The foreign desk in transition

March 2, 2015
Photo: John Vink / Magnum photos

When The Washington Post’s new owner, Jeff Bezos, met the newsroom for the first time in September of 2013, he mentioned two recent Post stories that he’d found particularly intriguing.

The first was a human-interest feature on the death of a bouncer, the kind of richly descriptive narrative that has been a Post hallmark for decades. But Bezos’ other favorite was something of a surprise: a 2,800-word piece published in the Post’s foreign affairs blog, headlined “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask.”

Conceived and reported in Washington by a Post digital journalist, and written for an online audience, the Syria piece addressed readers in a conversational tone rarely, if ever, used in traditional foreign reporting. If you “aren’t exactly sure why Syria is fighting a civil war, or even where Syria is located,” wrote blogger Max Fisher, “this is the article for you.” No need to feel embarrassed, he continued. “What’s happening in Syria is really important, but it can also be confusing and difficult to follow even for those of us glued to it.”

Even without the newsroom plug from Bezos, “9 questions” was already grabbing attention inside and outside the Post. “9 questions” got over three million pageviews on WorldViews, the foreign news blog that is one of the paper’s main experiments in international digital journalism. Compare that to the potential audience for a top international story in the print newspaper: About 475,000 subscribers receive it, and on a good day a single foreign desk article might get another 100,000 pageviews online.

So, is “9 questions” the future of international news: breezy, digital-first, and written by someone in an office thousands of miles from the scene? Perhaps the best answer is, it’s a piece of the hybrid that is foreign news reporting today at the Post and other mainstream organizations committed to serious international coverage.

In at least two legacy newsrooms, The Washington Post and The New York Times, journalists who don’t leave the office are daily contributors to the foreign report, aggregating, curating, and yes, doing original reporting—for WorldViews at the Post, and for The New York Times’ Open Source column by Robert Mackey.

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Their varied labels—blog, column—hint at the uncertainty that hangs over traditional foreign desks in this transitional age. Each of those digital features offers interesting, innovative reporting. Each is part of mainstream media’s push to expand international reporting beyond the traditional foreign correspondent model and appeal to more online readers. But whether these new models will prove as durable as the traditional one depends on factors that foreign desks didn’t have to worry about in the past: Can they draw a strong, sustainable audience? And can they play a part in resolving the economic crisis that has caused so many mainstream organizations to axe their foreign bureaus?

Shuttered bureaus

Between 1998 and 2011, at least 20 US newspapers and other media outlets eliminated all their foreign bureaus, according to American Journalism Review (ajr). Elsewhere, the number and size of those bureaus of have shrunk dramatically.

Among newspapers, The Wall Street Journal still has the largest international reporting division, with correspondents in 49 countries, followed by The New York Times. Wire services are much larger. The Associated Press has correspondents in over a hundred countries, while Bloomberg has correspondents in 73 countries.

The Washington Post currently has 21 foreign correspondents in 15 countries. That’s down from a time, 15 years or so ago, when the paper kept 20 bureaus staffed across the globe. But the international staff is no longer limited to correspondents based in foreign bureaus. In the mid-2000s, as many newsrooms sought new ways to engage online audiences, the Post hired videojournalist Travis Fox for a new kind of Web-only foreign reporting—new at least for a traditional newspaper.

Fox traveled around the world producing long, feature-length pieces for the Web. His stories were fully reported, beautifully shot videos. Such work is costly to sustain, though, and like many other print organizations experimenting with video, the Post determined the cost was not yielding the advertising or the online audience it had expected. After Fox’s departure in December of 2009, wire services became the main source of video for foreign stories on the Post’s website, with some contributions from the paper’s own correspondents in the field.

Enter the blog

By 2012 online innovators at mainstream media were focused on blogs as a key to attracting new audiences looking for specialized material or faster dispatches on breaking news. The Post and other big newspaper websites were hosting dozens of blogs on a wide range of topics. The international blog that eventually became WorldViews began in 2012. “We wanted to offer readers an opportunity to consume foreign news in a different way,” said Douglas Jehl, the paper’s foreign editor, “one intended to complement the remarkable work being delivered by our foreign correspondents.”

