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.
Citizen foreign correspondents, whose work is facilitated by new technology. Just as amateur, casual correspondents wrote letters for Benjamin Franklin’s Gazette, these on-the-scene witnesses kept Twitter humming—to the tune of one message per second with the word “Mumbai”—when terrorists struck that Indian city late last year. Peter Maass, a contributor to The New York Times Magazine, said this about Salam Pax, the young Iraqi architect who posted dispatches on his Web site during the U.S. invasion: “Better than the army of foreign correspondents in the country.”
Foreign local correspondents, such as an Indian journalist reporting in India for a New Delhi newspaper whose stories are read or watched via the Internet or satellite from Indianapolis. Indian emigrants are an obvious audience for these reports; but for those who cannot speak Hindi, specialized software is available to translate.
None of these new forms is perfect. Editors who hire foreign nationals—often because they’re cheaper—feel less obliged to use their copy. Local foreign correspondents give their audiences a better sense of their ties to the world, but often lack deep understanding of global trends. And for every blogger with the insight of Salam Pax, hundreds have the credentials of Joe Wurzelbacher, a.k.a. Joe the Plumber, who was sent to cover the recent conflict in Gaza by the conservative Web-based Pajamas Media.
For many critics, this confederacy marks a sharp break with the time when the foreign correspondent was king. That bygone day is perhaps best captured in a romantic entry from the Chicago Tribune’s 1928 encyclopedia for readers: “If to this business of getting out a great daily newspaper there still clings any of the aura of romance which once surrounded all newspapers and all newspapermen, it is the foreign correspondents who get the greater share of it.”
In fact, American foreign reporting has been no more perfect throughout its relatively short history than it has been static. Correspondents failed to anticipate World War I, and weren’t quick to grasp what was going wrong in Vietnam. Colonel Robert McCormick, who oversaw the Tribune in 1928, made a roving correspondent out of a reporter who spoke nothing but English. “I don’t want my fine young American boys ruined by these damn foreigners,” McCormick explained. And when Victor Lawson began the Chicago Daily News experiment in foreign newsgathering, one of his first ideas was a column from London called “Queer Sprigs of Gentility.”
The continual experimentation needed to make the most of these new forms, as well as the old ones, will require a shift in the way we think about foreign coverage. Start with bureaus. The idea of placing correspondents in one location, where they develop expertise, has advantages. But there was never enough money to station a correspondent in every place where there was news.