Fall 2004

Foreign Correspondence: Evolution, Not Extinction

‘The new correspondents are reshaping foreign news in ways that have potential for good and, without interventions, for bad.’

By John Maxwell Hamilton and Eric Jenner

The foreign correspondent, Bernard Cohen observed in his 1960’s classic book “The Press and Foreign Policy,” is “a cosmopolitan among cosmopolitans, a man in gray flannel who ranks very high in the hierarchy of reporters.” Correspondents talk to heads of state and dine on the Via Veneto, while colleagues back home toil under the watchful eye of editors. “Twice as many foreign correspondents as Main Street journalists have attended private colleges and four times as many have graduate degrees,” according to a 1996 study by Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution.

This image of the foreign correspondent continues to have some relevance. The traditional foreign correspondent remains elite, perhaps even more so than in the past. After all, their numbers are decreasing, a trend often expressed in Darwinian terms. “While there are still correspondents based abroad,” former foreign correspondent and media critic Marvin Kalb noted, “the genre known as ‘foreign correspondent’ is becoming extinct.”

But the image is misleading, too. Foreign correspondence is no longer the exclusive province of the traditional trench coat-wearing journalist, covering news for a network or major print outlet. New varieties of foreign correspondents have emerged, some of whom scarcely consider themselves journalists.

Foreign correspondence is not becoming extinct. But it is evolving into new forms.

The New Foreign Correspondents

The first of these new journalists is the foreign foreign correspondent. Editors and producers have traditionally worried about their reporters “going native,” a newsroom term to describe reporters out of touch with the home audience. To guard against this, news organizations have made minimal use of foreign nationals—until recently.

A single foreign correspondent costs a newspaper around $250,000 a year. Broadcast foreign correspondents, who have agents to negotiate their salaries and need technical support to do their reporting, cost far more. The obvious solution for bottom-line conscious news executives is to use more foreign journalists. Only 31 percent of correspondents for American media overseas are American, according to a recent survey led by a colleague, Denis Wu. This is a sharp decline from the early 1990’s, when another scholar working off a similar database found about 65 percent were American.

Growing global interdependence is another factor changing the nature of foreign reporting. The old-fashioned view is that foreign news is foreign and local news is local, and people want more of the latter and less of the former. In a world of porous borders, however, the lines between foreign and domestic blur for news just as they blur for commerce, health, culture and the environment. Local farmers and agricultural extension agents pay close attention to the ups and downs of foreign markets for crops; local entrepreneurs identify opportunities abroad; communities declare themselves nuclear free zones, and state development authorities send delegations to monitor and lobby international trade negotiators.

While local media have a long way to go before adequately mining such stories, reporting of them is on the rise. Eighty-six percent of editors in a 2002 study conducted by the Pew International Journalism Program said that companies in their community had overseas investments. Of those who noted these foreign connections, 50 percent regularly or fairly regularly covered these stories. Similar responses were given for stories about immigrants, university connections abroad, and foreign business and investment in the community.

“We’re in a new era now in which the ambiguity in what is international and what is not international is very great,” veteran Washington Post foreign correspondent Don Oberdorfer said. “Say[ing] that if the news isn’t coming from overseas then it’s not international, we’re misleading ourselves.”

Meanwhile, as international travel has become cheaper and more convenient, local television and newspaper organizations are sending reporters abroad on short-term assignments. In the Pew International Journalism Program study mentioned above, foreign editors at 39 of the 81 largest newspapers had used parachute journalists; so had seven of the 72 editors representing the smaller newspapers. To increase such reporting even more, the International Center for Journalists has launched a program sending reporters from medium and small media markets abroad to look for foreign links to their communities.

Local foreign correspondence challenges assumptions about the much-maligned concept of “parachute journalism.” Critics object that parachute journalism is simply a way to avoid the costs of posting correspondents abroad permanently. Whatever the merits of that argument for networks and major newspapers, it does not hold for local news operations, which never had permanent foreign correspondents in the first place. Local parachute journalists add to foreign coverage, rather than detract from it.

The Assist From Computers

Yet another factor altering the landscape of foreign reporting is new media technologies, which have lowered the economic barriers of entry to publishing and broadcasting. The Internet has made it possible for media companies to create special “wires” they can retail at a premium.

An obvious example is Bloomberg. Its news service has about 255 print and 100 radio and television journalists inside the United States and far more— 1,000 print and 200 broadcast—outside. Given the quality of its financial reporting, its audience pays a premium to receive high-quality, specialized news in real time over their Bloomberg terminals: $1,650 for a single terminal per month or $1,285 a month per terminal if the client has more than one.

