I’ve been meaning to write about a recent episode of the World Technology Podcast on the so-called death of foreign correspondance and Paul Steiger‘s recent front page reflection on the history and future of the newspaper industry in the Wall Street Journal just happens to set the context of what I have to say perfectly.
Steiger – who has been in the heart of the newspaper industry since he first started working for the Journal as a 23-year-old in 1966 – traces its American evolution from the era of small, local, evening papers in the 50’s and 60’s to big-spending national morning papers of the 70’s to the international institutions of the 80’s and 90’s that most of the readers of this blog are familiar with. As he points out, newspapers didn’t just start sending their reporters abroad out of goodwill, but because it made good business sense:
Many of these information behemoths invested heavily in quality, expanding their reporting locally, nationally and internationally. This was good business as well as a boon to readers, because it raised barriers to entry for would-be competitors.
The result was a golden age of American journalism. In New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles, of course, yet also in Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, Milwaukee, Atlanta, St. Louis, Des Moines, Louisville, St. Petersburg and more, daily papers were willing to send reporters far afield in pursuit of stories exposing corruption or explaining the world. Newspapers opened or expanded Washington bureaus and added reporters abroad. Some stationed them not just in London, Moscow and Tokyo but in places like Sydney and São Paulo.
In other words, once you have a paper that claims to cover the entire world on its front page, it sets the standard for what new competitors must also offer their readers.
Steiger doesn’t ignore the challenges that the newspaper industry has faced prior to the internet: network television and later cable television both required managing editors to cut back spending in order to maintain newspapers’ high profit margins. (22 – 29 percent, according to PBS.) But throughout the 80’s and early 90’s readerships continued to increase and investors stayed content.
Then came the internet and by 1995, Steiger writes, “dozens of newspapers, including the Journal, had online editions. Early leaders of the Journal’s online edition privately referred to it as ‘the paper killer,’ to the great annoyance of print colleagues when they found out. But the phrase was apt: The Web could deliver words and numbers at nearly the speed of light without the cost of printing, paper or delivery trucks, all searchable and archivable.”
Immediately newspaper circulations began to fall and this time it was more than just first-class perks for reporters that needed to be cut in order for the papers to remain highly profitable. Foreign bureaus, once the pride of major newspapers and the focus of dozens of Hollywood ‘reporter movies’, were the first to go.
The story of the ‘death of foreign correspondence’ actually broke one year ago when Nieman Reports released their winter 2006 issue titled “Goodbye Gutenberg” followed one month later by a working paper by Christian Science Monitor foreign correspondent Jill Carroll who emphasizes that foreign reporting is more important now than ever before, but the number of foreign bureaus and foreign correspondents are shrinking exponentially. Her paper inspired commentary from all the usual places: Rebecca Mackinnon, Ethan Zuckerman, Foreign Policy, Open Source Radio, From the Frontline, and more.
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?
The topic of the death of foreign reporting had been covered so vastly, that I was surprised when, a year later, Georgia and I received an email from Aaron Schachter of PRI’s The World wanting to interview us for a story he was producing on, you guessed it, ‘the death of foreign correspondence.’ Georgia, tellingly, was off in Egypt training journalists how to blog and so Aaron and I briefly talked while I was waiting for my flight to Zagreb.
We ended up talking for about 15 minutes and mostly I echoed all of the same points I made here a year ago: 1.) the newspaper industry isn’t going to go out of business, 2.) journalists won’t be replaced by bloggers, 3.) blogging and investigative journalism are typically two different things, 4.) newspapers should focus more on translation than foreign correspondence.
I’ve discovered, however, that when being interviewed for an audio story – or for any story really – what you need to do is make your point in a single 15-second glib sound-byte, because they’re not going to give you more time than that. I’ve also discovered something else – both as an interviewer and interviewee. When a journalist approaches you for an interview, they’ve likely already written out the narrative of their story in their head and they are hoping that what you say will fit nicely into their storyline.
The formula goes something like this. First, the question: in this case, are bloggers replacing foreign correspondents? Then, you need to write your own narrative which weaves between all the 15-second soundbytes of the three or four experts you interview. That narrative typically goes something like this: “On the one hand, Y expert thinks this, but on the other hand, Z expert says this.” The assumption is that if there isn’t disagreement in your piece, then it won’t be interesting to listeners. Listeners like disagreement and debate, the thinking goes. They like the idea that one person will be right and one person will be wrong and they get to take sides.
In truth, if you listened to the entire 15-minute conversation between Aaron and I, you’d probably find that it’s almost identical to the conversations he had with the other interviewees in the story. But I think that Aaron felt that he needed someone to argue that ‘yes, bloggers will replace journalists’ and so he selected a clip from our conversation that represented that point of view. But it wasn’t representative of what I had to say.
Which brings up the issue of transparency and editing. In May
this year last year On the Media had a fascinating interview with Jason Calacanis about the ethics of editing in interviews. Calacanis’ policy is that he’ll only agree to an interview if he’s given access to the full transcript of it. As he points out:
I’ve been burned pretty regularly. I think anybody who’s quoted on a regular basis has either been misquoted, half-quoted, generally burned, and I think it has to do in a lot of ways with how journalism has turned into entertainment.
A lot of journalists are looking for that “gotcha” moment and, you know, having me live on the phone gives them that ability to try to catch me up in something. And I’m not interested in being caught up. I would rather have a really well thought out answer.
He goes on and asks Brooke Gladstone, the show’s co-host and editor, why she doesn’t post all of the source material that gets edited down into the hourlong show that so many of us faithfully listen to on a weekly basis. Part of it has to do with time – its’ a pain in the ass to gather and publish all the content that goes into a single piece. And another part is image. Most writers (and makers of all types of media in general) don’t like to show all the sloppiness and errors that are part of the production process. They just want to show off the final, polished product.
Even just for our silly little video on ‘monos in Colombia‘, Noah and I shot over two hours of video. Most of it is boring, some of the clips were mistakes, and some just weren’t entertaining enough. In total the video is just over 7 minutes long.
Ironically, one of the things that I really like about the World Technology Podcast is that Clark Boyd frequently publishes full-length unedited versions of interviews that don’t make their way onto the regular radio show. For example, Lisa Mullins‘ unedited interview with the BBC’s Simon Cox was 100 times better unedited than the version that was transmitted over the radio waves.
I wonder if Lisa and the rest of the producers of The World have discussed the possibility of making all source material available online in addition to the final edited product?