Foreign Correspondents and Bureaus


Foreign correspondents refer to journalists who are employed to send news or comment from a foreign country. Historically, being a staff correspondent was a highly desirable job for journalists. It was also a status symbol since journalists were often only given major correspondent postings if they had gained substantial experience and had proven themselves in the newsroom. The position also had particular professional prestige as correspondents were seen to be trustworthy enough to carry out the journalistic outlet’s mission with even greater autonomy. Finally, it had a certain degree of personal glamor. Being a foreign correspondent allowed journalists to report from exotic (and sometimes dangerous) locations — and, sometimes, with a rather nice expense account.

In the past, foreign correspondents would typically be based in news bureaus, or satellite offices set up for newsgathering operations. For example, The Associated Press may have a Cairo bureau where a reporting team (sometimes as small as a single reporter with support staff or as big as dozens of reporters) would be based and charged with covering Egypt — or even North Africa more broadly. For media organizations, a good spread of foreign bureaus has also traditionally translated into cultural capital, as it was evidence of the organization’s resources and commitment to serious newsgathering. Practically, however, it was an important resource for allowing correspondents to establish themselves in a location, develop sourcing networks, and become immersed in a culture. While many organizations with a major international presence still have foreign news bureaus today, they are typically fewer and smaller than in the past.

Foreign Correspondents and Values

Historically, foreign correspondents were journalists from the same country where their parent organization was based. Those journalists were then stationed abroad for a temporary period. For example, the U.S.-based New York Times would often take one of their American journalists and station him — and, historically, it was usually a man — in one of their foreign news bureaus. In British, American, and Australian media, the usual term of a posting was three years or less. After that time, newsroom managers would often move that correspondent to another foreign bureau. As correspondents gained experience, they would be sent to more desirable postings like London, Washington, and Jerusalem.

The logic behind these rotations was that news managers historically feared that if a posting lasted too long, the foreign correspondent might become too much of an insider and thus lose their ability to report objectively on that foreign country (due to natural socialization processes). By rotating correspondents, they argued, news managers could mitigate those negative effects (whether real or perceived) while allowing countries to be covered through fresh perspectives over time. While there are obvious flaws with this reasoning, it underscores the idea that foreign correspondence has always required journalists to be insiders and outsiders at the same time.

The emphasis on such rotations — and on the broader phenomenon of sending local reporters to cover foreign affairs — is more contested today. Critics contend that this design results in mainly Western correspondents from the Western Global North reporting on countries that they cannot understand as well as local reporters would. While foreign correspondents are typically well-versed in international affairs (many were students of regions they cover), critics contend that such knowledge is not an adequate substitute for local lived experience and the more extensive sourcing networks brought by local journalists. Such a perspective aligns with a tradition of political economy that views international journalism through the prism of global dominance. From that perspective, the major global journalistic outlets and global news agencies — the most dominant of which are based in the Western Global North — use their privileged positions to not only set the news agenda for the rest of the world’s media (by virtue of their sizable news output) but also potentially shape, and sometimes distort, how the rest of the world is depicted (to align with its Western perspective).

In more recent years, there has been a move to hire more locals as foreign correspondents (e.g., a full-time Moroccan journalist tasked with covering North Africa from a regional bureau), as well as more part-time correspondents from foreign media outlets (e.g., a local Moroccan journalist who files a certain number of stories from Morocco and is on standby, in addition to their existing day job at a Moroccan news outlet). While such moves have been largely driven by economic motives — such correspondents are far cheaper to employ — it has led to a change in attitudes about where foreign correspondents should be from and how their job ought to be performed.

Foreign News Bureaus

Historically, news organizations sought to establish foreign news bureaus in order to have a stable newsgathering operation that could unearth important regional stories and react quickly when there was a major development.

