What is happening to foreign correspondents — those envied reporters who travel to where the news is happening and relay it back home? From here in Shanghai, China it is clear that what used to be is no longer.
In the summer of 2003, at the Shanghai Foreign Correspondents Club, a discussion with Graham Earnshaw, who is the editor in chief of Xinhua Finance News (XFN), provided a wake-up call to any of our members who might be thinking the good old days of foreign correspondence might yet return.
For most of his 30 years in Asia, Earnshaw worked for Reuters as an Asian correspondent. After retiring from the news service in the late 1990’s, Earnshaw signed on with XFN. (Xinhua, which is the official newswire of the Chinese government, is a minority shareholder in XFN.) Earnshaw predicted, not surprisingly, that XFN would succeed as a conveyor of financial news. But his other prediction was a bit more startling to hear: He said he believed that both Reuters and Bloomberg would become obsolete in two to three years, because since the end of the 1990’s both of them had been losing their technological competitive advantage of being able to deliver news in real time to their customers.
The Internet, he went on to say, now made it possible for others, including XFN, to do the same kind of newsgathering at a lesser cost. The worldwide operation of the older newswires — deploying a high number of journalists — is too high of a burden, Earnshaw argued. Revenue streams in many places were being reduced to a trickle, and this meant that much of the overall news operation was having to be subsidized by work in the more profitable financial markets.
XFN’s focus is on only those lucrative financial markets, and it puts reporters in place in markets where it makes commercial sense (not journalistic sense). It follows that if this kind of selective placement is happening at places like XFN, then this competition erodes the more profitable sections of the market for traditional financial newswires. “Nobody is interested in the financial market in Indonesia, so why should we put somebody there?” Earnshaw said, “There is even hardly any interest in Japan.”
Earnshaw expressed little concern for what news might not get reported. “I do not care,” he replied to a question about missed news. “I’m in it for the money.”
A View From Shanghai and Beyond
That summer I also canceled my subscription to the Far Eastern Economic Review. It had been my last subscription for a print publication. From that point on, for a subscription fee of $15 per month, Shanghai Telecom would deliver all the information I needed through my broadband connection. But Shanghai Telecom is not paying the bills of any reporter I know. If everyone did as I was doing, who would pay my bills for reporting the news?
During the past five years in China the Internet has developed into the dominant information provider for academics, the international business community, and journalists. One reason for this is that getting print media sent from outside of China requires its recipient to pay a heavy import surcharge to the Chinese monopoly in charge of bringing them into the country. Censorship of Web sites, by the government, has also been fairly easy to circumvent. In the larger cities, broadband is treated by the Chinese government as a utility like the water supply and, by 2004, a quarter of the 80 million Chinese Internet users were using broadband, double the number in the United States.
These changes were happening at the same time the number of foreign correspondents in Shanghai — the largest and most thriving city in China — did not go up substantially, and the resources they had to do their jobs were declining. At first, we blamed the economic crisis, and then we looked to the major international events (September 11th, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), and that gave us reason to believe we were living in extraordinary times that would return to normal when these crises were over.
In the meantime, colleagues working in Shanghai and Beijing joined emerging low-budget local media operations or trade publications to survive the crisis. Others widened their beats to other parts of Asia, even while budgets were curtailed. And China, the hottest story in Asia, didn’t experience its anticipated substantial gain in foreign correspondents. In Shanghai, the official number of foreign correspondents went up by a dozen during the past three years (to about 70 by the end of 2003), a still minuscule number compared with those in other large financial centers.
Depressing anecdotes accompanied the new arrivals. The Dutch correspondent of de Volkskrant, a major daily, arrived in January 2004 and was working with one third of his predecessor’s budget. His paper closed its operations in Africa and India and was sold in March 2004 to a London-based investment bank that wanted to bring the daily paper to the stock market, and more cost cuts are anticipated. Smaller countries tended to eliminate much of their foreign-based staff, while others maintained a marginal presence. Swedish media recalled their China correspondents in 2002. In March 2004, the BBC decided to close its renowned program “East Asia Today.” And during 2003 and 2004 there were worrisome signs of similar declines in the number of foreign correspondents and the resources given to them in other places in Asia.
Interest in publishing what foreign correspondents have to report is falling, too. Il Manifesto’s long-serving Southeast Asian correspondent, Pio d’Emilia, who works out of Tokyo, says the number of stories he wrote for his paper decreased dramatically from 1997 (207 articles) — his record year — to 87 articles in 2002. He is the only remaining Italian correspondent in Tokyo after more than half a dozen Italian reporters left during the 1990’s. “Our paper has only two pages for foreign news,” says d’Emilia. “They prefer to have breaking news and not the stories I can write about the changes in the Japanese middle class.”
Of course, while places in Asia experience a slackening of growth in numbers of foreign correspondents, Brussels, for example, welcomes many new ones due to the presence of NATO and the European Union (E.U.). “Each new member state in Europe means about 30 new colleagues here in Brussels,” says Marc van Impe, chairman of the Belgium Press Institute in Brussels. “I get at least three calls per week of new colleagues coming here.” But much of the news out of Brussels is domestic European news, which means that dispatches about the developments in the E.U. replace reports from the respective capitals in Europe, so in some ways these journalists are not really foreign
In Europe, it seems that only the Financial Times has the clout necessary to keep its foreign operations thriving. The United Kingdom has nine national papers and the Netherlands six, which are relatively large numbers compared with the United States, and though many of them still cover international news independently, their foreign news operations are falling back very fast. A few of the larger, established news organizations — especially in the United States — like The New York Times and The Associated Press (AP) are moving against these trends. “In the decade I’ve worked for The New York Times the number of foreign correspondents has actually grown from 30 to 50,” observed Howard French, a long-time Times’s foreign correspondent, in a lecture he gave at Temple University in Tokyo. In part, the Times’s foreign coverage is supported by its successful syndication service.
