Correspondents Good for the Brand

The number of foreign correspondents based in Washington has never been higher, the Pew Research Centre reported this week, perhaps counterintuitively. Close on 1 500 journalists are accredited with the State Department’s Foreign Press Centre, strategically located in the National Press Building, six floors down from the National Press Club bar. 15 years ago it was under a thousand.

796 media outlets from 113 countries and territories have at least one correspondent here, up from 507 from 79 in 1994. The majority of the correspondents are full-time employees of the organisations they represent, which indicates the value their employers attach both to the Washington story and to having it told and put in context by own one of their own.

The growth of the foreign presence is rendered all the more striking by the simultaneous shrinkage of most domestic bureaus in the US capital.  Cash-strapped American publishers increasingly don’t see how having their own people on the ground helps their bottom lines. Why should they spend money on producing content that is already available to their audiences free on the Internet from any number of other sources?

News executives outside the US have a different take.  They want staffers here and feel they can afford the freight. Bucking the trend, sadly, is South Africa, whose full time media presence in the US is down to one correspondent from Media 24, who writes chiefly in Afrikaans, and two from SABC, one in Washington, the other in New York.

I am sensitive to this deficit, having for many years been the Washington correspondent for Business Day and other newspapers in the Avusa stable no longer represented here. But that is not the only reason. It bothers me as US country manager for the International Marketing Council.  As able as the survivors are, the paucity of South African media here has an impact on the national brand.

In its heyday, the South African press corps in Washington, at times five or six strong – with additional staff in New York — made its presence felt.  Its members had access; you would run into them at the White House and the State Department, on Capitol Hill and at briefings, conferences and seminars; they were on first name terms with key players; you would see them on PBS NewsHour, and hear them on National Public Radio; they had sources in high places who leaked stuff to them and their calls were returned; the Africa policy community read what they wrote.

It helped that they came from rival media groups and a fiercely competitive newspaper culture.  That kept them digging, working the phones, and striving to develop new sources with an energy that might have eluded a lone correspondent with a monopoly on the beat.

Whatever the South African government of the day thought of them, or they of it, they enhanced the reputation of the country and its potential among influential Americans.  Journalists like Ken Owen, John D’Oliveira, Johan Grosskopf,  John Matisonn, Rich Mkhondo, David Braun and Alan Dunn, with independence and integrity, and knowledge and insight to trade, helped Washington understand South Africa as much as they helped their readers understand Washington.  I still hear them quoted.

More straightforwardly, a lot of what they reported would not have been reported had they not been here because no one else was covering it. It is a pet theory of mine that the US and the Southern African Customs Union would have concluded a Free Trade Agreement if the negotiations had been relentlessly and rigorously reported in the South African media. Alas, that was beyond the remit of the providers to whom our media now outsources foreign news.

“What does this mean for South Africa?” is not a standard Reuters question, nor is “What is your impression of how South Africa is doing?”  Nor is it Reuters’ job to query how South African taxpayers’ funds are being spent abroad.  South Africa needs good, disinterested answers to questions like these as it seeks to position itself as a competitive nation.

It is a blow to the brand that we can’t afford the journalists to ask them.

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