Is the foreign correspondent dead?

By MICHAEL HOLTZ | April 15, 2011

In the summer of 2010, I backpacked across Europe as part of a undergraduate research project on the future of foreign reporting. I interviewed dozens of journalists across six countries, stretching from France to Moldova. This is my story about what I discovered.

ON A BREEZY day in late June, Mort Rosenblum waved at me from the deck of his houseboat, the Almeria, docked along the Seine River near downtown Paris. I had shouted his name from the river’s north bank. This was my first time meeting Rosenblum, an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominated reporter, and I wanted to make sure it was him. “How do I get over there?” I yelled from the bank. The Almeria was anchored three boats out. Rosenblum instructed me on how to climb across two narrow planks stretched between them. Soon I was sitting with him beneath the Almeria’s swaying canopy. Rosenblum was barefoot. He wore a pair of frayed jean cutoffs spotted with dried paint and a faded T-shirt. His unmistakable glasses — thick-framed, perfectly circular and with a leopard-tortoise print — and disheveled grey hair gave him a peculiar appearance. To call him eccentric would be an understatement.

Rosenblum is a self-proclaimed Francophile and an avid olive farmer. He spends every summer on his cherished houseboat. After experiencing firsthand his summer getaway, it’s easy to understand why he keeps coming back. The Almeria sits in the heart of Paris, a stone’s throw from the Egyptian Obelisk in the center of Place de la Concorde and a 10-minute walk from the Champs Elysees. The vantage point from its deck offers a panoramic, postcard-worthy view of the city. To the northeast sprawls the Louvre Museum. On the opposite bank stretch the imposing facades of the National Assembly and Orsay Museum. Even the Eiffel Tower is visible over dense treetops and scattered chimneys.

I unknowingly arrived in Paris on World Music Day, seven days into my six-week excursion across continental Europe. As inconceivable as it may sound, my mission during those six weeks was to discover the future of foreign correspondents. Rosenblum’s mission was to equip young journalists with the tools needed to ensure foreign correspondents had a future. I had a blog; he had an unpublished book, “Little Bunch of Madmen: Elements of Global Reporting.” It seemed appropriate for us to meet.

Rosenblum, an intrepid globetrotter, has reported from 200 countries — some of which no longer exist. He was an Associated Press correspondent for nearly 40 years and editor of the International Herald Tribune for three. He reported on genocide in Rwanda, the dirty war in Argentina and both Gulf Wars. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called him “one of those legendary journalists who has been everywhere and done everything, mostly with gunfire in the background.” Having left the AP in 2004, Rosenblum spends his time writing, teaching a global reporting class at the University of Arizona and contributing articles to Global Post.

At the time we met, Rosenblum had most recently returned from an impromptu reporting trip to the south of France. A devastating flood had killed nearly 30 people, including several of his close friends. “As a reporter, I routinely flew off to Bangladesh and Mozambique to cover such damage,” he wrote for in his dispatch for the Global Post. “For this, I needed only my battered Suzuki jeep and a pair of muddy boots.” In several days he would be flying to Vietnam as part of a summer workshop hosted by Tufts University Institute for Global Leadership. All the while Rosenblum was preparing his own book for publication while simultaneously reviewing another: Willis Barnstone’s “Restored New Testament, ” a 1,480-page behemoth. In his review, Rosenblum called it “the first significant English-language Bible since King James’ version in 1611.”

Despite working in the field for nearly five decades, Rosenblum’s passion for foreign reporting appears unwavering. He remains cautiously optimistic for its future. Above all else, Rosenblum wants to ensure that the next generation of foreign correspondents enters the field well prepared. “What I’m trying to do is just equip you with a few tools to do the job better and maybe not get killed,” he told me.

For eager young journalists, “Little Bunch of Madmen” serves as a practical guidebook and broad introduction to foreign reporting. For the average reader, it’s an in-depth manual to understanding and evaluating global news. It’s enough to make any young reporter realize the importance of foreign reporting and our desperate need to keep it alive. But it’s not enough to change the fact that foreign correspondents, as we once knew them, are a dying breed. Even Rosenblum will admit to that much. “Right now it’s all changing,” he said disconcertedly. “It’s not only in flux, it’s in total flaming crisis. We risk having a situation where there won’t be people who can tell us with any kind of real understanding what’s going on in the world. If that doesn’t scare the hell out of you, then you’re not paying attention.”