Post correspondents were encouraged to contribute to the new blog. But not many leaped at the idea. “I felt some skepticism about writing for the foreign blog at first,” said Kathy Lally, the Post’s bureau chief in Moscow at that time. “Not philosophical questions but practical ones: How much time it would require was the main question.”

Lally’s reaction has been a common one wherever mainstream media have informed staff reporters—including foreign correspondents—that their jobs now included writing for the Web. The push to move from a legacy schedule to a 24/7 one inevitably meets resistance. “The habits and traditions built over a century and a half of putting out the paper are a powerful, conservative force as we transition to digital,” noted an internal New York Times report on newsroom innovation that was leaked last year.

In its earliest days, the Post’s foreign news blog depended on fairly sporadic field reports, supplemented by Web producers working in Washington. It was not the most auspicious start. But that changed with the arrival of Max Fisher, the blog’s first full-time staff writer, in September of 2012 just a month before the experimental blog was to officially launch as WorldViews. Fisher had never been a foreign correspondent and did not travel for his pieces, but he wrote daily about breaking news abroad. His sources included Post foreign correspondents, as well as other news sites, social media, and video from public sources like YouTube.

Fisher developed a facility for synthesizing analysis from public data and previously reported stories—all while remaining in Washington. The result could be both serious and entertaining, like debunking widespread rumors that Kim Jong Un had fed his uncle to hungry dogs. Although at times sensational and occasionally controversial, Fisher probably became best known for explainer posts like “40 maps that explain the world,” which were drawing a tremendous number of readers to the blog, and thus, to The Washington Post. In 2013, the Post had over 50 blogs, and WorldViews ranked among the top five in pageviews. Fisher left the Post in 2014, but now the blog has two full-time writers. “The conversational, explanatory tone that WorldViews employs has proven to be enormously appealing, by being timely, smart, and fun, all at the same time,” said foreign editor Jehl, who worked as a traditional correspondent for 19 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Jehl tells his correspondents that there is not much difference between what they’ve done traditionally and what the blog demands: short pieces told with a distinctive voice.

At the heart of the digital transition, though, is this essential factor in building a global audience: speed. In the past, a foreign correspondent typically faced one daily deadline. Today, the idea of having an entire day to report a breaking news story sounds luxurious, as then-Moscow correspondent Lally explained in an email interview in April 2014. “The other day I covered Vladimir Putin’s annual televised, phone-in question-and-answer session with the Russian nation,” she wrote. “It went on for four hours. I filed a short story after the first hour and missed some things he was saying while I was writing and filing.”

Lally went on to write the main story that led the Post’s website and the next day’s paper. Meanwhile, the WorldViews blog published even more dispatches, covering both the quirky and the newsy items of the speech in close to real time. These were written by WorldViews bloggers in Washington with email feeds from Lally in Moscow. On a breaking news story, that kind of multiple filing, by both Lally and the bloggers, is essential to grab readers who want to know, right now, what’s happening. The blog offers a platform to publish a story, even if it’s still fragmented and developing.

When Israel launched airstrikes near Damascus in May 2013, YouTube videos became a primary and immediate source for news. In the old newspaper model, the Post and other publications would have worked on a story about this attack for the next day’s edition. But in the hybrid newspaper-digital model of today, the Post’s Beirut bureau put together a story that incorporated the YouTube video, which was already widely circulating on Twitter, added some reporting context, and posted it within hours.

The increased emphasis on speed evokes fears among traditional newsroom editors, who see the need to file and publish fast as a challenge to accuracy. It doesn’t have to be. A successful news operation can post a sentence or few paragraphs of news based on what the reporter knows and then gradually add to it throughout the day. It’s what wire services have done for decades—though today, in traditional print newsrooms, it’s known as digital-first reporting.

Over time, the Post’s foreign correspondents have become more active contributors to WorldViews. Almost all embrace the opportunity the blog offers to tell stories in a more informal voice. Or they may pass on ideas for stories that are big news in the countries they cover.

The Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan’s stories describing wars and conflicts from Sana’a to Baghdad have appeared on the front pages of The Washington Post many times. But in a blog post following the harrowing Nairobi Mall attack in September 2013, he wrote for WorldViews in the first person, connecting with readers on a personal level, while still describing the horror on the ground—a combination that the traditional article format doesn’t allow.

Defining the future

In 2014, when Will Englund was covering the Maidan anti-government protests in Ukraine, the Post asked him to capture some video from the scene.

Englund is 61 and has a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. He and Lally, his wife, shared the Moscow bureau job at the time, which included covering the unrest in Ukraine. Englund had done video before from Nagorno-Karabakh, site of a long-running conflict dating back to the Soviet era, but he was far from an experienced videographer.

In Kiev, he used a Canon point-and-shoot camera that the Post gives to all of its foreign correspondents. It helped, he said, that the Maidan square was “always extremely photogenic.” He filed the audio recording of his narration separately, and the sound and images were put together by one of the dozens of video editors the Post has hired in recent years. Englund’s video from Kiev conveyed the Maidan scene in a way that words alone could not.

Lally and Englund, who now work as Post editors in Washington, both became important contributors to WorldViews while they worked overseas. Still, both missed the “good old days” of traditional newspaper foreign correspondence. “It can be satisfying to be quick with a story, but it’s not terribly rewarding,” said Englund. “And being enslaved by the Web hugely reduces our ability to explore and dig and do the other acts essential to quality journalism.”

Englund suggested that the Post leave more international breaking news coverage to wire service reports, giving the paper’s foreign correspondents time to explore deeper stories. “I believe the Post would be more valuable, and readable, if it moved away from hourly hard news, rather than trying to stay on top of it,” he said.

The debate on the shape of the mainstream foreign desk in the digital era is ongoing. Right now, the Post and other newsrooms are working with a hybrid blend of traditional correspondents and in-house bloggers, urging them to cooperate and complement each other’s work to create a fresh, constantly updated foreign report. But even with the increased US and international audience drawn by WorldViews, it’s impossible to say whether this formula—or something not yet tried—will be the long-term foreign-desk model.

A recent move at The New York Times signaled a rethinking of the blog approach there. The paper ended or merged about half of its blogs in 2014, including two with an international focus: India Ink and The Lede. India Ink was less than three years old and relied on freelance contributions, as well as postings by the paper’s correspondents in the country. The Lede often focused on breaking international stories. Those are now being covered in Open Source, written by Robert Mackey, who previously wrote The Lede.

Open Source is akin to a blog, though the Times does not identify it as one, and Mackey’s reporting for it draws on social media updates from Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube videos. In an interview in June, Times assistant managing editor Ian Fisher said, “We’re going to continue to provide bloggy content with a more conversational tone. We’re just not going to do [it] as much in standard reverse-chronological blogs.”

The Times’ change may reflect a growing trend: Most digital readers find content through search and social, rather than by seeking out the homepage of dedicated platforms. Yet, even digitally native publications such as Quartz and Buzzfeed have launched features focused on India, and The Wall Street Journal continues to maintain several of its international blogs, including ones that report on China and India.

These blog experiments are reminders that much in the world of digital media remains just that: experimentation. They are also evidence of just how much international reporting has evolved—from an era only a few years ago when the emphasis was on rich, resource-intensive multimedia storytelling, to a time when newsrooms are struggling to find less costly ways of engaging a wider audience to meet their advertising goals.

The digital natives

The statistics on closings of traditional foreign bureaus are grim, but they do not tell the whole story. Digitally native sites like GlobalPost, created in 2009 to cover international news for a largely US audience, have filled some of the gap. GlobalPost has over 50 correspondents filing regularly from around the world.

Over the past year or so, at least three other digital natives expanded their foreign news coverage: Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Vice, each of which has hired journalists whose role looks a lot like that of a traditional foreign correspondent.

