AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2008

Covering the World   

As U.S. news organizations have backed away from foreign news coverage, the Associated Press’ international report has become increasingly vital.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

The elevator transported the visitor from the gray squalor of Jakarta into a bygone era: a bustling news bureau with seasoned foreign correspondents, photographers, a TV camera crew and a network of stringers. The only thing missing was the clatter of the Teletype machine.

A sign in the hallway read, "The Associated Press."

Inside the cavernous newsroom, littered with stacks of newspapers, reporters' notebooks and a supply of junk food, news editor Chris Brummitt stood out among the other journalists. He sat in a cubicle, barefoot, with a gold crown on his head, compliments of a local Burger King.

A veteran of seven years in Indonesia for the AP, Brummitt represents a vanishing breed: a foreign correspondent assigned to a country for a prolonged period, with expertise in the local language, culture, history and customs. "When it comes to covering terrorism, there probably is nobody better than Chris. He has great contacts," says his boss, Robin McDowell, who oversees the bureau, located on the 14th floor of the Deutsche Bank Building in the heart of Jakarta's business district.

In a corner office, the panoramic view dimmed by a haze of yellowish smog, McDowell awaited a 2 p.m. conference call with her counterparts in Bangkok and Manila to plan coverage of the fifth anniversary of the October 12, 2002, bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali, which killed 202 people and was linked to al Qaeda.

During the discussion, it was decided Brummitt would take the lead for a piece on the status of terrorism in Southeast Asia. It was September 18, three weeks before deadline.

By the time he filed on October 11, the reporter had unearthed a surprising angle. For the lead, he wrote: "Indonesia's anti-terrorism chief was relaxed as he mingled with the guests on his lawn. Muslim hard-liners swapped tales of al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and the Philippines. Convicted Bali nightclub bombers feasted on kebabs" ( Story).

Brummitt told how convicted terrorists, including one who planned and carried out the Bali bombing, had been temporarily released from prison to attend the party. The host wasn't in cahoots with the killers – the former militants were being recruited to join an anti-terrorist campaign as informants.

AP correspondents in the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia contributed to the story, which documented how al Qaeda had been beaten back in Southeast Asia in the years since the Bali attack. There was an interactive online graphic showing how the threat of terrorism had diminished, together with photos of the event.

The Jakarta bureau has become a showcase for the AP's expanded global reach and redefined newsgathering model: collaborative journalism across borders, linking news to a larger picture, presented online in a multimedia format.

For years, the AP has been flying in the face of a prevailing industry trend. While others are pulling out of foreign locales, the wire service has made worldwide expansion part of a master plan for future growth. To lead that effort, a new division, AP International, was established in 2003.

McDowell, in her third year as bureau chief, keeps tabs on who is reporting in her territory. The AP, she says, represents the largest American media operation in Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population and fourth in the number of people behind only China, India and the United States.

The bureau has six full-time reporters, three photographers, three Associated Press Television News staffers and dozens of stringers all over Indonesia, from Papua in the east to Banda Aceh in the west.

Other stalwarts – the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times among them – maintain a presence in the region, but not with the AP's strength.

Back home, foreign bureaus continue to fall like dominoes. The Boston Globe closed the last of its three international offices in Berlin, Bogotá and Jerusalem earlier this year. The Baltimore Sun plans to shut down South Africa and Russia by the end of 2007 and already has left China. For TV networks, the modus operandi long has been to parachute in for short stints to report high impact stories (although ABC recently opened seven one-person foreign outposts).

A February 2007 story in Global Journalist, a publication of the Vienna-based International Press Institute, declared, "The era of the foreign bureau is close to over. Will the foreign correspondent be the next to go?"

In the world of international journalism, the AP is an anomaly.

After four years of delicate negotiations, the wire service became the first Western news organization to establish a full-time office in xenophobic North Korea. Associated Press Television News set up in the capital, Pyongyang, in May 2006. When devastating floods struck earlier this year, APTN moved exclusive footage of the devastation inside the reclusive Communist country.

