Are foreign correspondents like Colvin and Shadid a vanishing breed?

Mashable
Overnight, there were reports of the deaths of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik in Homs, Syria. The correspondents were reporting in extremely hostile territory: “It’s too much of a coincidence,” the New York Times reported a Syrian activist in Cairo saying. “There are reports of planes flying around and they may be looking for the satellite uplinks.”

As foreign bureaus get rarer, people intent on covering conflicts now often have to lean on the crowd rather than the soft bosom of a wealthy journalistic institution.

Afghan journalist Mustafa Kazemi uses Twitter as a way to report, interact with readers, and share tips with other journalists in the region. He’s added about 500 followers since Mashable wrote about him Monday.

A “pre-unlocked phone and a local SIM” are all you need to get tweeting in Afghanistan, says Ali M. Latifi, a freelance journalist currently employed at Al Jazeera English headquarters in Doha who travels to Kabul for stories. (I know Latifi because I edited a story he wrote a couple years ago.) He uses Twitter to blow off steam sometimes (e.g.: “I feel lazy doing interviews w Afghans in English,” he tweeted Tuesday morning) but also for reporting: “A lot of times it will just be interesting observations – my first rickshaw ride in Jalalabad – other times you use it to get answers and trade info. I was in Kabul during embassy attacks in September and I remember piecing a lot of it together thru tweets,” he writes, naturally, in a series of Twitter direct messages.

“There is a very lively community of journalists and tech-minded Afghans in Kabul and even JBad so you can make friends and get sources,” Latifi says. He describes a cab ride from Jalalabad to Kabul where the driver (who “had a giant Spider-Man decal on the windshield”) showed him video of an accident on his Nokia. “Really incongruous but really Afghan,” Latifi says.

Anthony Shadid’s death last Thursday has occasioned some worry that the art of foreign correspondency is being cost-cut out of existence (and I’d be surprised if Colvin’s and Ochlik’s deaths don’t inspire more such prose): “Cellphone videos on YouTube can give us the flavor of the Syrian revolt but can’t explain who the rebels are, what they want, or what is really going on inside the country,” Trudy Rubin wrote last week. “Shadid knew that if you really want to understand the story you must report from the ground.”

And Rami Khoury, while praising Shadid’s understated reporting style, lights up many of the reporters in the region now. Humility, Khoury says, is “a character trait that I sense is increasingly rare among foreign correspondents or Arab journalists in the Middle East, where the tendency is to slip away from the world of street reporting and slide into the world of studio oracles and Web stardom.”

Predictions of the end of foreign correspondency predate these recent deaths, of course. “[I]t’s not correct to place all the blame on the industry’s current financial spiral,” Dick Polman wrote in 2009. “Newspaper executives have slashed the ranks of foreign correspondents not just because of the expense, but because they also recognize that readers generally care more about the crossword puzzle than about whether they’re getting a nuanced staff-written story from a foreign hot spot.”

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