The Changing Face of Foreign Correspondence

Madison Temmel
9 min readFeb 10, 2021
Credit: Andrew Stutesman

As the American media industry continues to attempt to counteract challenges facing foreign correspondence in the modern age, individual journalists are finding innovative ways to not only adapt, but possibly revolutionize the way we gather and receive global news. Whether it means tackling the notion of physically bearing witness or pushing for more collaboration on an international scale, these solutions are reimagining the role of the traditional foreign correspondent.

The Current State of Foreign Correspondence

Emerging during the 1800’s, foreign correspondence reigned as an almost elite appearing figure in the world of reporting. From notable figures like Martha Gellhorn who reported on the front lines of The Spanish Civil War during the 1930’s, the traditional foreign correspondent of the past had built an image of daring romanticism abroad. These foreign correspondents reporting from the front lines of conflict in the mid-twentieth century

“consolidated in the minds of editors and readers the core importance of bearing witness to unfurling events,” according to a report published by Reuters.

This concept of bearing witness stuck. Most newspapers, whether local or national, invested in foreign bureau offices from London to Tokyo, and for many years worked to have their reporters send back material on breaking news that would be told through their style. However, this golden age of foreign correspondence would turn out to not necessarily be sustainable in the long run. As the industry changes, what was once looked at as elite, now some consider as an industry in serious need of adaptation or else.

Martha Gellhorn reporting from Italy during World War II. Gellhorn constantly displayed her courage and cleverness during the war. In one instance, she hid herself on a ship, and waded to shore to report on the D Day landing thus becoming the first woman to report on the landings. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Throughout the Cold War, reporters abroad were vital for most newsrooms in accessing events coming from inside the borders of oppressive regimes; however, the tide began changing near the end of the 20th century. With a greater push towards corporatization of news rooms, publications found themselves analyzing costs of production with even greater scrutiny than before. It’s no wonder why eyes began looking towards foreign bureau offices.

With high costs averaging at $250,000 per office covering everything from the maintenance of the bureau to school fees for children of foreign correspondents.

Unfortunately, the revenue gained from international stories and reporting never added up enough to cover these costs. Soon a trend began where foreign bureaus began falling like dominoes. According to reports from American Journalism Review (AJR), at least 20 newspapers between 1998–2011 closed all of their foreign bureau offices. As these doors closed, other newspapers began shrinking the staff and budget for their offices abroad. However, it should be noted that some major newspapers such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal kept many of theirs operational.

It wasn’t simply costs pushing these changes, but in addition, evolving technologies made the need for fully staffed offices less necessary. With emerging technologies that challenged the journalism industry in general, foreign correspondents found that simply sending people to parachute in somewhere with a smartphone and laptop could continue to generate newsworthy stories while reducing expenses for production. Andrew Marr, journalist and author of the book, My Trade, found technology acted as a double edged sword in the world of foreign correspondence. While technology allowed stories to be published remarkably fast, with this speed, it also caused less time for journalists producing these stories to watch, listen, or think about what they are writing.

This change of costs and technologies led to less fully staffed job opportunities at major American papers, and led to the industry to adapt to largely freelance.

By having the ability to just hop on a flight to report anywhere, freelance in many ways has given an advantage to reporters who want to report when and where they want.

In addition, the rise of citizen journalism, the local on the ground reporting through social media has shown a shift in the industry as well. A 2018 Pew Research poll found that 55% of adults surveyed get their news from social media often. Although it is not clear how many adults may get their news from citizen journalists while accessing these platforms the rise of social media in news gathering is worth following.

Yet, even as journalists continue to adapt to the changing needs brought from technology and economics, foreign correspondence still has challenges it needs to tackle. Some major news companies tend to view international news being less interesting among viewers, and as a result of this perception, have cut the amount of time international news is featured on television, on front pages, and so on. While previous surveys have found audience engagement actively keeping up-to-date with foreign news below 50%, this trend may possibly be changing.

Recent surveys from Reuters found as American audiences lose trust in their major media sources, more Americans have begun to turn towards watching local news and news from BBC. Although this current poll may lead to nothing significant, watching whether this trend continues is important as it may play a role in American engagement with foreign news. The content shared through BBC typically delivers segments capturing more screen time dedicated to foreign affairs compared to American media. Even while major media companies in the United States continue to reduce this screen time, as a result of globalization, American audiences have easier access to international sources such as Al Jazeera.

Graph from Press Gazette

Innovative approaches

While challenges exist, many journalists within the international reporting community have created various solutions to update foreign correspondence to fit with a modern, technologically driven and globalized world. These solutions are offering an updated approach to the traditional model.

The virtual foreign correspondent

The concept of bearing witness has been the quintessential job description of foreign correspondents since the early days of the industry. However, as technologies change and advance, some are beginning to challenge the necessity of physically being in a location to report. As this notion deconstructs the traditional role of a foreign correspondent, it offers intriguing ideas on how to combat challenges ranging from the financial to reporting on regimes.

