Filling the Foreign News Hole

March 8, 2013 • Newsroom Management • by

The ways in which we inform ourselves about the world will evolve throughout our lifetimes – this is certain. Yet for nearly eight decades, the primary means of learning about events beyond our (sometimes insular) communities has been through the reporting of journalists based abroad, or foreign correspondents.

Most major Western news organizations established international bureaus and staff correspondents in response to the rise of communism, fascism and two world wars.  War-era Germany played a huge role in anchoring the necessity of foreign bureaus, with international news operations cropping up to document Hitler’s reign. If ever there was a time to be a foreign correspondent, it was during a world war. These were the golden years for many a white, middle-class male in search of adventure and international acclaim.

Today, the news industry is coping with a gradual asphyxiation brought about by a number of economic and technological developments. Cable, satellite and eventually the Internet reconfigured news, making it a 24/7 necessity and largely free, both of which lead to the veritable atrophy of legacy media. Newspapers are emaciated versions of their former selves, increasingly forced to adopt serious penny-pinching strategies.

Question: Which type of news costs the most pennies?

Answer: Foreign news.

Slashed State of Affairs

According to a 2010 Reuters report, the economic pressures of maintaining overseas news operations have had the numbers of bureaus and correspondents persistently reduced by major Western news organizations over the last 20 years or more. This has led to a significant decline in the quantity of international news. The number of foreign correspondents employed by U.S. newspapers has plummeted. As of 2011, the American Journalism Review’s count indicates that 10 newspapers and one chain employ a total of 234 correspondents. If only full-time correspondents were listed, that figure would be considerably lower. Also worth noting is the generous use of the term “bureau,” as discussed in a recent CJR article. The Washington Post, for example, has 16 foreign bureaus – and 12 of them consist of just a single reporter.

Sweeping economic struggles are hardly limited to the Anglo world. A 2012 study conducted by the Bundesverband Deutscher Zeitungsverleger (German Federation of Newspaper Publishers) found the number of staff journalists declined by 15 percent since 2000,  from 15,300 to 13,000. German international correspondents are certainly no exception as they’ve also been faced with intense cuts for many years, with domestic publications leaning heavily on wire services. The phenomenon is far from shocking, as maintaining an overseas bureau can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, and dramatically more in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. Costs can include everything from housing allowances and support for the correspondents’ families to salaries for local staff and security.

Although wire services still command healthy troops of reporters, global operations have been downsized dramatically. As it stands, we can either adjust to endless reproductions of gaunt, aggregated news snippets or we can come up with better ideas – fortunately, Berlin-based journalist Jabeen Bhatti has one such idea.

Associated Reporters Abroad

In 2009, Bhatti founded Associated Reporters Abroad (ARA), a collective now comprised of more than 100 freelance reporters spanning Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, Asia and Australasia. “I understand what it’s like to be in a newsroom,” explains Bhatti, who’s worked as a journalist in both print and online for more than a decade. “I wanted to take what’s best about that and combine it with what’s best about working in a freelance situation.”

Created in tandem with radical shifts in the industry’s ability (or eagerness) to cover foreign news, ARA “outsources” journalists on location, pitches stories to news editors and fields requests for coverage from a client list which includes heavy-hitters like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Der Spiegel, Die Welt, Der Tagesspiegel and The Guardian.

In its nascence, the ARA team worked to provide coverage about Germany to external newspapers. However a mere week after they launched, ARA received more than 100 applications from journalists hoping to collaborate. Reporters were then selected, interviewed and vetted, and ARA expanded to provide Europe-wide coverage.

The procedure for working with ARA is described on their website (in authentic journalese) as follows:

“You the reporter send story ideas to us. We edit them and brainstorm what outlet is the best fit, send them out and hope for the best. If they get accepted, we let you know, provide length, fee and deadline. You do the story and we edit it before turning it in, bill for you and pay you. Alternatively, editors call us when they need someone anywhere from Greece to Japan. We find them someone and go to work to get them the best story we can, even if that means throwing three reporters on it to bridge the time difference between Europe and the U.S.”

In short, ARA leverages the skills of local reporters and the various advantages that come with home-base reporting (language, dialect, access to sources) to court news outlets which would otherwise run lofty tabs to cover stories in, say, Tunisia. “If I were a broker I’d be rich,” Bhatti says, explaining that she doesn’t take a cut from payments issued to reporters and that ARA is a self-funded endeavor. “We’re the only journalism start-up that I know of on the planet doing international journalism without a grant.”

Despite operating for only four years, there’s been a discernible change in the “type” of stories editors are on the hunt for. Early on, editors contacted ARA in search of original news features which strayed in some way from the content cranked out by AP and other wire services. “Now they want short and fast. They still want the broader, interesting pieces on occasion, but lessthey want fast,” says Bhatti. And as it happens, ARA does fast. When the story about Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation broke, USA Today was one of the top three English-language papers to get the story out on the Web – thanks to ARA reporting. They beat AP to the punch.

Though official headquartered in Berlin, ARA seems to works in something closer to a collaborative cyber news space. In this sense, it’s obvious that technology has revitalized freelance journalism. Armed with a smartphone and a laptop a reporter could ostensibly file stories from belly of a whale. Nevertheless, many newspapers and television networks continue slicing away at global coverage. Foreign reporting is hardly dead, yet models of innovation – like ARA – remain key in ensuring its survival.

Photo credits: Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo in “Foreign Correspondent”, thefoxling / Flickr CC

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