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American Journalism Review
An American in Paris (and Moscow and Berlin and Tokyo...)  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April 1994

An American in Paris (and Moscow and Berlin and Tokyo...)   

Modern technology has dramatically changed how foreign correspondents operate, and what they write.

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     


Just as the Persian Gulf War was winding down, Iraqi forces began bulldozing hundreds of Kurdish villages, forcing more than a million people to flee. It was a big international story, but a difficult one for reporters to get to. Many ventured into Kurdistan by day and returned to Turkish border towns at night hunting for telephones to file their stories.

Cox Newspapers correspondents Joseph Albright and his wife, Marcia Kunstel, took a different approach. They journeyed deeper and deeper into Kurdistan. They didn't need a telephone line; they dragged along a 13-pound, $11,000 satellite telex. Although slow in transmitting, it allowed them to send their pieces from the remote mountains and valleys of the Iraqi interior.

Much has changed in foreign reporting since 1939 when Huntley Haverstock, the protaganist of Alfred Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent," was advised how to do his new job by a drunken London colleague: "All you do is cable back the government handouts and sign them: Our London Correspondent."

Nothing has changed as significantly as transmission technology. With lightweight, versatile computers, satellite telephones, reliable phone lines and faxes, foreign reporting is now enormously easier. Cables are a relic of the past. Even the telex machine, which was what many of today's middle-aged foreign correspondents used at the beginning of their careers, is collecting dust alongside manual typewriters. The current high-tech wonder is a satellite telephone, which at around $20,000 few newspapers can afford for each bureau.

Sophisticated television technology also has had a major impact on the kinds of stories foreign correspondents cover. With CNN's satellite system crisscrossing the globe, it's no longer enough for a foreign correspondent to report events. More and more, foreign editors at U.S. newspapers are leaving hard news to the cable network and the wire services and demanding analysis, perspective and "tell us what it was like to be there" pieces.

While many newspapers have been whittling away at editorial budgets, they tend to protect their foreign bureaus (although some papers have delayed filling bureau vacancies to save money). The bureaus are more often shuttered because the big story in that region has faded, rather than for financial reasons. And often correspondents are relocated to a hotter spot. When Newsday and the Boston Globe closed their London operations, for example, they opened new ones in Bonn and Berlin, respectively.

Some newspapers are expanding their foreign coverage. This spring the San Jose Mercury News, whose readership area includes the second largest Vietnamese population in the country, plans to open the first U.S. newspaper bureau in Vietnam since the early 1970s. In the fall of 1992 the Washington Post added an investigative reporter to its London bureau while the Dallas Morning News sent a second reporter to Mexico City. In February, the New York Times' Moscow bureau increased its staff from three reporters to four.

Foreign bureau growth is most pronounced at media organizations that concentrate on business news. Knight-Ridder Financial News, for instance, has more reporters in London than all the Knight-Ridder newspapers have outside the United States.

What hasn't changed, and probably never will – despite the dangers of detention, deportation and even death – is the hunger among American reporters of all ages to ply their trade abroad. A 1991 survey of Americans working on foreign soil by Ohio University journalism professor Ralph E. Kliesch found 5,500 freelancers and full timers, 25 percent of them women.

Foreign correspondents used to send telegrams or telexes to their editors. Some even shipped their stories home on cargo planes. The distance, although it could be calculated in miles, was immeasurable when it came to communication. Reporters could disappear for weeks, leaving frantic editors unable to reach them. Even if an editor could telephone the correspondent, there was no guarantee the call would go through or that it wouldn't be disconnected in mid-sentence. Telephone lines sometimes went down for weeks.

James Yuenger, now foreign editor of the Chicago Tribune, has been a foreign correspondent off and on for 25 years. He marvels at how conditions have changed.

"My first post was in Moscow in 1970," says Yuenger, 54. "I wouldn't get a telephone call from the U.S. but once a year. The phones were lousy. The only way to communicate was with a telex at 66 words a minute. Now, with a computer, it's 1,000 words a minute."

Part of the appeal of a foreign post was its distance from the home office. "I used to love to disappear and get away from the breaking story," recalls Newsday Foreign Editor Jeff Sommer, 40, who opened the paper's Moscow bureau in 1986. "Now, it's hard to do because of the technology. 'The telephone lines are going bad' used to be a much more plausible excuse." In fact, Sommer can phone his Moscow correspondents directly by dialing only four digits, thanks to the paper's satellite link.