Innovators within the realm of virtual foreign correspondence (VFCs) argue that good international reporting can be done cheaply by establishing virtual foreign bureaus (VFBs) that have sourcing, writing, and verification done completely through the internet. Although these VFBs consist of journalists on the ground, most of the work is done outside of the country being reported on due to economic, social, or independent reasons.

One of the most noteworthy examples of the virtual bureau in action is the Tehran Bureau. Devised by journalist Kelly Golnoush Niknejad, Tehran Bureau began as a blog in 2008, and grew to an independent virtual bureau in 2009 in response to the United States’s shrinking international coverage. Niknejad’s goal was to mix together elements of the traditional journalist with emerging media to deliver in-depth pieces that delved deeper into stories that present the nuances within the country. By connecting writers inside of Iran, among the Iranian diaspora, and foreigners interested in Iran, Tehran Bureau acts as a means to connect people all online.

Niknejad viewed Tehran Bureau as a way to defy tradition, and dismantle stereotypes while filling in coverage gaps as a result of foreign correspondent staff being reduced. Ultimately, Niknejad found that new media was a great asset to foreign correspondence, and decided to utilize it in reporting on a country such as Iran.

“But now, using digital technology, there is another way to grasp the granular and authentic feel of the streets. This process uses new online tools, not to circumvent the most sacred principles of journalism, but to advance them — especially when reporting on authoritarian countries…New media allows journalists to cast their nets wider than ever in some of the most underreported places in the world.,” Nikenjad wrote in a piece for CJR.

Now, amid the pandemic, more foreign correspondents may be using the model of VFCs with Zoom, and other means while flights are scarce, and access across borders is increasingly difficult. However, as the VFC model may be having a moment due to Coronavirus, there is no telling how it may advance once the pandemic ends.

Changing the face of who reports

The traditional face of the foreign correspondent is typically that of a white, westerner who goes into a region to gather information. Sometimes they may speak the language, or understand the culture, and if not, have help from local fixers. Although this is the general model for many foreign correspondents, some journalists are beginning to challenge the tradition of who typically reports. They beg the question: What if we can utilize local reporters for deeper, meaningful coverage for a fraction of the cost?

One individual who decided to tackle this was Cristi Hegranes. As an aspiring foreign correspondent, Hegranes dreamed of jumping from region to region to report on events for an audience back home. When this dream finally came to fruition, Hegranes found herself in Nepal reporting on a civil war in the mid-2000’s, yet it didn’t feel quite right. As an outsider, locals didn’t trust her, and accessing certain areas was increasingly difficult. She soon came upon a woman who was the matriarch of her village, who had insider knowledge, and it suddenly hit Hegranes; why not let this woman report? After handing the woman her pen, Hegranes told her to write the news story in her own words. The woman did just that.

Photograph from Global Press Journal’s Facebook page.

Thus, the idea for Global Press Institute was born. Hegranes realized that with the closing of bureau offices, the foreign correspondent model was not only expensive, but was also focusing mostly on international crises. As major media companies in the United States were focused on finances, she found that good international reporting was losing quality and diversity. To change this she looked to innovate the model by looking to train local women on the ground to report.

By using this model to train local journalists abroad, not only does the Global Press Institute reduce the expenses of flying journalists place to place, but also allows for a more diverse set of voices telling current events from far more perspectives and places areas of the world. To date, GPI articles have appeared through BBC, Reuters, and Huffington Post.

Utilizing the internet to collaborate with citizen journalists

As a way to circumvent not only the expenses of sending journalists abroad, but to become borderless, some innovators are turning to the internet as a means to amplify the voices of anyone across the world that may otherwise go unheard.

Devised by Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon, Global Voices Online (GVO) acts as an international non-profit citizen media community that strives to utilize the internet to cross borders and deliver stories from underreported regions, people, and topics. Global Voices functions mostly through the work of volunteer contributors and relies on the support of grants, editorial commissions, and additional donations to continue publishing quality and reliable work.

The citizen media model is based on the concept of bridging the gap between individuals and news companies. This initiative is successfully conducted in countries where freedom of press sometimes is limited, such as China, and can act as a conduit for those whose voices may otherwise go unheard. With the advent of the internet and social media, we see a rise of the citizen journalist in the modern age. From publishing up-to-date tweets during the Egyptian revolution in 2011, to video streams from recent Black Lives Matter protests, citizen journalism is gaining spotlight on the international scale.

Viewed as a model that can democratize journalism as it gives a voice to everyone, GVO is a prime example of a publication using the internet to capture these voices in detailed, fact checked articles. As noted on the Berkman Klein Center,

“GVO is expanding its outreach activities aimed at helping more communities who are generally under-represented in media coverage to get their voices heard through blogging, podcasting, and online sharing of video and images.”

Re-building trust through localization of news

As trust in American media continues to drop, localization of newsrooms doesn’t mean the international story can not be reflected in a local story as well. As noted by Poytner, and other media think tanks, localizing international stories may help build viewer interest. In addition, as viewers turn towards more local news as indicated by the recent Reuters report, this local lens may not only help build interest but more importantly restore trust in media throughout the country. A step back from the hyper-nationalized media may be exactly what news needs, and that doesn’t need to exclude global affairs either.