Monday, January 07, 2008

ABC's Digital Correspondents

Last fall, ABC News began an experiment with “digital correspondents,” young reporters who were handed equipment and sent to live in under-covered areas of the world. The program is a cheap way of replacing the old,unwieldy news bureaus that have all but disappeared and are a substitute for “parachute” journalism where reporters land, get a story, and leave.

“Cheap,” however, does not mean inferior journalism—any more than it means bad movies (Clerks, for example, cost less that $30,000 to make), nor does it mean ABC isn't committing a substantial chunk of change to the program—over a million dollars for the first year. Much more, if it proves a success (as I suspect it will).

The most important factor in journalism is the reporter, the person “on the ground.” The best of these are those who have developed real expertise in the subject matter or location. In terms of foreign news, this is what we have lost over the past twenty years: With the lack of permanent bureaus, foreign correspondents have become grasshoppers (maybe “locusts” would be a better analogy), jumping from place to place and story to story, relying on local stringers and not on their own knowledge for information.

For a corporate entity like ABC News to recognize that it needn't spend tons to money to get quality news from around the world is certainly unusual. What we'll have to see is whether or not ABC is willing to continue to spend what (to it) is a paltry amount of money as the “digital correspondents” learn (or invent) their trade and become familiar with the environments they are covering—something that can take years (months, at least, before they become conversant enough to produce substantial stories). There may be failures in the program—reporters who find they are not able to live for substantial lengths of time in unfamiliar environments, others who simply cannot work with the lack of supervision of “outpost” work—but the idea is sound, as Dana Hughes, the “digital correspondent” in Nairobi is proving during the current crisis in Kenya.

Judge for yourself. Here's a link to a look at one of her recent reports:
Humanitarian Crisis in Kenya

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