Because of computers, nowhere in the world is considered remote anymore. Correspondents can be reached within minutes through electronic mail. Reporters also can hook up to their paper's library, tap into commercial databases, or dial into the Internet to retrieve extraordinary amounts of information.

"Let's say I'm in Malawi in Africa and I want to find a good resource on the president of Malawi," says Dallas Morning News International Editor Jim Landers, 43. He puts a note on the Internet. "The next day, you go to interview the president and you know all about him. That's the kind of thing a foreign correspondent can do now that they couldn't do before. Basically, you had to keep the library in your head."

Even editing foreign stories, once a frustrating experience for reporters and editors, has gotten easier. A story can be returned electronically with ample time for the correspondent to make changes.

"You no longer send a piece off to the home paper and never hear about it again," says Mark Seibel, 40, of the Miami Herald, who was the paper's foreign editor from 1984 to 1991.

When Seibel was a foreign correspondent for the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald, he talked to the office twice a week. The Miami Herald's current foreign editor, Juan Tamayo, receives an electronic message nearly every day from each of the Herald's bureaus in Jerusalem, Managua, Bogota, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City.

Even with the advent of fast, portable computers, the machines still need dependable telephone lines. Worldwide service is far more reliable than 10 years ago, but in a disaster telephones are often one of the first systems to go. With satellite telephones, disasters become irrelevant.

Seibel recalls that one of his correspondents covered the Mexican earthquake in 1985, computer in hand. There were few working telephone lines and reporters were forced to rely on passengers flying out of the country to take stories to editors. "Now, if you go into someplace like that with a satellite telephone, you wouldn't care if the city had been leveled," says Seibel, whose paper has one such phone. "Just fire up the phone, point it at a satellite, plug in the computer and file."

Newspapers have yet to take full advantage of satellite technology, but it's already revolutionized television. Instantaneous satellite transmission enables CNN to broadcast to more than 140 countries and territories. "Headline News," which debuted in 1982, has 20 foreign bureaus and provides 48 million American viewers half-hour wrap-ups of U.S. and international stories, often as they happen.

Such immediacy has transformed foreign reporting. "CNN changes the way you approach the story," says Seibel. "You can't just have the facts, you have to have more."

CNN also can make some foreign correspondents superfluous. They now may go to tremendous lengths to land a story only to breathlessly call home and hear an editor say, "Yeah, I know. We saw it on CNN."

"In the old days, [getting there] would be enough and you could write a fine, basic story and tell people something fresh," says Newsday's Sommer, who still occasionally reports from abroad. "Today, if the story is big enough, it'll get there before you call. If the desk already knows, it can be a deflating experience."

Wider circulation of an international story, however, can mean increased readership, according to Fran Dauth, the Philadelphia Inquirer's foreign editor. Dauth says that when CNN extensively covers an event, her paper enjoys a big jump in sales. "People watch it on CNN," she says, "become familiar with the place and the foreign issue, and then they want to read about in a newspaper."

The availability of round-the-clock television news has freed – and forced – foreign print reporters to do more analysis and investigative stories. "By the time readers get the Sun, if it's a big international story, they've probably seen it on CNN ad nauseam," says Foreign Editor Jeff Price, who handles the Baltimore paper's eight international bureaus. "What we have to do is to explain something more than they saw on television, to take the story further."

As an example, Price noted his paper's coverage of the Russian elections last December. His reporters did color pieces on people voting in a country where voting is a new experience, on the xenophobic Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and on the people who voted for him. And then they tried to explain what it all meant.

Yuenger, at the Chicago Tribune, has encouraged a similar approach. "We are not looking for daily reports," he says. "Instead of doing it like the New York Times, with stories day after day that advance it microscopically, we'll wait several days so the reporter can give us a special story with more impact."

Many papers now rely on wire services such as the Associated Press, Reuters, the New York Times or the Washington Post-Los Angeles Times for daily foreign stories. "The wires do a pretty decent job," says Sommer. "I like to break stories and do more serious investigative stories or more in-depth reporting. I'd rather take a risk and get ahead of the story rather than following it."

The Inquirer's Dauth uses the wires but still favors hard news from her correspondents at the paper's six bureaus. "If a story is going to be on the front page for several days, then I think our staff ought to get there and do it and not use the wires," she says. "But I don't think we should spend money to have people go places for stories to run inside. It's not worth it."

Even the AP, with its reputation for the straight, unadorned facts, is changing its focus, according to Tom Kent, the wire service's international editor. Kent says that over the last decade the AP has been "trying to give a greater variety of close-to-the-news analysis and break some stories, and do stories the world would ignore if we didn't cover them." The wire service, he adds, now has 90 bureaus in 67 foreign countries – the most in its history.

