Richard Farmer seems to presage the death of foreign correspondent-dom in “Watch Out Foreign Correspondents.”

Farmer is right about the capacity in the internet age of domestic print newsrooms to monitor and re-write the same local news feeds accessed by far-flung correspondents.

But the armageddon facing foreign correspondents is not technology but the failure of imagination of management, and perhaps of the capacity of the correspondents despatched abroad. The Australian media’s “printernet” coverage of the recent Mumbai attack is a case in point. There was precious little value added in the coverage (as distinct from reportage) of the attack from the locally-based correspondents, thus allowing beancounting management looking for any excuse at budget time to raise with editors the question of (expensively) basing a bureau in India, or wherever.

The reader — and journalism — is better served by their foreign correspondents providing original reportage for their unique audience, delivering the texture unattainable and unnoticed by the word processors of the newsroom back home, articulating not just events but, as crucially, interpreting the feel of living there, their coverage informed by being immersed in the clamour of an India, a China, an Indonesia et al. Readers want to know why these places are important, who lives there, who’s involved in influencing these countries and where the issue/the country is heading.

The responsibility and challenge is in story selection, in having empathetic, curious journalists — and skilled writers/interpreters — trained for key posts with language skills developing local contacts, reading in and being courageous and confident enough to delve into and elaborate on stories and issues that may not be headlining the news that day, but likely will be. And when they do, being equipped with the knowledge and context to fully explain why and, equally as importantly, to transport the reader/viewer there in the telling, working with editors at home who are finessing their pages, rather than filling space with shock/horror.

That’s when, in the need to know why events happen, Australia’s media will report details like why, for example, the Deccan Mujahideen — whoever they are — might be called that, perhaps not necessarily to simply reference a geographic region of south-central India but that some crank somewhere might just be evoking that region’s great Islamic sultanates of the 15-17th centuries, and whatever that crank is trying to say in the 21st century in bloodying the lobbies of the Taj and Oberoi, and beyond.

And in the post-mortem, with the Indian and Maharashtra state governments wobbling, why BJP heavies Narendra Modi and LK Advani made inflammatory appearances at the Colaba barricades talking up “Hindustan” as the drama was unfolding, neither man averse to looking the other way when Hinduist mobs have visited pogroms on fellow Indians in the past, and perhaps the future.

The internet makes the competition for readers global, particularly so during massive news events, and when media management fatally hooked on the same news drip as everyone else understands that and develops unique stories beyond the wires’ “Mumbai was rocked yesterday…” that might be when their products separate to become interesting, relevant and consistently profitable, in whatever medium they are delivered.

But I would say that. I’m a foreign correspondent.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey