authoritarian regimes

It is not merely high costs that are forcing the closure of Canadian bureaus, but also vengeful regimes.

In 2022, CBC shut down its Beijing bureau after more than 40 years. Their journalists were denied visas by the Chinese government.

That year, CBC journalists were also kicked out of Russia and stripped of their accreditation, leaving their bureau in Moscow after more than 44 years. Russia was retaliating to Canada banning their state TV channel Russia Today. CBC News was the only permanent Canadian media presence in Russia.

Semple says this lack of Canadian presence in “countries we don’t understand” means the public is robbed of getting to the bottom of what is going on in Russia and how ordinary Russians truly feel about the war in Ukraine.

Canada on the world stage

Some say Canada’s media retreat abroad mirrors our country’s decades-long retreat internationally.

Former Canadian diplomat Ben Rowsell recently told The Hub that Canadian diplomacy is now “in retreat,” with “withdrawal from the world” being a “top priority.”

According to Cohen, this is reflected in the scarcity of foreign correspondents.

“Where we are now as a country is very much reflected in how we cover the world. And we don’t. We have withdrawn,” says the author of the book While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World. “You have a diminished media in a diminished country.”

Cohen says this is a “vicious circle,” in that when Canadians are not informed about what their country is doing abroad, they are less likely to demand Canada have a more robust international presence abroad. Then, the media is left with minimal stories around Canada on the world stage to cover.

Still, Semple says while Canada may be less influential than it once was, announcing you are a Canadian journalist still surprisingly gains you respect and opens doors when it comes to access and interviews. In some ways, the reputation remains.

“Being Canadian still holds a lot of weight,” he explains. “How much of that is sort of a leftover of a time when Canada was seen differently on the world stage? I don’t know. But it’s still really a thing.”

Clarification: Since this article was published, CBC sent The Hub new numbers and clarified that CBC/Radio-Canada in fact employs 45 full-time journalists outside Canada, rather than 40.

The Future of News series is supported by The Hub’s foundation donors and Meta.

The U.K.’s unorthodox UnHerd: Leaving the mainstream media pack behind

News

The news media in Canada is in crisis. Policy responses to date are failing to solve for the information that citizens need to make informed decisions about important issues and debates. The Future of News series brings together leading practitioners, scholars, and thinkers to imagine new business models, policy responses, and journalistic content that can support a dynamic future for news in Canada.

The United Kingdom’s print media landscape is known for its lively, opinionated, and often deeply partisan publications.  As long-standing legacy newspapers such as The Spectator, the Daily Mail, and  The Telegraph jostle for attention, it can be difficult for new publications to break onto the scene. And yet, in the last few years, one upstart online-only publication has become a magnet for readers with an appetite for refreshing heterodox political and social commentary. 

It’s called UnHerd. The name plays off of the idea that it is intentionally separating itself from the media pack. It claims its mission is, “[T]o push back against the herd mentality with new and bold thinking, and to provide a platform for otherwise unheard ideas, people and places.” That it wants to, “be bold enough to identify those things that have been lost, as well as gained, by the liberal world order of the past thirty years; but we strive to be always thoughtful rather than divisive.”

UnHerd was launched in 2017, as a response to what its founders saw as anti-Leave media bias in the deeply polarizing Brexit vote. It is owned by notable U.K. Conservative Party donor and one of the U.K.’s wealthiest hedge fund managers, Sir Paul Marshall. Not surprisingly, the site often publishes writings from right-wing political thinkers. But, what makes UnHerd unique today is its willingness to also entertain pitches from progressive thinkers from within and outside of the U.K. 

“I think they’re among the best in the business from that perspective. You’ve got leftists, centre-leftists, and numerous right-wing commentators all publishing there,” says Oliver Bateman, a Pittsburgh-based weekly columnist for UnHerd who considers himself to be centre-left. 

Bateman lauds UnHerd for its ability to attract talent from across the political spectrum. While celebrity right-of-centre journalists such as Douglas Murray have written for UnHerd, so too has Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek and literary critic Terry Eagleton.

“Recognizing this “all are welcome” approach, Allsides.com—a website that tracks the political bias of media publications—changed UnHerd’s classification from “Lean Right” to “Centre” in the summer of 2023. 

A man browses through newspapers outside a kiosk in Athens, on Saturday, June 25, 2016. Yorgos Karahalis/AP Photo.
A Brexit boost

Once written off by Vice as the “whining of the perfectly-well-represented,” UnHerd has seen its popularity skyrocket since its founding in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum—when many working-class, nominally left-wing voters pushed the “Yes” vote to a surprising victory. 

Editor-in-chief Freddie Sayers joined UnHerd in 2019, the same year that the British Conservative Party, led by Brexiteer Boris Johnson, won a landslide victory in the general election. It was a contest in which many of the left-wing Labour Party’s safe seats, the so-called impenetrable “red wall”, flipped to the Conservatives. In the aftermath, pundits described it as a major realignment in British politics. 

“The election of 2019 in which Boris Johnson won over here was a big moment for us,” says Sayers in an interview with The Hub. “It was thought of as a kind of change election, with new combinations of left- and right-wing ideas. And a shake-up of traditional political herds. We were really interested in that crossover, and we started to really grow quite fast during that period.” 

Many British celebrities had vocally opposed Brexit and the Conservatives in the 2019 election. UnHerd’s writers were not shy about critiquing them for being out of touch. 

One article ran under the headline “How Lefty luvvies lost the plot: The creative sector is now so woke and insular that it’s incapable even of recognising an oppositional voice.” Another was titled, “How I became ‘Tory scum’: The establishment’s reaction to the referendum result pushed me towards the Conservatives.” 

