What future for the foreign correspondent?

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

The publication of Shrinking World – based on research about newspaper coverage of international news – gives an invaluable perspective on the way we report the world beyond these shores. But what does this mean for the future of foreign reporters and those who have a passion to find out about and explain ‘the other’?

Conventional wisdom indicated the post-colonial and then post-Cold War period would produce a ‘peace dividend’. Understanding foreign news would become less urgent and would matter less to many audiences. Yet the era since 9/11 and in particular the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have made the need to know about international affairs again more important than ever. At the most basic level global terror had direct effects on the safety of our streets and ‘our boys’ were putting their lives at risk in faraway places. Climate change, the most ‘global’ of stories, has become increasingly significant and in more recent years the economic crisis too has had worldwide causes and effects.

And yet, according to the evidence, this re-invention of foreign news simply did not happen. The trend of diminishing international coverage in newspapers did not reverse; the space accorded to foreign news continued inexorably to decline.

Similar studies of foreign coverage on television have shown divergent patterns. Though the number of serious international stories on mainstream channels has been declining (based on recent research) this has been complemented by reasonable coverage on niche channels and by more lightweight coverage of foreign parts (e.g. reality docs).

According to the Media Standards Trust international coverage in the press has shown no such caveats – it is on a long term descent. There are all kinds of conclusions one can draw from this, including significant implications for the way that audiences consume and understand the wider world. In the age of new media does it matter that many of our newspapers have shut down their foreign desk and forgotten about the world at large? Is global understanding reserved for elites?

What does this say about the role of the 21st century foreign correspondent? Well obviously being posted abroad as a full time staffer in a well resourced office is an increasingly remote prospect. The days of grand foreign bureaux with their own butlers are being replaced by the journalist with a wifi connection filing from the back bedroom of the apartment or from the local internet cafe. Foreign news is more likely than ever to come from freelancers, from local stringers or from a multitude of divergent sources. This in itself may be worrying as institutions are less ‘invested’ in those who are reporting. But there is a sense in which this democratising of news provision may free up other possibilities.

Richard Beeston, foreign editor of The Times spoke recently at a Free Word event on international news and said that he is open to material from wherever it comes. Responding to a question he indicated that if  a relatively inexperienced freelancer happened to be at the scene of something interesting and can write about it in a compelling way, he would be prepared to put them in the paper.

The intrepid individual who is able to find things out – through good contacts, well-informed local knowledge, including perhaps good (and unusual) language skills  – will be able to get their story out. It may well be communicated through other means – take the emerging forms of news provision such as Demotix. The main theme is that in this area, like many others, the journalist has to function as part entrepreneur, in order to make a realistic living; not only in finding the stories but also in placing them.

For well established hacks this may be daunting, but for a younger generation that has known little else, this is just the way the world works. And of course much of what now counts as ‘foreign reporting’ may be done from the communications arms of international NGOs and similar organisations, from the Red Cross to Save the Children. There is a question about the purity of such enterprises, but for the young, aspiring journalism graduate this may be as good a place as any to learn the ropes.

Dr Suzanne Franks is director of research at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent. A former BBC journalist and independent producer, she has written widely on foreign reporting.