Because 50 percent of Bloomberg’s subscribers are outside the United States, it is misleading to call its reporters foreign correspondents. A Bloomberg reporter writing on soybeans from China is a foreign correspondent to the subscriber in New York but a local reporter to the subscriber in Beijing. Although Bloomberg—which is privately held—will not provide detailed financial information the way traditional media will, interviews with executives suggest that the extensive use of local reporters overseas, plus advantageous economies of scale resulting from the large number of correspondents employed, lower overall per-correspondent costs.

Yet another kind of foreign correspondence is in-house news and information gathering. Virtually every global corporation these days has a computer-linked network in which “staff reporters” provide original information as well as news summaries to employees around the world. Federal Express has what it calls FedEx TV, which delivers video on demand to employees. “This is what you would have read if you had time to read the paper when you came in the morning,” says Richard D. Badler, senior vice president for corporate communications at Unisys.

Some journalistic purists might want to dismiss such entities as unrelated to news. But corporations place a premium on exactly what journalists value—accurate and timely information. This is why corporations often hire journalists to do the work. Says one modern corporate executive responsible for in-house reporting, “It’s all about ‘I’ve got news.’” Purists also should keep in mind that Reuters and Havas started out as services for embassies, government agencies, banks and other businesses.

A third kind of technology-driven foreign correspondence is do-it-yourself reporting. With groups and individuals able to post information on Web sites, anybody can be a publisher or, for that matter, a reporter. Salam Pax is a timely example. In early 2003, this self-described 29-year-old Iraqi architect posted reports on the conditions of Baghdad, his beleaguered hometown. His Web site “Where is Raed?” provided some of the most vivid and personal dispatches in the lead-up to war. Although there was much speculation as to whether Pax was a fictitious character dreamed up by Mossad or CIA propagandists, freelance journalist Peter Maass verified that the person who called himself “Salam Pax” was indeed real and had worked for him as a translator in Iraq.

“Today and in the future,” veteran network foreign correspondent Garrick Utley observed, “anyone sending information from one country to another is a de facto foreign correspondent. The number of correspondents, accredited or not, will rapidly increase. Equipped with camcorders and computers, they will send out and receive more foreign dispatches.”

Internet users in many countries can easily gather news right at home simply by surfing the Web. In so doing they create another new kind of foreign correspondent, the foreign local correspondent. That is a reporter in India writing for an Indian daily, whose work is read over the Internet by a resident of Indianapolis.

Implications

Contrary to all the handwringing, the traditional foreign correspondent is not facing extinction. The normal pattern of foreign correspondence, beginning with the Spanish-American War, is marked by bursts of coverage, usually because of a major conflict, followed by a decline in reportage. True to this pattern, news media sent large numbers of reporters into the Iraq War.

What is changing is the arrival of many new varieties of foreign reporters. The new correspondents are reshaping foreign news in ways that have potential for good and, without interventions, for bad.

Increasing the amount of foreign news is potentially good. Understanding local connections to the rest of the world has the potential of creating more interest in foreign affairs among average Americans. Seeing events overseas from the perspective of other countries, something that might occur with greater use of foreign foreign correspondents, is equally valuable if we are to build constructive international relationships.

But we must also worry about the quality of that news. Local foreign correspondents with no experience abroad are less likely to appreciate nuances of foreign affairs. And do-it-yourself foreign correspondents are less likely to be trained for reporting. Even if many do have fidelity to unearthing facts and placing them in a fair context (rather than transmitting more biased reporting), how can the Internet subscriber know which ones don’t?

Nor can we assume that these new varieties of foreign correspondence will reach a broad audience. The result may be just the opposite, with a growing gap between information haves and information have-nots. Corporations and individuals who can afford expensive newsgathering staffs and advanced media technology have a big advantage.

Traditional journalists—and journalism educators—are tempted to dismiss these new varieties of foreign correspondents as insignificant upstarts of little consequence. This is reminiscent of those mid-19th century owners who dismissed the penny press only to be rendered obsolete themselves. The better approach is to think seriously about how to train men and women to fill these new correspondent roles. No longer can a beginning reporter think he or she will only be covering local news. We need, too, to develop best practice models and to prepare our citizens to be intelligent consumers so they can separate best practices from bad ones.

The traditional elite correspondent working for a major network, national magazine, or major daily newspaper no longer has hegemony over foreign news. Looking only backward at this old model keeps us from making the new foreign correspondence as useful as it could be in elevating American understanding of an increasingly complicated and hostile world.

John Maxwell Hamilton, dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University and a former foreign correspondent, worked on this essay as a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, & Public Policy at Harvard University. Eric Jenner, former international editor of The New York Times’s Web page, is a doctoral student at LSU. A version of this article is in Journalism (August 2004).


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