Here and there

The nature of foreign correspondence has changed. As the New York Times’s Anand Giridharadas writes from India, often we are now read “here” more than “there”.

It is a momentous, overlooked shift in the world: Foreign correspondents no longer cover one place for the exclusive benefit of readers somewhere else. In the Internet age, we cover each place for the benefit of all places, and the reported-on are among the most avid consumers of what we report.”

It’s something that correspondents themselves are only too aware of. During last year’s crisis in Kenya I received dozens of emails from Kenyans who had read my work – not all complimentary. On most occasions it was helpful and I think (or like to think) my coverage improved.

Correspondents in the field may have realised things have changed but some editors back in the UK perhaps haven’t. A year or so ago I wrote a piece about a rebel attack in Sudan. It had happened late on a Friday night. I wrote my piece, emailed it to the foreign desk and went out. An hour or so later I get a call from the editor. “You’ve written it a bit flat,” he said, “so I’ve changed a couple of lines at the top. Don’t worry it reads fine.”

It didn’t. In his attempts to make the story sound more exciting he’d made it wrong. I rang him the next morning and complained. “Ah, don’t worry,” he said. “It was on page 46, down page, no-one would’ve noticed.”

Maybe no-one noticed back home, but they certainly did in Sudan. It made no difference what inside page it had been buried on in the print edition, here it was as prominent as every other piece  on the website. Several people I spoke to that day in Khartoum had read my article and weren’t too impressed. Some people realised it wasn’t my fault, others just assumed I didn’t know what I was talking about.

As useful as it can be to get feedback direct from the people you’re writing about, I wonder if there is also a downside. The audiences “here” and “there” are very different: “here”, people will know all the ins and outs of Kenyan politics; “there”, most people won’t be able to name Kenya’s president. As a foreign correspondent I am supposed to write for people “there” not “here”. But most of the people I speak to who read my work are “here”. Is there a danger we start writing for them rather than the people we’re paid to write for?

h/t Africa is a Country



3 responses to “Here and there

  1. I read this article today (also thanks to Africa is a Country) but I think the thing it doesn’t discuss is that for journalists in Africa, where the web is a often too pricey or too slow for all but a few to read foreign publications, this skews your reader demographic. While I’m sure the phenomenon the author discusses is more prevalent in China and India, I think that for the most part few Africans are reading foreign pubs. Kenya and South Africa are probably the primary countries where there is a large portion of the population using the internet regularly who would access the kind of content we’re talking about here.

    When in Uganda, I got regular comments on my blog from a tight Ugandan blogger community and then just a few other Ugandans here and there. So far, none in Liberia, but a few from the Liberian diaspora in the United States.

    I agree with the idea of further accountability mentioned in the NYT piece, but I also think that journalists shouldn’t cower to any demographic. The angriest comment I ever got was from a Ugandan who was upset with how I wrote about Nkunda being a media-savvy rebel. I stand by my statement, even if he doesn’t.

  2. stevebloomfield

    You’re right about the demographic – I hadn’t thought of it that way. And you’re right about Nkunda – he makes Darfur’s Abdul Wahed look like an amateur.

  3. i think that outsiders will always write for other outsiders. it’s who we are and how we view things. the average reader knows to differentiate us from the nation or standard. so the fact that anyone can read us anywhere is to my mind not a problem. the fact that no one pays to read any of it, on the other hand, is.

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