Richard Sambrook’s report – ‘Are foreign correspondents redundant?’, published this week by the Reuters Institute in Oxford, is a road map for news organisations and journalists who want to navigate the future of foreign news
The news popped into my twitter feed between 8 and 9pm on Wednesday evening. ‘#wikileaks hackers have brought down visa.com’. Wow! was my first reaction, that sounds important. Is it true? – was my second thought. A quick attempt to log into visa.com suggested it might be. If it is, what does it mean? – was my third response. Visa’s corporate website was down but did that mean I couldn’t make visa transactions? If I tried to make a visa transaction – say to pay for that basket of Amazon Christmas presents I’d just filled – was there a danger my card details would be lost, or stolen?
I relate this experience not to give a glimpse of how I spend Wednesday evenings and my various neuroses, but because it captures – in microcosm – the challenges facing journalism today, especially international journalism.
News travels fast. Very fast. Normally now in headlines of fewer than 140 characters. The race to be first – which used to be won by journalists and news organisations – is now won by whoever is closest to the action and has the fastest opposable thumbs. That may be a journalist but chances are, especially with international news, it might not be.
News can come from anyone, anywhere. The first tweet I saw about visa.com was not from someone I knew (it had been re-tweeted). Hence why I wasn’t sure about its veracity. Here the journalist can help (though they first have to overcome the urge to re-tweet without verifying).
And news initially tends to come unencumbered by context or explanation. It comes as a bald statement of fact. Visa.com has shut down. North Korea has just fired rockets at South Korea. The first Chilean miner is out. The journalist then has to work out what this means and explain its importance to his/her audience.
Speed. Verification. Context.
But if news organisations are losing the race to be first, in international news they also risk losing their lead doing the second and third.
This struck me reading Richard Sambrook’s excellent study, published this week, on the future of foreign correspondence.
To be able to verify something quickly you have to have some background knowledge. If possible you should have been on the ground (wherever the ground is) for a decent length of time so you can not only verify something but establish its importance and set it in context. This is hard to do from a standing start.
As Sambrook writes: ‘There are no substitutes for a prolonged process of first hand engagement to understand and report what is being witnessed. This may be the most valuable element of foreign reporting at risk from the changes underway.’
It is at risk because there are fewer staff foreign correspondents on the ground. Many news organisations have scaled back or removed their foreign desks. And most have closed or reduced their foreign bureaux.
This is not to say this is the only way to do foreign news coverage. There are alternatives to having your own staff on the ground, as Sambrook indicates. Technology now provides enormous potential for new methods of news gathering, and provides access to a much greater number of news sources.
The report cites a number of people and organisations who have taken up this potential, for example Global Voices, which ‘surfaces opinion and reporting in blogs around the world’; Demotix, a sort of 21st century international picture agency; and Ushahidi, a distributed mapping platform started from Kenya. Even the Foreign Office, not necessarily known for online innovation, has experimented with news aggregation and discussion. For the G20 meeting in London the FCO ‘built a website offering information in 40 languages but also decided to make it a digital hub to aggregate content and discussion about the summit’s themes’.
Yet ‘[i]t is notable’, Sambrook writes, ‘that most of this innovation comes from new start-ups rather than from within established media organisations’. Philip Balboni, CEO of Global Post, puts it more brutally: ‘The innovation in journalism is pathetic’.
Indeed, despite the opportunity to provide more international news, more cheaply than ever, before many mainstream UK and US news organisations are reducing their international coverage. The Media Standards Trust report published last month – Shrinking World – showed how coverage of international news in the UK print press (4 newspapers) has dropped by 40% since 1979. This is in the context of newspaper pagination exploding over the same period.
This is a shame because these organisations have the experience, the people, and the motivation to innovate, as we suggest in our report.
Still, Sambrook’s report not only provides a perspective on where international news has come from, it also points the way to where it could go. The question is, will news organisations read it and take action?