This post is in reaction primarily to these works:
"Goodbye Gutenberg," Nieman Reports, Winter 2006 Issue
Jill Caroll, "Foreign News Coverage: The U.S. Media's Undervalued Asset," Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, Working Paper Series, Fall 2006, #D-39 (downloadable as PDF here). (NOTE: Jill's paper has been taken down temporarily from the Shorenstein website due to several errors. I am told that they will put it back up when the errors have been corrected.)
Ethan Zuckerman, "Are foreign correspondents going extinct? Or just changing their stripes?," My Heart's in Accra, Jan 26, 2007.
Michael Hirschorn, "Get Me Rewrite: A modest proposal for reinventing newspapers for the digital age," The Atlantic Monthly, December 2006 issue.
I was making my way through the latest issue of Nieman Reports with its cornucopia of articles about how the Internet is changing journalism - and that the change can be for the good if we make it so - when my friend Ethan Zuckerman wrote a very thoughtful post reacting to Jill Caroll's academic paper defending foreign news coverage.
(Jill as you recall was the freelancer working for the Christian Science Monitor who was held hostage in Iraq - making me pause in a moment of deep respect before venturing to criticize anything she has to say.)
Unfortunately the Boston Globe was not listening to Jill's arguments: that foreign news coverage is highly valued by newspaper readers; it and builds trust, credibility, and uniqueness that can't easily be gained in other ways; and that foreign news is actually good value when you consider these factors. A friend of mine is one of the four remaining Globe correspondents being called home from overseas. It is truly depressing for a person who has spent most of her journalistic career as a foreign correspondent to be faced with a job market in which there are fewer and fewer opportunities.
But are newspapers going to be talked into reversing this epidemic of foreign bureau closures? Not likely. Unless the entire industry - including individual journalists themselves - start thinking radically outside the box.
Jill offers two suggestions to make foreign correspondence more affordable and justifiable to newspapers: use more freelancers rather than setting up full-time bureaus with full-time staffs (Jill herself was a freelancer in the Middle East), and do more foreign stories with local angles.
Ethan is surprised that Jill did not address the role of news agencies in any detail. He also points out that she doesn't really deal with the Internet much other than to say that it has hurt circulation and advertising revenues. Ethan's point about the web and foreign news has mainly to do with the potential of citizen media, and how news organizations should be thinking about how to tap the power of thousands of talented and articulate bloggers around the world.
But the challenges and opportunities of the Internet go beyond that - as the many contributors to Goodbye Gutenberg discuss.
Phillip Meyer writes: "It is still possible to save journalism, but maybe not journalism as we know it." One could substitute "foreign correspondence" for "journalism" in that sentence.
As a teacher of journalism in an age where j-schools also need to reinvent themselves to remain relevant, I was particularly struck by the following passage by Roanoke Times editor Michael Riley about how news companies need to rethink themselves:
"No longer are we purely media companies; we must become technology companies, too, and that means we must raise our technology IQ to compete in a digitally transformed world. A big part of our success will be tied into rethinking what type of people we hire. The premium, moving forward, will rest on attracting more innovators into our midst and finding ways to give them the freedom and the backing they need to experiment and help move us into a new realm in which we can preserve the journalism and make a robust business model work."
If news organizations are going to do a better job at covering international news in original ways and reverse recent trends, people wanting careers covering global stories are going to have to reinvent themselves as much as their employers must. So must editors who handle international news, if they want to save their own jobs. This is just reality.
Here are a few directions such innovations might take. None of these ideas are mine alone.
- Try harder not to duplicate agency and each other's coverage. In the Internet age when everybody is checking Google and Yahoo for their breaking news anyway (or Reuters and Bloomberg if they work in finance), people are still spending way too much time duplicating stories that the agencies are covering - or that all the other foreign correspondents are covering. Editors have got to allow reporters to break away from the pack and do truly original reporting that readers won't find anywhere else, and which they will come to value and miss if it's absent. Reporters need to push harder to do such stories even when editors are calling up and saying "Reuters [or the NYT, or CNN or whoever] reported xxx can you file something on it?"