With increased immigration from Asia and Latin America, newspapers are shifting their foreign news emphasis. "Chicago is a city of immigrants," says the Tribune's Yuenger. "We have to think about the Poles, Serbs, Croats, Hungarians and Czechs. At the same time, most of our new immigrants come from Asia. If I have space in the paper and a story is equally significant from Italy or the Philippines, I'll go with the Philippines."

The San Jose Mercury News opened bureaus in Mexico in 1980 and Tokyo in 1982, and plans to open one in Vietnam this year specifically because its readers include large numbers of Hispanics, computer company employees and Vietnamese. "We tend to look at foreign bureaus as extensions of what the paper needs to do to provide coverage of particular countries to our audience," says Executive Editor Bob Ingle. "We want our reporters to see the situation in the country or region as if they're the eyes of readers in San Jose. So that's why high tech gets a lot more coverage in Japan than the automobile industry."

At Cox Newspapers, foreign correspondents also provide stories that are of local interest to the chain's newspapers. A large percentage of the Palm Beach Post's readers are Jewish, so Cox has a bureau in Jerusalem. And since the chain has 10 papers in Texas and Arizona, it has a Mexico City bureau. Cox's other bureaus are in Moscow, London and the Caribbean.

"We are not afraid to be terribly parochial in our coverage," says Andrew Alexander, deputy bureau chief for Cox Newspaper's Washington bureau. "We are very attuned to serving our readers. If that means covering the mayor of Atlanta when he goes to Jerusalem or [Georgia] Sen. [Sam] Nunn when he passes through Moscow, we are only too happy to do that."

In recent years the Miami Herald, which serves a large Hispanic population, has concentrated its bureaus in Latin America. The paper closed its Berlin bureau last year, leaving four south of the border – in Managua, Bogota, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City – and another in Jerusalem.

Editors concluded the Herald was not going to have an impact on European events or the coverage of them. But they do expect to have an impact in Latin America. "We are read by the presidents of Latin American countries, by the bankers and ministers," says former Foreign Editor Seibel. "They expect the Miami Herald to break stories."

For other papers, the story or the region – not the hometown audience – determines where they open a bureau. "The Miami Herald has tried to set up bureaus in response to their readership," says the Inquirer's Dauth, "and we are doing it in response to the world." The Inquirer currently has bureaus in Berlin, Beijing, Cairo, Johannesburg, London and Moscow.

But the big story shifts continually, so papers have to be prepared to move their correspondents with little notice. In 1975 the hot spot was Beirut. Now none of the larger papers, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer or the Washington Post, have bureaus there. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Sun, Herald and Boston Globe each shut down one of their other bureaus and opened new bureaus in the former German capital. Newsday, meanwhile, closed down a bureau and opened a new one in Bonn.

Now that much of the world's attention is focused on the political turmoil in the former Soviet republics and Moscow, nearly every newspaper or chain with a foreign staff has at least one correspondent there. One foreign editor predicts that the Big Story will shift to South Africa for this spring's democratic elections.

According to foreign editors interviewed for this article, today's hot spots for U.S. press coverage, besides Moscow, are Jerusalem, Berlin, Mexico City and Tokyo. But Ralph Kliesch's data indicate there are more full time and freelance U.S. journalists in the United Kingdom than any other spot. Britain, with 750 Americans, is followed by France (409), Japan (338), Germany (321), Russia (304), Israel (187), Italy (167), Canada (163), Mexico (146) and Hong Kong (140). Conversely, Africa continues to be the most understaffed region of the world. And since the end of armed conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua, Central America has also fallen off the map.

Many newspapers have been cutting back on their news staffs to shore up profit margins battered by the lingering recession. But nearly every organization contacted for this article plans to maintain all of its foreign bureaus.

"We're holding the line," says Jackson Diehl, foreign editor for the Washington Post's 19 bureaus. "We have more bureaus and more space devoted to foreign news than we did 11 years ago."

Closing a bureau is a tough decision because once it's gone, the chances of reopening it are slight. Start-up costs are high, says Bob Keane, an assistant managing editor at Newsday. "Once you've established a bureau, they're inexpensive to keep operating. The cost of living is not terribly high in Moscow these days, nor in Jerusalem."

