Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Are foreign correspondents going extinct? Or just changing their stripes?

A new working paper from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center – where my friend and colleague Rebecca MacKinnon began her new academic career – is rarely the cause for a news story. But when the author of the paper is Jill Carroll, the freelance reporter who was kidnapped and held in Iraq for over two months and the subject of the paper is the value of foreign reporting, well, that might just be worth a few column inches.

Foreign reporters are an endangered species in the US today. I got a tangible reminder of the crisis in the profession when I gave a talk at CUNY’s new journalism school, where I was hosted by Lonnie Isabel, who ran Newsday’s Pulitzer-winning foreign bureau. After the Tribune-owned paper decided to cut its foreign bureas, relying on the Chicago Tribune and LA Times for foreign coverage for all Trib papers, Lonnie was laid off and migrated to CUNY, where he’s helping build a very exciting new program. But Newsday, which had unique and exciting Africa coverage under his leadership, now has only four overseas employees and will close all bureaus by the end of this year.

They’re not alone. The Boston Globe is shuttering its four overseas bureaus, leading Christine Chen in Foreign Policy’s Passport to observe that there’s now only one foreign correspondent for each 1.3 million people in the US. The closure of Newsday bureaus will lower that number even further, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see other mid-sized papers closing their foreign bureaus in an attempt to cut costs. (Chen’s observation makes me wonder what an optimal correspondent to population ratio would be – more on that a bit further…)

The basic argument of Carroll’s paper is this:
- Some American readers – mostly highly educated newshounds, an attractive demographic – are hungry for international news.
- While there was a surge in international coverage right after 9/11, there’s been a steady decline in international news coverage over the past two decades, especially in international news that doesn’t involve US foreign policy
- While newspapers are struggling to cope in the wake of the Internet, the fiscal crisis isn’t quite as awful as we tend to think – newspapers aren’t struggling to survive so much as they’re struggling to make 15-20% annual profit. Keeping some foreign bureaus isn’t going to break the bank.
- Foreign bureaus are a good deal – they build your credibility, give you original content and cost surprisingly litte (so long as they’re not in war zones.)

This last piece was interesting to me. Carroll cites Robert Ruby, former foreign editor at the Baltimore Sun, whose bureaus cost about 5% of the paper’s budget and generated 20-25% of their front page stories. She notes that the Sun ran especially lean foreign bureaus. And bureaus in war zones cost a lot more, as security can cost more than the salary and housing for the journalists.

Carroll has a few suggestions for reviving international coverage in the age of newsroom cutbacks:
- Use more freelancers. (Given that Carroll is a freelancer, perhaps this is a predictable suggestion. But given that she was kidnapped as a freelancer, it’s good that the notes that security is one of the main problems with using freelancers.)
- Give correspondents a good, long time to read up on the nations they’re travelling into before sending them abroad for short assignments. (It’s still “parachute journalism”, but at least it’s a better sewn parachute.)
- Contextualize international news by connecting it to local products and issues. (She cites an Oregon newspaper which tracked local potatoes to Asian dinner tables.)
- Use soft news (network morning shows, for instance) to inform the group of people who don’t pay attention to international news.

What was most interesting to me is what Carroll didn’t mention in her discussion of future strategies for international news. One of the reasons many newspaper publishers are able to justify cutting foreign bureaus is a belief – accurate or otherwise – that they can cover international news via newswires. Carroll doesn’t mention AP, Reuters, AFP or any of the other newswires in her discussion, which seems like an odd omission. Some of the arguments Carroll makes in defense of foreign correspondents – local knowledge, language skills – are true for many of the correspondents who write for wire services.

It’s possible that Carroll doesn’t address these correspondents because she feels they don’t have the distance from a situation a foreign correspondent has – brilliant correspondents like Kapuściński didn’t just report facts, they contextualized them so they’d make sense to their audiences. The perspective is that of an informed outsider, not that of an insider. It’s also possible that Carroll doesn’t think the style of news produced by most wire services is a substitute for the long feature stories produced by dedicated foreign correspondents. But given the importance of wire services in reshaping the media landscape, it seems like an odd omission.

It also struck me as odd that Carroll doesn’t address citizen media as a possible alternative or complement to foreign correspondents. Our experience with Global Voices suggests that, in most countries, there are both local and expatriate bloggers capable of offering views and perspectives on local news. Some have journalistic backgrounds and aspirations, while others don’t… but all are there, on the ground, and could represent a vast, untapped resource for papers looking for unique stories and perspectives. It would be interesting to see a creative paper like the Sun or the Globe try to rebuild a modicum of independent international coverage by leaning hard on bloggers and other citizen journalists in another nation.

I’m with Carroll that it’s a sad commentary on the state of modern journalism that the foreign correspondent is nearing extinction. But I wonder if she’s missing something at least as interesting – the possibility of getting a view of life in another nation from the perspective of non-journalists living there, but sharing their experiences and expertise.

