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.
Even in earlier eras, correspondents typically traveled quite a bit from their home base. Today’s correspondents are even more mobile, and can quickly reach a breaking story almost anywhere. The ease of travel has made it desirable to think of correspondents as issue experts as much as place experts. After September 11, 2001, for example, the Washington Post’s Berlin reporter ranged widely as a terrorism correspondent; its two London correspondents reported on the transnational issues of migration, religion, and global digitalization. (This, too, was foreseen by Seymour Topping: “[S]taffers who have specialized knowledge and experience will be moved with increasing frequency across bureau lines.”)
The trick now is to set up support networks for peripatetic correspondents. Broadcasters have begun placing reporters, camera staff, fixers, and producers at strategic locations around the world. abc took this further in 2008 by opening one-person bureaus in seven cities, including New Delhi, Jakarta, Dubai, and Nairobi. Most of the work of these bureaus is done for the network’s Web site, but they provide a newsgathering foundation when a big story breaks.
A second thing that needs rethinking is the for-profit model. This worked well enough when all news came in a few mass-media packages, such as a paper or nightly broadcast, which was underwritten by advertisers who wanted to reach as many people as possible. Readers and viewers who didn’t want foreign news got some anyway, along with the stuff they did want. But with the unbundling of news, the audience and the advertisers have migrated to whichever niches suit them best. Needless to say, this has imperiled all traditional news delivery. Yet foreign news is especially ill-served, because it is the most expensive to produce and has the smallest audience. To subsidize it, we must devise new strategies.