Bearing witness to history: how to adapt foreign reporting to the digital age

Roula Khalaf, incoming editor of the FT, explains how they use data, engagement, and multimedia to fulfill their mission
Statue of Saddam Hussein falls

U.S. Marine Corp Assaultman Kirk Dalrymple watches as a statue of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad, April 9, 2003. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic.

Roula Khalaf

Newly appointed Editor of the Financial Times Roula Khalaf, then Deputy Editor, led a seminar, Reporting the World, chaired by Meera Selva, Director of the Journalist Fellowship Programme, at the Reuters Institute on 25 April 2018. This is a transcript of her talk.

A few months ago, it was snowing unusually, harshly in London, and I missed not one, but two trains. The irony wasn't lost on me, of course, that I was coming to talk to you about foreign reporting, and I have covered several wars, but I couldn't get myself to Oxford because of snow.

I thought I'd tell you first a little bit about how I got into foreign reporting. I grew up during the civil war in Lebanon in the seventies and eighties and there was a place that always fascinated me. It was called the Commodore Hotel. That is where all the foreign correspondents were. First of all, everybody covered the Lebanon War, which went on for 16 years, and they all stayed at the Commodore and they had great stories to tell. And so when you're growing up in a very politically charged environment, you're naturally drawn to conflict and to trying to understand the conflict.

And this is what fascinated me about the Commodore. I always felt like I wanted to be there.

Of course, unfortunately I didn't get the chance to do that. I was still too young. I had to go to university and I ended up going to the U.S., because the situation was too dangerous in Lebanon. And after that I worked for Forbes Magazine, although I would have loved to have come back to Lebanon right away. So, what ended up attracting me to the FT was another war and that was Algeria.

There was a position at the FT in 1995 as North Africa correspondent. The war in Algeria was raging. It was a very, very difficult war to cover, because there was a succession of massacres and nobody essentially knew who was killing whom. We would go to massacre sites and even after being there for the whole day after talking to people, you'd come out with very little knowledge of who had actually killed.

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Different people had completely different stories. It was a very, very strange conflict to report on. Since then, I've covered many conflicts and many stories from Iraq to Iran, Syria, Israel, Palestinian territories, and I've also seen all the sort of twists and turns and the tragedies and the hopes in the Middle East.

I wanted to talk to you a little bit about what it is that attracts people to foreign reporting. Whenever I interview someone at the FT, someone who wants to join us, I always want to know, do you want to go abroad? Do you want to report from the ground? And I'm always naturally more interested in people who don't want to just stay in London and they're glued to their desks. So why? I think there are several reasons.

Bearing witness to history

What is very special about foreign reporting is that you get to bear witness to history. Take Iraq before Saddam Hussein's overthrow. I travelled to Iraq a lot, long before 2003 and I was able to interact with Iraqi society, always very, very closed. But if you see people over time, they start to open up a little bit. And I could see that society becomes so corrupted that the system had essentially corrupted society. Everyone was encouraged to essentially steal and try to go around the rules, because everyone was subject to very punishing sanctions. And I knew that that would not be something that could be resolved after the war.

A lot of correspondents who were just parachuted in to Iraq could not have seen that, because very few people knew Iraq before Saddam Hussein. And the way that the conflict evolves and that society has evolved has to do with the oppression that people felt under Saddam. We're very surprised today that Iraq has gone through so much turmoil —that didn't surprise me. Not in the least.

I'm always naturally more interested in people who don't want to just stay in London and they're glued to their desks.

The fall of Saddam was a very, very special moment. People were euphoric—those who were for and those who were against the war. All you had to do as a foreign correspondent at the time is just go out onto the streets.

The stories literally came to you. You didn't have to look for a story. You could just stand at a street corner and there you had stories. You mentioned Iran in 2009 during the protests. The scale was unseen since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. I happened to have a visa, which I hadn't used and so I just got on a plane and they had to let me in, because I had a visa. They had decided that they didn't want foreign correspondents to actually report, and so they said, "Fine, you've arrived. Go to your office. We have an office in Tehran."

In fact, the FT was the first foreign news organisation to open an office into Iran 10 years earlier, because we could see that Iran was going to be such a massive story. Anyhow, they allowed me in, said, "You can't report," but as it happened, of course I did report and I did go out every single day and wrote many stories.

One of the most thrilling moments when we're talking about bearing witness to history is the reporting of the fall of Hosni Mubarak. I was there the night that he fell in January 2011 and I'd never seen anything like that. I never seen a whole city celebrating.

I remember taking a walk after midnight to Tahrir Square. You had families and children all over the place and children mounting on tanks, people singing, and dancing. I prefer not to think about this today given the turn of events in Egypt, but I also had the opportunity to be in Saudi Arabia after 9/11. If you recall, at the time the big question was why do they hate us? That's what Americans asked themselves at the time. And I felt very privileged to have been able to be in Saudi Arabia and to be talking to people who were telling me why they liked Osama bin Laden.

