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June 14, 2011, noon

Jeff Israely: A foreign correspondent must be both hunter and gatherer

Editor’s Note: Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the early stages of a news startup called Worldcrunch. He occasionally describes and comments on his startup process here at the Lab. Read his past installments here.

Times are tough in the business of producing global news, but we have an etymological advantage over our colleagues on the various national, local, hyper-local, micro-niche beats. We, the producers of the stuff, can still stake claim to a job title that allows us to sidestep the whole “who’s a journalist/what’s a blogger” silliness — and get on with our work, for better or worse.

So if you’re out here producing global news, go ahead and call yourself a “foreign correspondent.” Isn’t that nice? A time-honored (and fancy!) title that in 2011 is still to be freely bestowed upon anyone who is gathering news somewhere other than the home country of their audience.

This lasting dash of, er, dashingness in our job description is fruit of the fact that we still must live in faraway places, speak foreign tongues, and otherwise serve as distant messengers, even in these days of shrinking worlds and split-second communication. Or perhaps, there simply aren’t enough of us around for anyone to bother complaining about it?

So without having to worry about who’s worthy of what label, let’s examine this journalistic category to better understand how global — and perhaps even local — news coverage might look in the future.

What car does a foreign correspondent drive? In the good ol’ days, that would have been a trick question. For years, long before I got there, the bustling Rome bureau of Time near the Via Veneto was the rotating seat of a bonafide prince of the profession, who had a seemingly limitless expense account, plenty of local support staff…and yes, an around-the-clock car and driver! By the time I started in 2001, I was running Italy and Vatican coverage out of my (non-subsidized) apartment in a ho-hum neighborhood, scooting around from news events to interviews to the post office and other office admin expeditions…on my Honda moped. I was the poster boy for the successful “laptop correspondent,” back when the Internet was valued by news executives for its cost-cutting convenience rather than as the black hole sucking all value from the industry. Still, already, economics and shareholder expectations meant the old free-spending model was well on its way to extinction.

Who does a foreign correspondent work for? I was officially called the “bureau chief” (an even fancier job title than “correspondent”), though there was no longer any real bureau — no translators or fixers, no one booking my flights or paying my bills. But when I began, I already spoke the local language and knew my way around well enough, and so it was bound to work out well on both sides: I had my modestly compensated staff position, a calling card to get VIPs for the occasional big interview, a coach-class travel budget, two expensed lunches per month with key sources…and the chance every now and then to really dig into an in-depth story for weeks at a time.

But further economic consolidation, and revolutionary changes in both the production and distribution of information, means that not even my new “laptop model” of a fixed-but-light full-time staff position was going to last, even for major publications, and even for a posting that included the Vatican, endless feature stories, and convenient access to cover a broader geographical region.

By 2009, my staff position was whacked…and though I could continue calling myself a Time foreign correspondent, it was going to be on a pure freelance basis. Poster boy, again.

In one form or another, depending on the outlet publishing your stuff, this is where it’s heading: news organizations will continue to look to eliminate any cost (starting with, whenever possible, fixed salaries) that goes beyond the selling price of a piece of content. The upshot for the foreign correspondent is that you can keep calling yourself that, but the car you’ll drive will be a moped or a bicycle. And lunch is on you.

What does the foreign correspondent eat for breakfast? Put this on the list of things that won’t change any time soon. The daily diet of information will still begin — no matter the platform or device on which it is delivered — by reading (yes, mostly reading…perhaps with an ear on a radio) what the local/national press is reporting. This is the most efficient way to find out what news is breaking, unfolding, simmering, or hiding in plain view in a story on p. 28 that means more to your global reader than the local one. And major foreign publications, which are actually healthier in other parts of the world than the U.S., will continue to have the resources to cover the length and breadth and depth of the country/countries you are covering.

This fact happens to be where our project was born. And we believe there is instant value in producing in English those stories in the foreign press that stand up on their own, shut off only by language. But as always, there will be plenty of articles not worth translating in their entirety, or that need major developing or transforming…or nothing more than a well-timed tweet.

News hunters & news gatherers: Something like the line between lawyers and judges, news careers have long been divided between reporters and editors (and the chosen few commentators). Of course, you could cross back and forth, but it was rare to be filling more than one of those roles at the same time. Similarly, there were geographic boundaries: local, statehouse, national, and of course, foreign.

The Internet and cost-cutting have begun to blur those lines between reporting and editing (and commentary) — and geography. The final product you provide will be based on your access to exclusive information, proximity to events, skills, inclinations.

