Foreign Correspondence in Flux

February 4, 2010 • Journalism, Theme • Views: 1326

by Catherine Cheney:

Freelance foreign correspondent Amanda Lindhout, 28, was captured by gunmen in Somalia on August 23, 2008. Along with an Australian freelance photographer, Nigel Brennan, she was held captive for 15 months before being released in November 2009. This was one of several trips Lindhout had taken to conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East, reporting primarily for her hometown newspaper, the Red Deer Advocate. She funded her international reporting by working as a waitress in an Alberta, Canada pub.

Only recently has it become possible to pursue foreign correspondence as a part-time job. The traditional image of a foreign correspondent once involved a man wearing a trench coat and a fedora hat, traveling with a local translator and a professional photographer. This reporter would have enjoyed generous accommodations, worked in a permanent bureau and returned to his room at the end of the day to type his article, which he would then send back home to the paper before it went to press.

Responding to new media companies like GlobalPost and Twitter drawing reporters and readers to the web, media outlets such as CNN and the BBC are moving more of their effort to their websites. (Cheney/TYG)

But the rise of the Web and digital technology, combined with the impact of the financial crisis, caused the traditional profile of the international reporter to change. The financial pressures of the 2007 recession hit already vulnerable newsrooms across America, and news organizations began to cut costs, leading to dwindling numbers of foreign correspondents and dwindling coverage of international issues. Foreign bureaus began to close, and media entrepreneurs began  to develop new ideas for covering the world. Now, as financial pressures force many news organizations to close their foreign bureaus and adapt to a new information landscape, media professionals and news consumers alike are redefining the future of foreign correspondence.

The End of an Era

The decline of newspaper journalism marks the end of an era, as fewer publications are able to employ journalists to local, national, and international beats. The rise of the Internet has created unprecedented global interconnectedness, as well as a demand for immediacy that can affect the quality of reporting.

While information is becoming increasingly accessible and people are demanding more news than ever before, the revenues of news organizations are in constant decline as publishers and media executives struggle to monetize content and maintain readership. In the past, newspaper publishers such as the Sulzberger family, which has controlled and published the New York Times since 1896, made international reporting and permanent bureaus a top priority. But while the New York Times maintains 26 bureaus abroad, the age of fully staffed foreign bureaus is over.

Entrepreneurs redefining foreign coverage have challenged traditional media outlets. All at once, the industry is having to adjust to shifting expectations, changing technology, and financial pressures.  From downsizing to outsourcing to creating new models for foreign news, each media outlet has taken a different tack as they attempt to weather the crisis.

Bureaus of One

ABC News took a new step in the process of redefining foreign correspondence in 2007, when it sent seven television journalists with laptops and handheld video cameras to one-person bureaus around the world. Dana Hughes, an ABC correspondent based in Nairobi, told  the American Journalism Review, “We are fixers, shooters, reporters, producers, and bureau chiefs.” Five jobs, one person.

Many argue that this consolidation, this shift from massive foreign bureaus to bureaus of one, is not only cost effective but also a better way to report, encouraging reporters to be enterprising by decentralizing foreign correspondence from major capitals like Moscow and London. ABC News president david Westin explained, “Technology now makes it possible for us to have bureaus without a receptionist, three edit suites and studio cameras and so on.” He added, “The essence of what we do is reporting.”

Westin sent an email to ABC News in February announcing the need to “embrace what is new, rather than being overwhelmed by it.” Cutting 25 percent of its staff, ABC is halving its bureau correspondents, instead relying on two dozen digital journalists to report abroad with editing software and small cameras.

Other strategies do not limit bureaus to one person, instead consolidating whole groups of countries into regional posts, such as an “East Africa” office or a “South America” office. This requires news organizations to fly in reporters to cover breaking news stories. As the reporters may not have had time to study the language or culture of the area, their reporting may explore the who, what, when, and where, but it might misrepresent the why or how.

Beth Dickinson, an assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy magazine and a former Globalist editor, worked as a foreign correspondent in Nigeria for The Economist after graduating from Yale. Dickinson explained that this concept of flying in reporters, referred to as “helicoper journalism,” assumes that expertise is not needed to report the news.

“Sometimes, it’s the only way, but it certainly diminishes the depth that journalists have in discussing their topics,” she explained. “No matter how many books you cram on the plane, you’ll never know as much about a country as a reporter who lives there.”

Increasingly, though, newsrooms cannot afford the expertise that  comes with permanent bureaus. “Training oneself to the point where you can effectively [fly] in is the challenge of the new foreign correspondent,”  said Dickinson. “The best of these keep their eye on the news throughout their region, so that they can [fly] in from another close-by location,” ready to report on the situation.

Other strategies to maintain foreign news coverage include further collaboration between media outlets as well as further reliance  on newswire services, such as the Associated Press and Reuters.