- Focus on global stories that have clear and direct relevance to your core home audience, and make the connection much more clear. My last three years living back in the U.S. really brought home to me just how unreal the rest of the world seems to most Americans. Sure, there's international news coverage, but even for those who read and watch it, the connection to people's daily lives is not very clear or well understood. This I believe is partially the fault of how news organizations structure their coverage. There is almost no foreign news story that doesn't have a U.S. domestic angle and almost no U.S. domestic story (especially anything economic or business related) that doesn't have international angles to it. Maybe rather than getting rid of foreign news reporters what we really need to eliminate are the separate sections of the newspapers and newscasts that silo foreign news into a category of topics that are distant and strange. The rest of the world is not distant and strange at all. It reaches into your kitchen and your bedroom daily. We need to do a better job of covering the world as the interconnected place it truly is. If we do that properly, I believe having reporters overseas will seem much more indispensable than it does today.
- Create communities of conversation around your reporters. This idea was articulated well by Michael Hirschorn in the December issue of the Atlantic Monthly. He sees one possible future in which star reporters are better off as freelancers:
It will require only a slight shift in the economic model for the Friedmans of the world to realize that they don’t need the newspapers they work for; that they can go off and blog on their own, or form United Artists–like cooperatives to financially support their independent efforts.
The solution he proposes: "Not only do you allow your reporters to blog; you make them the hubs of their own social networks, the maestros of their own wikis, the masters of their own many-to-many realms."
In this scenario played out, some readers who are serious Friedman fans would get their New York Times content primarily via Times headline feeds running through Friedman's blog - rather than the Times' front page. There on the blog they would discuss his stories with him and each other, and share recommendations for other journalism by other people.
Under this model, I should think, a news organization has real incentives to support such communities of conversation around its star foreign correspondents, whose talents can be better showcased and who can help be a "draw" for the news organization's other content. If the Christian Science Monitor had Jill Carroll doing exactly that, would more people wind up reading the CSM more faithfully? A certain segment of news junkies like me probably would.
- Involve local immigrant communities and diasporas. This is something that Doug McGill - a former foreign correspondent now in Minnesota - has been going on about for some time: the need for more "glocal" reporting that ties local communities to the broader world. One way to do this is for local newspapers to get a better grip on where the ethnic immigrant communities in their city come from and do a better job at covering those countries, with a special emphasis on stories that span between hometown and homeland. How many U.S. cities with large Ethiopian or Vietnamese populations do a decent job at covering those countries? How well do Hong Kong papers cover the global Hong Kong diaspora? This doesn't necessarily mean opening lots of new bureaus. By utilizing a smart combination of freelancers and readers/viewers who may not be professional journalists but who have stories to tell and things to say that are relevant to your audience, one can bring a great deal more global coverage into the mix - coverage of things that your local community wants and needs to know.
- Engage with citizen media. The Reuters partnership with Global Voices, the BBC's increasingly active engagement with bloggers, and many other initiatives are showing how professional reporting and citizen media can complement each other well. As the Washington Post has found, displaying the blog posts that are linking to your stories helps spread a web of global conversation to your journalism and builds readership and audience loyalty. Then there is a modified OhMyNews model in which editors can work with volunteer citizen-reporters in places where no professional freelancers are available - or on specialized topics they're not qualified to cover.
The web enables all of these things in ways that simply weren't possible before. As Jon Palferman writes: "Given its transformative capacity, we can regard the Web as a problem or we can see it as a potential solution to a broader problem that we would have had to face anyway."
What does all of this mean for young people planning to enter the profession? I think it means that there still are opportunities for young people to go into international news - and for not so young foreign correspondents to re-invent their careers. But we can't expect that things will ever go back to the way they were, or that people ten years from now can have the same careers that some of us had ten years ago (or in some cases even one or two years ago). But if you're not afraid of the web, have an open mind and are ready to innovate, I believe the opportunities will be there - if you help create them.