Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The persistent value of on-the-ground reporting

Nothing has emerged so far to replace a dedicated foreign correspondent with time to settle in and the financial stability to report in depth.

Sun rising over Silicon Valley (Photo: Flickr/Thomas Hawk)
Sun rising over Silicon Valley (Photo: Flickr/Thomas Hawk)
Published 12 Sep 2017   Follow @CroweDM

This is a discussion thread marking the Lowy Institute Media Award, which each year recognises excellence in foreign affairs journalism. Click here to see the short list for this year’s award. The winner will be announced on 23 September.

The drive south from San Francisco reaches Silicon Valley as soon as you turn your car onto Highway 280 and put your foot to the floor. On a good day, with blue sky over the bay and a cool fog on the hills, you can cruise at 130 kilometres an hour in the sure knowledge there will be a rich kid in a Porsche to keep the Highway Patrol busy. It is a glorious drive. To purists, Silicon Valley does not begin until you pass Hillsborough, but the Valley is a state of mind. It is not about geography – it’s about speed.

This was my world at a time when the pace of change left everyone gasping for breath. I was the San Francisco correspondent for The Australian Financial Review during the dot com boom of the late 1990s, when readers were hungry for news about the explosion of ideas, and dollars, on the internet. There were stories to be found on brilliant minds wanting to change the world and upmarket swindlers trying to make their pile before the crash came.

The place was crawling with journalists on the lookout for the next trend, the next venture capital deal or (the most valuable news tip) the next company to go public on the Nasdaq. I remember a big investor telling a roomful of suits in 1999 that they all knew the bubble was going to burst, they just didn’t know when. They found out the next April.

The Australian angle was central to everything I did. The American media was all over the main stories. My task was to find what mattered to an Australian reader. Sometimes it was a tale of success or failure for an Australian who had a big idea, sometimes it was an American trend or company that was about to hit Australian shores. It could be hard work persuading the rich and powerful to do an interview with a journalist from a small country a long way away, but I loved the chance to convey how a shockwave in California was about to change life back home.

One day I had lunch with Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page in the staff cafeteria of their run-down office park, decorated with lava lamps. It was 1999 and they had 50 staff. Now they have 57,000. 'The ideal search engine should do everything, answer any question,' Page told me. I smiled at this naïve hope as we swapped opinions on the food – Page and Brin were testing a different chef every day and planned to pay with stock options when they found the right one. Maybe I should have asked for a job as a kitchenhand.

This was a long time ago – 126 years to be exact, given that internet years are like dog years. Google ended up eating my lunch. We could all see the enormous change coming to the media but the scale of the upheaval is still shocking. It was obvious the internet would destroy the 'rivers of gold' of classified advertising but the brutal force of Google, Apple and Facebook was yet to be revealed. I interviewed executives at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal who were struggling then with the threat to their advertising revenue. 'The genie will not be put back in the bottle,' one told me. The fact that good journalism survives under this relentless financial pressure is a tribute to great journalists and loyal subscribers. Next time you are asked to subscribe, please click on the link.

Readers have won from this explosion. News about the world travels further and faster than the world has ever known. And the job of the foreign correspondent has to change.

Australian journalists working overseas are guided by two imperatives. The first is the need to see events on the ground with Australian eyes, something no wire service or foreign media affiliate can do. The second is the sense of confidence in the audience at home, the knowledge that the story is being seen by Australian eyes. This connection is vital. If you don’t have it, game over.

Sadly, the economics worked best when Australian readers had to wait weeks for a hard copy of The New York Times. These days they can see the best writing from around the world in an instant. Why read an Australian take on Donald Trump when The Washington Post can take you inside the White House and give you the full transcript of the president’s phone call with Malcolm Turnbull? Australian journalism can be crowded out in a marketplace of free online content that erodes advertising revenue, discourages subscriptions and lures readers elsewhere. This is a precarious future for any correspondent outside the ABC.

Yet the Australian view of the world remains compelling. Great foreign correspondents still drop everything in London to get to a terrorist attack in Barcelona or Berlin. They have a bigger audience than ever before, online and in real time. And those who are not 'foreign' correspondents can also reach this global audience: witness Chris Uhlmann’s verdict on Trump at the G20 in Hamburg last July, a two-minute piece-to-camera that went viral.

Cost pressures have culled the ranks of Australian foreign correspondents but good reportage continues. There are new ways to tell a story, like using Skype to interview local and Australian witnesses to global events. There are new sources to be found, like live bloggers or social media users, although the risk of spreading a falsehood rises in line with the proliferation in content. The deeper analysis from think tanks and universities becomes even more important.

But nothing has emerged so far to replace a dedicated foreign correspondent who is on the ground where things happen, with time to settle in and the financial stability to report in depth.

I remember talking to LookSmart founder Evan Thornley when this revolution was just starting. He had survived 'dialling for dollars' with angel investors to keep his internet search company alive and on track for what became a $1 billion IPO. 'What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,' he said. This line from Nietzsche is how Silicon Valley has always seen the world. Journalism has no choice but to see things the same way.

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