The Foreign Correspondent in 2013

You’ve got until 2013. At the Media Re:Public conference in Los Angeles last month Solana Larsen threw out this provocative statement,

In 2013, there will be no foreign correspondents link

Or rather… not foreign correspondents as we have known them. We’ve discussed a possible future for them before – basically one that is economically feasible, given cheap technology and the internet. It’s a vision of the future that CNN and ABC are running with. And it’s a future foreign correspondent Caryle Murphy appears to accept as inevitable on the Britannica blog,

For one, being a foreign correspondent today means being a Jill-of-all trades, adept at interviewing, reporting, videotaping, audio recording, snapping photos, and using software to edit photos, sound, and video… link

She doesn’t believe this multi-skilled approach means that we’re about to see the imminent demise of the foreign correspondent as a species,

I do not believe, however, that the foreign correspondence profession will disappear. If anything, correspondents are needed more than ever because the world has gotten so complex and so small. Only someone on the spot can provide the context and background that curious readers need in order to fully understand what is happening in far-flung places. link

For Solana’s part, she’s pretty convinced that it’s “qualified locals” – much like the ones she helps aggregate at Global Voices Online – who are the real future of foreign correspondence. “Qualified locals” are, if you like, Carlyle Murphy’s “someones on the spot” and they don’t demand a salary, but they quite like being listened to. Solana continues,

How many more years will we have to watch foreign correspondents parachute into a region and pretend they know what’s going on? How many more reports coming out of the Middle East from hotel rooftops will be delivered by people who do not speak Arabic, or know what “the Green zone” in Iraq was called before coalition forces arrived?
Sooner or later, qualified local perspectives will become what people prefer to hear, rather than what editors defer to when a situation becomes too dangerous for Western journalists to report from. It’s wrong not to have news from a faraway place, simply because there is no longer money to fly foreign correspondents there. link

The voices that Global Voices Online aggregate are those of bloggers. However, as Solana’s colleague Ethan Zuckerman admits on the Open Source radio podcast, bloggers, and particularly bloggers in developing nations, almost by definition only represent the “middle class”. The theory being, for example, if you’re a Kenyan in Kenya writing a blog you not only have access to a computer and the internet, you also have the time to blog. Someone working three jobs is unlikely to find the time to blog, argues Ethan.
For all the potentials for change blog publishing offers, in a way Ethan’s vision is a scary reflection of traditional media. Blogs allow us to hear more and different voices, but we’re still relying on a middle class perspective. The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade pondered the dominance of middle class students on journalism training schemes and how economics dictates that only the middle classes can currently afford to pursue a career in journalism,

Journalism cannot truly reflect society when most entrants are middle class graduates who have parents wealthy enough to fund their post-grad university courses link

And as one of the many commenters on Roy’s post adds,

Unless you come from the kind of privileged background where money will never be a worry, why sign up for a career that offers such meagre rewards?… even into middle age, only a handful of journalists on regional papers can hope to earn much more than £25,000 a year… It’s no surprise, then, that the only people signing up are the Luciens and Lucindas who have daddy to pay the bills and an uncle on the executive floor to take care of promotion. link

So, if blogs are the realm of the middle class, journalism is increasingly the realm of the middle class, are we chasing a journalistic utopia that never existed anyway and in any event is unlikely to exist anytime soon or ever? Middle class or otherwise, Charlie Beckett enters the comments on Ethan’s blog to defend the need for foreign correspondents who do not necessarily come from the places they are reporting from,

It can be bad when a journalist jumps in and out of a situation but sometimes you need to do that. There aren’t ‘local’ journalists ready to spring in to action everywhere. Networks like Global Voices are valuable but I don’t want to rely on them for all my foreign news coverage. Of course, media organisations should always be integrated in to local sources. But there is also the value of an experienced analyst/reporter who can compare situations or give a non-local perspective. In the end, the best coverage is a mixture – it’s what I call Networked Journalism. link

Frontline Club regular and BBC Global News man Richard Sambrook agrees the role of the foreign correspondent needs to change, but he stops well short of saying it’s a role that will disappear altogether – even by 2013,

I agree the model of Foreign Correspondent is becoming rapidly outdated and needs re-inventing, not least to have authenticity with the subject which is lacking from many blow-dried parachute journalists. link

Bill Thompson, a journalism teacher and digital pundit, agrees with Solana,

The idea of the ‘foreign correspondent’… is a relic of a pre-network age. As the internet spreads there are more and more places where we can simply ask those who are living through the events what they think of them and seek insights and analysis from those who know the people and the places involved. This change will ripple through the newsgathering departments of every major media company, and it may not be welcomed everywhere, but it is one of those big changes that is obvious once it is pointed out to you. link

Perhaps, as Mark Jones another Frontline Club regular points out on the Reuters Editor’s blog, the future is bright for journalism. It won’t be radically different, as far as the journalistic skill set goes, but journalists will be expected to follow many more potential sources than previously and find effective ways to filter and verify those sources,

A straw poll of those present [at the Media Re:Public conference] showed near unanimity in the view that the future was bright for journalism. So how do you square this circle? There wasn’t a huge amount of discussion but the notion of ‘networked journalism’ with professionals working closely with amateurs and experts was one that was mentioned. link

If you need any impetus to start thinking about the future for foreign correspondents and why it is important – watch the short video below about the failings of US mainstream media.