THOUGH CALLING THE current state of foreign reporting a flaming crisis may sound hyperbolic, Rosenblum is not the only one sounding the alarm. “Some of the most depressing conversations I’ve had in my life are with foreign journalists,” said David Stern, a BBC correspondent and Global Post contributor living in Kiev, Ukraine. “It’s just terrible. I’m not going to name names, but we were in Bishkek, [Kyrgyzstan], a while back and there was a very well-known correspondent from a very well-known newspaper and he was basically saying, ‘What do we do?’ And I was thinking, ‘My God, you of anybody has at least a career.’”

Academia has also paid particularly close attention to the uncertain future of foreign correspondents. A string of recent publications and academic reports has picked up where Rosenblum’s book left off. With contributions from more than 30 journalists, Nieman Reports dedicated its entire fall issue to foreign reporting. Essays by a multitude of seasoned reporters and editors explore two fundamental questions: Who does it and how?

Not to be outdone, American Journalism Review focused its December/January issue on the subject. Its survey of American foreign newsgathering provides a quantitative overview of the current state of foreign reporting. The survey outlines a discouraging picture for all those interested in entering the field through traditional routes. Eighteen newspapers and two chains have closed their foreign bureaus since the survey was first conducted in 1998, including 10 of the top 26 circulating newspapers. Ten newspapers and one chain now employ 234 correspondents, down from 307 full-time correspondents in 2003. What’s more is that the new count includes staffers and contract writers. “They were counted this time to reflect changes in the industry,” writes Priya Kumar, an editorial assistant for AJR. “If only full-time correspondents were listed, the current total would be far lower.”

The AJR survey and supplemental report mentions such changes only fleetingly. They receive a much closer inspection in the provocatively titled report,  “Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant?” Richard Sambrook, the report’s author and former director of global news at the BBC, does not shy away from the unsettling truths many traditional foreign correspondents, the ones working in overseas bureaus, soon ignore. He resists mourning their diminishing ranks. “We are now entering a new era where they may no longer be central to how we learn about the world,” Sambrook writes. “A wide range of pressures are undermining the role of foreign correspondent and providing opportunities — and imperatives — for news organisations to adopt a very different approach to reporting international news.”

Many of those pressures are nothing new. Steadily declining ad revenues — 50 percent over the past four years, according to a report by the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism — have forced most media organizations to drastically cut expenses. With a $250,000 annual price tag, foreign bureaus are often among the first to go. (National Public Radio and the New York Times are two exceptions. Both have increased their overseas presence during the past decade.) Sambrook’s report lent itself to a string of gloom-and-doom predictions about the future of foreign reporting. As a result, “the death of the foreign correspondent” has become a common refrain. But Sambrook’s report shouldn’t be mistaken for a eulogy. He argues that the future of foreign correspondents isn’t a matter of extinction, but rather a matter of evolution. Someone will fill the void left by foreign bureaus as they continue to close their doors. The question then becomes, “Who?”

I DISCOVERED ONE possible answer in Berlin, four weeks into my trip across Europe. Berlin remains a city still in transition, where East and West first met following the collapse of the wall. Twenty years of gentrification combined with more recent austerity measures form a peculiar urban landscape. Construction sites dot the sprawling city, though many have been temporarily abandoned because of public spending cuts. Many of Berlin’s squats, once hubs for the city’s famous subculture, have also been abandoned — closed by an increasingly intolerant government. Graffiti is everywhere, and charred-black buildings serve as constant reminders of the city’s troubled past. This is where I first met A.J. Goldmann, a 20-something freelance arts journalist, on a sunny afternoon in mid-July. That night Germany would lose to Spain in the semi-finals of the World Cup. The city was pulsating in anticipation of the game.

Despite having lived in Berlin for more than three years, Goldmann maintains a heavy New York accent. It remains faintly audible even as he orders a cappuccino in fluent German at a small sidewalk café in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood known for its cheap housing and vibrant nightlife. When he reverts back to English, Goldmann habitually corrects himself in mid-sentence, as if suddenly remembering what he had meant to say all along. One story will remind him of a short anecdote that will lead him to something else entirely. So it goes as I listen to the story of how he carved out a career as a freelancer in Berlin.

After graduating from Columbia University in spring 2007, Goldmann grew restless living at home in New York City. He had spent the previous summer in Berlin researching Ostalgie in German film, the topic of his senior thesis, and quickly fell in love with the city. “The entire city shrieks an exhilarating message,” he later wrote in an op-ed piece for the International Herald Tribine. “In today’s Berlin, art matters.” Goldmann is an avid movie buff and an opera aficionado. He covered classical music for Columbia’s student newspaper during his undergraduate years, mostly for the free tickets he received to shows at Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera. “I was very prolific and very hated at the school paper,” Goldmann said. No one on staff seemed to care as much about classical music as he did.

