Foreign Bureaux cut-backs are in favour of low-cost kids with laptops. - Press Gazette

Foreign Bureaux cut-backs are in favour of low-cost kids with laptops.

Graham Holiday from the Frontline Club website looks at how mobiles and laptops are replacing once invaluable foreign correspondents and bureaux.

‘The trench-coated foreign correspondent as Gregory Peck played him in the movies is suddenly almost extinct”… So began Christopher Lydon on the Open Source podcast in February, 2007, in response to the closure of three foreign bureaux of The Boston Globe.

The Globe cutbacks followed the axing of foreign staff across The Daily Telegraph. All in all, 2006 through 2007 saw something of a foreign correspondent cull.

Jill Carroll catalogued the economics in an article in a Harvard research paper: ‘An average newspaper foreign bureau costs between $200,000 and $300,000 a year… bureaux in war zones cost a lot more, as security can cost more than the salary and housing for the journalists.”

Later that same month, Pamela Constable at The Washington Post responded to the gloomy tally in a column lamenting the demise of the foreign correspondent: ‘Between 2002 and 2006, the number of foreign-based newspaper correspondents shrank from 188 to 141 [in the US]… In an effort to cut costs, newspapers are replacing bureaux – which require staffs and cars and family housing – with mobile, trouble-shoo ing individual correspondents. The erstwhile bureau chief in New Delhi or Cairo, chatting with diplomats over rum punches on the veranda, is now an eager kid with a laptop and an Arabic phrase book in their backpack.”

Fast forward some six months and the picture is grimmer. The Department for International Development (DfID) slated the terrestrial TV broadcasters for scaling back foreign coverage: ‘International factual output of the four main terrestrial channels in 2007 was the lowest recorded since reports began [in 1996].” 

And Lord Fowler, in a report delivered to the Lords Communications Committee in June, described the sorry state of news as a whole: ‘With the expansion of the internet, what has not happened is… a similar expansion of news gathering and journalists being employed to get the news. In almost every newspaper and TV company, costs are being cut, journalists are being cut, news services are being cut.”

In November 2007, two of the biggest US networks, CNN and ABC, announced big expansion in the number of ‘solo bureaux’around the world to try and counter the problem, announcing new operations for Afghanistan, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland and Vietnam, among other places.

While late 2006 and much of 2007 saw the demise in the number of foreign correspondents out in the field, 2008 could well see the return of the foreign correspondent in a different, more lightweight, guise.

The contents of the correspondent’s suitcase will look a little different, and they’ll be working across more media and delivering in a different way, but it appears the technological argument has caught up with the economic one.

ABC News president, David Westin, explains how new technology has enabled this change: ‘Technology now makes it possible for us to have bureaux without a receptionist, three edit suites and studio cameras.”

Even so, keeping a bureau in Baghdad, for example, is a highly expensive operation: a set up that traditional news operations are finding hard to justify on an economic level. This was illustrated recently when Lara Logan, CBS chief foreign correspondent, said: ‘It’s terrible. We can’t afford to maintain operations in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time. It’s so expensive and the security risks are so great that it’s prohibitive.”

Which all begs the question, what is the funding model for foreign-news coverage in 2008 and beyond?