The Demise and Rise of the Foreign Correspondent

“The trench coated foreign correspondent as Gregory Peck played him in the movies is suddenly almost extinct”

So began Christopher Lydon on the Open Source podcast in February, 2007 in reponse to the closure of three foreign bureaus of the Boston Globe. The Globe cutbacks followed the axing of foreign staff across the Daily Telegraph. All in all, 2006 through 2007 has seen something of a Foreign Correspondent cull. Ethan Zuckerman listed the sorry stateside state of affairs and Jill Carroll catalogued the economics,

“An average newspaper foreign bureau costs between $200000 and $300000 a year”… “bureaus in war zones cost a lot more, as security can cost more than the salary and housing for the journalists.”

Later that same month, Pamela Constable at The Washington Post responded to the gloomy tally in a column lamenting the “Demise of the Foreign Correspondent”,

“Between 2002 and 2006, the number of foreign-based newspaper correspondents shrank from 188 to 141… In an effort to cut costs, newspapers are replacing bureaus — which require staffs and cars and family housing — with mobile, trouble-shooting individual correspondents. The erstwhile bureau chief in New Delhi or Cairo, chatting with diplomats over rum punches on the veranda, is now an eager kid with a laptop and an Arabic phrase book in her backpack.” link

If the beginning of the year brought grim tidings, the end shows some signs of an early revival aided and abetted by a few gizmos and the internet. In November this year, CNN announced big plans overseas,

“In the biggest expansion of international newsgathering resources in its 27-year history, CNN Worldwide today announced plans to significantly increase the number of correspondents worldwide… New operations are also planned for Afghanistan, Belgium, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland and Vietnam.” link

Then there’s ABC, who in October this year announced its commitment to solo multimedia journalism,

“After two decades of cutbacks in international bureaus, ABC News is bucking the trend by creating one-person operations that will dramatically boost its coverage in Africa, India and elsewhere. The small offices, staffed by a reporter-producer with the latest in hand-held digital technology, cost a fraction of what it takes to run a full-time bureau… The mini-bureaus are being opened in Seoul; Rio de Janeiro; Dubai; New Delhi and Mumbai, India; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Nairobi, Kenya.” link

And as we mentioned last week, Reuters have adopted Nokia technology to get reporters filing from the scene live in words, pictures and video. As Kevin Anderson, Guardian Blogs Editor, relates, it’s low cost technology that’s driving this,

[Reuters] decided to work on multi-horizon strategy, looking at what they could do right now, what they could do in the near future and aspirational things they might want to do a lot further down the line. Right now, the N95 takes 5-megapixel stills, near DVD-quality video and works on 3.5G data and WiFi networks. But [Elia] Ilicco [Mobile Product Manager Europe] is already looking to the future: “We see in five years, HD video, extremely powerful CPUs. You might say it’s a laptop, but it will still be a personal, mobile device.” link

While late 2006 and much of 2007 saw the demise in the number of foreign correspondents out in the field corresponding, with the aid of lighter, ever more mobile tools 2008 could well see the return of the foreign correspondent. And they’ll probably work in a not too dissimilar way to how Naka Nathaniel and Nicolas Kristof have worked since 2004. The contents of the correspondent’s suitcase will look a little different and he’ll be working across more media and delivering in a different way, but it appears the technological argument has caught up with the economic one. There will be teething troubles along the way, but the future appears to have arrived. I’ll leave the last word for ABC News President, David Westin,

“Technology now makes it possible for us to have bureaus without a receptionist, three edit suites and studio cameras.” link