The Present, Past, and Future of Foreign Reporting

Many moons ago, it is said there was a magical time when million dollar bureaus, private planes, fancy dinners, cigar smoking in corner offices, security details, and even tanks (at least according to a former news magazine editor I had breakfast with) were de rigueur for any news reporting outlet worth it’s salt. This was in an age where millions of people had no choice but to pay for their news and advertisers no choice but to plead for people to buy their goods. What were people going to do? Steal newspapers? As we are all aware, those days are long gone thanks to the age of the Internet. Are we to just abandon all coverage of news that doesn’t happen in our backyard? Rely on those already sprawling wire services? Make partnerships with foreign news outlets? If you attended the well attended “What In The World?” panel at the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute on Wednesday evening, none of these Plan Bs were even mentioned.

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Amy O’Leary of the New York Times moderated a panel featuring Louise Roug [Mashable], Miriam Elder [Buzzfeed,] and Jason Mojica [Vice News]. These are three of a group of up and coming media darlings that their peers can’t seem to stop talking about due to their relative success charting the way in the murky swamp that is digital news and, more importantly, revenue streams.

 

Amy’s first question was if Mashable journalist Vadim Lavrusik’s prediction of the “death of the foreign correspondent” is coming or already has come true.  Three years have passed and all three panelists largely rejected that idea while reiterating their dedication to foreign news and using full-time staff. Louise said that there is no “zero sum game” and that all “boats are rising”. That being said, there has been an increased use in stringers and social content. Louise also consistently referenced (what she hoped to be) the demise of looking at things in a singular way or as “silos”. With the advent of social media, the development of functional and beautiful story telling tools, and more space to tell longer stories on the Internet, outlets can now look at stories from a myriad of angles. Because of this, the panelists firmly believed they do not have to match competitors on breaking news or being first. Rather than duplicate efforts, they want only to take a story and “add knowledge” as Miriam put it.

The most talked about topic of the evening was freelancers and use of them in hostile environments. It was especially delicate given the recent murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff. While Buzzfeed right out rejects the use of stringers in war zones (and pretty much overall as they’re still building staff), the other two were less firm. Vice seemed to be more selective of freelancers they work with. They take solace in the fact that they insure and take full responsibility for the well being of their freelancers. Mashable would not send anyone into hostile territory but there was no word (as I recall) on people already within these areas. It was fairly clear though that even with the announcement just hours before that Agence France Presse would stop use of freelancers in dangerous areas, freelance work is very important to foreign reporting and will not go away any time soon. Jason was able to lighten the mood a bit when he made a joke at the expense of people fawning over the innovations Vice and other outlets were making in foreign reporting. Laughing at the word “innovations” he said he would be glad “take the credit” for coming up with something so brilliant as sending somebody somewhere where something is happening to write about it.

Fortunately for all, social media can make quite a good replacement for people. It’s quite easy now for US-based staff to curate tweets and posts from Gaza and Israel to keep Americans informed on what’s happening on the ground. Miriam cited Ellie Hall’s recent article “Inside the Chilling Online World of The Women of ISIS” and how it was entirely composed of social media content. New York-based Ellie was able to find this content online and weave it together to tell a timely story about women 7,000 miles away.

By the end, it became clearer that the mission of this panel became to try and dismantle a few repeated stereotypes in these kinds of conversations and I think they largely succeeded:

  1. Foreign news is too expensive and doesn’t make money
    • Technology makes the old method of physical bureaus and big staffs abroad unnecessary. With email and skype, editors in one country can work with a correspondent in another. Combine this with cutting back on amenities and you can have a lean, mean, reporting machine.
  2. Young people don’t want hard, international news
    • Jason chaffed at this idea and said that it wasn’t so much a matter of young people not wanting news but wanting the right content, at the right length, in the right format, at the right time.
  3. You can’t mix soft and hard content and be taken seriously
    • Miriam rolled her eyes the moment this question was asked because Buzzfeed is at the center of this question. She answered quite eloquently by asking if we hold it against the news if The Simpsons comes right before it. It doesn’t and it shouldn’t.

Ultimately, it looks like people’s fears and concerns stem from the old-school thinking that often pervades journalism. We want to get back to those days of corner offices and fully staffed bureaus but have yet to acknowledge that the environment in which those conditions thrived was an anomaly. News is an inherently unstable business that will never make as much money as Wall Street or Hollywood. It is a highly necessary service that everyone thinks of as such but suffers from it because people don’t feel they have to pay for something so essential. These maladies and others that come up will be dealt with by the smart people that journalists are. Now if only we could fix that insane PR to journalist ratio.

Other takeaways:

  • No one ever likes to say anything bad about the New York Times.
  • In being fair, balanced, and objective, Jason only quipped “You can’t satisfy everyone’s politics”.
  • Buzzfeed is going to be hiring 7 more people on the world team. Apply now to Miriam!
  • Mashable has opened an Australia office and London is on the way.
  • Vice has offices in 34 countries, and apparently is not inherently millennial-focused.
  • Reference the relationship between length, format, time, and content Miriam put it perfectly:

Like these nice features about a country where something isn’t really happening. The stories I love to read about that are like the 8,000 word New Yorker ones. Where I feel like I’m living there. I see it, I smell it, I hear it. Am I going to spend my valuable time on a 1,200 word feature about…i don’t know…some indigenous musicians in some state in Mexico? No. I’m just not going to. Will I read 8,000 words about it on the weekend and love it? Yea.

Related reading:
– The New York Times is Not Going to Turn into Buzzfeed – [Politico Magazine]
– Here’s what you miss by only talking to white men about the digital revolution and journalism [Washington Post]
– State of Digital Journalism: The Media Business Is, And Will Be, Just Fine [LinkedIn]
– Digital Resurrection [The Economist]
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