5 Responses to “Are foreign correspondents going extinct? Or just changing their stripes?”

  1. Mike Reilly says:

    Interesting to see Al Jazeera in the automated posts. It is one I would add to your list regarding news services that supply overseas news. The bulk of key AJ journalists and editors were trained at the BBC and Reuters among others. In reading the English language output (they started an English-language 24-hour TV channel in the last quarter of 2006), it looks a lot like the objective journalism I was trained to do at Reuters. A quick story on that:
    When I joined them from AP in the Vietnam era, I blithely wrote a story on my first day from the day’s war reports using terms that were commonly used at the (very American) AP, using references to “communist guerillas” and “the enemy.”
    A Reuters editor tossed the story back saying I should identify each side by name, in this case using “Viet Cong” and/or “North Vietnamese.” At Reuters, he explained, there is no enemy.

    Not a lesson easily forgotten, and one which demonstrates the fact that objective reporting is a sought after goal at serious news organmizations. (Yes, they fail, but at least they try)

    Organizations like AFP, Reuters, the AP and Al Jazeera are doing the overseas reporting and they do it for an English speaking audience — not for a government or a belief set. There are, in fact, more highlky trained reporters on the ground for these agencies than ever in their history. So why isn’t it a part of every American’s daily information meal?

    Americans have full access to these sources of foreign news reporting and can use it individually via the net. For editors, it can be selected (at a cost) for use in their newspapers. It is a matter of people showing they want to know.

    This brings us to what I belive is the really big issue: a lack of interest and trust. Each needs to be tackled in different ways. People need to know that what happens elsewhere affects them. Once at that point, they need another kind of help get through the firehose of information to news that one can trust.

    Both take training. I would like to call to your attention a new program to do just that — one that ought to be emulated nationally, since newspapers are pulling back and people are reading them less and less in any case.

    The Knight Foundation has just put up a very large sum to pick up on a move started by Stony Brook University to train students, first in the value of being informed and then, how to do it. Having had success in a few small courses, the university approached Knight to fund an expansion of the program. In the event, Knight upped the ante and laid down a challenge to do not just a few more courses, but to see to it all students at the uiniversity get a course in news understanding and assessment.

    The first iterations start this year and in four years every single student on the university will have had their eyes opened through formal courses. If the newspapers won’t help, maybe the universities can, along with the citizen bloggers and other on the ground sources you mention. Once that happens, the newspapers may find the demand is high enough to get their own foreign correspondents back in the field.

  2. Dax says:

    Lack of interest with a career in Hollywood Entertainment, and with much experience overseas [London, Australia, Argentina, other], I am considering to pursue international affairs. Advice how to find entry-level work? Recommendations? My heart is in Latin America +Spain, Africa, and other non-english speaking. ADVICE IS HELPFUL, And Admired

  3. Dax says:

    Age 29, I’ve been accepted to study postgrad journalism at American Univ. of Cairo, as well as Nebrija Univ. in Madrid, Spain. But ‘fear’ is if postgrad is truly necessary or need I focus more on VIP contacts/referrals?

  4. Geoff Says says:

    hmmm, I think that certain audiences often need a lot of interpretation and contextualisation to understand certain news developments that occur abroad. it is my opinion, that for this to be done correctly the messenger/ foreign correspondent needs to understand the culture where he reports from as much as where he writes for – as mentioned in the above article, understanding your audience is of much importance indeed. a local reported story will therefore often also be written in a completely differet way, however, it is the correspondent job to also screen the local news as it might still contain important news for the home audience. point, and difficulty of course is to maintain a high degree of ‘objectivity’ on the sliding scale, in this all, as to the readers/ viewers/ listeners an decide for themselves… and i am not refering to fox tv by that

  5. Back in the day–oh, say, three years ago–When someone wrote a Letter to the Editor, or an opinion or postcard piece that went into the Perspectivesection, no one ever considered them a journalist. So why has that changed?

    You give someone a box of bandaids–that doesn’t make them a doctor.

    Yet, when we complain and shout that we’re worried about the state of journalism and the role it plays in a free society, we’re being seen as elitist. It would seem that skills and instincts honed over the years–either in school or the newsroom, or under the tutelage of a good editor(s)–means nothing.

    Robert Ruby can’t sit in his Baltimore newsroom and think “oh, wait.. isn’t there a backpacker in Armenia who would have some interesting insight? Maybe I’ll call on them.” Or even a local so-called “citizen journalist” … in either of these cases: he has no idea who this person is, what their agenda is, how they are going about getting their information, who their sources are, how they got their sources, how reliable the facts are (if they’re even facts), what sort of conflicts of interests the person might be stirring up for any number of reasons. If I were an editor and was told I had to rely on citizen journalists as a form of reliable information, I’d jump from the highest window (which is, of course, not fact, but hyperbole, but since no one is checking facts…)

    Regarding wire services–I’d assume that Carroll’s position there is that reliance on a wire service is a given, but it’s not enough–which is where her “make it local” point comes into play.

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