Using the Internet to Fill the Foreign Correspondent Void

Jeff Jarvis, in his blog Buzz Machine, on February 7 brought up the oft-talked about problem concerning the dying newspaper industry, asking his readers to what steps they would take if they owned the Boston Globe or Sun-Times. What radical steps would – or could – a newspaper owner take in order to keep it afloat? Reading through the comments Jarvis’s audience left, it was clear that many took a view similar to that posed by Dan Gilmore: go digital. I would have to agree, and see a key way to leverage technology for not just newspapers, but for television news as well, would be in their foreign bureaus.


Already, many news organizations have begun closing their foreign bureaus in an effort to save money. According to a report on The World, the number of foreign correspondents deployed around the world by major U.S. newspapers has decreased by 25 percent between 2002 and 2006. The same sharp drop in foreign correspondents and bureaus has also been seen in television. In 1970, CBS had 14 major foreign bureaus, 10 smaller bureaus, and part-time reporters in 44 countries, according to an op-ed by Ted Koppel. By 2006, he claimed, CBS had reduced its foreign presence significantly, and was down to eight foreign correspondents and only three foreign bureaus.

Economics and the changing media environment has forced news organizations to change how they cover foreign news. Large bureaus, which can cost up to $500,000 each year to operate, are giving way to one-person reporting units, such as those being used by CNN and ABC News, that can be deployed with an arsenal of new technology — including handheld digital video cameras, satellite dishes, and laptops technology. This equipment, according to John Maxwell Hamilton, dean of Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, costs only about $10,000 per reporter. The World’s Aaron Schachter reports that news organizations also are relying more and more on wire services, such as AP and Agence France-Press, to fill the void left by the declining numbers of foreign bureaus and correspondents.

Some, such as Gilmore see this precipitous decline in the number of foreign news bureaus and correspondents as an opportunity for bloggers and other video and online media providers, while others question whether bloggers have the experience and professionalism needed to provide quality, objective coverage.

The way forward, however, is not an all or none path in which news organizations either restaff their foreign bureaus or close them all down and blindly rely on bloggers or the wire services for their foreign news coverage. News outlets have a number of options when it comes to leveraging technology across the globe. They should use the technology in order infuse their foreign coverage with original and more personal content that can be provide by bloggers and contributions from citizen journalists. This content should be used to augment – not supplant – coverage provided by wire services, freelancers, and individual correspondents the news organizations deploy overseas.

Some veteran journalists, such as Roy Gutman of the McClatchy News chain, argue that bloggers or wire service journalists do not have the same level of knowledge as a foreign correspondent living and working in the local area. This claim seems unfounded, given that local and expatriate citizen journalists likely would have a more intimate and unique insight into local trends and issues, and could have access to certain events and individuals to which more traditional journalists do not.

News organizations should encourage their credentialed correspondents, who may have access to mainstream political figures and influencers, to collaborate with local bloggers in order to enhance hard-news coverage with video, photography, and text impressions of those with more personal perspectives and levels of access. Coverage could then draw content from hundreds of local citizen journalists whose blog sites could foster conversations among the bloggers, their audiences, and the news organizations’ correspondents.

Gutman and others also argue that bloggers may not have a methodology for corroborating and checking facts and that readers would not know if the blogger has a bias or inherent conflict of interest. This argument assumes that using bloggers would mean foregoing any ethical and editorial oversight. To counter this, mainstream U.S. news organizations could adopt, and indeed make more stringent, the editorial practices employed by Internet news sites such as Global Voices and OhMyNews, which employ editors who review submissions and require its contributors to agree to a set of ethical and editorial guidelines. Similar or more stringent rules could help ensure a level of audience trust for mainstream organizations that use bloggers or other Internet content.

Those who argue against leveraging the input of bloggers and other online contributers to the news claim that citizen journalists do not have the depth of understanding of the complex issues in today’s interconnected world. These arguments are irrelevant, however, and assume an either-or solution to the problem.

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