Perhaps the most surprising of these newcomers is BuzzFeed, a site once known primarily for viral listicles. BuzzFeed’s newly minted commitment to covering hard news from around the world has already made it a competitor, with in-depth reporting from Caracas, Kiev, and other hot spots last year. With more than 160 million unique visitors, BuzzFeed is among the top 10 most-visited news websites in the United States, though it’s not clear how many of those visitors are reading the international dispatches. In mainstream newsrooms, some have treated the site’s foray into foreign reporting with a certain disdain.

Peter Preston, former longtime editor of The Guardian, is one skeptic. “There’s nothing wrong with angles, twists, listicles,” he wrote in The Guardian. “If they encourage readers, that’s great. If they make money, that’s great too. But they are not salvation for battling reporters in the depths of Africa, doing stories that matter to them and their communities.”

Preston’s critique makes BuzzFeed’s foreign desk sound almost as frivolous as its cat videos. It’s not. When it announced it would cover foreign news, the site hired respected ex-Guardian Moscow correspondent Miriam Elder, who then recruited reporters to cover Egypt, Syria, Russia, Ukraine, and other current news centers. Following a fresh $50 million investment in August, Buzzfeed announced its plans to open offices in Japan, Germany, Mexico, and India.

All of this begins to sound like new media copying legacy media—at the same time that legacy foreign desks are trying to adapt to the new world of digital. “I’m not sure there is much difference—at the end of the day, the reporting we do is a lot more traditional than I think a lot of people would expect,” Miriam Elder told me. “It’s about making and meeting sources, making phone calls, finding the news, breaking the news.”

There are fundamental differences, of course. BuzzFeed began life as a purveyor of viral entertainment, and fluff and sensation still dominate its homepage (you’re far more likely to access its international reporting from your social feeds). But as a digital native, BuzzFeed definitely has an edge in solving the biggest conundrum in the new world of journalism: How do you attract an audience?

Social-friendly headlines are one key to audience engagement. The Post and other mainstream newsrooms are still catching up to BuzzFeed, Upworthy, and other digital natives that know how to maximize clicks and shares with head-turning headlines. The Post now shares detailed visual presentations with national and international correspondents, to show how lead-ins that read like social headlines can grab attention. (“Headlines are the new nut grafs” is a line we at the Post hear frequently at digital workshops for our reporters.)

Also key is the need to rethink the traditional US newspaper definition of audience. With few exceptions, papers were local institutions, serving the community where they published. The internet lets us reach well beyond traditional print circulation areas, but it doesn’t tell us how best to do that. “If we are going to continue to expand our readership, as we must do in a digital world, growing those national and international audience will be crucial to our success,” said Jehl.

Again, digital natives like BuzzFeed may have a psychological advantage, at least, in their instinctive understanding that audiences are now global. That has led BuzzFeed to a new approach in assigning beats. Globalization and the internet mean that “someone who lives in an urban center in Russia or Uruguay or Vietnam can have more in common with each other than with other people in their own countries,” said Elder. So instead of making all foreign beats based on geography, Elder has created some “thematic beats,” like international women’s rights. Women’s rights correspondent Jina Moore literally travels the world to write about how women became players in Rwanda’s politics, about Brazil’s decision to pay reparations for maternal death, and about abuse in Iraqi prisons.

The thematic approach is key to engaging a broad global audience, said BuzzFeed deputy foreign editor Paul Hamilos, in an interview with “You’re not going to grow a news organization if you only think of your English language readers in your home country,” he said.

In the “good old days,” mainstream outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post set the agenda for foreign news in the United States. In the digital era, their authority as agenda-setters is shared with others, and some of the digital natives may end up showing them important new paradigms for foreign reporting.

The newcomers still have a lot to prove, though. Their commitment to news, unlike that of mainstream media, is a new phenomenon. Will they still be in the foreign news business a decade from now? It’s hard to say—just as it’s impossible to predict the shape of the traditional newsroom’s foreign desk 10 years down the road.

Anup Kaphle is the digital foreign editor at The Washington Post