Rethinking foreign reporting at the AP

People celebrate on October 20, 2011, after the announcement of Moammar Gadhafi's death. (FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

In October 2011, almost a year into the Arab Spring, Robert Reid, a regional editor for the Associated Press based in Cairo, received a call from his bosses: cut the staff in Libya. Rebels had seized the capital of Tripoli two months earlier. Moammar Gadhafi was in hiding. Previously, there had been at least AP three correspondents in Libya. Now there was one. As that last correspondent monitored rebel movements near the Tunisian border, Reid relied on a TV news producer and camera crew to follow developments in Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown. On October 20, with rebels pushing into Sirte, the producer got stuck on the east side of the city. Gadhafi fled west, before being captured and killed in a bloody street battle.

It was the kind of story made for the AP—a dictator killed by his own people—but one of the biggest wire services in the world had no reporter on the ground, and so couldn’t confirm his death for hours. “We should have had people on both sides of the city,” Reid now says.  

At the time, Reid was in the fifth decade of an award-winning career with the AP. “The AP had never hesitated,” he recalls of his experiences as a bureau chief in Cairo, Manila, Vienna, Baghdad, Berlin, and Kabul. “The attitude was always, ‘Forget the budget. We’ll find some way to pay for this.’ You didn’t get fired for going over-budget but for missing the story.” Most concerning, Reid adds, was the tone of the call from the New York desk. “It was the precipitous, almost no discussion reflex that bothered me most. The decision was really rammed down my throat.”

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Reid left the AP in 2014 and contrasts the coverage of Libya with the fall of the Shah in Iran three decades earlier. Then, the AP flew in three correspondents from other foreign bureaus, teaming up with two local reporters and translators, along with a radio reporter from Europe, another correspondent from an East Asia bureau, and photographers.

Reid, now a senior managing editor of Stars & Stripes, isn’t alone in his concerns about cost-cutting within the AP’s foreign press service. Current and former correspondents and bureau chiefs detail a litany of changes, including the shrinking of its global footprint as bureaus are quietly closed; the phasing out of the salaried “expat package” for correspondents; and the reliance on local stringers and staffers, who often are paid far less than full-time American correspondents once were.

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AP officials say the changes are necessary, and even beneficial, with the wire service using fewer expats in favor of local reporters with more on-the-ground expertise. For decades, the AP has been criticized for a colonialist reporting model, with well-paid, often Ivy League-educated reporters parachuting in to filter local events, and especially America’s many wars, through a uniquely Western lens. Meanwhile, local fixers, translators and stringers, who helped expat correspondents do their jobs, earned far less, with little status or influence over the narratives told about their countries.

AP officials say the dismantling of the two-tier labor system is a step forward for the wire service. “There are fewer expat packages than there used to, and that’s not a bad thing long term,” AP Executive Editor Sally Buzbee tells CJR.  “Local people who pursue a journalism career are now emerging as our most vibrant, and forward-looking correspondents.”

While the changes save money, they’re also part of a diversification and modernization strategy within the service. “Twenty years ago, we would have a white guy heading our Mideast operations, now we have a woman,” Buzbee says. “We are trying to be more modern in our staffing.” She later adds: “I get a little prickly that someone in the US thinks they should have a salary out of whack with the very talented people in the country where they are working. It doesn’t make sense for me to take an American, or plop a journalist with a generous salary in a foreign bureau. We have had an unequal system. It benefits the people who got expat packages, and suppresses the talent of those who didn’t. I admit it might be unfair for the people who aren’t getting expat packages anymore, but it was a two-tier system.” Later in the interview, she adds bluntly: “I think the old two–tier system sucked.”

 

The AP was founded in 1846, when five New York newspapers pooled their resources to cover the Mexican-American War. By World War I, as the US became a global power, the AP emerged as a global news organization, busting up an international news cartel dominated by the British, French, and German wire services. “The AP was a symbol of independent news gathering for Americans by Americans,” says John Maxwell Hamilton, author of Journalism’s Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting. “Here we are almost exactly 100 years later, and that media arm of a great American country is now under threat,” he says. “The old model is falling apart.”

During World War II, American correspondents often wrote singular profiles of American soldiers for publication in the pages of its small-town newspaper members. Contrast that with today, with the US at war, both officially and unofficially, in eight countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, and Niger—most of the coverage of these conflicts isn’t written by American correspondents anymore. In Kabul, there are no American correspondents working full-time in the bureau. The AP moniker as the “Marine Corps of Journalism,” for being the first in and the last out, simply no longer applies.

But for decades, the AP relied on a network of foreign bureaus staffed almost exclusively by Americans, and until the mid-1970s, that meant almost exclusively white men. (The AP named its first female bureau chief, Edie Lederer, in 1975, after facing an anti-discrimination lawsuit in 1973.) While the scale of the network was costly, it built AP’s reputation, and a brand identity tied to an almost ubiquitous worldwide reach. No one expected The New York Times to have a correspondent everywhere a coup might break out, Hamilton writes in his 2004 book, but they did expect the AP to be there.

