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?