The Local Foreign Correspondent

(BOSTON // March 1, 2016) Back in 2011 – thanks in large part to extensive reports from the American Journalism Review – many media commentators lamented the end of foreign reporting as we knew it. The number of international correspondents employed by U.S. newspapers had dropped 25% in less than 10 years, and many papers were shuttering their overseas bureaus altogether. Some like The New York Times, NPR, and AP were expanding their coverage, but they were largely the exception to the rule.

Of course, this was not new information to the careful observer – some had been warning against this trend for years, and were already commenting on alternatives to the legacy outlets’ most unsustainable models. Would it be citizen journalists coming to the fore, or perhaps media partnerships with on-the-ground NGOs?

The conversation continued in subsequent years, now welcoming to the fold of foreign reporting (or at least acknowledging the growing presence of) the digital natives like Buzzfeed and Vice. A recent study even highlighted the role of Kickstarter campaigns in overcoming the often significant financial barriers to global journalism in its traditional forms. (For the record, 658 journalism projects were crowdfunded on the site between 2009 and 2015, 36% of which proposed work across one or more of some 60 countries.)

The discussion will go on – a constant evolution in the face of rapidly changing technology, fluctuating cost structures, and ever-shortening media cycles. Yet this dialogue could easily overlook perhaps the simplest solution to maintaining a deep bench in overseas coverage: local hires. This week, I spoke with one such journalist, Wenxin Fan, about reporting from his native China for U.S.-based and international publications.

Wenxin has seen shifts in the overseas newsroom firsthand, though he is not sure whether the downsizing trend is long-term. In fact, the changes in his world have not all been negative – many of the publications he has worked with, including the Times and also Bloomberg, have been on the upswing in terms of international coverage. The latter, in fact, has doubled its presence in China since he joined in 2010. With the growth of China’s economy, Wenxin has also seen international interest in China-based stories expand from predominantly political themes to include more financial and human-interest pieces.

The depth of coverage, he says, is also improving. A number of long-form stories are now published that might not have been produced even 10 or 20 years ago. As the country opens up, foreign reporters have increased ability to reach remote areas off the beaten path. Wenxin fondly recalled one recent article that profiled a team in Western China playing American-style football. This was one example, for Wenxin, of the foreign press tapping into the minds of young Chinese.

As a local, however, Wenxin cites two things that it is difficult for his expat peers to garner: access and nuance. “When we look at a story we think about the same things,” Wenxin reflects on the mechanics of reporting, “the only difference I can think of is nuance.” For him, nuance is more than just detail – it means that by virtue of being a local and understanding the context, he approaches news with “an extra layer of skepticism.”

For instance, when Quartz reported that China was planning to ban the foreign press, Wenxin instinctively questioned the story. As it turned out, the interpretation of the law’s language and the historical context it operated within were critical to understanding the purported ban. Of course, being a local is no guarantee (the Quartz reporter was apparently from Hong Kong), but Wenxin has found that he, at least, is more likely to dig deeper for the truth. “The issues,” he says, “are complicated, and that complexity sometimes gets lost.”

Nuance is where the changes are happening, from Wenxin’s view – but not always where the main story is. The few social media platforms that still flourish in China are “where the news happens,” and allow Wenxin and his colleagues to get a quick sense of what is going on in the community. Although the expat reporters follow this content also, they all have the challenge of getting a pitch through their U.S. editors. Wenxin, at least, can typically identify more quickly a story than someone not intimately familiar with the language and culture.

That familiarity also earns the local reporter credibility and the celebrated access every journalist wants. Having “a Chinese face,” as Wenxin puts it – regardless of where you are actually from – can make a huge difference in earning the trust of a potential source, or simply getting in the door. It also helps him reach more local voices, including experts, to quote in his work. Officials, Wenxin finds, are also more likely to treat Chinese journalists as a known quantity. In the end, the local might get a different answer than the expat, even if it is at least partially because the official feels (rightly or wrongly) that they have more control over the Chinese reporter’s output.

Certainly, the local reporter has his/her own set of challenges. In China, particularly, Chinese journalists are banned from reporting for foreign publications. They are typically researchers or news assistants instead, and must take some care in what they choose to cover. For this reason, as well as the value of an outsider perspective, some have championed the necessity of the expat reporter.

Wenxin himself notes, “I don’t really know my readers very well.” He must rely on his editors to decide what will have traction back in the States. The sparse feedback – often through the inconsistent lens of comment boards – can easily have the adverse affect of making Wenxin “feel more foreign” to his readers. Though he welcomes the challenge, Wenxin affirms that it is a constant struggle to think globally in his reporting. At the end of the day, he feels better when a story is translated into Chinese and he can readily see his local community’s response. “That’s when I feel I have a readership,” he says.

Like any solution to the shifting tides of foreign reporting, local journalists cannot save the system in a vacuum. Yet Wenxin and his colleagues could play an important role. He was careful, however, to bring our conversation back to the money at the center of the equation. “The need for foreign reporting will always be there,” he suggests. “This issue really isn’t do we hire a local guy, or do we hire, you know, an American reporter to cover – a lot of papers hire local guys – the thing is do you have a bureau? Do you have a budget to spend on those stories?”

We will have to wait a little longer for the answer.