Perhaps a better way of thinking about the work out there to be done is either hunting for or gathering news. The hunter brings home the red meat of the profession: the first-hand accounts, exclusive information, well spun on-location stories. The gatherer knows when and where to find what’s already been hunted down — make sense of it, add the best trimmings. While the hunter is preternaturally more reporter, and the gatherer is more editor, there will be more and more crossover, and foreign correspondents especially should be able to do both.

Ecosystems & networks & making yourself indispensable: It is ever more evident that the individual journalist must be aware of how the industry as a whole functions, and skilled at walking that fine line between staying afloat today and being positioned to make the most of tomorrow. (Note to it’s-all-about-tomorrow gurus: Today is actually more important for those struggling to avoid having to find another career.)

This tension is doubly true for foreign correspondents, whose offering is typically not considered as “news you can use,” and are thus often the first on the chopping block. We should know how to employ the basic tools of technology, look to build networks with colleagues, and find out who is willing to pay for what we produce, and produce what they are willing to pay for. Think very hard before giving away your work for free.

So-called personal branding is worth something if it can get you paid assignments; very few of us are going to make the lecture circuit or score consultancy work. Instead, knowledge of geographical and topical beats, language skills, and readiness to be or go where the news is actually occurring is more important than ever. “Make yourself indispensable,” a top Time editor once said to the staff of correspondents. The next round of layoffs followed anyway. But the advice is as relevant as ever for the last of the staffers holding onto their jobs, the eager startups, the veteran stringers, the j-school dreamers: What can you do, where can you be, who can you talk to, what do you know — how can we be sure to trust you?

Shrinking margins & growing audience: In our startup’s first few months of existence, the number of qualified foreign correspondents who have contacted us to be part of what we’re doing has been both inspirational and a bit depressing. There ain’t a whole lot of work out there right now, and I would caution all to think hard about how they will actually make a living in this industry — and or combine it in smart ways with other work. The basic economics of a pie divvied up infinitely is here to stay. The key for us all is to try to make a go of it by becoming indispensable individually, on the one hand, and finding new ways to group together those slices in a way to create value.

Interest in what is happening around the world is growing every day: war and peace, food and travel, business and finance — they’re all global topics, news you can use indeed. This is not going to be reversed, and as tricky and costly as covering the world can be, both as a resource to do our work and as our way of expanding our audience, the ineluctable connectivity of this century is our great ace in the hole.

Birth of a “category,” rebirth of a metier: My business partner Irene and I just got back from a whirlwind four days in New York, meeting with lots of good folk. There was no one who crammed in more insight on the long-term strategy of what we’re doing than Dan Marriott. Not a news guy per se, he nevertheless understands in his bones the way information and commerce is born and moves through the digital sea. Dan says the key to taking Worldcrunch to the next stage is to find a way to usher in a new category: to create the conditions to convince readers, editors, investors, advertisers, media executives, and individual journalists that the time is ripe for a whole new type of content. And then be the place to get it.

Of course, on some basic level, this content has been around since Marco Polo knocked out travel pieces on the way to scoring the exclusive with Kublai Khan: It’s called world news. Indeed, it’s a category that must be saved as much as invented, by being faster and freer, more global, more local. It will require new ways of not only hunting down and gathering up the stories, but of delivering and selling them. And in that, we think we indeed have a new category, and we’ve got the name for it too. We’re calling it hyper-global.

The good folk at GlobalVoices are the proto-inventors of the category, creating a (not-for-profit) platform that leverages the Internet and language (and other) translation from bloggers and volunteers to turn local knowledge and content into global news and information. Worldcrunch is banking on the potential to transform that formula into a for-profit business by focusing on getting top branded foreign-language content into English, specifically. It requires the heavy lifting beforehand of forging copyright agreements with top global publishers, and creating a network of paid (yes, freelance!) professional journalists. Once the core is in place, and our brand carries value, the possibilities for what we can create are manifold.

There will of course be other methods and models that look nothing like what we are doing. Some of us will succeed. Some of us will not. But accepting the industry’s current retrenchment as the end of this story is not an option. We will need to make the most of technology and discover new economic models; stay dashing and pinch pennies. But the good news is that our audience is growing, and there aren’t all that many of us out here doing it. We are indispensable, after all. And we still have our name. The foreign correspondent is dead. Long live the foreign correspondent.

POSTED     June 14, 2011, noon
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