It was quite shocking. It was for many, for me at the time, unbelievable. But he was then very popular in Saudi Arabia and amongst all sections of society. So to go back to the question, why become a foreign reporter? Why foreign reporting? What is the significance of foreign reporting? I think for a lot of people it is also about the adventure, the excitement of discovery, of being the first somewhere, of sharing in euphoria as well as in tragedy. But it's also about the passion that you develop as a journalist, about a story that matters.

Evolutions in the media industry

I remember very clearly my first day at the FT. The foreign editor who hired me told me that you can never be attached to a story. You always have to be objective. But I want you to be passionate about the story. And I've always believed that to be true.

Now, sadly, we foreign journalists are a dying breed. You're all here. You're studying the evolution of the media industry and journalists who've had careers like mine are now wondering whether others will have similar opportunities. I don't think I'll be telling you anything that's terribly new that we've gone through several revolutions. I have over the past 10 years at the FT, and even just over the past three, four years seen a very deep, very fundamental transformation in the way that we operate.

It would have been unimaginable to me just a few years ago. So this is not just a question of the change in our business model, which has been revolutionized. The FT was very early in charging for our content and it was a brilliant decision, because everybody else has followed us since then. And it is the only way you can survive today. So more of our revenues today come from subscriptions than advertising, but we are also having to adapt to the fact that social media, all the platforms, have had a very negative impact on our traditional business model. Google and Facebook account for the vast majority, more than 85% of digital advertising revenues. So what are the implications of this for an organisation like the FT? Unlike the FT, many other organisations about to close their foreign bureaus.

We foreign journalists are a dying breed. Journalists who've had careers like mine are now wondering whether others will have similar opportunities

It costs a lot of money to run a foreign bureau. To run a foreign bureau properly. A few years ago, I think maybe five years after the Iraq War, we had an office in Baghdad that had two correspondents and two assistants. Every correspondent needed an assistant for language, fixing, two drivers, two guards.

So, when I was told to make some choices, I was forced to say yes, we have to close down Baghdad. But sometimes you close down and then the story becomes bigger and then you invest again. And since then we have had correspondents in Iraq again and we've had correspondents coming in and out a lot.

Another implication I think is that increasingly newspapers, news organisations have turned to freelancers. Many freelancers don't have insurance. They're not really paid particularly well. Many of them are very young. They think, I'm going to make a name for myself. I'm going to take a risk. I'm going to go to Syria. And I have always been extremely concerned about this and we at the FT have avoided using freelancers.

There are a few freelancers who are very experienced. We have, for instance, used,Jane Arraf, who worked for CNN for a long time and spends a lot of time in Iraq. That to me is different. But trying to replace foreign bureaus with freelancers is the way that a lot of organisations have gone and I think there are serious pitfalls in that.

Gauging what 'FT' readers want

Another implication is broader and potentially more serious. The biggest change I would say in the way that we operate now is that we know our readers. We know who they are, we know when they read the FT. We even know their ages and we can tell from their names their gender.

We track how stories do on a second by second basis. We now have a dashboard called Lantern, which we developed internally, and it tells us who is reading what, where, whether they came to a story via social media, via our website. What else are they reading after they read a story?

This is a tool that of course has given us an amount of information which we would have never dreamed of in the past. It is extremely useful. When it comes to some stories, some of the foreign reporting that we do, however, makes us think twice. And I'll explain why. If you're looking at what people are reading and what people are reading most, there are two stories that you can never beat: Trump and Brexit.

You put Trump or Brexit in any headline and it flies. And of course journalists are aware of that. So this is one of the things that we are often thinking about at the FT, because we care not only about our coverage of the U.S., which is hugely important, or our coverage of Europe, but we care about Africa. We care about Middle Eastern stories, we care about Southeast Asia, we care about Central Asia. We have excellent reporting from Central Asia. We have a correspondent whose job is to cover Central Asia. So is there room left for the great reportage from Lagos? Or Myanmar? This is a real challenge for us.

The role of the editor

I'm going to give you a very recent example. You heard about the recent suspected chemical attack in Syria, in Ghouta. A few weeks before that, Ghouta was under siege. It was being bombed, and the world desk asked for our correspondent in Beirut, Erika Solomon, to try to get in touch with people in Ghouta and write a 1,000-word piece, which she did.

She spent days finding people. She wrote a story. It was an excellent story. It got 1,000 hits. 1,000 hits is very little.

So the editor who commissioned the story came to see me and said, "What do I do?" I said, "Nothing. You don't do anything."