Sayers himself is not shy about the fact that he voted “Remain” in the referendum, and he says UnHerd opposes dogmatically dividing people based on their voting preferences. 

“That’s the space that we still try to inhabit. Which is to be questioning, skeptical, open always to the opposing argument, to ideas that might be dismissed as fringe at the time and eventually be shown to be worthy of being taken seriously,” he says.

Sayers says he believes a large part of the British population was questioning the dominant narratives within the U.K. UnHerd tapped into that and directly sought those people as their audience.

“The mood here in the U.K. became this binary of good people versus bad people—a really simplistic way of addressing big questions,” describes Sayers. “We definitely don’t like the idea that half the population is deplorable, or evil or anything. We don’t take it seriously.” 

Still others say Sayers’ portrayal of the public is flawed.

“A common refrain in UnHerd’s writing is that we are going through a moment of ‘political realignment’, a time when labels of left and right are no longer helpful…because the left has abandoned workers for wokeness and the right are falling out of love with global free markets,” writes The Guardian’s Samuel Earle. “[That] it is now up to a coalition of the willing—made up mostly of conservatives and capitalists, but also a few disillusioned leftists—to stand up for the working class, tradition and common sense against ‘the establishment’, who almost always happen to be left-leaning. Hence UnHerd’s interest in including nominally leftwing—or, even better, formerly leftwing—voices: it proves that the old tribes no longer apply.”

Catering to the disaffected  

Gavin Allen, a digital media lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales, says that UnHerd caters to a centre-right audience that has been underserved in the U.K. media market. This includes groups such as “Blue Labour,” who are more centrist members of the nominally left-wing Labour Party.

UnHerd was formed in 2017, two years before the Conservatives purged [MP] Nicholas Soames and many of the centrists from the party,” says Allen. “We’ve also had the years of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour opposition, which was much more socialist-style left-wing than Tony Blair’s version of Labour. These have been polarized times.” 

Allen notes that these shifts within the U.K.’s two largest political parties have left many feeling politically homeless. 

UnHerd’s strategy has been to cater to those people, including those who are skeptical, anti-establishment, and heterodox thinkers. It has focused on issues like politics, pandemic lockdowns, and pushback against identity politics. And it’s working. While polls show the governing Conservatives cratering in the next election, UnHerd is showing no signs of a disastrous collapse. 

The publication gets more than two and a half times more online traffic than the New Statesman, which was founded prior to the First World War. UnHerd claims to reach almost 40 million users across all platforms in the U.K. and the U.S., with more than four million monthly page views, and more than 80 million hours of UnHerd content watched on YouTube. 

Funded by big backers, subscribers, and a restaurant

Vice, which once derided UnHerd, filed for bankruptcy last year, fired hundreds of staff, and no longer publishes news on its own website. But UnHerd is going—and growing—strong.

“We launched the paid subscription less than three years ago, but it’s gone really, really well, and I’m happy with that progress,”  Sayers says, noting that UnHerd has outperformed its expectations. 

UnHerd’s coffers are also helped by the fact that its founder and publisher Sir Paul Marshall runs one of Europe’s largest hedge fund groups, Marshall Wace Asset Management. The one-time Liberal Democrat now Conservative and GB News donor has been with the outlet since its founding, when he offered UnHerd an endowment.

It may also be the only online-only publication that has gone into the restaurant business.

In 2022, UnHerd says it had made enough money from subscriptions that it was able to branch out.  They opened a restaurant and club in the middle of London’s fashionable and expensive Westminster neighbourhood. Located inside the private member’s UnHerd Club, the Old Queen Street Cafe is a spot where anyone can gather to discuss and debate new ideas. 

“We have all sorts of interesting people coming from around the world, and [the cafe] is always sold out,” says Sayers. “There’s no sense that you’re going to be censored or people are going to judge you, so I’m really proud of that, and that is now a big contributor to our bottom line.”

The promise and perils of online-only

Gavin Allen is interested in what it takes for online-only publications such as UnHerd to survive in today’s media landscape. He notes that while running a print publication comes with additional physical costs such as delivery, ink, and printers, online publications also have considerable expenses.

“A web publication needs more tech [and] product people, for example. While digital advertising revenues are much smaller than print advertising revenues, which is why some print products endure despite falling circulations,” says Allen. 

Allen notes that the market for online news sites is international, and as such, it can be more difficult to make a name for yourself in the space without a specific niche. 

“Whether it’s online or print, what you need more than ever is a necessary product with a definable audience,” he says. “If you have a niche, there are likely more people willing to pay you to service that [is a] special interest for them than there are people willing to pay for mass-market generalism.” 

There’s also the fact that web audiences—which tend to skew younger than audiences for print publications—are generally less willing to pay for the products, such as magazines and newspapers, than older generations who bought as a matter of course. In this landscape, it can be a challenge for journalism outlets to build and maintain a legacy relationship with readers.

UnHerd columnist Oliver Bateman agrees with Allen’s assessment and admits to being pleasantly surprised by UnHerd’s success in the U.K. media market, which includes readers he believes are typically very loyal to their legacy newspapers. 

“It’s a very different media ecosystem over there [in the U.K.], and the reading public—at least from my visits to the country—appears to have more of an appetite for news and commentary from their host of legacy publications,” he says.”UnHerd is the rare ‘new’ publication that has done well.” 

The Future of News series is supported by The Hub’s foundation donors and Meta.