It’s hard to believe that it has already been five months since I was sitting in the café courtyard of the Galería de Arte Nacional in Caracas and writing a blog post that I intended to publish that same afternoon. Like so many nearly finished blog posts, however, I never did publish it and it sits lonely, abandoned, and in good company in Journler.
The post is titled “Fire All Foreign Correspondents”. Here’s how it begins:
Just like El Norte in Monterrey, Venezuela’s El Nacional has a weekly supplement of “NY Times en Español.” I’m pretty sure it’s a service of the NY Times company. They probably translate some of their own articles into Spanish and then sell the supplement to papers around Latin America.
It got me thinking, if the NY Times exports its content to other languages, why doesn’t it import content? Why isn’t there a weekly section with two pages of translated articles from a Latin American paper and two more from the Middle East and from Eastern Europe, etc?
A lot of people are complaining about the loss of foreign correspondents. Nowadays almost every US paper depends on the same AP or Reuters or NY Times reporters abroad. I used to complain too. Someone like Juan Forero or Larry Rohter, I argued, had way too much influence in shaping Americans’ views of Latin America.
But now I’m wondering why we need foreign correspondents at all. Why not just establish better ties between media outlets and translate more content of world stories by local reporters?
Five months down the road and everywhere I look: The End of the Foreign Correspondent, the end of foreign correspondence, “the foreign correspondent crisis“, Globe to close last three foreign bureaus, The foreign correspondent is the new dodo, Are foreign correspondents going extinct? (Honestly, I could spend the next two hours finding more links, but I’ll rest my case.)
Almost all of the opinions and posts and essays and columns and podcasts about the so-called “end of foreign correspondence” seem to start with Jill Carroll’s essay and then venture on to one of two lines of thought. The first is that Americans are worse off with fewer foreign correspondents, but this is what happens when investor-controlled corporations take over what were previously family-owned media outlets: the focus becomes quarterly profits instead of a legacy of quality reporting. The second line of thought is, oh well, this is how things are; besides bloggers are now becoming our foreign correspondents. That’s a sentiment I should celebrate. After all, such a claim would put Global Voices in the position of becoming the preeminent source of foreign news for the 21st century.
But what I don’t see entering the debate is the same question I asked myself while staring into the recycled fibers of Venezuela’s El Nacional: why aren’t newspapers translating and featuring stories written by professionally-trained journalists reporting from where the story takes place? Foreign correspondents have always relied heavily on local newspapers from the countries they’re reporting on (and without ever giving credit to those sources). Why not just publish the original pieces with some added context from regional experts?
To be fair, Carroll does briefly point to John Maxwell Hamilton’s book Main Street America and the Third World as a model of how to “to find an international angle in local issues ranging from trade, natural resources, foreign aid, the environment and immigration.” But the overall tone of her paper is much more focused on lamenting the loss of foreign bureaus than encouraging US newspapers to collaborate more closely with newspapers based in other countries.
I came away from We Media last weekend with the realization that the supply chain of global reporting has lost one layer and added another. Foreign correspondents – those self-styled, trenchcoat wearing, Gregory Peck-acting, notepad-scrribling, parachute-landing bottlenecks of international news – are a passé and unnecessary obstacle in how we learn about what is happening in the rest of the world. In their place, we find a new position in the newsroom: the digital DJ.
The digital DJ is technically savvy. She is able to use her laptop and cell phone to find hundreds or thousands of relative pieces all related by a single thread or topic. Sometimes that thread is obvious – like a bomb blast at a coastal resort – other times it takes more ingenuity to draw out the link between seemingly unrelated issues. The digital DJ drinks too much coffee. In a matter of hours, if not minutes, she finds cell phone pics, Flickr photography, blog posts, YouTube videos, newspaper articles, related passages from forgotten books. She is not just a search engine, pasting together a list of all the links she can find. The real value of the digital DJ is – like a DJ working the turntables – the way she is able to select the most relevant and articulate excerpts, add context when needed, and thread them together in order to create a broad diorama of plural perspectives. The digital DJ is just as important for her skill in excluding what is irrelevant or repetitive as she is for selecting what is featured.
Rebecca MacKinnon says let’s do away with the word “foreign,” eliminating the distinction between “us” and “them” when it comes to how we report about the world. But Thomas Crampton’s comment shows how difficult that is in practice:
This is challenging. In writing for the IHT, I address both a local and global audience. I needed my coverage of SARS to tell people outside of Hong Kong what it was like to live through the outbreak, while I wanted to tell readers in Hong Kong information that was still fresh and useful. Sometimes the two audiences simply cannot be addressed at the same time. The ability to bridge is a real talent.
Likewise, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to write for an international readership at Global Voices. Fresh and entertaining writing depends on cultural metaphors, local allusions, ironic euphemisms, and pop-culture references. Good writing is, as the mantra goes, knowing your audience.
Jefferson Morley and Eduardo Arcos are both great bridge bloggers not because they write for a global audience, but because they take global news and package it in a way that appeals to their specific, mostly local, readers. Hopefully big news companies can follow their lead.