‘The story has moved on’ – but where to?

This is one in a series of posts this week accompanying our report, Shrinking World.

I am a freelance, and self-funded, foreign correspondent, an increasingly hard sell when international news coverage is diminishing in the UK press. It can’t just be about budgets: I don’t get expenses and travel like a gap-year student, unless I am filing and need a bedside phone. But often I am told my foreign news story has ‘moved on’. Where to?

I went to Haiti after the earthquake, at a time when staffers had indeed ‘moved on’ even if the story hadn’t. I looked for a cheap charter to the Dominican Republic and found out how holidaymakers were contributing to the aid effort. I took up the offer of journeying to northern Haiti with a trio of volunteer medics. I helped them in a tiny hospital dealing with paraplegics, and travelled with two patients back to Port-au-Prince in the back of a 4×4 ambulance. I spent another week shadowing an NGO in the tented villages, interviewing, and photographing, dignified people rebuilding domestic lives. Even before I returned to the UK, my notebook full, I was told by editors that Haiti had ‘moved on’, knocked off the agenda by the earthquake in Chile. I did a radio piece for the BBC about the tented villages. But those other stories have stayed untold.

I can understand this linear view in old style news agendas. But in the web age, unbounded by time and global reach, where do they go?

I am trying to visualize it as a graphic. Old media as a line of increasing resonance from tips to full coverage. There are peaks at anniversaries, those ingrained temporal markers; new news events, such as the cholera; and pre-emptive strikes, for example the anticipated rainy season. Then activity (and interest) drops away, as the story moves on through time.

But a web-based graphic would surely be more dynamic. The strongest narrative at one co-ordinate connects to smaller clusters of interest. So the core event is the talking point to the reader, but there are links to less obvious nodes, the micro-news of Twitter feeds. In this model, a line about 600 volunteers who can’t leave for Haiti because of the cholera would make it – ‘the story’ is still there for the NGOs, the homeless and those volunteers. The tourists donating shampoo for Haiti at resorts is not a plug for a travel company, but a story about community. In this core-periphery model, even the most tenuous line is still ‘news’ somewhere. The web allows for the stumbled-upons.

Reporters act on hunches, but in lean times they have to be articulate: few gut feelings are enough to garner a commission in advance, and foreign desks can’t afford long news digging. If I go there, will they bite?

Ten years ago, returning to journalism after academia, I got back into foreign reporting on one of those hunches. I was bumped off a flight and ended up the only non-techie heading for San Jose, admired my neighbour’s not yet released gadget, and wondered when computers would end up in museums. I pitched the idea to an archaeology magazine, and returned to California a few weeks later with a lead at Intel and the email of my seat neighbour. The old tech stuff proved interesting. The magazine didn’t bite, but I got a modest book deal. I rode buses, slept on couches, in hostel bunks. I travelled a landscape of un-pitchable ‘news’ stories, my course steered by contacts in the dotcom shadows. The stories were quixotic, and ephemeral. A hopeless pitch.

But when, in March 2000, the NASDAQ roaring, the techie from the plane met me for coffee, and said he didn’t know why but he couldn’t get any venture capital… the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I threw all I had into staying out there, and wrote it up like rolling news. It became my USP. And I’m still writing about Silicon Valley. Stories don’t move anywhere, they just shift between core and periphery, and get told another way.

Christine Finn is a freelance journalist who has recently written for publications including the Sunday Times, The Guardian, and Wired, and broadcast for the BBC (particularly ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ for Radio 4 and the World Service). A Reuters Journalism Fellow at Oxford University in 1990, she is also the author of two books, Past Poetic: Archaeology in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney and Artifacts: An Archaeologist’s Year in Silicon Valley.