According to AP President and CEO Tom Curley, the wire service has doubled its reporting power in China, opening a new bureau in Beijing's central business district and an office in the heavily industrial area of Guangzhou in southern China. The AP recently was granted permission to open a bureau in Saudi Arabia, Curley says.

The wire service, a cooperative owned by its 1,500 daily newspaper members, staffs offices in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, where Maoists have been fighting for control (see "Online Opposition," April/May 2006), and in Sri Lanka, a country ravaged by ethnic violence. The star of the overseas operations is the Baghdad bureau, with some 200 staffers and stringers roaming war-scarred Iraq at any given time. (See "'Groundhog Day' in Baghdad")

The AP family tree branches out to 243 bureaus in 97 countries, serving news outlets with a potential to reach 1 billion people a day. Those numbers make the wire service the world's largest and most expensive newsgathering operation, says Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute.

Case in point: The wire service is investing millions to upgrade communications among bureaus worldwide, according to senior deputy international editor Steven Komarow. The emphasis is on high-speed data links and faster portable satellite phones.

Edmonds gives the AP high marks for having a presence where few others do. "We look at [the AP] through the lens of what we see in our papers in the United States, but a very substantial portion of their business is foreign clients," and that helps pay the bills for the bureaus, he says.

James F. Smith, a former foreign editor for the Boston Globe, once monitored AP overseas copy as part of his job and has witnessed the evolution from breaking news, which remains the wire service's bread and butter, to more sophisticated journalism. "I have watched AP's international coverage improve in depth, context and scope," says Smith, who became the Globe's national political editor in March. "I know they have made a concerted effort in recent years to tremendously improve the reach of their stories, not just the political, but also more culture and economic stories. They are providing a very valuable service."

John Schidlovsky, director of the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., sees the AP taking a larger, more important role on the world stage. "I think that's definitely going to be the trend," says Schidlovsky, the Baltimore Sun's Beijing bureau chief in the late 1980s.

He has little time for editors who shrug off foreign news by saying that readers can find anything they want on the Internet. "How many general readers actually spend time looking for news about Turkey or Botswana or Peru? Most people don't know how to find it or don't take the time to," says Schidlovsky, whose project promotes reporting from abroad. "The mainstream news organizations still have an obligation to educate the public about important international news."

At the AP, the mandate to expand global coverage comes directly from the top.

At 9 a.m. on August 21, Tom Curley was waiting outside his office on the 16th floor of AP headquarters, located on the west side of Manhattan near Penn Station, to extend a greeting and begin a conversation about changes the AP is making to accommodate 21st century markets and technologies.

Two levels below, in a newsroom commonly described as the size of two football fields, international editors were scanning news alerts from around the globe for a 10:30 a.m. budget meeting, where they would pitch ideas.

The gloom that has settled over the media business was nowhere in sight that morning. Instead, Curley waxed eloquent about the challenges and promise of a new era. Nurturing foreign markets was high on his list.

"Newspapers [in the United States] are 30 percent of AP's revenues. So I've got to worry about the other 70 percent as well, and above all, I think the responsibility is to maintain, if not enhance, what AP does around the world," Curley says. "Some see the markets as closed markets. Every time we look at the markets, we see more opportunities."

Revenue from Google, Yahoo! and other Web sites totals about 15 percent and is growing. The spring/summer 2007 AP World Report trumpets the fact that the AP supplies news content for every platform, from podcasts to long-form explanatory journalism, with a growing emphasis on video and multimedia.

What challenges does that pose to a workhorse wire service, founded in 1846 when New York newspaper publishers agreed to work together to report on the U.S. war with Mexico?

According to Curley, it means dramatic adjustments, fundamentally changing how the AP works. It means everything from stressing multi-media to expanding the depth and the reach of AP journalism. "What we see are opportunities to do some things differently. How to be more efficient and move stories faster will require consistency and a massive training effort... It is going to be hard, hard work, but there is a big upside," says the CEO, who began his career at 15 covering high school basketball and went on to become publisher of USA Today.

