Be A Stringer See The World
Inspired on a Hawaiian beach, they set up shop in Seoul and wound up reporting for The New York Times and Newsweek. It worked wonderfully for two hardscrabble years.
By David Bank & Peter Leyden
David Bank is a staff writer at the San Jose Mercury News. Peter Leyden is a staff writer at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
It all began on a beach in Hawaii. The two of us, friends from grad school days, had taken a break from our newspaper jobs for an early winter vacation. David was covering City Hall for the Los Angeles Daily News . Pete was covering inner city crime for TheHartford Courant . After three years of local news, we felt we were losing touch with what attracted us to journalism in the first place. We wanted to grapple with world events, struggle with international issues, immerse ourselves in foreign countries. So there on the beach, we came up with the idea to quit our jobs and become foreign correspondents. We decided to become stringers together.
That was four years ago. South Korea was dominating the headlines; mass demonstrations were forcing military strongman Chun Doo Hwan to relinquish power. Korea's economy, the world's fastest-growing, was making its impact on the United States. Korea was being called the next Japan. And the hook that promised to boost interest was the 1988 Summer Olympics. As a country compelling enough to command world attention but not big enough to attract staff journalists, South Korea fit the bill.
So we formed "The Enterprise," a takeoff on the covert foreign operation run by Ollie North and Richard Secord. Our friends and families considered it more like the spaceship of the same name on "Star Trek" that hurtles through uncharted space.
Two months before the Olympics, during the rainy season, we landed in Seoul with one piece of luggage each and our Toshiba 1000 laptop computers with modems. We each had raised $3,000 for start-up costs, not much of a stake in a city that has become as expensive as New York. We set up our combination office and home in a tiny $800-a-month apartment in a crowded Korean neighborhood, furnishing the place with banged-up metal furniture that the Seoul UPI bureau was throwing away. We bought secondhand futons, a rusty refrigerator and a two-burner stove. We were nearly broke before we had filed a single story.
In Korea, every business relationship begins with the exchange of business cards. The cards then are scrutinized for clues to the bearer's social standing. Before we left the United States, we had approached medium-sized newspapers, offering to provide consistent pre-Olympic coverage on the host country. We tentatively signed up about eight papers, including The Atlanta Journal and Constitution , TheSan Diego Union , the St. Petersburg Times and The Arizona Republic . On our first business cards, we each had four newspapers crowding our names to the bottom.
We set out doing weekend analyses and news features not found on the wires. We sent the same story to each of the eight papers "on spec," hoping they'd buy the story at the standard $150 to $200. The way you make money in foreign stringing is to sell the same story in as many markets as you can. Editors fully understand as long as you don't sell to their direct competitors. So, with up to an 18-hour time difference allowing us to work late into the night, we spent Fridays hunched over our computers, changing the computer coding at the top of each file to transmit via phone lines to each paper. After phoning the editors around 2 a.m. to hype our product like salesmen for aluminum siding, we wound down drinking Korean beer and watching TV shows like "Delvecchio," a long-forgotten early 1970s detective show, on the U.S. military's overseas network.
D uring the Olympics most famous for the Ben Johnson drug flap, we hooked up with UPI, covering sports disdained by the agency's regular staff. Between Greco-Roman wrestling matches and rowing competitions, we used the games to meet correspondents and editors from major papers and position ourselves to fill the expected vacuum created by the post-Olympic exodus. Sure enough, at the end of the games, the Newsweek stringer announced she was returning to the States.
After the Olympics we hopped a ferry and hitchhiked to Tokyo to try to convince Newsweek 's bureau chief that the Korea story still had life and that we were the ones to cover it. He mulled our offer over and we returned to Seoul. Then, former President Chun offered his teary televised apology for his myriad misdeeds and banished himself to a remote Buddhist monastery. The country was stunned. So were we when Newsweek called and wanted the story.
Landing Newsweek was the key break in our quest to build a thriving stringer bureau in Seoul. Soon we picked up the Chicago Tribune , the San Francisco Chronicle and Newsday and dropped those papers whose interest in Korea flagged after the Olympics. The appearance of our business cards was improving. We began as Newsweek "contributors," advanced to "special correspondents" and eventually were guaranteed a monthly retainer. Before long The New York Times approached us to cover breaking political and economic news. The Times did not give us a byline although we did slip it on our business cards. In the end, both our cards called us special correspondents for Newsweek and The New York Times .
