What could be better than being a foreign correspondent? Over some decades of it I was befriended by Jamaican Maroons, grilled by Moldovan peasants and labelled “zen” by Bono. I huddled with Yasser Arafat, offended Prince Phillip and was abandoned in mid-interview by John McCain. Between absurd such little episodes I got to add a few lines to the rough draft of history.
The population of our booze-fueled breed has been declining for years and some now predict the demise of global reportage. But I say that is premature. And the current war in Ukraine, which has such cascading global repercussions, is just the latest evidence of its importance.
In general, the optimistic premise of international news coverage is that enough consumers might be interested in faraway events happening to people very different from them. Foreign correspondents are a way of increasing the odds: the content is produced by people more like you. Thus did Anglos, Europeans and Asians (mostly) begin to roam the earth, families in tow.
Former Bloomberg chief executive Justin Smith, in teasing out details about his new media venture, dismissed this model in an interview with the New York Times (one of its most prominent practitioners): “The idea that you send some well-educated young graduate from the Ivy League to Mumbai to tell us about what’s going on in Mumbai in 2022 is sort of insane.”
As someone who operated as a foreign correspondent (and also helped manage news bureaus) in the Americas, Africa, Europe and the Middle East, I felt the impact of those words. Here’s how I see what’s going on.
The alternative to these emissaries (other than syndication partnerships with other media) has generally been use of local journalists. And there was always a tradeoff in this choice between “expats” and “locals.”
Expats offer knowledge about the home audience, native facility and presentation in its language, and a presumed ability to report with an impartiality (and curiosity) that comes from lack of personal involvement. Locals offer knowledge about the people they are covering, native facility in the local language, and the passion (and skepticism) that comes from presence of personal involvement. Ideally, foreign desks want all of these things. So they’ve often used a mix of both.
Part of the equation was the greater expense of expats. First, they were generally better paid; this made some sense because they functioned in a different labor market and offered different skills, often being trained and promoted through the ranks of organizations like the Associated Press (where I worked for 28 years); but it did not project fairness and carried perhaps a scent of colonialism as well. Second, expats often came with families and received tuition for international private schools, housing at the level of a diplomatic corps, compensation for local taxes, and more.
The plummeting profitability of the news business in the digital era has blown up this model, setting off a series of reactions. The central reality is that luxuries are no longer possible when newsrooms barely stay afloat.
A quarter of US newsroom jobs vanished since 2008 and the reporting cadre fell by over half, says Pew (in that same timeframe, the annual revenue of the AP fell from around a billion dollars in today’s money to under half that). Moreover, we now know exactly what attracts readers and viewers, and with some exceptions (the Ukraine war is one) it is not foreign news.
It is not new that news consumers the world over are generally provincial. What has changed is the way of handling the minority that is not. You used to pick up one publication — say, my hometown Philadelphia Inquirer — which needed to cater to all tastes including for those who cared about foreign news. Now anyone can move to the AP app and get it there for free.
So staffing around the world is a shadow of what once was. And beyond the reduction in pure numbers, two major shifts occurred.
Journalistic organizations found themselves increasingly replacing the “emissary” expats with expats already living in the target country (whether they had come there looking for jobs, or as a spouse, or as tourists who lost their way). These may not have gone through rigorous training in home country journalism standards — but they were not foreign to them, and they had picked up some local knowledge. It was a compromise made even more convivial but their frequent willingness to be paid at or near the local level (with little discussion of benefits); they were quite desperate for work.
Next, globalization homogenized culture and flattened standards in certain professions, of which journalism was one. This eroded the relative advantages of expats of all stripes. Satellite TV, the Internet and the emergence of English as the global language yielded a generation of young professionals around the world who speak English as well as many Americans or Brits (indeed perhaps better for lack of the vernaculars that beget “could care less,” “a couple things,” the overuse of “in terms of” and pronunciations like “nucular”).
The results are visible all over the world.
I started off with AP as the correspondent in Romania, just after the communist regime was overthrown. It is fair to say that at that time Romania was forced to make do with a dearth of local journalists operating with Western standards — these had never existed in the country. Today Romania has a vibrant and excellent media that compares with any in Europe.
Around that time, AP’s top person in Lebanon was American Terry Anderson (who became famous after several years held hostage); in recent years, when I was the Cairo-based Middle East Editor, we finally appointed a local woman, Zeina Karam, to the post. Her standards are peerless and English mellifluous — and she knows the complex country forwards and backwards. I do not think the product has suffered from this transition.
When I chaired the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem about 20 years ago, the member handbook contained scores of emissary expats. Today there are a handful, numerically overwhelmed by locals and local expats. The Inquirer has no correspondent there anymore. But global reportage survives, in outlets that serve an audience that really wants it and increasingly will pay; I hope societies better educate the next generation to want it in greater numbers.
The trick is making it interesting. For that you need not just the facts — that old obsession of the American journalistic model. We need to find ways to make the presentation credible, to connect the dots lucidly, to project a universal human decency, and to do it with some style. The international school of hard knocks may do more than an American faculty of journalism for forging a shared narrative.
We had a ton of fun evenings, when the tall tales gained stature in correspondence with the tab. That may happen less, but a social good is served: the emergence of a global journalistic cadre defined by skills, persistence and intelligence — as opposed to passport. That holds out hope for greater understanding in a world that badly needs it.
(A version appeared originally in Mediaite)