The Washington Post, part of the Washington Post Company, maintains 13 international bureaus, and the Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, is currently discussing  the possibility of paying the Post for foreign news coverage to include in its eight daily newspapers.

But even The Washington Post relies on wire services for much of its foreign news coverage. Wire services cover the major issues in a given country for an international audience, but there is still a need for freelancers, and even citizen journalists, to contribute added value reporting through on-the-ground sourcing, investigative journalism, and feature stories.

Citizen Journalists

“Anybody who is there automatically knows more, has better insight  than anyone sitting in the office,” said Jon Klein, the president of CNN for the United States, with multiple television screens on the  wall of his New York office displaying domestic and global news coverage.  “Whether you are an employee of ours or you are a citizen who  witnesses something, you’ve got a validity right off the bat that needs to be paid attention to.” The organization maintains 33 international newsgathering locations, and in January appointed three new international correspondents, in sharp contrast with the trends affecting smaller news organizations.

CNN also draws on freelance work and citizen journalism, as evident in its iReport initiative, which allows people to upload videos and pictures of breaking news. Citizen journalism, as applied to international coverage, refers to foreign nationals working as active participants in the collection, reporting, and dissemination of news and analysis for an overseas audience. Media organizations rely on citizen journalism either for  breaking news coverage or as a way of exploring local reactions to international  events. “Citizen journalism allows us to have bureaus everywhere in the world, six billion people strong, and that just makes us better,” said Klein as he described why CNN relies so heavily on citizen accounts of news in their own hometowns. “Increasingly, that is a big part of our value. The meeting is taking place in our living room.”

Twitter is becoming an outlet for snippets of citizen journalism, as the 2008 Iran protests and the January earthquake in Haiti made clear. When people on the ground describe what they are experiencing, news organizations far removed from the course of events can use Twitter as a form of crowd sourcing. CNN is one of many outlets that relied on this social media Web site to try and capture the reality on the ground, but Klein warned that it is important to be cautious of what information to trust.

“We know everything about the people we send to these countries,” he explained, referring to CNN international correspondents,  such as chief correspondent Christiane Amanpour. As for the content many citizen journalists upload to the CNN Web site, “we have to take more time to run them down, double check them, triple check them,” said Klein.

Mainstream media companies are not the only ones looking to citizen journalists to maintain foreign news coverage. Other organizations have built models which capitalize on the grassroots power of the Internet. Demotix, a “citizen-journalism Web site and photo agency,” accepts photographs from “freelance journalists and amateurs” and markets them to mainstream media outlets. According to its Web site, the company’s goal is to “rescue journalism and promote free expression by connecting independent journalists with the traditional media.”

This shift toward citizen journalism demands increased education regarding journalistic ethics. Nick Raistrick, a producer and trainer at the BBC World Service Trust, works to develop news outlets and train journalists in countries that lack a strong, independent media. He recently trained journalists from six different radio stations that the BBC helped establish in Uganda. This form of media development helps international media thrive, creating a culture of citizen journalists  devoted to their craft, aware of its importance, and able to send their work to American news organizations looking to educate an audience on the area. “I think it is a great opportunity for Americans to learn about the world, and British people to learn about the world,” Raistrick explained.

Foreign Freelancing

Media outlets can draw from a more diverse array of reporters and perspectives by looking to freelance journalists. Many news organizations are adapting to financial pressures by hiring freelancers, who place themselves in foreign countries, pitching stories to multiple news organizations in hopes of earning a living. “There are more opportunities [today] for people who are resourceful,” said David Case, editor of Passport, the membership service of the online news service GlobalPost. “Rather than trying to figure out how to get a foothold at The New York Times, the market is more fluid and open.”

Jerry Guo, who graduated from Yale in 2009, owes his journalism career to the adventuresome spirit that allowed him to succeed in freelancing. “In college I would just basically spend my break in exotic places, and I found that that was an easier way of convincing editors [to let me write], if it was a place that no one else was stupid enough to go to.” As an undergraduate, Guo reported from countries including North Korea, Zimbabwe, Nepal, and Indonesia. After spending his college career planting himself in compelling areas and pitching his stories to a variety of publications, Guo was hired as a staff correspondent at Newsweek. “There is no one path,” he said from his roaming cell phone in West Africa, explaining that people who are willing to take risks can find work by digging up unique, compelling stories.

Frank Smyth, Washington representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, spent many years as a freelance journalist and   risked his life in pursuit of stories, including an 18-day imprisonment in Iraq during the Gulf War. He explained that there are benefits and disadvantages to relying on the work of a freelancer as compared to that of a staff writer or special correspondent. “Newspapers may have a military reporter who is closer to the military than someone else,” he said. Close relationships between staff reporters and their sources lead to greater journalistic access, Smyth explained, but at the same time, freelancers who lack those relationships “may report  more unilaterally, more critically.”