Our makeshift bureau hummed with several levels of news service. We filed regularly to Newsweek , landing a story in the magazine's international edition about every other week and occasionally cracking the much tighter domestic edition. Early in the week we'd pitch a story idea to Newsweek , which would cover us with a $150-a-day rate and expenses, including our student interpreters, who earned about $15 an hour. Throughout the week, we monitored breaking news for The New York Times and frequently filed short stories. At the end of the week, we'd send our Newsweek files and then repackage the same material for weekenders for our cluster of daily newspapers. We worked closely with the Times ' and Newsweek 's Tokyo bureaus, flagging them on major developments and helping the staff correspondents when they arrived. When big stories broke, we also consulted for ABC television and did $50 spots for ABC radio.
The key to our success at selling stories was the joint effort by two reporters an unusual arrangement in the stringer world. We talked out each story idea and argued about various topics for months: Was President Roh Tae Woo, who alternated between reform and repression, a cunning manipulator or a lucky bungler? On a given story, only one of us reported and wrote. The other served as an editor and sometimes a rewrite man. The two-man setup allowed one of us to travel while the other covered the home turf. One of us took off about every three months for Thailand, China, Japan or Hong Kong. We were fanatically devoted to our double byline; every story went out with both our names. Newsweek began to call us "The Twins." The double byline minimized competition between us and gave us a greater stake in each other's work. The only distinction we allowed was to put the lead reporter's name first.
At its best, The Enterprise allowed us to practice the kind of journalism we sought. South Korea's Ministry of Defense tried to expel us from the country when we reported on the high number of military recruits who died after disciplinary beatings. We were the only western correspondents on the scene when 14,000 troops stormed the giant Hyundai shipyards to break up a strike. We were among the first to report on military dissatisfaction with Roh's government and on deep splits in the radical student movement. We exposed a taboo topic in the Korean press: the routine acceptance by reporters of cash payments from government and business sources. And we traced Korean connections for "ice," a new West Coast drug scourge.
The Enterprise's crowning achievement also was our most disillusioning moment: a trip to Tibet. In March 1989, after days of demonstrations and riots, the Chinese declared martial law in Tibet, the former kingdom of the Dalai Lama. While world attention focused on the Tiananmen Square massacre that June, the Chinese government's continuing crackdown in the Himalayas remained uncovered partly because journalists were banned. In July, we decided to capitalize on one of the few advantages we had over staff reporters based in Asia: No one knew us. We decided to try to slip into Tibet posing as tourists, taking along Sharon Hawkins, Pete's girlfriend (now his wife), to help with our cover.
We shut down the Seoul bureau for six weeks, gloating that we had no boss telling us where to go and what to do. We quickly became acutely aware that we also had no boss footing the bill; the only way into Tibet was to sign up for a three-person tour at outrageous rates. We ended up forking over nearly $5,000 for an eight-day tour with a government-appointed guide who tried to accompany us everywhere.
Once in, we saw the first known pro-independence demonstration since the declaration of martial law. We were watching a Tibetan opera festival, where crowds were gathered in a large circle around the performers. Suddenly a row of Buddhist nuns, chanting for independence and the return of the Dalai Lama, marched through the crowd into the performance area. As Pete snapped photos, the Chinese police dragged the nuns away. Then they hauled Pete to a police station, grilled him for four hours and made him write a self-criticism on his bourgeois tendencies.
The Chinese released Pete with a fine but confiscated his film minus one roll. Before his detention, Pete had slipped the roll of the demonstration to Sharon, who stashed it in her trousers, a place the authorities dared not look. Back in Hong Kong, we gave Newsweek two exclusive stories, plus photos, for a three-page spread.
With $12,000 in expenses to make up, we wrote a five-part newspaper series accompanied by 40 color slides. Then the news came in: the Dalai Lama had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Demand surged. Newspapers like The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Boston Globe , which were not regular customers, wanted our stories. We sold pieces to Mother Jones and the weekend magazine of the Guardian in London. But for all that, when the final checks arrived six months later, we earned back our $12,000 and pocketed only about $2,000 more.
D espite our frequent 16-hour days and six-day weeks, we were often dead-ass poor. In the end we made a decent living but never achieved the grand style of staff correspondents or even the middle-class lifestyles we had in the States. Our tax returns showed that The Enterprise grossed about $55,000 for 1989.
Over the two years, we were forced to spend a good portion of our time being businessmen rather than journalists. We often felt like bankers loaning our scant capital out to any news organization that asked. We fronted phone bills of more than $1,000 per month, the cost of interpreters and substantial travel expenses. Later, we billed our customers and much later the checks arrived by slow international mail. We also maintained our own overhead, everything from notebooks to health insurance.