 

The AP moniker as the ‘Marine Corps of Journalism,’ for being the first in and the last out, simply no longer applies.

 

With ubiquity came influence. The AP was the “de facto determiner of most of the international news that appears in the US press,” according to a 1996 Brookings Institution study. Such influence was expensive. The logistics of reporting in remote places—fuel, security, provisions, satellite phones, last-minute flights—weren’t exactly negotiable costs. And its labor costs weren’t either.  

Former AP staffer Bryan Mealer remembers a particularly expensive trip in 2005, as a coup broke out in Togo in West Africa. Mealer was working out of a rented house in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The AP wired several thousand dollars to him immediately to avoid a time-consuming flight through Paris. With the cash stuffed in his underwear, Mealer, along with a photographer, rented a speed boat and rode across the Congo River, then used a series of cars and small planes to reach Togo. “We were the first American reporters in town and the first to cover the coup,” recalls Mealer. “It’s expensive to cover war and the hidden costs are exponential. The AP can’t be at every coup and every conflict and every war anymore, we are seeing that now.”

Reid, too, recalls sympathetically the ballooning hotel bill in Tripoli, where price-gouging was rampant. But in the days when every daily newspaper in the US printed a robust international section—often running the same top three global stories reported by the AP—it was a profitable model.

 

The AP booked its best financial year ever a decade ago—posting revenue of $748 million and profits of $25 million in 2008. But since then, the AP has lost almost a quarter billion dollars in revenue, as newspapers have struggled financially. That set off the first of many departures from the AP cooperative, including the Tribune Company. Broadcast members soon followed. In 2010, CNN ended its agreement with AP in favor of Reuters. In early 2017, the BBC left, opting instead for a relationship with Agence France-Presse.

The AP’s revenues have continued to decline year over year, reaching a low of $510 million in 2017—a 32 percent drop in less than a decade. While the AP wouldn’t provide an updated member list, its web site says it now has “approximately” 1,300 news organization members, down from 1,400 in recent years.  “Our global footprint is enormously important to us,” Buzbee says. “It’s a huge differentiator for us. We are totally committed to it and have been able to protect it very well.”

The AP claims it reports from 254 locations, down from 263 as recently as 2016. But the robustness of that network has begun to change in significant ways—mainly with cuts in labor costs. The Puerto Rico bureau, for instance, once had a bureau chief, a news editor, and several expat correspondents, in addition to a Spanish-language operation of around ten people. Today, there is one staff correspondent inside the territory, Dánica Coto, who works out of her home, reporting to Michael Weissenstein, AP’s news director for the Caribbean, based in Havana. Says Buzbee: “The way we say it is we are in 250 locations in over 100 countries. In the vast majority of those locations, there’s a physical bureau. There might be a few places where people work from home and we put the money back in the news.” Few expat correspondents remain in Africa, where once more than a dozen or more regularly crisscrossed the continent. The AP offered this statement in lieu of details on its staffing levels Africa: “In addition to staff, AP also uses freelancers across Africa, some of them on a regular basis, such as Sam Mednick covering South Sudan. In addition to spot coverage, we’re focused on using our newsgathering budgets to boost deeper reporting from Africa.”

 

Unlike its competitors—Reuters, Bloomberg and Agence France-Presse—the AP has no shareholders, investors, governments, or single owner determining its fate. Instead, its customers own it. It operates as a not-for-profit cooperative, comprised of newspaper and broadcast members and governed by an elected board of directors. Immune from the profit-minded demands of other global wire services, the AP occupies a unique position: It doesn’t have to post significant profits; it only needs to break even, which it is doing, posting net profits of $1.6 million in 2016; in 2017, the AP reported a $74 million loss because of an accounting change.

Profits aren’t likely to come any easier in the future, especially as more of its newspaper members close. Meanwhile, labor remains the AP’s biggest cost and, therefore, the only place to effectively cut. In 2008, the AP spent $418 million on salaries and “labor-related” operating expenses, in addition to another $76.4 million in “assignment and coverage related” expenses.

In 2017, the AP spent $302 million paying employees, and another $21.5 million on stringers. That’s a significant contraction, with the AP’s foreign service suffering the biggest financial hit, insiders say. Unlike US-based staffers, who are protected under a union contract, AP’s foreign correspondents are not covered by any one contract, although some are covered by foreign union contracts. (Domestic staffers, unionized within the News Media Guild, have been in protracted negotiations for a new union contract. Talks stalled in October, and remain in flux.)

AP’s transition to local hires could have meant that local journalists finally might have been awarded with the status and benefits correspondents once enjoyed. But with management phasing out the so-called “expat package”—once a cushy journalism gig, with a base salary estimated between $80,000 and $100,000—the glory days of the foreign-service lifestyle are over.  Depending on location, the expat package often came with a housing allowance, in addition to health benefits, an education stipend for children, a cost-of-living allowance, sometimes even a driver. “Home leave,” which paid for airline tickets to the US every two years, was also commonplace.

