Sunday, August 30, 2009

Obituary: San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service

My editors at The San Francisco Chronicle tell me that my piece in today's paper will be the last to be produced by the Chronicle Foreign Service, the latest casualty in the battle to keep the venerable daily afloat.

The Chronicle Foreign Service -- or CFS -- was a network of freelancers which provided Bay Area readers original, on-the-ground reporting from around the world. In continuous operation since 1985, CFS gave many young journalists a start in the business, teaching them the ropes of foreign news reporting.

Many CFS-ers have gone on to do great things, including Colombia correspondent Karl Penhaul (now at CNN), London correspondent Kimberly Dozier (CBS News, injured in Iraq in 2006), Middle East writer Borzou Daragahi (a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist), Peter S. Goodman (now national economics writer at the New York Times) and Andrew E Kramer (now the Times' Moscow bureau chief.) Jill Carroll filed two CFS pieces from Iraq before her famous kidnapping, and Billy Nessen was held for 40 days by the Indonesian government while reporting from Aceh.

My own CFS career took me to Antarctica, Georgia, Belize, and the Marshall Islands, (while researching Ocean's End, a book on the global marine crisis), Iceland (on Keiko the whale, glaciers, genetics), Greenland (climate change), Canada (tidal power, fisheries, gas drilling) Micronesia (WW2 ships, kava crisis) Croatia (killer seaweed), Denmark (wind power, sustainability), the Netherlands (sea rise defenses), Bosnia (post-conflict), Romania (ethnic conflict, state secrets, interview with the president), Mexico (post-9/11 effects), and Panama (canal zone handover).

Nine years ago, things appeared to be look up for the Chronicle. It had a new owner -- the Hearst Corporation -- which promised to make it a "world class newspaper." But while the paper won several prizes, it has continued to operate in the red. This winter, Hearst threatened to close it entirely if it could not win major concessions from the unions. Since then 150 jobs have been cut, and on Friday management announced there would be more to come.

CFS stopped taking new stories late this winter, just after I filed my piece from Iceland which, fortunately, had the shelf life to survive a long wait for a spot in an ever-shrinking news hole.

I know I'll miss working with CFS editor Jack Epstein, and I suspect many readers will miss the coverage he and his predecessors oversaw.


  1. A special hello to those linking in from Wired's Danger Room site, and a post drawing attention to bold experiments in online journalism. (In contrast to my post above, rightly described as an example of the "gloom over the future of reporting."

  2. Also greetings to all of you coming in via Romenesko at Poynter Online.

    A lot of people seem to care about this, at least within the industry.

  3. Colin, we've never met but I free-lanced to Chron Foreign Service from Mexico during the 1988 election fraud and aftermath. Jack Epstein is an old friend from those days who I recently reconnected with ... met Karl Penhaul later when he was just getting his start in Mexico with a local English-language daily. Sad to see this happen to the Chronicle's Foreign Service. Hopefully, in the reconfiguration of media that's ongoing, something akin will arise like a 2.0-version Phoenix from the ashes.