News orgs succeed with fresh approach to international coverage

In early 2015, The Guardian’s correspondent in Cairo, Patrick Kingsley, found his reporting was taking him far beyond Egypt. Investigating human trafficking naturally led him where the smuggler’s networks did—toward Europe. The deeper he looked, the more he found himself developing sources and expertise on an emerging theme, migration, rather than a place, Egypt.

Jamie Wilson, The Guardian’s head of international news, had noticed the same thing. Six months before the refugee crisis exploded across the world’s front pages, several of his reporters around the Mediterranean were starting to see evidence of a vast story emerging around migration. “Every time I talked to a correspondent in Europe or in the Middle East, it was always the first thing they talked about,” Wilson says. That February Wilson gave Kingsley a new title, Migration Correspondent, and told him to go wherever the story took him for the next year. Wilson devoted additional resources for travel. He estimated the reporting costs of a thematic approach could be two or three times higher than traditional coverage, but felt that the story’s scale warranted it.

“I think Jamie felt that migration is something transnational. It can’t be covered by the Egypt correspondent, the Libya correspondent,” Kingsley said by phone while on assignment in Greece last month. “A Brussels correspondent might know all about what the bureaucrats are doing in terms of policy. They have no idea how those policies are working on the ground.” 

The Guardian is hardly the first news organization to define a foreign correspondent’s beat around an issue rather than a region. Science, health, and environmental reporting have often brought an international lens to thematic coverage. Fashion reporters fly to Milan, sports reporters travel with athletes, and entertainment reporters, the lucky ones, can pitch their editors trips to wherever the most important film festival is that year.

Over the past two years, a handful of news organizations say they have found success organizing a portion of their international coverage by topic rather than region, reflecting the transnational nature of many of today’s biggest stories. As phenomena like mass migration, terrorism, climate change, the rise of nationalist political movements, and internet security and privacy rise in prominence, their global nature demands a different kind of correspondent. Stovepiping a reporter covering counterterrorism in Washington from the one covering AFRICOM in Nairobi could mean missing something a Global Terrorism correspondent might do more efficiently, connecting dots across seemingly distant posts from DC to Mosul to Berlin.

But news desks have classically defined the foreign correspondent’s role geographically. BuzzFeed’s Jina Moore, who had freelanced as a traditional “Africa correspondent” for more than a decade, became the website’s international women’s rights correspondent in 2013. Based first in Nairobi and now in Berlin, Moore has covered stories as far-flung as reproductive rights in Poland, domestic violence in China, and the UN response to rape cases in South Sudan.

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BuzzFeed’s experiment with Moore, which predated The Guardian’s re-assignment of Kingsley, grew out of the site’s coverage of marriage equality legalization, a major story around the world in 2012. Led at the time by J. Lester Feder, described in his BuzzFeed bio as “a world correspondent” based in Washington, DC, the close coverage of gay marriage across distant parts of the world became a template for covering stories that resisted geographic focus, and “led to thematic coverage,” at BuzzFeed, says Moore. Editor Ben Smith, she says, wanted to experiment, and women’s rights seemed like “the next fruitful area.” BuzzFeed’s approach to the reader for much of their international coverage, she says, is to de-emphasize datelines in favor of themes. “We’re not going to take as an entry point that ‘this is a story about Congo,’” she says. Rather, it’s a story about public health, for example, that in this case may take place in Kinshasa.

At both The Guardian and BuzzFeed, the shift to covering international news across national borders can demand reporters work harder to focus their beats, which no longer boil down to “report what happens in Brazil.” It also risks marginalizing stories, turning a theme into an easily-dismissed niche. Moore draws a distinction between her beat and the now-aging concept of a “vertical,” a stream of coverage organized around topics that get so broad they become meaningless, like “women” or “environment.” Rather, her beat puts her on the same breaking stories a traditional correspondent would cover, but with an assignment to fit it into a larger, ongoing theme. “One way to do a job like this is to say, ‘Let’s do all the women’s news in the world,’” says Moore. “But, another is, ‘What’s the women’s rights angle on the biggest news in the world?’”

Looking for the women’s rights angle on the big stories, rather than a niche view of international women’s news, has meant BuzzFeed’s thematic coverage overlaps with other beats more often than a traditional regional correspondent’s beat might. Much of Moore’s coverage in the past year has focused on migration and refugee news, though with a closer focus on the experiences of women than The Guardian’s 20-something Kingsley, whom Moore collegially refers to as “young Patrick,” devotes to migration.

For example, Moore travelled to Cologne to write about how allegations of sexual assault pitted German citizens against recent immigrants. She also went to Greece, where she reported that a new wave of refugees likely to be affected by a controversial international agreement included more women and children than an earlier wave, which included a greater number of young men. Other organizations have experimented with the idea in limited ways, as have countless freelancers, who have realized that specializing in themes like conflict, health, and human rights can serve as a useful professional calling card.

Covering the world in a decentralized way does mean greater costs amid shrinking budgets, says Wilson, the Guardian international editor. “There’s no doubt the Patrick [Kingsley] model is expensive. You couldn’t have 20 or 30 people flying around doing this sort of thing,” he says. He added that the paper continues to rely primarily on traditional regional correspondents, though they too often lean toward thematic coverage rather than the daily news of a capital or nation. “We still have a Paris-based correspondent, but she has spent most of her time on terrorism,” Wilson says. The Guardian is also assigning a reporter to cover Brexit-related topics, he says, and considering copying the migration experiment as other transnational themes emerge. “Nationalism, the role of Russia in Eastern and Central Europe, [and] the erosion of the rule of law across eastern Europe,” says Kingsley, naming other themes he could imagine working as well as migration has. 

Swedish Radio named a migration correspondent, Alice Petrén, last November, according to a press release from the network. But so far, Kingsley is mostly alone on his beat. He says he’d like to continue working as a foreign correspondent by topic, rather than region. “It’s given me this amazing overview of the roots as well as the politics. I was on the ground in Libya when [European Council President] Donald Tusk and Angela Merkel and David Cameron were coming up with a policy to smash the smugglers—who I’d just been talking to. You could see immediately that this will be a car crash.”

Building a story across countries is a luxury, says Moore, but also requires more work. She’s covering at least half of humanity, anywhere on Earth that her editors are willing to send her. It’s not as simple as just looking for women’s rights issues in new places. “Any correspondent who files the same story from three places should be fired,” she says. 

But three stories from one place, just because it’s where the reporter lives, often doesn’t make sense either.

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Marc Herman is a reporter based in Barcelona. He is the author of The Wizard and the Volcano, The Shores of Tripoli, and Searching for El Dorado, and a co-founder of Deca.