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News outlets with any foreign bureaus will be at a disadvantage in the future of news 12/2/07

Posted by Steve Boriss in Foreign bureaus.
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If the NY Times and other Old Media outlets hope to survive their first real competition in decades, they had better learn quickly some lessons learned long ago in more competitive industries. For instance, most other industries would instantly understand that operating bricks and mortar foreign bureaus, or even employing full-time employees overseas, is likely a drain on both profits and quality – particularly in the age of global Internet communications. Foreign bureaus violate the business rule-of-thumb that if a service can be done better and cheaper by another party it is usually best to outsource it and take advantage of that party’s lower costs and higher quality. In addition to avoiding costs for resources that are rarely fully-used, those outlets that instead contract for foreign services on an as-needed basis can secure individuals with greater local knowledge, just the right topic expertise needed for each story, and in just the right location. Costs would likely be low because most foreign talent would already be subsidized by local news outlets.

Old Media’s best and brightest seem oblivious to this basic business principle. In a speech last week, NY Times Executive Editor Bill Keller bragged that the NY Times deployed “worldwide a corps of trained, skilled reporters to witness events,” as if these few, scattered individuals could actually be eyewitnesses to spontaneous, scattered events or were experts in every topic area they might cover. The American Journalism Review raves about the AP’s foreign coverage upon which Old Media has become increasingly dependent, focusing on the great work of a generalist reporter who has been in Indonesia all of 7 years, with a pittance of the experience of a foreign national. Regarding the greater freedom to report the truth we might expect from American reporters, CNN’s Eason Jordan has taught us that American reporters are no more likely to incur the wrath of tyrants than foreign nationals. Moreover, news outlets who use AP’s foreign services are offering news that is completely undifferentiated from that of all the other AP members, and widely available on the Internet. It does not bode well for an industry when even well-proven business practices are foreign.

Comments»

1. nigel barlow - 12/3/07

Steve,

Whilst I understand the business argument over not having bricks and mortar,and the principle that if you can outsource without loss of service,do you honsetly believe that in terms of quality,this is the best option?

Surely a foreign correspondent allied to a newspaper and spending time in a foreign location is the best long term method to produce high quality reporting

2. Steve Boriss - 12/3/07

Nigel, The concept of the foreign correspondent contains the premise that there are fundamental things a foreign correspondent can do better than a foreign national, who would presumably have a deeper knowledge of the country and better contacts. Moreover, contracting on an as-needed basis with foreign nationals provides the flexibility to choose topic experts as needed. So I would ask you, what are the indispensable advantages of foreign correspondents?

3. David Bertelsen - 12/3/07

The only indispensable advantage of a foreign consultant is that they will be fully acclimated to the ‘correct’ point of view. A hired gun, so to speak, might present the story in a manner that is not so in tune with that point of view.

4. Wolf Pangloss - 12/3/07

If the problem with a foreign national is that the first one you find has the wrong bias, then all the news organization has to do is either

1) fix it in edit
2) find another foreign national with the correct bias.

easy peasy.

5. Peter Ralph - 12/4/07

Steve, take a glance over the pond for some insight on this.

Popular Press (Daily Mail) – a handful of correspondents in major news centers – NYC, DC etc. and a couple of London based jet-setting firemen ready to dash off and bring back the dirt on the McCanns and Foxy Knoxy.

Quality press (Times, Guardian) 17/18 foreign correspondents to collect the news and a dozen or more editors and columnists to interpret it.

Business press (Financial times) 40+ foreign bureaus with close on 200 foreign correspondents. 10 times as many foreign correspondents as any other European newspaper, almost as many bureaus as the BBC. These numbers are likely to rise as the showdown with the WSJ looms.

How so?

The FT has a niche audience – albeit a very large and influential one. They provide “news you can use” to an audience that recognizes its value. This requires a level of specialization and detail beyond that which the wire services can provide.

The future is in the niches – even the big ones.


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