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Aug. 8, 2016, 12:52 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Why The New York Times assigned a foreign correspondent to cover the U.S. elections

It’s part of the Times’ ongoing efforts to reach international readers — and an interesting experiment on how our political system looks from the outside.

It’s an old political ritual: Every four years, in the lead up to the U.S. political conventions, Democrats and Republicans debate amongst themselves the contents of their party platforms. The discussions garnered more attention than usual this year as Bernie Sanders tried to exert as much influence as he could, while Republicans crafted a platform that reflected Donald Trump’s views on trade and building a wall on the Mexican border.

For Declan Walsh, however, everything from the platforms to the funny hats delegates wear at the conventions was new. “Personally, I had never heard of the party platform,” he said. “I had never heard what that was. I had to have that explained to me.”

Walsh is normally The New York Times’ Cairo bureau chief. But for the next few months he’ll be covering the U.S. elections as a foreign correspondent in the United States for a series the Times is calling Abroad in America.

The Times is, of course, covering the election exhaustively — reporter Amy Chozick has been on the Hillary Clinton beat since 2013, for example — but Walsh is coming at the story from a different angle: He’s covering the election as an outsider, and his reporting is primarily aimed at readers outside the United States. In fact, this is the first time Walsh, a veteran foreign correspondent originally from Ireland, has actually worked stateside.

“It’s part of a broader effort to seek out new and innovative ways of expanding our digital readership and catering in new ways to the digital readership that we have, and it’s a recognition of the fact that many of those readers are outside the United States,” Walsh said. “It speaks to the balance that the paper has to achieve, especially in stories that are about the United States, in writing stories about things in the U.S. that foreign readers are very interested in, but they do not have the same degree of familiarity with or the same cultural connectors that a reader would in the United States.”

This series is one editorial instance of the Times’ larger strategy to reach readers outside of the United States. In April, the Times created NYT Global, a three-year $50 million effort to expand its presence internationally. The Times has set a goal of generating $800 million in digital revenue by 2020, and it sees potential for attracting paying subscribers outside of the United States.

And one of the ways the Times plans to cater to those audiences is by offering coverage of the United States in a way that makes sense to those readers.

In February, the Times launched The New York Times en Español, a Mexico City-based Spanish-language initiative. (This week the Times said that NYT en Español stories would now be available on its Android app.) Last year, Times CEO Mark Thompson and editor Dean Baquet said in a strategy memo that the paper would similarly expand to other markets as it looks “tailor our journalism and products to make them more relevant for specific new audiences.”

“This team, and future teams that we build in other places, can be a bridge — not just to bring Times journalism to those places, but also to explain the United States and all the things that happen here to those audiences,” Lydia Polgreen, the deputy international editor who oversaw editorial development of NYT en Español, told me after that product launched.

International editor Joseph Kahn is leading the editorial side of the NYT Global initiative, and Walsh said that Kahn and international managing editor Michael Slackman approached him in June about covering the U.S. election “in the same manner we would a normal foreign story.”

Though he is consulting with the Times’ politics team, Walsh’s coverage is being edited and run through the paper’s international desk.

The two conventions kicked off Abroad in America, and while Walsh’s coverage touched on issues such as Republican divisions over Trump’s candidacy and the significance of Clinton becoming the first woman as a major party’s nominee, he also explained basic things such as what the parties’ platforms were and how this year’s conventions were atypical. He explained local color that might confuse an international audience not used to Green Bay Packers games:

“We’re the Cheeseheads,” said Barbara Finger, a retiree from Wisconsin who wore a hat shaped like a wedge of cheese, the state’s signature product.

While U.S. and international reporters are covering the same set of facts, it’s long been recognized that an outsider can see the patterns among them differently. Slate is one of the many outlets that have made hay of the difference by running occasional dispatches of how a domestic story would be framed if it happened somewhere else. (The death of Antonin Scalia? Death of Hard-Line Jurist Throws Regime Into Chaos. Police brutality? Courts Sanction Killings by U.S. Security Forces. Anti-vaxxers? Traditional Beliefs and Distrust of Authority Fueling Disease Outbreak.)

Walsh wouldn’t share specific audience figures for his stories, but he said they’ve had “quite good numbers on the stories” even though the audience is “mostly American at the moment.”

“As I gather, the majority still come from the United States,” he said. “We’re not just writing for international readers…We’re not just trying to write for any one particular constituency.”

According to comScore, 36 percent of the Times’ desktop traffic comes from outside the United States. In June, 12.5 million unique visitors came to the Times’ desktop site from abroad, a number that’s been basically flat over the past year.

Now that the conventions are over, Walsh plans to travel throughout the United States — both on and off the campaign trail — to capture the current political moment.

With each of the Abroad in America stories, the Times has included a web form that lets readers submit questions and sign up for email dispatches from Walsh. He said he also plans to use Facebook Live and other social tools to report also. (The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook is paying the Times $3.03 million to use Facebook Live over the course of 12 months.)

Though he is a newcomer to American politics, Walsh said he’s been surprised by a number of elements of the campaign and the the narrative surrounding the election. He said he plans to use that outsider status, plus his experience as a foreign correspondent, to inform his reporting moving forward.

“I’ve covered a lot of elections, nearly all of them in conflict-affected or post-conflict countries or very poor countries in Africa — so my election tool kit, if you like, is used to dealing with those types of countries. So I was completely blown away by the scale of the conventions, the organization, the money that was involved, the level of management, and the way that they were so scripted by the parties — or at least that the parties attempted to script them,” he said.

And having reported from countries such as Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Pakistan, Walsh said he is “sensitive to the way that Muslims and Islam are being both portrayed and instrumentalized in this election campaign.” (Walsh was actually expelled from Pakistan just before that country’s elections in 2013.)

“It’s hardly unique to me — any reporter worth his or her salt covering this would pick up on those clues — but having just come from Syria in April, having spent time in Damascus and Aleppo during the fighting, where I reported on one episode of the fighting between the two sides in that city, and then to come here and hear the way that Syrian refugees are described as potential ISIS [sympathizers] really betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about why most Syrians are leaving their country, given that a good number of them are fleeing various forms of violence, including ISIS,” he said. “It seems deeply unfair to describe them in broad-brush terms as potential ISIS, which I heard a lot of at the conventions and subsequently in the media.”

Photo of delegates at the 2016 Republican National Convention by Antonella Crescimbeni/Penn State used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 8, 2016, 12:52 p.m.
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