Foreign reporting in the digital age

There is very little that qualifies as better foreign reporting than a story by a Robert Kaplan or a Dan McDougall. It’s not a 2-minute soundbite from a television camera on broadcast news or a ten-thousandth reiteration of an Associated Press story. It’s hardcore investigative journalism that usually comes after months if not years of living in a region, interacting with its denizens, and observing livelihoods.

Unfortunately, in a flailing journalism world, where international bureaus are far from cost effective for major news organizations and foreign correspondents are fast becoming their most dispensable employees, this breed of reporters is dwindling.

The good news – if there was ever one in journalism these days – is that new media is taking up the slack. There is a whole new host of Web sites that are dedicating themselves to reporting major issues from different parts of the world; many of these sites are implementing innovative ways to gather information from around the globe, and are forming robust online communities while they’re at it.

Through reporters and contributors stationed in almost every country, these sites are not only filling in the newshole abandoned by the closure of international bureaus of major newspapers but are also doing something that has never been done before – offering perspectives and insights from natives who live in a region and deal with its issues everyday. With the Internet’s global reach of audience and contributors, the concept of foreign correspondents in alien lands struggling with language and culture barriers seems almost passé.

Ground Report became the go-to site for updated information during the Mumbai blasts last year – it not only beat the mainstream media in its expediency of coverage but also offered details and perspectives that are often limited to locals. Citizens were offering maps and directions to hotels under siege within minutes, and help lines were established on blogs to aid relatives bypass jammed phone lines to contact loved ones. Few western journalists traveling to India would have been able to provide such intricate details about the attack sites. Ground Report used Twitter to recruit more citizen reporters as the crisis unfolded. The site also broke the story of the underreported Bangalore blasts earlier that year, along with the BBC and the AP.

Started by journalist Rachel Sterne almost two years ago to alleviate Americans of their lack of awareness about important international events such as the Darfur crisis, Ground Report has grown into a magnificent project involving 5000 reporters around the world. While the community rates the best stories, the editing and vetting of content is done by a group of moderators to ensure quality.

Such sites are not restricted to short breaking-news reports alone.

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting likes to call its news stories “campaigns,” which not only raise awareness on underrepresented issues around the world, but are also promoted and published for various audiences in order to increase their impact. Brainchild of longtime American journalist Jon Sawyer, it was established in partnership with Emily Pulitzer in 2006, and today, it is one of the most reliable sources of international coverage in the US. The stories are not merely one-time pieces, but multi-part series that are followed through and updated over the course of several months.

The Center has also partnered with various traditional and nontraditional news organizations to which it disseminates news – the organizations gain because of the content they receive on important global issues, and the Center’s reporters profit from the wide reach and recognition they get from diverse readerships.

The reports focus on the human element, something mainstream outlets tend to ignore. The Pulitzer center’s story on AIDS in Jamaica in collaboration with poet Kwame Dawes drew on narratives from victims in the disease-ravaged country, and its campaign to raise awareness about global warming brings to light tangible effects of climate change, as told through the stories of people who are already suffering its consequences. From corruption in Colombia to the Maoist rebellion in India, the Center has truly extended the geographic and material breadth of news coverage.

Global Post, the latest in a series of such ventures, was launched by Charles Sennot, the Boston Globe’s veteran foreign correspondent earlier this year. With about 70 correspondents in over 50 countries, this project utilizes already-established journalists in different regions of the world in order to provide foreign coverage. Its correspondents include professionals from media stalwart organizations such as CNN, the AP and The Washington Post. While not devoted expressly to citizen journalism, the site aims to locate top bloggers from each area covered in order to amplify its reporting. Social media tools will help create a network to communicate with people in different regions.

One recurring theme in these undertakings seems to be the journalist-as-entrepreneur model that David Westphal describes. The Pulitzer center exemplifies this model by paying its freelancers not much more than a travel stipend, but in helping them find multiple venues to showcase their work. This expands their reach and audience thus allowing them to profit from their reporting, but relieves the nonprofit organization of the burden of payment. Ground Report pays its contributors (fees vary between a few cents to a couple hundred dollars) based on unique traffic to specific articles. Hence, writers actually have a stake in the quality of work they produce. Global Post goes one step further, and in addition to monthly compensation it offers its contributors a grant of shares in the company, thus allowing them part-ownership benefits.

This is just part of the larger push toward a more entrepreneurial approach to journalism be it through the education of aspiring journalists, the training of seasoned reporters, or a fundamental shift in the way we think about the news industry in general, as has been detailed on OJB before.

This idea of producing quality content through a network of independent journalists seems particularly useful in global reporting, which is second only to the hyperlocal genre in being able to tap into the best features that the Internet has to offer.

12 thoughts on “Foreign reporting in the digital age

  1. Pingback: Bring on the unpaid contributors « Mediascaper

  2. Pingback: Journalism is an activity, not a business model. So is plumbing and doctoring. « Low Opinions

  3. Timo Luege

    Having been a full time journalist myself, I’m not a friend of paying journalists based on unique traffic to articles because imho this does not mean you create quality journalism but journalism that is as attractive to the widest possible audience. If you are paid for the traffic then e.g. writing about Sex in Asia (for the 100th time) is always better business then for example writing about people living on garbage dumps in Asia (an underreported problem).

  4. Pingback: Wanted: people who live on the Internet « Business Media

  5. karthikaswamy

    @ Andy – thanks for the info on the site. I agree this post was predominantly US-centric

    @ Timo – there is certainly a very real worry that articles with the most popularity ratings or videos that go viral generally tend to be of little journalistic value, but we can hope that in the case of Web sites with a more targeted audience, due to the nature of readers, the popularity and traffic will be due to more substantial reasons. For instance a site that is predominantly political would pick an article that is in-depth and analytical.

    @ Ben – this was never intended to be a review; it’s an overview of the kinds of citizen sites that are taking up international reporting – something very relevant to the US where foreign reporting has declined drastically due to the closure of worldwide bureaus.

  6. Pingback: The future of journalism: Will journalists be paying out of their own pockets? | Online Journalism Blog

  7. Robert Buckman

    Interesting, but it’s an old concept. They were called STRINGERS. Remember? The only thing new is that these poor bastards apparently are willing to work for free. That’s not a very reliable source of in formation. Also, how do we ride herd on the accuracy of their foreign reporting to make sure there’s not a Jack Kelley in the bunch? I’ll withhold my cheering for now. RTB

  8. Pingback: quest4psnjustice

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.