As foreign desks disappear, journalists consider whether the U.S. is getting the global reporting it needs

Drees, Schiavocampo, French, Mucha and Freeland. (Dan Rosenblum)
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A recent study ranked the job of newspaper reporter at 196, right above lumberjack, soldier and dairy farmer.

Last night Chrystia Freeland, digital editor for Thomson Reuters, brought that up in a panel discussion about what most of her fellow panelists seemed to agree was a crisis in international news coverage.

"I think that ranking does speak to the real disruption that we’re living through and one of the areas that are most, I think, in jeopardy because of that is foreign coverage,” she said.

It can be unsafe; it can be incredibly hard. And taking posts all over the world for news organizations whose future seemed infinite, and in which upward mobility was assumed, is a far different thing from working for an expensive foreign bureau that might be shuttered at any moment.

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Last night's gathering at Reuters' Times Square headquarters, co-sponsored by The Columbia Journalism Review, was a chance to take stock of how the recession, technology convergence and a growing “gig economy” are reshaping the job of the foreign correspondent.

Panelist Thomas Mucha is the editor of GlobalPost, a website launched in 2009 as a response to massive cutbacks in international reporting that was happening just as international affairs seemed to be vital to understanding what's happening in America right now. His site showcases writing, video reports and photography, mostly a mix of international business, political and breaking news.

He said launching then was a “double-edged sword” because “it gave us great stories to write about, but you're starting a company at the beginning of the worst economic experience since the great depression."

Mucha said they canvassed the globe for journalists in more than 100 countries who lived in and understand the nuances of those countries, but could write for an American audience. It uses a freelance model, allowing senior correspondents get "almost a full-time salary" and can work for other outlets. Mucha said he’s very much a part of what Daily Beast founder Tina Brown called the “gig economy.”

Columbia Professor Howard French said it’s common for people to talk about less foreign news coverage as a recent trend owing to the web and the recession, but it’s one that began a long time ago.

“When I was the age of many of my students, I was a freelancer in Africa,” French said. “That’s when I was getting into journalism for the first time and at that stage of my life, pretty much every medium market newspaper in the United States of any note had foreign coverage of its own. You know, The Kansas City Star, and you name it. They all had some kind of foreign coverage, and that began to disappear long before the arrival of the web as a major news platform. And so I think that what we’re seeing is really a long term, secular kind of decline in terms of the way that the American news industry treats foreign news.”

French said many papers, even the stalwart Washington Post in recent years, are relying more on newswire services, like Reuters.

Caroline Drees is the General Manager of Reuters’ wire services across the Middle East and Africa. Included in that team are approximately 20 reporters in Dubai and 10 to 15 across the Gulf. (Vreeland also said there are around 35 reporters working out of Moscow.) 

She said her major concern is security, technology and moral support, something few besides major organizations like Reuters can afford, particularly in areas of war or disaster.

French said one impact of the “gig economy” was journalists piecing together assignments from a variety of places without the typical benefits of a full-time job. To him, that signified a lapse in quality and he said as a New York Times writer who took photos, he was given three different video cameras in one year. He said he needed to work much harder to produce a solid video package while still delivering good print story.

“I didn’t get a pay raise for doing both. I didn’t get any allowance in any other sense, like, ‘OK, so if your print stories are 30 percent worse because you’re working 120 percent harder, well we understand, that's what you're going through.' No, they expected me to perform at the same level as a print reporter and at the same time to roll out these video packages.”

“Quite predictably, very quickly I got burnt out. At first it was exhilarating, it was fun, it was exciting. I didn’t think that because I was a still photographer, I needed video, but I like the technology, I like learning, I said sure, I’ll try it.”

Mucha said that was one of the problems GlobalPost was trying to avoid by largely expecting video only from videographers and largely leaving writing to print reporters.

“And I think one of the big mistakes the journalism industry has made in the last few years is not recognizing that video is a very different beast and not everyone can do it well,” he said.

Another panelist was NBC correspondent Mara Schiavocampo, who is one of the growing population of "one-woman bands" because she writes stories, shoots and edits video, and takes photos.

She said once the price and size of the technology barrier fell, the freelance model began to be applied to television. The trick, she said was finding ways to streamline the process, like using her video camera to record her notes. But because she said reporters can’t really deliver “top quality product” across every medium, part of a strategy is to figure out the primary component – print, video, or photography—and focus on it and consider everything else added value.

“If you write a piece—a text piece—that’s secondary to the video piece and you put it in the A Section of The New York Times, I think the reader is going to be disappointed,” she said. “If you put it up online or if you have your TV anchor say ‘for more on this, go to our website,’ people understand that it’s added value, it’s a reporter’s notebook. It takes on a different form and they’re OK with that, as long as they manage their expectations.”

The other problem, given limited budgets to produce international coverage for American audiences, is that foreign reporting is just a different beast, subject to different measurements of value than some other areas.

French said it’s dangerous to rely too heavily on the demands of the information marketplace to budget foreign reporting because people don’t always know what it is they'd like to know that they don't already.

“We may not be aware of it at the time, but part of what were doing is creating interest,” he said. “And so if we tell you that Africa has a larger middle class than India, which you probably didn’t know, than you may begin to think about Africa differently. And you might open your mind to different kinds of stories or pieces of information about Africa.”

As the panel progressed, the question turned to whether the public even noticed the wide scale ramp down in international coverage.

“Globalization is I think changing the way that a lot of Americans - not all - but a lot of Americans are looking at the world and seeing the role of the United States in that world,” Mucha said. “So, maybe we’re just sort of in between in that part of the evolution in what people in America are really interested in. At least I hope so.”