Newsday no longer has a correspondent in China but it continues to rent office space. The Los Angeles Times has three vacancies among its 25 bureaus. For budgetary reasons, the paper closed its Manila bureau and hasn't been moving quickly to fill spots in Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi or Mexico City. But it won't close those bureaus, says Simon Lee, 46, a deputy foreign editor.

Knight-Ridder helps out four of its papers – the San Jose Mercury News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Detroit Free Press and Miami Herald – by paying for some of their foreign bureaus. For example, two of the Inquirer's six foreign bureaus are funded by the parent corporation.

With that assistance, the Mercury News' Bob Ingle has been able to maintain foreign correspondent staffing levels throughout the recession. "If I cut a foreign bureau," he says, "I gain nothing, which has been a good policy."

Even the Christian Science Monitor, which is in deep financial trouble, isn't planning to close any of its 12 foreign bureaus, according to International News Editor Jane Lampmann.

There are some exceptions. Portland's Oregonian, which opened a bureau in Tokyo three years ago, is reconsidering. The paper's news editor, John M. Harvey, says it's extremely expensive to keep an office in Tokyo, about the equivalent of three reporters' salaries.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Bee, which has had a Mexico City bureau for the last five years, didn't replace correspondent David Schrieberg when he left for a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University last year. "It's partly budget and partly it's the difficulty of covering events in Mexico," says the Bee's national editor, Dave Favrot. "The pollution there is the worst in the world."

Almost all large newspapers depend heavily on stringers living abroad to expand their coverage. The New York Times has 23 bureaus staffed by full time foreign correspondents, as well as stringers in Beirut, Belgrade, Bogota, Dublin, Geneva and Manila.

The Dallas Morning News, which has four foreign bureaus, keeps special correspondents on retainer for stories from abroad. One is in Cairo. "So far [the Cairo stringer is] working just for us," says International Editor Landers. "But she's free to sell to anyone else. We insist that they don't put the stories on a newswire. What we get for the retainer is a fairly steady stream of stories plus loyalty."

On rare occasions stringers might one day get a full time job. It's not a track at most newspapers, however. Foreign bureaus are often used to entice talented reporters to come to a newspaper. But few papers give foreign slots, which typically last three years, to anyone outside their newsroom.

"We always hire from within," says the Inquirer's Dauth, echoing an oft-repeated sentiment among foreign editors. "Our policy is to hold firmly to the belief that we have plenty of talented people here. It's kind of insulting to go outside."

Hungry freelancers, however, are now finding a new job market blossoming in international financial news. Knight-Ridder Financial News service, a 24-hour, six-days-a-week operation, has been growing steadily since the mid-1970s. Today it employs more than 100 journalists in 28 foreign bureaus. A newer financial news service, Bloomberg Business News, has opened 25 foreign news bureaus since it was founded three years ago.

Newspapers also are putting a greater emphasis on foreign financial reporting. One of the two Washington Post reporters in Tokyo covers only economic news and writes for the financial – not foreign – editor, a trend seen at more papers.

Financial reporting may be a way for some journalists to live and work abroad, but it lacks the swashbuckling aura of a foreign correspondent pounding out copy from the frontlines of Somalia or Bosnia-Herzegovina.

It's also not as dangerous.

According to the New York City-based Freedom House, which tracks the travails of all journalists working in another country, last year 74 journalists – including two Americans – were killed on the job. One of the Americans was Alexandra Tuttle, a stringer for the Wall Street Journal, who was killed last September in a battle between separatists and government troops in the Republic of Georgia. The average number of journalist deaths over the last decade, according to Freedom House, is 66 per year.

Danger seems to heighten the passion for foreign reporting. Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent David Zucchino, 42, of the Inquirer recalls his years in Beirut in a way that might seem pathological to the uninitiated. "Every day you would walk out the door and a story would hit you in the face," he says. "Car bombs. Americans assassinated. It was a great story. There was the constant dynamic of tension, massacre and war.

"I never wore a bullet-proof vest. It was too hot. We got shelled all the time. Bullets would go whizzing by and you'd never know where it would come from. It was exhilarating."

The greatest challenge wasn't dodging bullets, though. "By far the hardest part of the job was getting the story out," says Zucchino, who now covers the war on drugs for the metro desk. There were no computers, only typewriters and telexes.

"Often you had to bribe somebody to go down to the [Post Telephone and Telegraph office] to yank somebody else's telephone line out and put yours in," he recalls. "Of course, yours could be yanked out by somebody who paid a bigger bribe."

That was 10 years ago. "If we had had satellite telephones," says Zucchino, "like all the journalists are using in Sarajevo today, it wouldn't have been a problem."

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