"We're trying to get everybody relaxed a little bit," he says. "We all are going to go to school; we all are going to go to class. So far, the embrace has been warm. I'm not going to say it's 100 percent, but we're looking at the high 80s who support the training initiative."

Kathleen Carroll, the AP's executive editor, has been charged with instituting many of the high-profile innovations. And while Carroll jokes that "we're not going to mount a camera on everybody's head," employees do face a learning curve as the agency works to augment its online presence.

She makes a strong pitch for AP correspondents to do more analysis in their stories and collaborate across borders to piece together the big picture behind the spot news. A prime example: On April 3, AP reporters broke a story about CIA and FBI agents interrogating terrorism suspects held at secret prisons in Ethiopia, a country notorious for torture. AP staffers in Nairobi, Kenya; Stockholm, Sweden; Tinton Falls, New Jersey; and Washington, D.C., contributed to the report.

Carroll preaches the gospel of seizing opportunity. "People crave information, they need it. We think about our mandate, we talk about it. We're providing information to a billion people a day around the world – information that helps them make decisions they need to make."

Carroll instantly becomes pensive at the mention of Iraq. She worries about the safety of the 200 staffers and stringers there; when she wakes up at 3 a.m., as she often does, she is apt to check in with Baghdad on her Treo.

Two recent changes directly relate to that operation. In April, Brian Murphy, a former religion writer, was appointed to a new position to oversee Iraq coverage from the New York City headquarters. Murphy, who has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the AP, is in constant contact with the Baghdad bureau by telephone and e-mail.

And Curley is on the hunt for a security czar, a highly experienced professional with strong international ties, to counsel the wire service on safety in dangerous venues. Curley realized he needed such an expert when a consultant hired to review the Baghdad operation reported there were no sandbags around propane tanks. If a rocket had hit, the area would have exploded in flames. Once Curley heard that, "I knew we needed special help; that was the last straw."

Iraq is the flagship of the AP's overseas operations. During a luncheon at the Associated Press Managing Editors convention in Washington, D.C., on October 4, a dining room full of journalists fell silent as a gigantic screen lit up and AP Baghdad Bureau Chief Steve Hurst began conducting a tour of his operation via satellite link.

Hurst was then joined by three of his staff to take questions. At the end, there was thunderous applause as four weary faces stared out from one of the deadliest spots in the world for the press. The watchdog group Committee to Protect Journalists reports 123 media professionals and 41 support workers had been killed as of early November, the majority of them Iraqis. AP's losses follow the pattern, with six employees, all Iraqis, killed in the Iraq war.

Three, says Carroll, were murdered because they were on the job; reasons for the other three deaths remain a mystery. In another painful episode for the AP, contract photographer Bilal Hussein was taken into custody by U.S. Marines on April 12, 2006, and remains in prison without charges. The AP has pushed hard for military officials to free him or put him on trial. Hussein was part of the AP's 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo team. (See "Behind Bars," December 2006/January 2007, and Drop Cap, August/ September.)

During an exchange of e-mails in September, Hurst and Robert Reid, who travels to Iraq from Amman, Jordan, where he is an AP correspondent at large, described the formidable challenges of chronicling a conflict where journalists are targets.

On any given day, the bureau has more than 75 people covering the story in Baghdad alone, says Hurst. That includes reporters, photographers, security personnel, translators and TV camera operators. Numerous stringers operate countrywide.

Hurst, who served as AP bureau chief in Moscow during the Cold War, says it's critical for correspondents to both unearth all the details of spot events and add the context to elucidate their significance. A series of stories by reporter Ryan Lenz is an example of what he means.

Lenz, on temporary assignment in Iraq, broke news of an investigation into an alleged rape and murders by U.S. troops in a highly volatile area south of Baghdad. He won APME's top award for enterprise reporting this year and high praise from the judges, who noted Lenz "scored another major scoop by obtaining medical records showing the alleged ringleader had been diagnosed as a homicidal threat by a mental health team three months before the attack, but was allowed to remain on duty."

The AP has also scored other firsts. A 2006 AP annual report noted that APTN was first to broadcast the death of most-wanted terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, including footage from the scene where he was killed, and the first to release images of the execution of Saddam Hussein.

