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Serie: Wozu noch Journalismus?:The thrill of foreign countries

Foreign reporting is not going to die, even as the job has been endangered by the competition from bloggers. Traditional newspaper staff is going be replaced by freelancers.

Roger Boyes

Wozu noch Journalismus? Die Ethik der Medienmacher ist in Gefahr: Journalisten werden zu Handlangern der Politiker, bloggen im Netz und werden durch Laien ersetzt. Wie ist der Journalismus zu retten - und wieso sollten wir das überhaupt tun? In dieser Serie - herausgegeben von Stephan Weichert und Leif Kramp - setzen sich angesehene Publizisten auf mit dieser Frage auseinander. In dieser Folge schreibt Roger Boyes über neue journalistische Herausforderungen aus Sicht eines Auslandskorrespondenten.

Fotos: ddp, dpa, Grafik:
(Foto: Fotos: ddp, dpa, Grafik:

What worries me is not so much the death of journalism as the death of lunch. When the Bundestagskantine moved form Bonn to Berlin, something changed in the way that information passed from the decision-making to the writing classes. Now we have sandwich crumbs in our computer keyboard and, though we get to see our politicians, even play football or chess against them, we don't really have much to say to each other; the old conspiratorial friendships have withered and so, for foreign correspondents at least, has the idea of insider journalism.

Once upon a time a correspondent stationed abroad enjoyed a kind of oracular authority: it was up to us to analyse what was inside the Chancellor's brain, or in Helmut Kohl's case, his stomach, and warn our readers at home of an impending change of policy. Even more precariously we also advised our readers of the national mood. How many times in the 1990s was I asked to answer the question: what are the Germans thinking?

That pleasant vanity-feeding social position - we were pale shadows of the ambassador - encouraged politicians to seek our company. Well do I remember Karsten Voigt and Klaus Bölling diving into the New York Times bureau of the much-feared reporter John Vinocur in the 1970s. The Chancellor (Schmidt) viewed the paper (and my own at the time, the Financial Times) as a direct conduit to elites in the US and Anglophone Europe. Later, this steering of information to the press became known as public diplomacy because it sounded less corrupt.

What has changed? Newspaper correspondents are no longer viewed as the main channel of daily information from foreign countries. Neither by the host government, nor by the readers at home. Even before the arrival of the internet we were facing competition from 24 hour news television. The Washington correspondent, once a hugely respected figure in the European newspaper world, found himself awoken at 6 a.m. and told by news editors in London and Paris exactly what was the news of the day: it was late morning at home and the editors had been watching CNN for five hours.

Then came the online version of the NY Times, the Washington Post - once routinely copied by British correspondents, strapped for time. And the myriad American blogs. Nowadays the life of a Washington reporter resembles that of a hamster on a wheel, a constant attempt to satisfy, at high speed, the wishes of his editor. Correspondents in other capitals have it easier, but the fundamental shift applies to us all: digital news has robbed us of our monopoly of interpretation of a government, its society and culture.

Our authority has crumpled. We were once responsible for introducing nuance to the British (I could equally well say, Dutch, Italian, French) perception of our host countries. Nuance is yesterday. Online news- services to remain competitive have, like Alsatian geese, to be stuffed before they can be consumed. Slow news-gathering has become a luxury. Irony has been all but banned since nothing travels worse for an online audience, with English as a second or third language, than verbal humour.

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