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

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