A year ago, the nightly public television news program Worldfocus landed a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for its report “Crisis in Congo.” It scored two Emmy nominations a few months later for the Congo story and for “Twenty-first century Africa,” which explored the impact of digital technology and other important trends on the continent.
At its peak, Worldfocus appeared on 88 percent of PBS stations in the top 30 markets, according to WNET, which produced and aired the show. NBC and CNN veteran Martin Savidge served as a special correspondent and ex-CNNer and BBCer Daljit Daliwal anchored. Marc Rosenwasser, formerly of Dateline, executive produced.
Notice the use of the past tense: PBS pulled the plug on the show after an 18-month run. Its last broadcast was April 2. The Worldfocus website will remain online, but many longer pieces are unavailable and no new content will be added, making it a digital memorial to an ambitious, if conventional attempt to tell complex international stories without treating viewers like scandal-hungry, celebrity-obsessed idiots. [Full disclosure: I pitched a story to the show last year.]
“The show couldn't continue because it never found its financial footing,” Savidge says. Launching in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the great depression — and the collapse of 20th century newsgathering and media models — probably didn't help.
Worldfocus did have funders, including the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which gave the show $1 million. (Media watchdog FAIR criticized the foundation for alleged “scare-mongering over the future of Social Security and warning against the perils of deficit spending,” and it raised the specter of its potential to influence Worldfocus's coverage of healthcare issues. Moot point.) Still, the show lacked one big foundation or corporate patron.
Worldfocus combined content produced by staffers and independent journalists working on shoestrings with material from a large and diverse array of partner organizations — from al Jazeera English to Israel's Channel 10 News and the state-run China Central Television (CCTV), to predictable blue-chip outlets like the Christian Science Monitor, the Associated Press, The New York Times, NBC, and ABC.
“Worldfocus has been a fertile testing ground that has pointed the way forward in a rapidly changing media environment,” WNET President and CEO Neal Shapiro said in a statement announcing the show's cancellation. “I'm proud of the contribution it has made to television journalism during its short time on the air.” Of course, WNET could have picked up the show's tab and kept it going, but instead, it chose to throw its resources behind Need to Know, a current affairs vehicle for Newsweek’s Jon Meacham that's also meant to fill the hole left by Now with David Brancaccio. It premieres May 7.
It's a truism that Americans don't have an appetite — or the stomach — for international news beyond one-off blood-and-guts stories, which offer spectacle without context. “I think that's too broad a brush stroke,” Savidge says. It's not the audience that's lacking, it's the major media themselves. “I think we've done a poor job” delivering that news to the public. (By “we” Savidge means the news media in general, not just Worldfocus.) There's no historical context. There's no real storytelling. That's certainly true, but in this age of journotainment, of TMZ-style candy-coated garbage and the tainted red-meat rhetoric of Fox News, it's hard for a traditional, eat-your-vegetables-type show like Worldfocus to find an audience and stay afloat. But perhaps more importantly, it shows the perils of looking to multibillion-dollar corporations and mainstream foundations to sustain independent, public-service journalism, a pursuit that all to often is not in their bottom-line interest.