"Iraq is violent and shattered," Hurst says. "Now, while staying abreast of outrageous violence, we try to keep ahead of the story by watching carefully for political, military and societal changes that might give a better picture of the future of the country. We watch for trends and change of focus." Western journalists face grave danger whenever they venture out, says Hurst, because insurgents and militias view them as part of the occupation structure. Iraqi journalists, especially those working for American news organizations, are seen as spies or collaborators. (See "Out of Reach," April/May 2006, and "Obstructed View,"April/May 2007.)

Reid began reporting on conflicts for the AP in 1969; his assignments have included the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution. He believes the dwindling number of boots on the ground seriously limits the public's understanding of what is transpiring in Iraq.

"Iraq is like the proverbial elephant and the blind men; reality is quite different from place to place," he says. "Ideally, there should be journalists reporting regularly from Kurdistan, Mosul, Tikrit, Anbar, Najaf and Basra. Only then could one get a complete picture of this very complex country. But they simply are not there. And therefore, the picture of what is happening here in Iraq is incomplete."

Reid relishes a heyday when American correspondents were covering the world in much larger numbers. In one message he shared his memories of a popular Iranian hotel bar he frequented during the revolution: "Every night the place was jammed – with reporters, photographers, television crews. There were not only reporters from the biggest organizations such as AP, Reuters and the New York Times, but also from newsmagazines, regional newspapers, European publications. Some stayed through the whole uprising, some only for a few weeks. But they were there and in large numbers.

"We all talked shop and debriefed one another. I sometimes thought I learned as much from my colleagues as I did in the street... Bouncing ideas helped broaden our understanding of that complex story. I miss that here."

Although the crowd applauded wildly in appreciation of the Baghdad staff during the APME luncheon, many editors in the room that day have a meager appetite for international news. Instead, the mantra "local, local, local" resonated throughout the conference as many news managers see community news as their main franchise – and the key to survival.

Scott Angus, editor of Wisconsin's Janesville Gazette, circulation 22,000, doesn't see overseas news as a key part of the paper's repertoire. "You have to focus on what you can do better than anyone else. What we can do best is cover Janesville, Wisconsin. Nobody can touch us when it comes to covering our community. It's not even a close call," says Angus, who recently finished a six-year term on the APME board.

He makes no excuses for pulling back on world events. "What we're reducing is something people can get in many other places. They don't need to read the Janesville Gazette to get the latest news out of Iraq or Washington... We realize anybody can Google that and get 1,000 stories from 1,000 places."

Angus expects to pay the wire service more than $100,000 this year out of an operating budget of about $2 million. He says he would like to see the AP "be smarter about having us pay more specifically for what we use and make it more reasonable for papers like ours." Angus plans a nearly one-third reduction of the newshole for wire copy in his newspaper, and says, "We'll be less willing to pay the same amount in the same way."

During remarks at the AP's annual meeting on May 7, Curley acknowledged, "Some members do not want to pay for AP content they don't use. We can restructure a portion of newspaper assessments to accommodate that."

On October 10, the AP announced the creation of Member Choice, a new packaging and pricing plan that will allow members to pay a basic assessment for access to all AP state, national and international breaking news. Using a Web-based AP Exchange delivery platform, newspapers can search this broader pool of content to find the stories that are most locally meaningful, the wire service explained in a press release.

For additional fees, members will be able to buy premium services featuring in-depth content in news analysis, business, sports, entertainment and lifestyle. For the first time, members will be able to buy these stories ŕ la carte. The new pricing system is scheduled to take effect January 1, 2009, giving editors like Angus more control over what they pay.

Mark Bowden, editor of the 60,000-circulation Cedar Rapids Gazette, sees foreign news differently than Angus. He pegs use of international stories to "local relevancy." His community has a sizable Muslim population, a strong foreign business presence and men and women from Iowa's National Guard serving in Iraq.

