Here come The Smiths

Great piece in the New York Times today looking at the new global media organisation being launched by Ben Smith, formerly of Buzzfeed and the NYT, and Justin Smith, former CEO of Bloomberg Media.

I’ve no doubt The Smiths, as they are now to be known in media circles, will create a compelling news org that justifiably breaks some of the outdated conventions in this industry. Great.

But reading this piece, I couldn’t help notice the reemergence of several tropes — the kind of comments you often hear from yet-to-launch media groups that pledge to cure the ills of every newsroom currently operating.

Let’s start here:

[Justin] Smith also shared his thoughts about what he called the end of an era when news outlets based in London, New York or Washington dispatched journalists to foreign countries to report on the goings-on there. He asked why foreign readers would not prefer a homegrown English-speaking native to report the news in their region.

“The idea that you send some well-educated young graduate from the Ivy League to Mumbai to tell us about what’s going on in Mumbai in 2022 is sort of insane,” Mr. Smith said.

He’s certainly not the first person to make this argument. Smith’s point is that by hiring strong English speakers locally you can not only expand more cheaply, but with more integrity since locals know more than outsiders. (It’s an argument also used by media executives when they’re slashing budgets, it’s worth noting.)

It’s hard to question this logic without sounding like a pompous arse. But I think it’s fundamentally wrong.

A foreign correspondent isn’t vital because he or she knows more than a local, but because he or she is representing the audience. An ambassador, essentially, with similar frames of reference and an instinct for what’s surprising, unique, shocking (or yes, entertaining) about a news event. Without being too blunt about it: it’s better coverage. Or to put it another way, there’s a reason the best and most honest books about places usually come from travel writers.

Now, is there a risk of “parachute” journalism, where the typically white and male reporter flies in one day, stands on a hotel roof, and pretends to know it all? Yes. But that’s just bad reporting–not an indictment of the foreign correspondent as a concept.

The very best at the job, the likes of Lyse Doucet or Steve Rosenberg, combine their knowledge of their audience with an ability to harness the right sources on the ground. The current coordination between the BBC’s core English news service and the teams from BBC Russia and BBC Ukraine is perhaps the best example of pairing the two pools of expertise.

Come to think of it, if there’s an ignorance problem that needs to be solved, The Smiths should look closer to home. The editorial agenda of a global news org isn’t determined in the overseas bureaus, but in the morning conference. Improving diversity of thought and worldview in that room is the real progress that needs to be made in foreign news. To their credit, I think they know this.

Ok, next thing:

[Justin Smith] also argued that many foreign news readers were ill served.

“You maybe went to school in the U.S., you’re pretty well educated, you’re connected to your network and your family all around the world — and the quality of your local media is not amazing,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s either state-censored or, it’s just, the journalism’s not great.”

“So what do you do?” he continued. “You say, OK, well, let me let me pick up The New York Times, or let me pick up The Wall Street Journal, or let me pick up The Washington Post. And what do you get? You get exactly what you’d expect if you read something that had the word New York in it, or something that has the word Washington in it. Or you go to CNN and you get a feed from Atlanta, some regional story from the Midwest, and you’re sitting in Singapore.”

He has a good, if limited, argument here. The point he’s making — I think — is that local media in some countries is of poor quality or worse, whereas The Smiths could expand globally, offering on-the-ground coverage in the same places as the audience, raising the game and doing important work.

Sure, I can buy that, because I’ve seen it: the BBC’s Nairobi office, the corporation’s biggest bureau outside of the UK, caters specifically to the local market as well as acting as an outpost for the wider BBC. Its impact has been huge. (Again, it has been done using a mixture of outsiders and insiders to the region.)

A couple of problems here. First, this is far more expensive to do well than I think Smith appreciates–unless he’s happy to settle for a highly-disjointed news organisation with inconsistent styles and standards in each market, a confused identity that will soon feel like several separate publications rather than one global brand.

Second, the danger is that in attempting to create a news organisation for everybody, it ends up being for nobody. Or, at least, nobody thinks it is for them–which is just as bad. BBC World has this problem, I think, as has the BBC World Service. It’s always struck me how quiet the inboxes for listener feedback were for even flagship World Service shows, compared to the breakfast show on, say, BBC Radio Shropshire. The degree to which an audience feels ownership over the media they consume is hugely important.

Hell, even the tiniest things can distance local readers. The newspaper I work for is positioned as a global newspaper, but that didn’t stop someone once saying to me: “It’s British, though. You use ‘s’ instead of ‘z’.” It was a joke, but it also rings true–an audience picks up on these subtleties and cares about them.

This is all to say: The Smiths are creating an American news organisation, and the audience will never forget this, even if it doesn’t say so on the masthead.

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