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On the New Foreign Correspondent
By Michael Holtz
Aug. 13, 2010

With many of the traditional routes to foreign reporting all but obsolete, becoming a foreign correspondent is as easy as ever. To do so no longer requires a temporary stint at a news organization’s domestic bureau or a 10-year commitment to climbing the ranks of some abstract reporter hierarchy. Making a career as a foreign correspondent isn’t so simple.

“I think it’s harder now, partially because the money they’re willing to pay people to write stories is much less,” said Luke Baker, deputy bureau chief for Reuters in Brussels. “There’s quite a lot more competition, because a lot of people want to be abroad doing this sort of thing. You make less money freelancing for a newspaper these days than you might have done 15 years ago.”

The new foreign correspondent is as much an entrepreneur as he or she is a reporter. As news organizations continue to slash their foreign news operations, freelancing is quickly becoming the new norm. The field is wide-open to enthusiastic and ambitious young journalists eager to report from any far-flung country of their choosing. All it takes is a laptop, a passport and a few contacts to get started.

But simply writing the story is no longer enough. Foreign correspondents must also incorporate video, photography and social media into their reporting. The good news is that anyone can learn to operate a Flip camera. The bad news is, well — anyone can learn to operate a Flip camera. The same goes for blogs, video editing software and DSLR cameras. The challenge of the new foreign correspondent is to discover a way to stand out.

The best way to do so doesn’t involve perfecting any of these supplemental reporting tools and certainly has nothing to do with search engine algorithms or unique page views. Foreign correspondents must ignore the pressures of emerging technologies for fear of losing sight of what truly matters — the story.

“It takes away the time from the kind of preparation, research, investigation that any good journalism needs,” said Angela Charlton, news editor for the Associated Press in Paris. “When you’re having to do all of that, everything ends up getting more shallow.”

To stand out as a foreign correspondent is to perfect the basics. It means fully developing research, writing, interview and language skills. A well-shot, well-edited video has little journalistic value if the story isn’t there. Finding that story and telling it in a compelling way remains at the core of good journalism.

Unfortunately, these fundamental skills are the ones most often overlooked by publishers more concerned with the bottom line than the byline. Struggling news organizations have laid off veteran foreign correspondents by the dozen. Hundreds of years of experience has disappeared in recent years.

As an aspiring foreign correspondent, I spent this summer learning as much as I could from these seasoned reporters. What I discovered is that new technologies should enhance and simplify foreign reporting, not redefine it.

Michael Holtz is a senior at the University of Kansas majoring in journalism and political science. He spent six weeks this summer interviewing journalists across Europe as part of a research project designed to explore the changes in foreign reporting. Although he entered college as a human biology major, he now dreams of becoming a foreign correspondent after his experiences this summer. You can read about his research project on his blog, www.foreigntelegraph.com.