The AP provides a major part of the online stories that print media publish worldwide. In theory, the Internet allows unprecedented access to online stories throughout the world and to the varying perspectives — from radical Islamic voices to the official views of the Chinese government. But increasingly the AP has become the dominant international newswire — the McDonalds of foreign newsgathering — and there is not much room for diversity in its menu.
Aside from the AP, the outlook for newswires is grim. The German Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) is on its way out, with no serious syndication outside Germany, and it is now losing customers in Germany, too. The French Agence France-Presse (AFP) is doing much better in terms of international content syndication but will only survive as long as the French government is prepared to annually pay 30 percent of its costs. Even French patriotism might have its limits. Reuters is struggling and announced it will outsource part of its journalistic work to India, after already outsourcing its information technology departments there.
Enter the Internet
Since the end of the cold war, news has become more of a commodity, and the Internet has made this more visible than ever. With the disappearance of the ideological conflict between capitalism and Communism, news organizations found it easier to close down expensive foreign posts. This decline has been particularly evident in broadcast media in which American networks led the way in markedly reducing their staff foreign postings.
The work done by foreign correspondents is now also in the forefront of changes triggered by the proliferation of the Internet. When XFN’s managing director Graham Earnshaw was asked in August 2003 what he considered a viable alternative for the traditional network of foreign correspondents, he came up with the concept of “cottage journalism.” In using the word “cottage,” he is referring back to how the textile industry operated in preindustrial Britain, before the industrial revolution. Mass industrialization pushed cottage industry out of the production process. In his view, with the Internet, we might soon witness in the media a return to the cottage industry model.
In the September 2003 issue of Foreign Affairs, John Maxwell Hamilton writes about Weblogs as presenting a possible alternative for the classic arrangement of foreign correspondence. In the United States the “blogosphere” is developing very fast, as it is in a few other countries. There are still many countries, of course, where most people are not connected to the Internet, and so this makes its use as a mass communication tool still problematic there. But already, in places like Iran and Iraq, some bloggers have shown how the Internet can be a powerful tool in providing the kind of frontline information that traditional news media aren’t able to obtain.
Entering the blogosphere can be like entering a new and different country, not too much different from the feeling I had when I visited China for the first time and dealt with a different culture and language. In the summer of 2003, as I read about and talked with people about how Weblogs might be used in this way, European and Asian colleagues wondered if I was speaking a new language. When I used words like “narrow media” and Weblog, it was clear that for many of them these were new concepts. As I traveled the world, trying to learn more about the Internet and the role it might be able to play in foreign reporting, I found that new journalistic approaches to managing the information and news that get produced are lacking, as are ways of packaging it for audiences. And the target audiences may no longer be the mass audiences of the past but narrower groupings of news consumers.
I located some emerging Internet initiatives on foreign news. Many of the ones I found are even less mature than Weblogs themselves, but they might be what will be needed to replace the reporting work of the vanishing corps of foreign correspondents. Former CNN Beijing and Toyko bureau chief, Rebecca MacKinnon, for example, recently set up a Weblog that shares news and information about North Korea. With her blog, MacKinnon creates an interactive exchange of news and information that she and members of her blog’s community post. On occasion, she will offer analysis to help put information into context. Her Weblog is an example of how solid journalism and Weblogs can combine to create another source of foreign news.
What hampers development in this direction is finding ways to commercially finance this kind of reporting, information gathering, and dissemination. While MacKinnon’s blog on North Korea is exciting — and informative — as a journalistic project, the classic revenue stream from advertisements and readers are not yet there, though some Webloggers have developed a donated funding stream from members of their online community.
Another service, like allafrica.com, brings together news reporting on Africa that depends on using mostly traditional media, unlike what MacKinnon does with her Weblog. While such a site is useful as a packager of news from an underreported region of the world, it lacks the assets that Weblogs possess — the ability to capture wide diversity of opinion that is expressed with the emotion, some would say passion, which bloggers often bring to their work and traditional media avoid.
On the other hand, an Internet entity like indymedia.org, which claims to have 60,000 “foreign correspondents” who post reports and talk online about anti-globalization events and media, has its own inherent problems. Opinions expressed on this site — while filled with passion — are closely related to those of the anti-globalization movement, and what gets reported doesn’t come with the reliability of well-reported news. A similar model is used by the Web site livinginchina.com, an English language site that has expanded its news and information gathering into India, Latin America, and Europe. Although this site does not have a tendency toward ideological leanings, it also lacks a sustainable revenue model and uses no journalists either as reporters of news or as managers.
Given the Internet’s potential, this is where foreign news journalists might start looking for ways to employ their mixture of reporting skills to figure out how to better use this new technology to inform audiences. They might not reach the mainstream audiences to which they are accustomed to delivering the news. But they might reach well-defined niche audiences willing to pay for news and information gathering that they can depend on and trust.
Fons Tuinstra has been a Dutch foreign correspondent in Shanghai for the past 10 years, as well as an Internet entrepreneur and new media advisor. He is cofounder and 2002 president of the Shanghai Foreign Correspondents Club, a partner and columnist at www.cbiz.cn, who also blogs at www.chinaherald.net.