Smyth said that success as a freelancer or a stringer in this competitive media environment requires moving to “an area with lots  of news, like Iraq a few years ago, and Afghanistan today.” But with freelancing becoming one of the predominant paths to international journalism, more and more inexperienced people are traveling to conflict zones hoping to sell their stories, and they are often ignorant of the real dangers they face. Amanda Lindhout’s kidnapping is one example among several, such as Laura Ling, who was arrested in North Korea while filming at the China-North Korea Border for the online media company Current TV, and Steven Vincent, a former freelance journalist for the Wall Street Journal, who was shot dead in Basra, Iraq in 2005.

Smyth explained that while these risks should be understood, people who thrive on bylines and television spots will always take them. “It is easy to say, well, don’t take risks, but I’ve also taken risks and gotten stories that were exclusives,” he said.

Funding Foreign Correspondence

Portable digital technology and instant communication online make it possible for news organizations to utilize freelance reporting, but with shrinking revenues, it is hard for newspapers and television outlets to support their freelance contributors financially. That is where foundations come in.

Foundations and fellowships are providing new opportunities for foreign reporting, even as some in the established media can no longer afford to fund international correspondence. John Schidlovsky worked as a freelancer in the Middle East and as the bureau chief for the Baltimore Sun in Beijing and New Delhi before becoming the director of the International Reporting Project. He founded the organization, which offers the most competitive journalism fellowships in the country, in 1998 after determining that American journalism needed a program empowering individuals to pursue foreign reporting. “It was clear that a lot of mainstream media organizations were going to reduce, cut back, or eliminate entirely their foreign  bureaus,” he said. And he was right. The organization has since sent  300 journalists to report in more than 85 countries.

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting “helps underwrite the cost of foreign reporting projects and works to get the stories featured in newspapers, broadcast outlets and on the Internet.” The Center recently partnered with YouTube to create a journalism competition open to aspiring reporters who want to “share their stories with the world.”

This is one of a few foundations taking the lead in cultivating the next generation of foreign correspondents, in addition to organizations such as the Overseas Press Club Foundation, which offers fellowships to undergraduates and graduate students wishing to pursue international reporting projects. The intent behind the many foreign journalism foundations and fellowships is to equip journalists with the resources they need to report important stories that would otherwise go untold.

Organizations outside of the traditional media, including nonprofit organizations, are also funding global storytelling projects that provide new forums for journalists to publish and broadcast their work. Human Rights Watch, for example, funds international human rights reporting fellowships, and the Kaiser Family Foundation offers fellowships in global health reporting.

From the Ground Up

In 2007, when the Boston Globe closed its last three international bureaus in Jerusalem, Berlin, and Bogota, Charles Sennott, formerly a foreign correspondent for the Globe, partnered with Philip Balboni to found the foreign news Web site GlobalPost. Emphasizing the importance of foreign correspondents living in the areas they cover so that they can best “untangle complex issues,” the founders of GlobalPost explain on their site: “Our mission is to provide Americans, and all English-language readers around the world, with a depth, breadth and quality of original international reporting that has been steadily diminished in too many American newspapers and television networks.”

Relying on paid membership, syndication in other publications, and online advertising, GlobalPost was founded in January 2009 with a for-profit business model. The venture employs more than 70 correspondents in more than 50 countries. These reporters are encouraged to produce multimedia content in addition to print stories, and most of them report for the site part-time. David Case of GlobalPost explained that the site is a pioneer not only in its financial model, but also in its approach to foreign news. “War, famine, crises and politics have long been the lifeblood of the foreign correspondent,”  he said. “GlobalPost is about covering the world the way we cover domestic news.”

In addition to covering current issues in politics and commerce, the Web site features stories such as “Saudi women revel in online lives” and “The ‘miracle babies’ of Mexico City: 25 years later.” These kinds of stories had gone uncovered by the mainstream media because publishers and producers assumed that people would not pay for them. However, as the world grows increasingly interconnected and people look for new ways to engage with international issues, the Web creates a forum for a wider range of content. No trend in contemporary foreign correspondence, from the rise of citizen journalists to the shift towards one-person bureaus, could have taken place without the incredible access and speed afforded by the Internet.

Looking Ahead

“There are more links between the U.S. and the rest of the world now than ever before and ironically the mainstream media has receded from its responsibility to cover the rest of the world,” said Schidlovsky. With the increasing number of success stories in new media models for foreign correspondence, the mainstream media will have to adapt, as it has already begun to do. If the definition of international correspondence is broadened to include these new models, the field may actually be growing, despite tight budgets and closing bureaus.

Foreign correspondence is not, in fact, dying. It is weathering the storm of financial pressure and new media technology, with freelancers, citizen journalists, foundations, and entrepreneurs at the helm.

Catherine Cheney ’10 is a Political Science major in Trumbull College.

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