Fixing the foreign correspondent web

March 18, 2009


How does the Internet affect the work of a foreign correspondent? That’s the question Andrew Stroehlein, a journalist and Communications Director for the International Crisis Group, discusses on the Reuters AlertNet blog. Andrew draws together a lot of current thinking and makes the point that it’s often impractical for a foreign correspondent to work effectively and monitor the Internet for relevant chatter about the story at the same time. He quotes Roger Cohen in the New York Times,

"You hear a great range of views about what you are writing, and some of those views can be exciting or interesting or lead you in new directions in terms of what you write and subjects you choose. My hesitation is that this is a temptation to somehow write into that noise and stir it further and be in the noise because it’s fun being in it, which I think can be a distraction."

In the 1990s, Mr. Cohen chronicled, in person, the horrors that accompanied Yugoslavia’s dissolution. Today, correspondents doing such work can find their time being sucked away by the profusion online of viewpoints and images and tweets from the scene, which multiply and demand attention. But keeping abreast of the Internet chatter is not the same as bearing witness.

"Instead of looking at a Bosnian village or hillside or being in a room with a group of concentration-camp survivors or bereaved women," Mr. Cohen said, "you would have just been staring at a screen and dealing with the rage of the Serbian diaspora in Munich or Los Angeles." link

This a definite problem. Journalists on the ground possibly with a shoddy Internet signal, no signal at all, no time to use the Internet, busy doing the job of journalism are still able to report effectively. The question is, what are they missing out on? Is there anything out there that could help the story along, a  contact, a blog post, a source on Twitter?

Let’s be honest, most journalists are still a very long way from having the skills needed to filter the Internet in any meaningful, efficient and targetted manner. Google Alerts is about as sophisticated as it gets in my experience. There are three options ahead as I see it.

a) journalists are required to learn these skills and use them.

b) they are given a custom RSS feed for the particular story they are working on and are required to follow it as they would email.

c) the job of monitoring and filtering the Internet is done ‘back at base’ by someone else who only forwards the important stuff to the journalist in the field.

A major part of really understanding how the Internet works and how to use it as an integral part of journalism involves getting into the culture of it. And that culture is not for everyone. However, if a very unscientific poll of all the online journalism trainees I’ve trained over the years is anything to go by each one finds something of interest, something they decide to stick with and explore and incorporate into their work. That might be a blog, Twitter, a social network, RSS, social bookmarks or even Yahoo Pipes. In my experience, journalists only stick with something if they can learn it quickly and find it genuinely useful almost immediately. In an effort to help the sceptical, here’s a special offer for the first three commenters below.

If there’s a particular beat, a place, a niche topic you cover in your work and want to see what the Internet can deliver, but are not quite sure how to go about it, leave a comment stating exactly what it is you want to follow and I will create a custom RSS feed for you with the proviso that you get back to me to tell me if it is of any use, if it helps you in your work, if it took you down a path you might have otherwise missed.

Meanwhile, if you work for the BBC and are at TV Centre next Wednesday at 1.30pm I’ll be giving a talk on Twitter for journalists.

Photo Dead Sea Newspaper by Inju


23 thoughts on “Fixing the foreign correspondent web”

  1. Saleem Khan says:

    It’s possible now to be out in the field and staring at the screen, getting real-time information and updates via wearable displays that project information on one’s eyeglasses. More is coming. We’re about to experience a shift in how we gather and report news.

  2. Graham Holliday says:

    That sounds kinda scary… Do you know any journalists who have used this? Could you put me in touch with them?
    TBH – I’m all for tracking news on the web, but when it comes to out and about journalism and esp. foreign correspondents I do think there’s a lot to be said for focussing attention solely on the offline stuff. Which is why I think the role of monitoring informations and sifting it might be better handled by the mothership and fed to the hack as and when appropriate.
    but with a generall lack of cash for news and foreign news in particular, I doubt the notion of an extra body in the newsroom is gonna fly. Maybe an extra skill added to a current body might tho?

  3. Interesting post. So far, my research confirms your thinking. As a little experiment, I’m currently making a bespoke RSS feed reader for a BBC journalist, who works in foreign affairs. At some point, I’ll let you know how he gets on: whether he uses it and how, if it all, it affects his journalism.

  4. writing a blog and reporting in the field seems like a natural thing to do from my point of view. It can be like a daily diary and useful way of taking stock of events and saying what you might not have had a chance to say in a radio two-way. i also use twitter in my job now. obviously when you are out and about, it would be stupid to be transfixed on a screen when things are happening around you.

  5. Graham Holliday says:

    Daniel, that’d be potentially very interesting to hear more how he got on. I set a couple of feeds up for some folk both of whom found them very useful. Hopefully, we’ll get a volunteer in here to guinea pig it for us in a ‘working environment’ Let’s see.

  6. Let’s face it: when out on assignment, you just don’t have the time to monitor all information, be it via the Internet or other sources – you don’t watch the TV newscasts you’re used to and can’t read the papers you usually read. And that’s even worse when you have no or just a very slow Internet connection and you’re happy when you succeed in filing your story. So help ‘back at base’ seems essential to me – sometimes an office manager or secretary or whatever this is called these days might be just the right person when instructed to forward certain mails or google alerts… Otherwise, be prepared to spent a lot of time and maybe money to keep track of all the info. Good luck.
    (If I should be no.3, I’d love a RSS feed that gives me info on Nato, EU, OEF and other multinational military engagements including anti-piracy. Be advised that trials with a google alert on “pirates” didn’t help at all – I got everything from software piracy to Ice hockey or baseball clubs…)

  7. Glenda says:

    My experience at my newspaper is that reporters working in the field (national stories, not international stories) like having a mobile tool to connect back to the office intranet, check their stories to see if they are accurate after they’ve filed it, and have the full MS Outlook phonebook on tap. Most are either equipped with Blackberry or Windows OS smartphones.
    But when it comes to the big international stories, there’s usually a work divide between the foreign correspondent who collates the information on the ground, and an online reporter back in the office who trawls through the net to get all the other stories/reactions coming out.
    So far, that seems to be because there’s just not enough time for the foreign correspondent to get back to the news desk/online desk on the other reaction pieces or stories while at the same time travelling to the location of the story or trying to conduct interviews on the ground.
    I do believe though that eventually, the two roles will merge as the newsroom shrinks. Some international bureaus will be cut, while the remaining correspondents will be expected to do all the work without the back-up of an online reporter or editor back at the head office.

