Victor Lawson’s foreign service at the Chicago Daily News, which was eventually syndicated to more than a hundred newspapers, set the stage for the next era. When a Pulitzer Prize was established for foreign correspondence in 1929, Paul Scott Mowrer of the Daily News won it, with reports that read like analytical diplomatic cables. By this time, foreign correspondence had entered a golden age. Large numbers of knowledgeable journalists covered the world for newspapers, magazines, and the upstart medium of radio. They remained largely independent of the home office and, thanks to international goodwill toward Americans, were well received wherever they roamed. The news—two world wars, Communist revolutions, the emergence of global interdependence—was of towering significance. The celebrity and expertise of correspondents were never greater.
The transition from one period to the next never took place with one door slamming shut and another opening wide. Each was gradual, carrying forward vestiges of the past. And so it was with the emergence of the corporate correspondent, whose employer often owned many media outlets—not to mention other, nonjournalistic businesses—and answered to Wall Street. Satellite telephones and the Internet eventually put these correspondents in closer touch with their editors back home. It also made them less colorful and less independent, at a time when they were also perceived, like journalists generally, as less credible.
Which brings us to the present, an era that is only beginning to take shape but has a clear, defining feature: many types of foreign correspondents operating at once. Seasoned reporters representing major news outlets still exist, of course. But many new species of foreign newsgathering and distribution are appearing, most of them carrying some DNA of the past. We might call this era a confederacy of correspondents.
Coverage at The New York Times remains formidable. The McClatchy Company, which purchased most of Knight Ridder in June 2006, kept Knight Ridder’s foreign correspondents attached to its Washington bureau—even as McClatchy’s own stock price dropped in the wake of the purchase. After Rupert Murdoch acquired The Wall Street Journal, the number of front-page stories on foreign topics jumped; pages of foreign news were added inside. The Associated Press recently increased the number of bureaus abroad, which now total 102 in ninety-seven countries. Even the celebrity-focused Vanity Fair, recognizing that foreign news confers respectability, recently hired a foreign correspondent to help it get “meat.”
But again, the traditional American foreign correspondent no longer strides the stage alone. Here are some of the additional players:
Foreign foreign correspondents, meaning those foreign nationals who work for American news organizations. While this type is not entirely new, it is much more common today. A survey I conducted with my colleague Denis Wu in 2000 found that 69 percent of foreign correspondents for American news organizations were not Americans. Some of these reporters start out as fixers, who help reporters and can move around more freely in dangerous places. The Baghdad bureau chief for McClatchy referred to them as “journalists in their own right” and “the backbone of our coverage.”
Local foreign correspondents, who cover the world from their hometowns. This seeming contradiction in terms has come about because of burgeoning global interdependence. A 2004 survey by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation found that two-thirds of local broadcasters said they integrated world and local news into their shows. “We’re in a new era now, in which the ambiguity in what is international and what is not international is very great,” said Don Oberdorfer, a veteran Washington Post foreign correspondent, at a recent journalism conference.
Parachute foreign correspondents, who are sent on short-term assignments abroad. The term is often used pejoratively to describe the phenomenon of permanent reporters being replaced by less expensive, less experienced interlopers. Yet it also describes a more positive development. Local media that could never afford full-time correspondents now send reporters on ad-hoc assignments abroad. Major news media use the technique to augment coverage—the Chicago Tribune, for instance, sent a music critic to Latin America, and an expert on religion to help a permanent correspondent cover the election of a new pope.
Premium foreign correspondents, who work for services that charge fees for specialized, in-depth reporting. The antecedent is Reuters, which started out in the mid-nineteenth century as a news service for financiers. Modern versions include Bloomberg News and Dow Jones Newswires, as well as Reuters’ own “gated” premium service.
In-house foreign correspondents, who gather timely, accurate industry news exclusively for their corporate employers. These reporters operate in a gray zone between journalism, marketing, and corporate communications. At British Petroleum, for example, editors produce the so-called BP News, a daily summary of BP-related stories from around the world. Federal Express has a similar video operation called FedEx-TV.