Such bureaus are also valuable in that they offer a long-term perspective on the politics, economics, and social issues of places and regions. First, bureaus are often established in carefully selected cities that reflect geopolitical importance (e.g., Beijing and Brussels), are important financial centers (e.g., London), or are locations where there are frequent conflicts (e.g., Baghdad and Jerusalem). Second, while foreign correspondents at those bureaus may rotate, supporting staff often do not. Such staff can play important roles in interpreting the significance of stories, in connecting correspondents with local sources, and by offering helpful context to stories. Third, bureaus offer a stable base of operations. Journalists can travel lightly to other parts of a region — and, often, more dangerous parts of that region — to cover a story knowing that they have a safe place to return to and a reliable support team nearby.

The value of foreign news bureaus is aptly illustrated by instances like the 2003 Iraq War. Outlets like the BBC, CNN, and The Associated Press, all of which had Baghdad bureaus, were well-placed to chronicle the invasion of Iraq by U.S., U.K., Australian, and Polish forces. They had good regional sourcing networks that enabled them to get insights from different parts of the country and to triangulate information being fed by both Iraqi and Coalition officials. More importantly, however, is that those bureaus allowed journalists to remain safely in Iraq for a lengthy period after the invasion and thus bear witness to a worsening situation — even though the dangers still required them to rely extensively on local journalists and ‘fixers’ to help capture a broader picture.

Although foreign news bureaus exist worldwide, the majority of bureaus — and certainly the largest and best resourced of them — are in western Europe and the U.S. According to a recent survey, the cities with the most news bureaus were Brussels, London, Moscow, Rome, New York, Washington, Beijing, Berlin, and Madrid. As one might expect, this results in an over-representation of news from those countries since foreign correspondents are more likely to identify and report on stories near to the places where they are stationed.

Economics of Bureaus and Correspondents

At the height of the boom in international news coverage in the 1980s and 1990s, even regional and metropolitan newspapers in the United States had foreign bureaus. For example, The Chicago Tribune had offices in places like Baghdad, Buenos Aires, and Moscow. However, by the 2010s, most newspapers — and even some newspaper chains — had shuttered all of their foreign news bureaus and many stopped employing foreign correspondents full-time. Today, only elite newspapers in the U.S., such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, maintain a sizable number of bureaus and correspondents, as well as some major broadcast outlets like ABC and CNN.

The reason for this decline is not a shortfall in public interest in foreign news — though some scholars have observed a downward trend of audience interest in foreign news — or a reduction in the newsworthy foreign news events. Instead, many journalistic outlets have simply elected to devote their dwindling budgets to more ‘efficient’ newsgathering efforts through the use of freelancers, stringers, and so-called ‘parachute journalists’ instead of supporting the expensive infrastructure needed to support a news bureau. Indeed, supporting a bureau means paying for office and house rentals, a permanent staff, health care and education for said staff, and auxiliary services like drivers, translators, and sometimes security personnel. Such high costs must now be negotiated against (much) cheaper subscriptions to global news agencies or aggregation-based practices that rely on user-generated content (e.g., tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram pictures, and YouTube videos) posted by citizens in locations abroad. The latter phenomenon has led to concerns about the de-professionalization of international journalism.

This is not just a U.S.-based phenomenon, though. In the United Kingdom, for example, there has been a similar reduction of bureaus among the country’s newspapers. This includes bureaus in nearby European nations that are deeply intertwined with the U.K. and its affairs. Instead, there has been a move toward teaming up with other organizations to develop newsgathering partnerships, alongside the broader trend toward relying on global news agencies for material.

As such, foreign correspondence is an area of journalism that has been particularly affected by the industry’s economic challenges, and it has seen substantial changes in recent years as a result. What was once an international symbol of organizational prestige and a reward for being a good journalist is now an easy target for budget cuts. Nevertheless, though fewer in number, both full-time, bureau-based foreign correspondents and news bureaus remain important features of international journalism.

Key Takeaways

  • Foreign correspondents refer to journalists who are employed to send news or comment from a foreign country. Historically, these have been Western-born individuals working for Western-based outlets covering different parts of the globe.

  • News bureaus refer to satellite offices set up for newsgathering operations. They help offer a long-term perspective on the politics, economics, and social issues of places and regions.

  • As a result of dwindling budgets, there has been a decline in the number of full-time, bureau-based foreign correspondents and foreign news bureaus. Nevertheless, they remain important features of international journalism.