That summer in Berlin he wrote freelance articles in his spare time. The Wall-Street Journal picked up one of his stories; the New York Times picked up another. Though he didn’t need the money — Columbia had provided him with a generous grant for his research — Goldmann said he felt “rather shocked and elated” when he received a $500 check from each newspaper. “Maybe I can make this work for me,” he remembers thinking at the time. “If I get lucky once or twice a month I’ll be able to pay my rent.”

And so in the fall of 2007, Goldmann returned to Berlin, this time as a full-time freelance journalist. He successfully pitched a handful of stories during his first few months, but it wasn’t enough to cover his expenses. The Wall Street Journal wasn’t responding to his e-mails. Freelancing for the Times was out of the question after Michael Kimmelman and Nick Kulish were assigned to its Berlin bureau earlier in the year. Realizing that freelancing may not be as easy as he had initially thought, Goldmann flew home in mid-November to reconsider his decision. His parents recommended graduate school, but Goldmann hadn’t given up on Berlin. He returned to the German capital in time for New Years and more importantly, the Berlin Film Festival.

Goldmann recognized the film festival as the perfect opportunity for a freelancer such as himself. With nearly 300,000 tickets sold in 2010 — 220,000 tickets in 2007 — The Berlinale stands out as the largest publicly attended film festival in the world. “I just pitched like a demon,” Goldmann said. His hard work soon paid off. Newspapers and magazines with no presence in the German capital eagerly published his stories. Since then the film festival has become Goldmann’s most lucrative assignment. He has successfully pitched stories to The Christian Science Monitor, the New Republic and USA Today. Eventually Goldmann established a more steady relationship with the Wall Street Journal, which he now writes for monthly. He also contributes regularly to “Opera Review” and most recently began work on his first novel. “I feel that I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve made enough contacts and I know enough about the scenes that I write about where I can support my lifestyle here,” Goldmann said. “I’ve made it sustainable. I’m making money, not a ton of money, but I’m making enough money to get by.”

GOLDMANN'S STORY IS not unusual, nor is it entirely unique. His success can be at least partially attributed to the changing landscape of foreign reporting. Freelance journalists provide cheap labor for news organizations that can no longer afford expensive overseas bureaus. 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.

Earlier generations of foreign correspondents produced their own class of self-reliant freelancers, reporters who circumvented the traditional paths to landing a job overseas and instead ventured out on their own. But for many reporters back then, landing a coveted overseas assignment was the accumulation of their careers, not the beginning. Aspiring foreign correspondents had to first pay their dues at domestic bureaus. The Associated Press required reporters to complete a brief stint on its 24-hour international desk in New York City before sending them abroad. Many newspapers with foreign bureaus followed similar policies. The advantages of hiring seasoned journalists to report on an increasingly complex world seemed obvious enough to most editors. Foreign correspondents acted as their eyes and ears on the ground in places most people back home knew little about. Editors picked reporters they could trust, those who had first proven themselves in the U.S.

Today news organization can no longer guarantee overseas assignments to even the most experienced reporters. Most newspapers simply don’t have the money. Aspiring foreign correspondents may as well buy a one-way ticket to some distant capital as their first career move. Twenty years ago doing so was the exception; today it’s quickly becoming the norm. But do the benefits of relying more heavily on young, entrepreneurial reporters outweigh the costs?  Rosenblum seems to think so. In the final chapter of his book, he writes that he remains “oddly optimistic” for the future of foreign correspondents. Towards the end of our interview I asked what he meant by that. After all, hadn’t he just said foreign reporting was going up in flames? His answer in person was revealing, if all together less convincing than it was in his book. “The honest truth is I’m not sure I’m optimistic, but I should be,” he admitted. He should be, as he said earlier in our interview, because of “guys who are willing to make their own way.” Guys like Goldmann, young reporters eager to report from almost anywhere in the world so long as it earns them enough money to survive. “They don’t have the advantage of experience and a lot of training,” Rosenblum said. “But they do have the advantage of energy, curiosity. They’re willing just to do stuff.”

The foreign correspondent is far from dead. In fact, now is an incredibly exciting time to enter the field. “Before you had to get a job. You had to find a way to fit into a well-established system,” Rosenblum said. “Now you can get into the system by yourself.” If Rosenblum were a young reporter today, chances are I would have found him in a city such as Cairo, Istanbul or, if he was brave enough to find his way in, Tripoli — most likely not on a houseboat and definitely not in Paris. He would have been wherever the story was, or where he thought the story might soon be. It’s that sense of anything goes foreign reporting, and journalism as a whole, so desperately needs. There will always exist young reporters with just the right combination of wanderlust and curiosity, determination and commitment willing to venture off into the world and report what they see. Maybe that willingness is all it takes.