Foreign Correspondent 2.0

One of the reasons I haven’t been posting much recently is that late last year I took a job as the editor of EURObiZ Japan, a new magazine for the members of the European Chamber of Commerce in Japan. I’ve enjoyed freelancing immensely, so it wasn’t an easy decision. But it was definitely time for a change and a good opportunity to see the other side of the editor’s desk.

I did, however, first produce this swansong to my five year long freelance career. I wrote a bit about what worked for me, and what I think correspondents will need to do faced with a moribund media and galloping technology.

The article was carried in Spotlight Japan. I’d be interested to hear what people think.

Foreign Correspondent 2.0

By Tony McNicol

For the Japan-based foreign journalist 2009 has been a tough year.  As we all know, media everywhere are in big trouble.  Once hallowed organizations are laying off staff in droves or even going out of business.  Here in Japan, foreign bureau were already reducing staff and upping sticks to Beijing even before the economic downturn.  There can hardly have been a worse time for the Japan correspondent.

Or perhaps it isn’t all that bad?  As full time correspondents find themselves grounded freelancers may get a chance to spread their wings: especially if they are ready to experiment with a plethora of new media; audio, video, blogs, social networking, to name just a few.  As they say in Japanese ‘pinch ni chance’ – opportunity in adversity.  As a Tokyo-based freelancer with five years experience writing and photographing Japan – here are some suggestions: mainly for myself, but also for other foreign writers in Japan.

1. Say bye bye to the bureaux

The roaming correspondent dispatched to far flung outposts across the world several years at a time has gone home and probably won’t be back.  In his place is the freelancer or stringer on a modest retainer.  While correspondents would have been given time and assistance to acclimatize and learn about their new postings, freelancers need to hit the ground running.  Journalists doing the work of correspondents will be the country long-term, if not actually Japanese nationals with English skills.

2. Learn the lingo

Few magazines and newspapers have the money to pay for interpreters and Japanese researchers any more.  If freelancers don’t speak Japanese, or don’t plan to learn, they will be in trouble.  Stories based on English wire stories and other English language media are not going to pay.  Monitoring the local media is a key skill.  All journalists will need enough Japanese to interview local sources with ease.

3. Use your legs

Media have responded to shrinking revenues by reducing their expense budgets and leaving less and less space for thoroughly researched foreign news.  Correspondents have been offering too many short undigested stories that barely scratch the surface of the complicated societies they cover.  No wonder they face harsh criticism and stiff competition from locally based bloggers and writers with ample knowledge and time.

So what can journalists do to compete with an army of amateur reporters?  Well the main thing is to leave their office, go places, talk to people, photograph them and video them.  They will have to BE THERE.  Luckily, new technology offers ample scope for doing just that (see below).

Will publications pay journalists for such in depth reports?  That remains to be seen.  But if they don’t, will those media won’t be around for much longer anyway?

4. Multimedia, multimedia, multimedia

The specialist writer or specialist photojournalist is increasingly a thing of the past.   Reporters are carrying cameras with their notepads, photojournalists are carrying video cameras with their SLRs, and cameramen are editing their own stories on their laptops and uploading the footage to the Internet.

This change is coming especially fast for Japan-based journalists as foreign correspondents were always expected to operate in the field with little back-up.  Today’s journalist needs to get there, collect information in a variety of media, process it quickly, and edit it to tell their story well.  Advanced computer and media skills are becoming as essential to the job as spelling and grammar.

5. Tell the story

The market for straight news, reporting events with little commentary or analysis, is disappearing fast.  In a change that is endangering the very existence of the world’s newspapers, readers are getting their news for the Internet, instantly and free.  The only way to compete is surely to go deeper.  That takes time – and money – but journalists without the determination to tell those stories will find themselves with little to do in the new media.

Meanwhile, speed is going to be of the utmost importance, hence mastery of the technical skills; not necessarily to scoop rivals – none of us can compete with the wires, never mind Twitter, on speed — but to process more material for less money.

6. Make friends with Google

Google is the freelancer’s best friend.  Once it was possible to sell a story to one, maybe two generously paying outlets.  With budgets shrinking across the board, journalists need to find ways to offer their work to multiple media.  That takes time, but journalists who know how to use Google will find that clients come to them.

Likewise, blogging has become an essential tool for freelancers.  By posting stories they can increase their search engine rankings, sell their work, and even build a readership amongst editors and other journalists.

