A new kind of foreign coverage?

January 20, 2008

A year ago the Boston Globe newspaper closed its last three foreign bureaux. The closures followed the axing of four foreign correspondents from the Daily Telegraph in September 2006.

Writing in the Washington Post, Pamela Constable  summed up the misery: “Between 2002 and 2006, the number of foreign-based newspaper correspondents shrank from 188 to 141… Only four U.S. papers – the Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and The Washington Post – still keep a stable of foreign correspondents.”

With a typical foreign bureau costing $250,000 a year there are few newspapers willing to shoulder the financial burden. However, as we enter 2008, there is also the glint of a resurgence for overseas reporting.

In November 2007, CNN announced its biggest overseas expansion plans in its 27-year history. New bureaux are planned for Afghanistan, Belgium, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland and Vietnam.

At the same time, and after two decades of cutbacks, the ABC network announced it will “dramatically boost its coverage in Africa, India and elsewhere.” ABC will set up a number of mini one-man bureaus starting in Seoul, Rio de Janeiro, Dubai, New Delhi, Mumbai, Jakarta and Nairobi.

Meanwhile Reuters are experimenting with mobile multimedia reporting with equipment supplied by Nokia. Around 8-12 Reuters correspondents are currently using the N95 phone, microphone, fold-out keyboard, camera and tripod setup to file directly to the Reuters blogging platform. Unlike ABC, Reuters do not see this development as a replacement for existing bureaus.

“We’re more interested in enabling our network of text journalists to capture multimedia material and to get it to us fast for use on our websites,” said Mark H. Jones, Reuters Global Community Editor.This is an experiment and Jones lists some of the problems journalists in the field face: “Simply getting a reliable 3G signal, exorbitant roaming data costs, long upload time for videos and an alpha version of the upload tool”.

The BBC are also experimenting with new technology.  In the US presidential campaign BBC Radio News studio manager Lee Chaundy revealed that the The World This Weekend presenter Shaun Ley used the Comrex Access box to present live using his hotel’s wireless internet connection and VOIP technology. “If we’d used a satellite for the two days, it would have cost about £13,000. ISDN installations would have been around £500. [Broadcasting using the Comrex] cost us absolutely nothing,” he said in the BBC in-house magazine Ariel.

It seems the technology is now available at a cost that makes it economically viable for news organisations to buck the trend of recent years and start increasing foreign news coverage.
ABC News President, David Westin, said recently: “Technology now makes it possible for us to have bureaux  without  a receptionist, three edit suites and studio cameras.”

Adoption of new technology is often driven by bloggers. Software like Shozu.com  allows anyone with a blog to automatically publish photos to a blog. More recent innovations include  services like Qik.com  which allows anyone with a camera-phone to stream video live to the internet.

Journalists who once ditched their typewriters for computers might now be ditching those for a fold-out keyboard and mobile phone. But none of this changes the craft of journalism, just the delivery method.

As Neil McIntosh says on his blog completetosh.com: “There are fewer good journalists in this world than there are skilled users of blog software, which is why we’ve got to welcome the good journalists into the new world.”