TCS Daily

Rebirth of the Foreign Correspondent

By Hampton Stephens - April 16, 2007 12:00 AM

From Time magazine's declaration that "you" were the person of the year in 2006, to Frontline's recent airing of "News War," a four-part series examining the changing news landscape, the Internet's paradigm-shifting effect on the media has begun to dawn on many journalists and media executives.

Strangely, however, a recent spate of opinion pieces about the grim state of foreign news reporting has ignored the promise of the Internet.

Reports in January that the Boston Globe would shutter its remaining three overseas bureaus triggered a number of opinion essays decrying the trend. But few of these commentators recognized the opportunities Internet publishing presents for replacing what is being lost in the dead-tree press.

In a Jan. 29 Washington Post piece, for example, Fred Hiatt lamented the loss of the "depth and variety of reporting, analysis and interpretation beyond what wire services and foreign media provide." Hiatt's only mention of the Internet was a sentence about English-language editions of foreign newspapers, and think-tank and university Web sites.

And, in a similar piece in the Post on Feb. 18, reporter Pamela Constable all but ignored the main instrument of the greatest communications revolution the world has ever seen, save a passing mention of the growing popularity of blogs.

The conventional wisdom about the new media environment's effects on foreign reporting is that only large, national newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post will continue to publish original foreign reporting. At the same time, the thinking goes, wire services like AP and Reuters will flourish by serving as the de facto foreign desks for the vast majority of American newspapers, bringing a depressing sameness to the world news sections of local papers across the nation.

But the dynamism of media in the Internet age means this doom-and-gloom narrative likely will have many positive twists. The latest evidence of that came recently, courtesy of Yahoo! and McClatchy. The nation's third-largest newspaper publisher is teaming up with Yahoo! to provide reports from bureaus in Baghdad, Cairo, Jerusalem and Beijing to the monthly 40 million visitors to Yahoo! News. The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but you can bet McClatchy's foreign coverage in papers like the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer and the Idaho Statesman will benefit from the extra revenue it generates.

But it's not just the big players that are reinvigorating the foreign news landscape in the Internet age.

If critics like Hiatt and Constable did a bit more exploring online, they might come across some serious new entries to the world of foreign reporting, including, if I may be so bold, the site I edit. Or they might stumble upon one of the numerous organizations that are funding and training reporters across the globe, many of whom publish the work of their reporters online. They might also realize that even many "old-media" outlets now publish some foreign reporting exclusively online.

But it's not just that these Cassandras miss what's happening right now, it's that they can't seem to imagine what the Internet will mean for foreign reporting's future.

A much-cited report from Harvard University's Shorenstein Center found that U.S. newspaper foreign correspondents declined from 188 in 2002 to 141 in 2006, and documented a 10 percent drop in foreign bureaus since 2000 (after a revision in March, the specific numbers in the original report were replaced by percentage declines). But counting newspapers' foreign correspondents and bureaus in 2007 reveals as much about the future of foreign reporting as counting buggy-whip manufacturers in 1907 would have revealed about the future of transportation.

Those that see a crisis in such statistics tend to portray the print newspaper as the only possible oasis of journalistic quality and virtue. But there's nothing about newsprint that makes it uniquely suited to distributing quality journalism. Familiar criticisms about the Internet's penchant for the shrill and the shallow show little imagination about the effects the Internet revolution is bound to have on foreign reporting.

Internet publishing, of course, is much cheaper than newspaper publishing. In addition, the Internet and related technology make reporting abroad much more cost-effective. In a world of cellular and satellite phones, email and the Web, a foreign correspondent can outfit his hotel room with the tools that in the past could only be provided at a bureau. The demise of the foreign bureau doesn't mean foreign reporting will disappear -- it might mean more of it can be done for less money.

The Internet is still in its infancy. But new media organizations are making swift progress in providing the kind of in-depth coverage that used to be provided only in print.

Though many foreign bureaus have vanished, the foreign correspondents haven't gone anywhere. I'm not just talking about the "eager kid with a laptop and an Arabic phrase book in her backpack," as Constable somewhat condescendingly put it. Many experienced foreign reporters have embraced the Web as a new outlet for their work, and see in it great promise for providing the new business model that will continue to sustain their careers.

And I'm certain that Web-based operations stand a better chance of finding and identifying the "eager kid" that will be the next great foreign correspondent than any newspaper does. I know enough talented young foreign-focused journalists who can't get in the door at a major newspaper to realize it's not just changing industry economics that are hurting newspapers. It's also their unwillingness to adjust hiring, promotion and operating practices to a new world.

In a job market increasingly made up of so-called "free agents" and characterized by hyper-mobility, the most talented young journalists aren't willing to log a decade on the metro desk before being sent abroad. They're already over there, learning about their chosen beat, honing their reporting and writing chops and, yes, publishing their work -- on the Web.

Hampton Stephens is editor and publisher of World Politics Watch.


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