Local journalists are paid less, and get fewer benefits, than expat correspondents once did. Locally hired journalists are often paid a little above the prevailing wage, which might be as low as $900 a month in a place like Kenya or as much as $50,000 a year, often with no guaranteed benefits. Such low pay comes despite the higher risks borne by AP’s local journalists.  

 

The dismantling of the two-tier system has created a new model for advancement within the AP. Jason Straziuso, formerly an AP bureau chief in Nairobi, recalls choosing between two job candidates—one a young American with a great resume, the other, Rodney Muhumuza, a Ugandan, who spoke two of the local languages, and had a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University. “If we had hired the American he would have lasted two or three years before he would have moved on in part because of the salary level,” he says. So, he hired Muhumuza, who remains a full-time correspondent for AP in Uganda today. “It was still a strong salary for Kampala, but it wasn’t as much as an expat would have commanded.”

By mid-2014, things changed for Straziuso, first when a request to interview the president of South Sudan was denied because the year’s travel budget had already been blown. Then a reporting trip with the humanitarian coordinator for the UN’s mission into south Somalia, where a 2011 famine had devastated the region, were scuttled. “I was told there was no money to fly to Mogadishu,” recalls Straziuso. “I was like, ‘What am I doing there?’” Straziuso realized he could no longer make autonomous travel decisions, and unless a specific travel proposal was approved, he was required to work out of the Nairobi bureau. “I told people I was a reporter by Twitter,” he recalls. “If something was happening in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, or in Kampala, or Somalia, the fact was I wasn’t there and had no way to get there. I frequently found myself digging through Twitter for photos or underground sources or reporting leads. I couldn’t travel anywhere as a reporter. It was no longer the same profession.”

In December 2014, Straziuso left for a senior writer position with the International Committee of the Red Cross, and now lives in Geneva. In an interview, he vacillated between praise for the AP and cynicism about his 15-year career there. “We sent out news alert 27 minutes faster than Reuters, who the fuck cares?” he says. “I used to read 100 AP stories a day, and when you are in the news service, you live in this illusion that the world revolves around you and your story, and how fast you should get it out. I don’t think AP’s network, in terms of information relay, is globally necessary anymore. People in Kansas City, if they want national news, can get it online from The New York Times or The Washington Post, or The Daily Kenyan. That’s not to diminish the value of the AP reporters and ecosystem. I just don’t think it’s needed in the way it was once.”

While the AP, operating in a new era of financial constraints, cannot cover every coup, it remains a robust news operation. The AP has five Pulitzer Prizes in International Reporting. An 18-month-long investigative report published in 2016 won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, and also led to the freeing of more than 2,000 slaves within the global shrimp industry. In Yemen, reporting by AP correspondents prompted an investigation by international and local aid groups into the humanitarian crisis. It has exposed the abuses of women in Pakistan, in a series on honor killings. More recently, in an in-depth series, The Missing, the AP set out to count the number of dead and missing migrants worldwide since 2014. The AP’s Eric Talmadge, the AP bureau chief in Pyongyang, regularly reports from inside North Korea—the only Western journalist to do so.

Chris Tomlinson, who spent 11 years as a correspondent in Africa, including as an East Africa correspondent and bureau chief in the early 2000s, defends the shift to local reporters. “Ninety percent of the time, they do as good a job as when we had a bunch of Americans and Brits,” says Tomlinson, who now works at the Houston Chronicle as a business columnist. “I get upset when people automatically assume that a local person is not as good as an American. Yes, the AP is cheap, yes, they are slashing spending and foreign correspondent positions, and bringing people home as fast as they can to end those expatriate hires, but that doesn’t necessarily mean these locally hired people aren’t as good. There’s something deeply colonial about the idea that only someone born in American can write a foreign news story for an American audience. I’m not sure who we are insulting more, our readers or the people who live in these countries.”In Nairobi, Kenya, Straziuso, who climbed the traditional trajectory of a foreign correspondent within the AP system—internship in Paris, stints in Jackson, Mississippi, Philadelphia, and New York City, then on to Kabul for three years—was never replaced by another print-trained reporter. In a break with AP tradition, a photographer, Ben Curtis, was eventually named to the post. “We were the last generation to do this,” Straziuso says. “It doesn’t exist anymore. It did for a long time. It prepared people for what the AP system wanted and needed out of them. The training system that the AP provided has not been replicated and is a huge loss for journalism.”

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UPDATE: This story has been updated to correct the date of an anti-discrimination lawsuit against the AP, to correct to reflect that AP is not the only wire service with a bureau in Pyongyang, and to clarify references to AP staffing in Baghdad and Africa.

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Mya Frazier is a business and investigative journalist based in Columbus, Ohio.