  8. Graham Holliday says:

    Nina, I think writing a blog from the field is valuable but quite a different thing to following the story online – the two can be quite separate. I tend to agree with Thomas that it’s just not feasible in many situations especially to integrate into the working day. It’s almost like an add on to do as and when possible which is where support from ‘base’ might come in useful – a real time saver too.
    Thomas, you’re the first, not the third. Can we limit this to the Horn of Africa? or are you looking further afield?

  9. Graham, when it comes to piracy, we can limit this to the Horn of Africa 😉
    But the other stuff – nato, eu, oef operations, regardless of location: assume that is the difficult part…
    One more word on being embedded in the news flow you’re used to. To give an example: When I was in Djibouti last year for research on navies and anti-piracy, the Germans had no warships there, just MPAs. This led to the comfortable situation that I was staying in a hotel with fast, reliable Internet access and could act – including blogging – like I was sitting in my office. Had there been a warship, I’d had worked hard to stay on board – and boom, no permanent internet access, maybe mails to send and receive via the radio room… But of course I’d prefer being on board to staying ashore everytime. It’s just want you want to focus on.

  10. Graham Holliday says:

    OK. Horn of Africa it is, but piracy is kinda global,
    Give me a day or so.

  11. Looking forward to it…

  12. Ben Bland says:

    Hi Graham – I’ll happily take an RSS feed on Southeast Asian politics – you can narrow it down to Singapore, Malaysia or Vietnam (take your pick) if that makes life easier.
    At the moment, I spend a lot of time sifting through the net but do it in a very unstructured approach, without RSS, twitter, etc. That’s partly because I actually quite like reading blogs/news stories in their original format rather than via an RSS reader.

  13. Graham Holliday says:

    I think I used to work like that Ben, but these days I don’t subscribe to blogs at all really – just the odd work focused one and some friend’s blogs. It’s pretty much exclusively keyword feeds fed across the net.
    I’ll set something up for you asap. I may as well just make the feeds public in the comments, so other readers can see them. But, I’ll email you the feed anyhow.

  14. Graham Holliday says:

    Thomas try subscribing to the RSS feed for pirate news below:
    Rather than focus solely on EU, NATO, it’s focussed on the general story of pirates in or near Somalia. I figure a slightly more general feed is still niche enough not to drown you. The initial “grab” will no doubt turn up old news as well as new stuff. Let me know how you get on.

  15. Graham,
    tnx for the work. We’ll have to see how this works – so far the feed gave me news from September and October 2008, not the recent news… but I’ll keep you posted.

  16. Graham Holliday says:

    Yup, it should just take an initial “clear” before it kicks in. You’ll no doubt still get the odd freakish feed or old post, but you should also scoop up pretty much anything new.

  17. Graham Holliday says:

    Tweaked it Thomas to try and filter everything before 2009.

  18. Graham, before I leave on vacation, a quick assessment of how this feed works: I’m relying on the “somaliapirates” twitter feed, as the RSS output doesn’t show up on Bloglines, for whatever reason (tried re-subscribing a few times, but still getting the old stuff from 2008). Maybe that’s a Bloglines problem. Netvibes seems to work fine, and going to the Yahoo pipes feed directly in a browser is also ok. Think somebody should check this with an other feedreader (so far Bloglines is doing fine for me… but maybe with some feeds it just can’t cope?)

  19. Graham Holliday says:

    Yup, Bloglines along with a few other feed readers seems to have a blindspot when it comes to Yahoo Pipes generated feeds.
    I don’t think Twitter feed – – is the best way to receive it either. Up to a 30 mins delay. Netvibes is better – – as is Google Reader and the NetNewsWire application I generally use for feeds.
    Once I figure out how to “share” entire feeds from Google Reader that may be the best way forward.

  20. Simon says:

    Hi Graham,
    Great article, you just tweeted me a while ago. One thing I love about this is that it’s not only there to support journalists, it could actually save a lot of people as well. The utilisation of such a thing is something I really looking into.
    Anyway, I’ve created a couple of RSS feeds from google and a random Congo news site and the results were mixed (I ended up getting info about the Oscars….). So if you could help out, it would be immensely appreciated. Specifically I’m interested in human rights violations, NGOs, political response and so forth. Might well utilise pipes if need be?

  21. Graham Holliday says:

    Ok, thanks for getting back to me. I’ll try and get something set up, might not be this week, but prod me if you don’t hear from me. Cheers.

  22. Graham Holliday says:

    Simon, here you go
    I haven’t tested it yet, but please let me know how you get on. Have also fed it into a twitter feed if you prefer,
    Still working on yours Ben…

  23. Graham Holliday says:

    Ben, yours is a bit fiddlier as politics and a country name is still quite general. Try this for Singapore politics,
    The Twitter feed should start getting rid of the “rubbish” in a day or so,
    Looks like it might still pull in some stocks and shares info, but I’ll let it sit for a bit and check it in a few days to see how accurate it is.

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