Archive for the ‘international reporting’ Category

Oxford study points the way ahead for foreign correspondence

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This post was first published at mediastandardstrust.org on 10th December 2010

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?

Written by Martin Moore

December 17th, 2010 at 12:58 pm

The report we didn’t set out to write

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We didn’t set out to write a report on international news. We (the Media Standards Trust) set out to get a handle on what had really changed in newspapers – in terms of content – over the last few decades. There is so much – understandable – focus on the immediate, ongoing, news revolution that we wanted to take a step back, take the long view.

To do this we headed out to the wonderful, wind swept Colindale, the British newspaper library stranded in the nether regions of the Northern line. Here we looked at national newspapers from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

Two changes were particularly striking (apart from the ballooning number of pages and supplements):

  • The fall in the extent and prominence of international reporting
  • The fall in the extent of regional news

We left the regional news for now (that’s for a separate report), and decided to concentrate on international reporting – to see if our eyeballing of the papers was born out by the figures.

Knowing we could not count every story in every paper since the mid 1970s (the library would have moved to Yorkshire before we were finished) we chose a sample of papers and years. We picked an average week in 1979, 1989, 1999 and 2009 – a week that wasn’t skewed by  a big news story that dominated the press, like MP’s expenses or the election – and four newspapers (Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, Daily Mail and the Mirror), and we started counting.

And we counted. And we counted. We counted the number of international stories in the papers (being generous in our definition of international), and we counted the total number of stories in each paper – oh, and we made a note of the page number as well (e.g. 2 international stories on page 2 and 3 other news stories). In total we counted over 10,500 stories.

This way we could get an impression – and granted it is an impression – of how the extend and prominence of international news has changed.

The end result was pretty clear. International news in these four papers has declined in absolute and relative terms. In absolute terms, in other words in terms of the number of foreign news stories published, international coverage has dropped by almost 40%. In a working week in 1979 there were just over 500 international stories published in these four newspapers. By 2009 this had dropped to just over 300. The decline in international news as a proportion of each newspaper was even starker (because the papers have got bigger as international coverage has shrunk). So, in 1979 international news made up a fifth of each paper, on average. By 1989 this had fallen to 16%, by 1999 to 13% and by 2009 to 11%.

Having done all this counting we then wanted to see if these numbers correlated with the experience of foreign correspondents and editors. So we spent some time speaking to people from these and other news organisations. The numbers, they say, mapped quite closely to their own impressions. We then chatted to them about the reasons for the decline and discussed where they thought foreign reporting might be going.

We’ve captured some of their thoughts, and a few of our own, in the Media Standards Trust report published today: ‘Shrinking World: the decline of international reporting in the British press’ (November 2010).

You can download if from www.mediastandardstrust.org or, if you’d like a print copy, give us a call (020 7727 5252).

Written by Martin Moore

November 1st, 2010 at 6:21 am

The Chilean miners story – a missed opportunity to do foreign reporting on the cheap

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The Chilean miners story is already being talked about as a one of the biggest international stories of 2010. An audience of a billion worldwide. 4.6m live video streams. 82.5 million page views on CNN. 2000 journalists on the ground (from Rory Carroll).

Yet it is also, from the perspective of journalism, a tremendous missed opportunity to experiment with doing foreign reporting on the cheap. Here’s why:

International news is expensive. A foreign bureau costs about £200-300k per year (according to a 2007 Harvard report by Jill Carroll). Even to send a crew of three costs thousands in travel and expenses (particularly if it is remote and requires special equipment – like tents in the Atacama desert).

International news is more difficult to make directly relevant to a domestic audience. It was hard to excite public interest in the US sub-prime market prior to the international financial crisis. And many news organisations have struggled to find a simple and convenient prism through which to frame the world since the Cold War ended.

The days of plush foreign bureaux have passed. Lots of commercial news organisations have cut back on their foreign reporting. Only 4 US newspapers still invest in sustained international reporting (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, LA Times). Many other US news organisations have also reduced the amount of time and money they spend (see State of the News Media reports since 2004). There have also been cuts in the international reporting of UK news organisations – though these are much less well recorded (to be partially redressed by a report we’re publishing in two weeks’ time – see bottom of this post).

Those who want to sustain quality foreign reporting have been wracking their brains  trying to work out how do international journalism of the same – or higher – quality but at lower cost. Solana Larsen, in a fascinating recent essay for Nieman Reports, imagines a world without foreign correspondents, where news is ‘told by reporters who are native to the country where events happen’. This would, Larsen argues, provide a more authentic picture from the inside out, a ‘citizen’s perspective’.

Whatever happens, foreign reporting has to change to survive. It has to cost less to collect. News organisations have to be much more flexible and nimble than they have been in the past. They have to be creative about how they source different types of content and access different voices. They need to collaborate with local news organisations, as well as non-news organisations like NGOs. And then they need to convince people of the importance of the news they are reporting.

Which is why the Chilean miners story was a tremendous opportunity to try doing foreign news on the cheap. A chance for news organisations to experiment with new methods and models.

Here was a fantastically compelling human drama that did not need contextualisation for people to understand what was going on. Here was a story with the narrative arc of a reality documentary (lasting 10 weeks – only slightly less than a series of Big Brother). It even had a carefully prepared and choreographed finale where people’s lives really did hang in the balance.

Yet, at the same time, it was a story without much broader public impact (except for the people of Chile). What I mean by that is that, apart from the emotional engagement, this story did not have much in the way of political, economic or social implications for people outside Chile.

Which meant that for news organisations whose central purpose is reporting in the public interest, and who – like everyone else right now – are desperate to work out ways to save money, this story was a great opportunity to try new, less expensive approaches.

So what happened? The opposite. Instead of spending less they spent more, much more. The BBC so overspent on its coverage that it is now considering reducing its reporting budget on events that really are in the public interest and do require lots of contextualisation – like the G20, the Cancun Climate Change conference in December, the Nato summit in Lisbon and the World Economic Forum (see Guardian leaked memo story).

And it wasn’t just about the money. This was also, for the most part, conservative journalism that hugged close to audience expectations and demand. Much of the mainstream coverage wouldn’t have looked out of place a couple of decades ago. There were close knit professional teams (in the BBC’s case 26 people strong), doing much talking to camera, with frequent two-ways updating the audience.

Where were the local reporters? Where were the voices of the Chilean people? Where were the collaborations with other news organisations and with NGOs? Where was the creative use of all the content that was being streamed from the mine and elsewhere?

The result? News organisations have less money to spend on stuff that needs more explanation. They have less to spend on difficult investigations (like Lindsay Hilsum’s recent reporting from the Congo). They have less to spend on other trapped miners.

Organisations like the BBC will be able to ice over the spending in time. But neither they, nor the others who failed to cover the story differently, will find a better opportunity to get experience of doing international reporting in new ways for a good long while.

The Media Standards Trust is publishing a report – a “Shrinking World: the decline of international reporting in the UK press” – in November. If you would like a copy of the report email me and I’ll put you on our list.

Written by Martin Moore

October 19th, 2010 at 10:27 am