Will The Internet Kill The Foreign Correspondent?

from the world-wide-web dept

The New York Times takes a look at the changing role of foreign correspondents in the Internet age. A generation ago, journalists who covered foreign countries could send reports back home without worrying about how their coverage would be perceived by the natives. This may have allowed more candid reporting, but it also meant coverage was less accurate because reporters never got feedback from the people they were covering. Now all that has changed. On the Internet, Indian readers can read the New York Times as easily as the Times of India. When reporters make mistakes, they get instant feedback from the subjects of their stories.

One question the story doesn't specifically discuss is whether there's a need for foreign correspondents, at all, in the Internet age. In the 20th century, newspapers needed foreign correspondents because the process of gathering and transmitting news across oceans was expensive and cumbersome. Having a foreign bureau gave a newspaper a competitive advantage because it allowed it to get fresher and more complete international news than its competitors. Now, of course, transmitting information around the world is incredibly cheap and easy. My local newspaper is no longer the only—or even the best—source of information about world events. Those who understand the language can get their news directly from foreign media outlets. And for the rest of us there are a ton of people who translate, filter, and interpret the news coming out of foreign countries for domestic consumption. Given these realities, it's not obvious how much value is added by having American newspapers send reporters to the far-flung corners of the globe.

Of course, there are still tremendous advantages to having people who can explain foreign events and put them in context for American readers. I can read India's newspapers, but I'm not going to pick on all the nuances of the coverage. But there are lots of ways to provide this kind of context and analysis. For example, there are undoubtedly smart Indian journalists who went to college in the United States and then returned to India. Such journalists are going to possess a much deeper understanding of Indian culture than an American journalist could. Conversely, there may be American expats living in India (perhaps with day jobs other than journalism), who could provide an American perspective on Indian news. Most importantly, there are lots of people here in the United States, who can read Indian news sources and then write about developments there, from an American perspective. These include Indian immigrants and Americans who have spent time in India, in the past.

One of the things people frequently cite as evidence of the dire state of the news industry is the fact that newspapers are closing their foreign bureaus and laying off their foreign correspondents. Maybe this is a sign that journalism, as a profession, is in trouble. But another interpretation is that we've just found more efficient ways to get news about foreign events. American readers will continue to demand coverage of overseas events. But 21st century news organizations are likely to discover that shipping American journalists overseas is not the most efficient way to meet that demand.

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  1. identicon
    Gene Cavanaugh, 19 Mar 2009 @ 8:54pm

    Foreign correspondents

    Right on, Mike!
    I will add that it is keeping American journalism more honest. There was a time (not all that long ago, really) when I could get a foreign newspaper (usually from Mexico, since that was easier) and read an identical story I had just read in an American paper, and find myself reading TWO different accounts!
    We have to remember, most newspapers are owned (and the bias dictated by) individuals, not always individuals one would necessarily agree with (Ted Turner, anyone?).
    Now, though, the chance of getting caught in a flat-out lie is much greater (though, reading foreign newspapers, I can tell you people still lie! Where! Here? There? Who knows.).

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