"Our eyes are always on the horizon looking at international coverage for those key local connections," says Bowden. The editor notes that when Israeli forces and Hezbollah clashed in southern Lebanon in 2006, some Cedar Rapids residents were vacationing and visiting relatives there. "That became an incredibly local story for us," says Bowden, an APME board member.

He recalls times at past APME conferences when the AP staff would present a dramatic slide show spotlighting important global coverage. "People from the smaller markets would sit there, scratching their heads and thinking, 'That's great and wonderful, but what about the news out of Peoria?'"

Rick Hall, managing editor of the 75,000-circulation Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City, says he is torn about subsidizing the AP's foreign coverage when his paper doesn't use as much of it.

Hall was present at the APME session with the Baghdad staff. "Nobody mentioned the costs, but it was clear the extent AP was going through to cover the story. It's horribly expensive, and bless AP for being there... We don't use as much international as we did 20 years ago, but I'm not so sure it's a bad thing that we help pay for that."

That said, he adds, "There's no question [local news] is our franchise, and I heard the same thing from many other editors at APME."

In mid-October, there was another sign of the times: The South Florida Sun-Sentinel announced that it was eliminating its national/foreign desk so the staff could help "emphasize local, useful, and helpful content across the newsroom."

Will that attitude pose a problem as the AP moves deeper into foreign territory? John Daniszewski, who oversees the AP's international operations, remains undaunted. Like his bosses, he sees new markets opening beyond North America's borders, and he has unabashed faith in his correspondents. Part of the challenge for everyone, he says, is adjusting to the Internet age.

"We have to do a lot of internal training and try to get people to think out of the box to make AP better. We are trying to adjust to a new environment, like everyone else in the industry," says Daniszewski. "Keeping our people safe is a major part of the job. Ten to 20 years ago, journalists were widely respected as neutral. Unfortunately, now, in many places in the world, journalists are targets."

During the many phases of retooling, not all of the AP's experiments have been successful. One of the biggest disappointments was asap, a venture designed to tap into a younger audience. In July the AP announced the closing of the two-year-old multimedia service, saying it had failed to gain enough traction with clients.

There also was a pricing debacle. Plans were announced during the AP's April 2005 annual meeting to begin charging newspapers and broadcast clients for using AP content on their Web sites. It had been free until then.

Some saw this as a move toward reinventing the AP as a digital cooperative. An article on Online Journalism Review later that month called it an "act of self-destruction" that ignored the powerful trend of unpaid information "sweeping paid information off the media beach." The AP backed off.

Not everyone has embraced changes in the international operation. The juggling has left some employees disgruntled over forced moves, and there have been complaints about longtime staffers being let go during the reshuffling. The transformation is far from over.

In June, Deborah Seward, a former AP international editor, returned from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to become the wire service's special international editor for innovation, training and restructuring. Her mandate is to work with bureaus to develop a more online-oriented international news product. That means a greater emphasis on convergence journalism, a multiplatform approach to presenting information.

Executive Editor Carroll sets the tone for change in content. She pushes correspondents for richer storytelling, more analysis, expanded lifestyle and entertainment coverage, a far cry from the AP's traditional forte, breaking news. Carroll knows exactly what she's looking for.

"It's that slice, that horizontal slice, which really tells you as much about the rest of the world as anything else. You get to look at it, you get to smell it, you get to taste it," she said during an interview in her office. She turned to her computer and called up a package by Tim Sullivan, the New Delhi bureau chief.

The main piece dealt with an economically bereft region in northeast India, transformed by producing a boutique crop declared by the Guinness Book of Records to be the world's hottest chili pepper. There was also a slideshow along with Sullivan's first-person account of eating the thumb-size red pepper that left his tongue feeling "as if it had been scrubbed with a wire brush." A video of the taste testing was posted online. Convergence journalism at its best?

Carroll had a different definition in mind. "That's not a word that we use very much around the newsroom," she says. "What we're really talking about is harnessing the power of AP journalists to kick ass. That's the way we think about it: to win in all formats and in all locations."

Senior contributing writer Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@ iupui.edu) wrote about photojournalism's credibility challenge in AJR's August/September issue.