7. Give your work away

To paraphrase Chris Anderson, the author of ‘Free: The Past and Future of a Radical Price’, the problem that journalists face is not that people don’t pay for their work, but that people don’t know about it.

Many journalists wonder why they should be putting their work on the internet without payment, but in today’s media environment, anyone reading your work online effectively “is” payment.  Write a blog and maybe you’ll resell work, sell photo stock, attract new assignments, or just gradually raise your profile.

And the Future?

No one knows how the current media crisis will end, but one thing is clear: journalists face a time of huge change.  Can reporters still make a living from news?  Yes, but only if what they provide is new.  And that means utilizing new media as much as finding new stories.

Tony McNicol is a Tokyo-based freelance writer and photographer.  He has worked for many publications based in Japan and abroad and covered topics ranging from internet technology to food and drink to sumo.  Right now he carries a computer, Nikon SLR, electronic dictionary and IC recorder.  He is looking for space in his bag for a microphone and video-camera. His work can be seen at

7 Responses to “Foreign Correspondent 2.0”

  1. alain says:

    Down-to-earth analysis, that seems quite the way to go and renew the revenue source – and stay alive.

    On the medium term there is a viable economic model for all those who take the time, knowledge, energy and gear to make the information we need. This model is now growing slowly.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts


  2. Tony,
    Nice roundup of the situation and suggestions about the need to act (before it’s too late…).
    One thing I would suggest, if I may, is that photojournalists who want to stay afloat must fully realize that what’s expected of us has really changed, and is still evolving as the all profession is still trying to figure out new business models. We need to be more flexible, not only in the way we produce and deliver (as you point out in the ‘Multimedia’ paragraph), but also in the way we price and sell our work. Some of us (count me on) need to rethink how we present ourselves, we may also need a ‘re-branding’ of some sort, or join forces with other photographers and reporters in loose structures, or ‘virtual agencies’, find new markets for our works, no necessary purely journalistic,and so on…
    Speaking of virtual agencies, it’s something feasible at relatively low cost right now. Some platforms, like the one I use to market my photos, offer the possibility to set up one very easily at no cost if you’re already client, allowing photographers to regroup their archives in common in one place. Something I’m looking into…
    In any case it is true that right now we are involved in a guessing game. But at the same time we can’t stay put until the dust settles. Something you said very well in this posting.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Mike Ignatov says:

    Very useful information. Thank you for posting.

  4. fritz says:

    ah I agree totally! and you’ve written it down so well. usually, when I see these kinds of thoughts it’s always written from a, well, selfish perspective, always going like “I am successful and awesome because…”. but you generalized it pretty well.

    I would like to add that is it a little bit different for not english native correspondents, if not even easier. there are like 5 german photographers in tokyo right now, me being one of them, and all of them specialized in something else, or working for different media. it’s a huge market, which I cannot really get into yet because I fail in your point 2: I can’t speak japanese :-/

    but yeah, it’s exactly like this, the correspondents move away and the freelance can now get their slice of the pie. never was so clear to me before

  5. tony says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Luc, I guess the new business model point is a key one, although I’m rather skeptical of mini-agencies. It seems to me that individual photographers can use the internet in a way that makes agencies of any size redundant.

    Fritz, good luck finding a niche. For the record, I know several very successful photographers in Japan who speak minimal Japanese. I guess there’s even an argument for saying it helps (unlike with writers). Very easy to get distracted when people start talking!

    Dust seems to be settling now slightly after the last year. Let’s home 2010 will be a year of opportunity for freelancers.

  6. I think it an interesting overview of the situation as it stands, where it will go is unsure. Indeed many in journalism are dragging their feet, hoping the current chaos will blow over as they appear to be waiting-out the insecurity of this time hoping it will all revert to the way it was before. Many less established in the business also feel the odds stacked against them to break further into this game and stoically stick to rules that are perhaps no longer worth anything and indeed could be hurting their careers. It is unclear what, if any, influence the stalwarts, and traditionalists will ultimately have on how the industry rewards us for our efforts when there are so many new people and indeed progressive members of the old guard, playing the game you so succinctly outline here.

  7. […] just the story, the way it is told. Is this the future of photojournalism? This is a subject that is on every photographers mind at the moment and no-one is sure. The “gallery” […]

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