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From AJR,   December/January 2008  issue

Armies of One   

Are ABC’s new one-person foreign bureaus a model for covering the world in the digital age?


By Jennifer Dorroh
Jennifer Dorroh (jdorroh@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's managing editor.     

With an arsenal of technology — including handheld digital video cameras, satellite dishes and laptops — seven ABC News journalists who took on new posts around the world this fall may be set to change the definition of "foreign correspondent."

"We are fixers, shooters, reporters, producers and bureau chiefs," says ABC correspondent Dana Hughes from her home office in Nairobi, Kenya. She and her colleagues in these one-reporter bureaus will record, edit and transmit their own audio and video reports from Nairobi; Jakarta, Indonesia; Mumbai and New Delhi, India; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Seoul, South Korea; and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, as well as from neighboring countries. Their new assignments come at a time of ever-dwindling resources for foreign news (see "Covering the World") and mark the network's largest overseas expansion in 20 years.

Their jobs demand even more flexibility than those of traditional foreign correspondents, who already had to contend with challenges like time zone differences, foreign languages and impenetrable bureaucracies. "Most of their reporting will be for our Internet outlets, but if there is a story that breaks, they can get on the scene while we move people in, and they are our first line of defense," says ABC News President David Westin.

With this in mind, Hughes hit the ground running within a day of her arrival. In the wee hours of October 4, an accident trapped 3,200 workers in a gold mine in South Africa. At 7:40 a.m., Hughes was on a flight to Johannesburg. By the end of the day, she had filed on-camera summaries for Newsone (ABC's affiliate service) and ABC News Now , its digital platform; two audio pieces for News Now; a pair of two-way interviews for ABC News Radio; and a story for the World News Webcast in which she interviewed women whose husbands were trapped in the mine.

With so many roles to play, setting priorities is key, she notes. "You have to be honest with everyone you're working with and say, 'This is what I can do today, and this is what I can do tomorrow.'" The correspondents aren't completely alone. Each reports either to the London bureau or to the network's foreign desk in New York. Colleagues at ABC's various platforms edit their work, and they get logistical and technical support locally from stringers and from ABC News partners like the BBC.

Westin says the network has long wanted to bulk up its roster of about 10 correspondents in London, Moscow, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Beijing. When the advances in newsgathering technology and the increasingly niche-driven environment of the Web combined to make one-reporter, multiplatform bureaus seem feasible, London Bureau Chief Marcus Wilford developed a proposal for the initiative while on a 2007 fellowship at Columbia University's Sulzberger News Media Executive Leadership Program.

Although ABC previously worked with stringers in each of the countries where it has opened one-reporter bureaus, "I'm confident that there are good stories that we didn't hear about," Westin says.

The technology also makes the expansion an affordable one. "We can do several of these for the price of one traditional bureau," he says. Although Westin wouldn't reveal budget details, maintaining a traditional broadcast bureau overseas — including salaries and support such as office space, communications, travel, camera crews, secretaries, fixers, family housing and school tuition for correspondents' dependent children — can easily total $500,000 per year, says John Maxwell Hamilton, dean of Louisiana State University's Manship School of Mass Communication. In contrast, American University professor Bill Gentile estimates that a stand-alone multimedia reporter's equipment costs about $10,000. The ABC reporters are posted without families and work from home offices when not traveling in their regions.

The network believes its beefed-up foreign reporting will find a solid audience in a core group of Americans who follow international news closely. What's more, about 15 percent of ABCNews.com's visitors are outside the United States, Westin says.

Although they haven't yet settled on an advertising model for the increased international coverage, he says, "My attitude is, 'Let's build it and if people come to it, then we'll figure out the advertising.'"

The network's new bureaus are part of a larger trend in American television news toward reporter-only operations, says Michael Gay, executive producer of digital media for Hearst-Argyle Television. "As technology improves, we're seeing a shift toward equipping individuals with the tools to report alone," he wrote in an e-mail interview. "I think of newspaper reporters who have worked alone on stories for years. Now it's possible for those journalists to produce more than only written word."

With the right training and gear, a reporter should be able to gather audio, photos and video during the course of a typical reporting assignment, says Amy L. Webb, a digital media consultant. (See "The Video Explosion").

"Citizen reporters are perfectly capable of capturing video — some that I've seen have been of tremendously high quality — and posting it to the Web," says Webb, whose team adapts technology for newsrooms. "What separates those citizen journalists from TV newsrooms? Decades of training and experience, and the support of an organization dedicated to practicing the tenets of journalism."

The success of the ABC correspondents may determine whether the trend catches on in foreign reporting.

One drawback to the arrangement, says Paul M. Davis, senior vice president for programs at the Foundation for American Communications, is that with handheld cameras, the correspondents could be more limited technically. "Anything you do on camera is going to be on the fixed shot... There is not as much emphasis on [the reporters'] on-camera work," he says.

But Gentile, a longtime foreign correspondent and a filmmaker, considers this a plus. "These machines have got the capacity to deliver a much more intimate and more immediate form of television than the old huge beta cams were capable of," he says. "I hope we'll see content that will be more immediate instead of filtered through a correspondent."

Gay, who contributes to the blog Lost Remote (lostremote.com — "where TV finds the future"), believes the advent of the Web has decreased the importance of having a reporter who appears on camera. "The Internet is fragmented due to search engines and aggregators, so more people search for information than [for] the person who is reporting it," he says.

While lone digital journalists reporting overseas for mainstream media outlets may well become the standard, Gentile believes the current void in foreign news will ultimately be filled by a mix of traditional and new media. "Films like 'Meeting Resistance' [featuring interviews with Iraqi insurgents] resonate because the mainstream media have largely failed in [their] primary job of bringing Americans the information we need to make important decisions about our lives and the life of the nation." He also sees the potential for nonprofit foundations to fund foreign news and distribute it to media outlets.

CUNY Associate Professor Lonnie Isabel says blogs like Global Voices are becoming an alternative to the traditional foreign bureaus. "They may not be the New York Times' sort of graduate-school-trained journalists, but they have an impact on what we can view as news," he says.

Regardless of who is reporting, "The massive bureaus are pretty much a thing of the past," says Isabel, a former deputy managing editor for Newsday. "But I think that this whole idea of having people who are very flexible works well."

"Today, most of the news is not just made in the big capitals like Moscow and Warsaw and Johannesburg," he says. "Reporting this way is not only cost efficient, but it's actually a better way to report."