We keep running these stories, because in this context, our role as editors becomes even more important. We have to use the data, but we also have to use our judgment. We have to combine the data with what we believe are the stories that should also be told, even if at that particular moment people do not appear interested in it. And you know what? Two weeks later, Ghouta became the biggest story.

When we started looking at data, we had an office in Cairo and that was a few years before the Arab Spring. Had we gone by what we were seeing then, we would have closed the office in Cairo. But we didn't close the office in Cairo. We knew that, yes, Egypt may not be the biggest story now, but it could become the biggest story. And I think our coverage from Cairo, if I may say so myself, was excellent.

But you understand what I'm trying to get at. You have to think constantly about not only what the data is giving you, but also what you as editors believe should be offered to the reader.

There is another challenge for editors and for journalists today. There's a view that has been gathering momentum, that there is less of a need for correspondents to be on the ground. Because of the availability of information on social media, because of citizen journalists, because of Instagram posts and live videos on Facebook that reach us much faster than a correspondent can write a story. I was reading recently this excellent piece in the New York Review of Books by Lindsey Hilsum from Channel 4 and I just wanted to share this with you. She writes that,

Younger viewers appear to be less concerned about the face or even the voice as they watch news on video, on devices, often with subtitles rather than voiceover. When it comes to conflict, the trend is toward raw dramatic video shot by local activists and journalists, showing bombs exploding and children being pulled from the rubble, often filmed by rescuers with helmet cameras. On the whole, the online viewer does not seem to mind that none of this is mediated by an on the spot reporter.

That too I think is problematic, but I think these are excellent tools that we need to use.

For example, in 2009, in the Iran protests, they were invaluable. We really would not have known, even when we were there, because the ability to talk to people was quite limited, even when you went out on the streets. It was very important for us to be able to gather information from social media about networks that were developing, about slogans that were going to be chanted, and also about arrests that were being made and about people who were being killed. But I think these are all tools that should help us in our foreign reporting, not replace the foreign reporting.

At the FT, in fact, we are still as committed as ever to foreign reporting. I asked our managing editor’s office yesterday just to give me the latest figures: we still have 160 overseas staff and 35 bureaus.

That means that one third of our editorial staff are based outside the UK, and we also have about 20 stringers and super stringers on retainer. It was always said, by the way, that the FT had more foreign correspondents than the rest of Fleet Street. I'm pretty sure that still holds today.

Using data for audience insights

I wanted to give you an example of how we now use a combination of data, audience engagement, and multimedia to report on a foreign story. A few weeks ago, we won a British Press Award for a series on the European populists. It's a series that ran for the whole year. Our attempt there was to explain to the readers what was going on politically in Europe, what was driving the rise of populism, and it was a truly ground-breaking project.

I'll give you some examples of how we worked.

The data journalists worked with the national statistics agencies of France, Germany, and the Netherlands to compile a database containing the key characteristics of more than 50,000 small communities.

Guided by this information, we decided where we wanted to send correspondents. We sent some of our strongest and most fluent writers to talk to voters in towns that were most emblematic of the rise of the far right. We went, for instance, to the poorest village in the Netherlands and to a town in France called Beziers. What the data allowed us to do was to find the right place to report, something which we would not have been able to do in the past.

We can tell stories in different ways and we try to explain to reporters that if you're doing a film, there's no need to then replicate this and write a story.

In the past we would have just assumed this is a town that's voted far right in the past and we would have just gone there, but we actually picked the towns where there was the highest vote for instance for the far right. And we had another innovative element to it. It was a unique audience engagement project, which gave a voice to the readers as well to tell us their stories about the rise of populism in their communities.

So we set up collaborations with European newspapers in the Netherlands and in Italy, and we did these digital call-outs that we now do to readers, and then they gave us their stories. These are the stories, this is the experience of readers. They send them to us, we translated them, we put them in English on our website. The other publications put them in their own languages and this was very ambitious. But it is an example of the type of rich journalism that we can do in our foreign reporting.

Innovative storytelling

Last year, we saw the controversy over the veil in Europe. I didn't choose to write a magazine piece. I didn't choose to write up what we call a Big Read. I did it through a 20-minute film, and we often do that now. We can tell stories in different ways and we try to explain to reporters that if you're doing a film, there's no need to then replicate this and write a story. It is enough.

Even if you work for the Financial Times, it is enough to just do it in one medium. It doesn't have to be translated into all other mediums that are available to the FT.

Another example, after the coup in Turkey, as you probably know, there was a purge and a lot of people were swept up in this purge. People who had nothing to do with the coup. What we chose to do is an online project, none of this was in print, an online project with testimonies from people who were arrested, from families of people who were arrested. So we just had them speaking, essentially, with pictures of their family members.

I think that we are facing many challenges. I think we've been able to weather them at the FT to maintain a foreign network, but we always have to be focused and be creative. And I think that foreign reporting remains to me as invaluable as ever.