The root of the problem was that stringer fees have barely risen in the past 15 years. The standard remains about $150 per story, with few papers covering expenses. What's more, a stringer in Manila receives the same fee as one in Tokyo. While that wage in Manila lets you live in a villa, in Tokyo it won't pay for a cab to the airport. The cost of living in Seoul is fast catching up with that of Tokyo.
Our financial situation was best summed up by our car, a mid-1970s Hyundai Pony. In a land where a man is judged by the size of his hood ornament, our neighbors called our little vehicle ttong-cha , the shit car. We parked facing downhill so we could pop-start it when the battery failed. It had more dents and rust than all the other neighborhood cars combined. It cost us $375 to buy but vast sums to maintain. Korean drivers pointed and laughed when we pulled up at stoplights.
Our other main problem was the lack of any news organization solidly behind us. Stringers face constant pressures to judge a story by its salability rather than its merits. Unlike staff reporters, we couldn't risk explorations that wouldn't turn directly into marketable copy. And news organizations shied away from complex or risky subjects. When we got confidential documents showing that the wife of a high-ranking U.S. military official in Korea had been given $10,000 cash by a prospective contractor (which she later returned) and that the subsequent investigation had been thwarted we got some nibbles but no bites.
The system can easily be abused. An unscrupulous stringer can hype a story he knows will be bought. We resisted the temptation to play up radical students in our stories because they increasingly became marginalized in Korean politics. However, editors often spliced a few paragraphs of exaggerated wire copy into our articles or used the wire story rather than ours. Sometimes, leaving out the firebombs and tear gas, however minor, worked against our financial interests.
The dangers are exacerbated by the lack of editing on stringer copy. Editors gave us virtually no direction, rarely calling back to challenge a fact or probe another angle. The exception was Newsweek , with its elaborate New York-driven rewrite process. We filed to Newsweek via satellite on Friday night. The magazine sent back the rewritten file Saturday. We sent our corrections Saturday night. On Sunday, the editors sent a final version for approval. That was the way we spent many weekends.
With sources so far from the publications and readers so far from the story, a sloppy stringer also has little incentive to double-check facts or substantiate information. The lounge of the Seoul Foreign Correspondent's Club was inhabited by a British stringer who wrote his stories directly from the semi-official Yonhap news agency and the local English-language newspapers dubious sources of information. His boasts that he never called sources or left the club were only half-false.
T wo years after we arrived we decided to leave Asia, mostly because of the structural limitations of stringing. We had bargained for setting up steady income and an office environment maintained by a news organization. We also hoped to exploit any opportunities to advance onto staff. When no organization gave us the assurances we needed, we dismantled The Enterprise.
Ultimately stringers are trapped in a caste system that leaves them little chance for advancement. Few stringers make the jump to staff positions as foreign correspondents. Like migrant farm workers, stringers are dependent for their living on the crop of news coming out of a country. When the story dries up, the stringers must move on. Nobody looks out for their welfare. And by mid-1990, South Korea was turning into a dust bowl. The Korea story was being eclipsed by more compelling events in other parts of the world.
The departure of The Enterprise nevertheless left a gap in news coverage of South Korea. During our time there, much news coverage was concentrated in the hands of a few stringers. It bordered on becoming a dangerous monopoly of news. With the exit of those stringers, Korea has fallen out of the news. This raises some disturbing questions: Is there really no news in Korea, or simply few reporters covering it? Should we depend on entrepreneurs to determine what countries get covered? Do we want market forces driving what news gets written and what does not?
Reentering the newspaper industry back home gave us a final jolt. We found that the worlds of foreign and domestic journalism have different orbits; our foreign experience counted for little among suspicious metro editors more impressed with reporters from local beats.
In the end, we both landed jobs that probably would have been available to us regardless of our two years abroad, jobs we laid the groundwork for before leaving the States. Dave, a Californian who went to college in the Bay area, was hired by the San Jose Mercury News . Pete, who grew up in the Twin Cities, works at the Minneapolis Star Tribune .
We like our jobs. We have steady salaries, regular hours and good beats. Our stringer experience helps us pitch editors on ideas and put stories in larger contexts. But every so often we reminisce about our little ttong-cha , those all-night writing sessions and the bomb-throwing student radicals. So please, Lord, keep us away from those Hawaiian beaches. l