Is the era of the foreign correspondent over? That’s the premise behind a new media venture spearheaded by Justin Smith, the former Bloomberg Media chief executive, and Ben Smith, the former editor of BuzzFeed. Their startup, Semafor, will be an English-language global newsroom that will replace globetrotting foreign correspondents with talented local reporters — such as those working now for the Kyiv Independent and the dissident Russian news service Meduza. As Justin Smith put it, “The idea that you send some well-educated young graduate from the Ivy League to Mumbai to tell us about what’s going on in Mumbai in 2022 is sort of insane.”
For more than two decades, the profession of foreign correspondence has been on life support, victim of both budget cutbacks and digital technologies. Only a few news organizations still maintain foreign bureaus abroad; most rely on freelancers. Under the circumstances, the Smiths’ idea that news can be delivered more cheaply and better by local correspondents seems inarguable.
But is it? When I read about Semafor, I’d just published a book on the so-called golden age of American international reporting from the 1920s through the 1940s. After the First World War, U.S. newspaper proprietors began building up their own bureaus overseas, vowing they wouldn’t again be taken in by European propaganda. The reporters they hired were mostly young people, not from the Ivy League but from the Midwestern heartland.
One-time provincials themselves, correspondents such as Vincent Sheean or H.R. Knickerbocker were interpreting the news for readers who, as the joke went, thought Prague was a type of ham. Trying to make sense of events in the heat of the moment, rushing between coup attempts and civil wars, their foreign language skills imperfect or nonexistent, they of course sometimes got things wrong. Nevertheless, they became marquee names. Much of the truth-telling glamour that still clings to international reporting, summed up by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Foreign Correspondent, owes to their work.
Precisely because they raced from one trouble zone to another, they developed a bird’s-eye view and a comparative imagination. This was a very different perspective from even the most perceptive local reporters of the day. In the mid- 1920s, when most people, including German journalists, were still laughing Hitler off as a joke, John Gunther saw that dictatorship was a phenomenon that merited close attention. Based on his reporting in Poland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Romania, Hungary and Albania, Gunther correctly predicted that the big story of the postwar years wouldn’t be the triumph of democracy but the rise of the dictators.
What the best foreign correspondents can do — now as also a century ago — is to conceive of the world as a whole. Figuring out the interconnections between seemingly disparate events requires not just armchair analysts but people who see things for themselves, firsthand, and whose work isn’t confined to a single country or region. In other analytical fields, the comparative imagination and the outsider perspective are prized qualities. No one would argue that a political scientist, anthropologist or historian could — or should — do without them. And neither should reporters. As the geopolitical landscape shifts yet again, we need reporters who can be not just on the spot but on many spots.
Deborah Cohen is the Richard W. Leopold Professor of History at Northwestern. Her new book is Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took on a World at War.