How our concept of a foreign news bureau is changing

“It’s the dirty little secret of foreign correspondents. We wouldn’t know where to start without first reading the local papers.”

That was told to me a few years ago by Jeff Israely, a former foreign correspondent for Time, and it highlights a key reason for why news organizations have been rapidly shuttering their foreign bureaus over the last half decade. For nearly a century, it’s been commonly accepted that Americans reporting in foreign countries could not match the breadth and access of the native press in those locales, but that was perfectly fine since their jobs were to provide a distillation of the most important news from that location and ship it back to the States where it would take up relatively minor real estate in a print newspaper largely focused on domestic issues.

This model began to lose its viability once the internet made it easy for Americans to easily access the news outlets in outside countries, which were typically superior in scope and coverage. Newspapers, already struggling to remain afloat financially — especially in the wake of the Great Recession — had less justification for keeping open an expensive bureau for which there was diminishing demand.

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In recent years, our concept of what it means to run a foreign bureau has been changing. This new breed of foreign bureau recognizes that it must do more than merely export news, but rather it needs to compete on its own terms with other local news outlets. These bureaus are no longer focused on merely attracting American eyeballs, but also the readership and ad dollars from the countries in which they’re based.

The Guardian was one of the first news organizations to recognize its potential abroad. After its analytics showed a very large number of Americans (more than 10 million unique users a month) regularly read its UK version, it decided to launch a new website, based in New York, that carried a US-centric focus. It was this US version that won the 2014 Pulitzer for its reporting on the Edward Snowden leaks.

The editors at BuzzFeed have certainly understood the changing dynamics in foreign reporting. In a recent interview with Nieman Lab, Luke Lewis explained how he built out BuzzFeed UK with the idea that “we want international offices to start being not just satellite offices, but being centers of gravity themselves.” Those familiar with BuzzFeed’s history know it spent years focused on viral, snackable lists before it began hiring serious journalists, and the UK site emulated this model. It spent its first year generating lists and other viral meme content focused on UK culture, and it was only within the last year it started to build a team of political reporters.

By building a sizable and loyal audience in the UK, it can now shift its focus toward attracting UK advertisers. In the old foreign bureau model, the international reporting didn’t necessarily attract international advertising simply because it only appeared in an American regional — or, at best, national — newspaper, thereby remaining useless to most overseas brands. But by dominating the UK scene, BuzzFeed can attract brands that don’t sell a single product on U.S. soil.

Looked at this way, one can imagine a scenario in which BuzzFeed becomes a global brand, much in the way a company like Apple is. In the past, if a media mogul wanted to compete in multiple countries, he had to buy up newspapers in those countries (this was essentially the News Corp model as it moved from Australia to the UK to the US). What companies like BuzzFeed and the Guardian are proving is that it’s now possible to take a single brand and extend it into new markets. In that sense, it’s almost dishonest to refer to these offices as “foreign” bureaus, considering they’re not foreign to those they’re meant to serve.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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