A shrinking world: The changing role of Canadian foreign correspondents

By Nick Jean, Adam Jönsson and Jake English for the International Reporting Bureau at Humber College

It could be argued that no department in newsrooms has carried a heavier burden in these times of turmoil in the news industry than that of the foreign desk. The world is more interconnected than ever and that is whittling away at the purpose the foreign correspondent once fulfilled.

Nowhere has that impact been more obvious than at the country’s largest newspaper, the Toronto Star, which has dramatically shrunk its fixed foreign bureau footprint and centralized foreign coverage largely in Canada and its remaining foreign outpost, Washington, D.C.

J-Source IRB“We felt we could take that money and use it to direct coverage internationally from (Toronto),” foreign editor Lynn McAuley told J-Source this summer.

The shaky economics of gathering news from fixed bureaus has been under the microscope for legacy news operations in Canada and the U.S. for more than a decade. Some analysts locate the epicentre as far back as the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the changing face of Canada has also forced a re-evaluation of how to report the news. For many communities, what used to called “foreign” is now virtually local news, often accessible in real time through a variety of sources.

“The Star or any newspaper, unless you’re bringing exclusives, are not actually telling anybody in your community the news first anymore,” McAuley said. “Most people know exactly what’s happened. You have to start looking at the how and why things happened.”

She pointed to coverage of the Ebola outbreak as an example of the newspaper’s continued commitment to covering the world with a Canadian angle.

“Jenny Yang pitched the idea to go to cover the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and while it is clearly a global health story of enormous importance, it was of tremendous significance to both Jenny and me that we get to meet with the Canadian scientists and doctors on the ground,’’ McAuley told J-Source in a follow-up email in October.

‘‘It took a few weeks to secure those interviews. But we did tell their story. Canadians should know that Canada isn’t marginal in this outbreak. That there are brave Canadians and institutions who are on the ground tells Canadians the money spent outside these borders is significant and should be noticed.’’

Day-to-day international coverage at the Star is now accomplished with stringers and wire services with parachuted correspondents digging deeper to uncover the broader effect of international events.

The Star’s strategy comes with a price, McAuley admitted. “There’s going to be, and there are, opportunities for people who are on the ground to tell stories that we will never get because we are not on the ground,” she said.

While losing journalistic “boots on the ground” is a reality of international reporting in 2014, Jonathan Whitten, the CBC’s foreign editor, said the value of a bureau-based foreign correspondent far outweighs the costs.

“We still think it’s important to have some footprint on the ground both for getting a better sense of the environment and a better sense of the story,” Whitten told J-Source.

That’s a tough commitment given recent government-mandated budget cuts—$130 million in 2014—which have forced the broadcaster to re-evaluate its foreign bureau budget along with everything else.

One way the CBC is finding savings is by moving some bureaus to smaller locations, Whitten said.

The broadcaster is also expanding upon an experimental short-term bureau program. This strategy calls for the establishment of an in-country office for between four months and a year to cover an unfolding story, without the costs associated with maintaining a permanent bureau.

The civil unrest in Cairo, during and following the 2011 Arab Spring, was one such case where a short-term bureau proved effective, he said.

The CBC will launch two more short-term bureaus early next year. The locations are yet to be determined, but the broadcaster is looking at West Africa and the Middle East, Whitten said.

He said other challenges, including those of distribution and technology, present new opportunities for international coverage. Broadcasters formerly had to invest in expensive satellite infrastructure, he said. Those systems have now been replaced with Wi-Fi and even cellular-based delivery systems.

‘‘We and others are experimenting with (and) are using iPhones. We are also heavily using the system Dejero, which is a suitcase apparatus for a more stable platform. But there is also an iPhone application for the Dejero that we’re using as well, which we’re having good success with throughout Europe and are starting to have success with domestically,’’ Whitten said.

“It’s a challenge (to) deliver content almost on a continuous basis, but it’s an opportunity as well because you reach different audiences; you distribute material that in the past might not have made it into your story. It finds a home in someone else’s story or online as a piece of stand-alone video or audio.”

The Globe and Mail is also looking at ways to do more with less. The newspaper established a new Asia -Pacific-coverage bureau in Vancouver in 2012 with a dedicated travel budget to cover stories around the Pacific Rim, editor-in-chief David Walmsley said.

Stories rarely break in the city, state or even country where a bureau is based, Walmsley said. Bureau-based correspondents regularly have to travel great distances at great costs. By basing domestically, the Globe reduced the costs of operating the bureau itself with only a minimal increase in the distances the correspondent will have to travel.

The Globe has also shifted correspondents away from some of the traditional locations in order to cut travel costs, Walmsley said. The Globe has also shown a taste for establishing mini listening posts when the opportunity arises. New York correspondent Joanna Slater is in Berlin and Sonia Verma is in Doha, Qatar. But for how long and in what capacity is unclear.

“Employment arrangements we have with our correspondents aren’t really relevant, as far as I’m concerned, ” foreign editor Susan Sachs told J-Source.

Verma, an editorial board member of the Globe, recently left the newspaper and moved to Doha, while Slater is listed on the Globe website as on temporary assignment in Europe.

“I want to instruct Canada,” Walmsley said. “I want to really understand some parts of the world that have taken these gnarly issues and solved them or at least come up with a slight solution.

“We can’t do it from afar.”

For that reason, Walmsley said, the Globe is planning to open a new bureau in California.

Overall, the most important aspects of the Globe’s international reporting strategy remains flexibility and what Walmsley refers to as “bench strength.”

This includes “having both a permanent structure of resident experts, those who’ve done it but are back at home office and able to return on occasion.” One of these is veteran Middle East-watcher Patrick Martin, now relocated from Jerusalem to Toronto where he remains central to coverage of the unfolding conflict with ISIS.

“For the Globe there’s a bench strength that is fundamental,” Walmsley said.

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