“Every reporter must work in his own way, speak with his own voice, [and] find his individual style… There is no ‘how’ that can be passed along, because the ‘how’ of each writer’s work resides somewhere deep in the fabric of that writer’s being.”
Lillian Ross, in Reporting
This quote, found in Lillian Ross’ Reporting, leads the Washington Post’s handbook for foreign correspondents. The guide details the joys and challenges of reporting from a foreign bureau. I found the quote to be especially pertinent to my experience as an intern in the London bureau of the Washington Post because of Ross’ concept of ‘how.’ In Ross’ quote she makes clear that a reporter’s writing style cannot be passed along or adopted. Although that is certainly true, what I learned over the course of this summer is that you can emulate and aspire to the voices of journalists you admire. This in effect is what I see as the purpose of the summer apprenticeship. To learn from your superiors through reading and absorbing all they have to offer, and then turn inward to see how you want to further develop your own writing.
To this end, I looked to the London bureau chief, Anthony Faiola. As he filed cover story after cover story for the Post I quickly became aware of his formulaic approach to reporting and his insightful voice in writing. He is the epitome of what it means to be a foreign correspondent by working almost solely alone, sticking to his agenda, reporting on stories that startle readers, and writing in a way that resonates with his audience.
There are many things that make a good reporter among these is the ability to work independently. This skill is exponentially more important when reporting from abroad because of the relative detachment to the newsroom and your editors. The separation from the desk does not only come in the form of distance, but also time zones, languages and cultures. It is the responsibility of a foreign correspondent to take on more initiative than ever before.
One interesting advantage to being in London and separated from D.C. by five hours from is that you start the day ahead of the game. While everyone in Washington is sleeping you are already up and starting the day with interviewing, reporting, witnessing and writing stories. The news literally never stops.
On the flip side of this, when a story breaks late in the day you are still required to get that information into the newsroom despite it being well past everyone else’s print deadline in the UK. This makes for some late nights and early mornings.
Another major difference from working in the newsroom to working at a foreign bureau is communicating with your editors. The foreign correspondents work with their editors to define the agenda of their tour. In Faiola’s case his main priority was the international debt crisis and subsequent austerity measures. For example, the first story I worked on while at the bureau concerned cuts to the housing benefit program in the UK and how citizens on welfare were reacting. Along the way though the editors in Washington will call in with other requests and attention will have to be diverted to breaking news. This occurred in a big way when the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal broke, the News of the World was shuttered and News International employees were arrested.
The Washington Post guidebook to foreign corresponding describes a great correspondent as one who will always keep an eye on the news, be insatiably curious, and try to make sense of the world. Being immersed in your surroundings and monitoring thousands of different sources is key. This can be done in numerous ways from talking to people, to reading the newspaper on the subway, to checking the BBC as routinely as you get your morning coffee.
From all of these things and many more, a foreign correspondent stays clued into trends and cultural currents, which can be all but invisible until the reporters themselves write with transparency on the subject. It is a foreign correspondents ability to take readers to places and events they’ve never known that made me so interested in pursuing an internship in London.
I came to be a foreign correspondent for the summer in London by taking advantage of an unlikely opportunity. When UNH journalism alumni Kevin Sullivan came to speak during the visiting journalist program I met with him to pick his brain about his career. I knew that he had worked as bureau chief with his wife Mary Jordan in London and after studying abroad there I had an insatiable desire to go back.
With that thought in mind, I asked him about any opportunities for internships in the UK. Sullivan put me in contact with the current London bureau chief, Anthony Faiola, and I was able to interview with him and his colleague Karla Adam for an internship position.
After learning that I had gotten the internship I had no idea what to expect in a foreign bureau of a major newspaper with only two other journalists. I assumed I would be lucky to do much more than fact checking. I was happily mistaken.
During my summer internship for the Washington Post I went to Number 10 for a press briefing with Prime Minister David Cameron, I attended a meeting at the House of Lords in Parliament, an article I contributed to ran on the front page of the Post, I met Britain’s minister for sport Hugh Robertson at a press conference at the Department for Culture, my own byline ran in the Post on the London 2012 Olympic ticketing ballot, I went to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office for a press briefing on Syria, and I covered the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal and subsequent shuttering of the News of the World.
I was amazed at the amount of responsibility I was given from tasks of in depth reporting, finding sources, interviewing, and writing. In order to understand my role in each article I will cite and explain each.
My first byline in the Post was on the Olympic ticketing scandal in the UK. Britons were up in arms about the ballot system that left thousands without tickets to see events for London 2012. My story, “Briton’s upset over Olympic ticket system” was also featured in the “Early Lead” blog under the Post Sports page.
I worked on the piece for about two weeks spanning the first and second round of ticket sales. Over the course of the reporting process I spoke with press officers from the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Britain’s minister for sport Hugh Robertson, representatives from the Mayor of London’s office, corporate sponsors of the games such as Procter & Gamble, hospitality services like Prestige Ticketing and members of the public who had applied for Olympic tickets.
Although it was evident that many Britons were upset at being unable to procure tickets the prospect of finding people to share their stories seemed daunting. That was until I found the benefit of using Twitter. At the time I was writing the piece there was huge buzz on Twitter of people not receiving any tickets through the Olympic lottery system. I tuned into these voices and Tweeted at [@] numerous people until I got enough responses. Everyone I spoke to was more than willing to share his or her story. I was even able to contact one man who was on the other end of the spectrum and had received nearly $17,000 worth of tickets to events such as the women’s gymnastic final and the opening ceremony.
The editing process for the story was tedious because I had to email and phone back and forth to D.C. The time difference in this instance was especially difficult. One lesson I learned from this experience, even though I spoke with my editor several times and also had copy editors check my piece, was that in the end it is up to the writer to do the final edits. I unfortunately had seen the article so many times that I did not catch a simple spelling error on the name Procter & Gamble and they had to run a correction.
Although I was really upset about this, Karla Adam managed to cheer me up by telling me about a recent correction run by the New York Times where a reporter mistakenly called the new prime minister of Ireland a woman, when he is actually a man.
In my time at the Post I also contributed to many other articles. The first story that I worked on was “London’s poor facing the squeeze,” written by Anthony Faiola and published on the front page of the Post.
Austerity measures and welfare reform are a big interest for the London bureau. I started my internship by jumping in on a story that detailed the cuts to the local housing allowance in Britain. This is a huge issue for people on housing benefits in London and when they go into effect in January many people will be left homeless. In addition, the cuts will drastically change the economic landscape of London, making it impossible for many immigrants and lower class people to live in the city.
For this story I spoke with charities, stood outside of job centers and housing associations, and was able to find both families on benefits that highlight the gravity of the situation in the article. The families who live in central London illustrate the problem through showing, not telling, how devastating the cuts will be.
I found the family from Kosovo after spending one rainy day standing outside of a housing authority building where I met Besarta Kastrati, the mother of two facing eviction from her flat. The second family I found was a British family living in Islington, who I was introduced to through Family Action, a charity organization.
The main thing that I learned in trying to find sources for this article is that there are hundreds of avenues to find people and the key to connecting with them is just to listen. As welfare is a touchy subject, the last thing I wanted to do was be pushy. I was in some rough areas of the city and all I could do was ask if people wanted to speak with me. I believe my success lay simply in being patient and sympathetic.
I gathered a lot of other sources for that story including the interviews with Lord Freud and gathering figures from government councils.
I was also able to contribute to a story on strikes, “Services hit as Britain faces massive strike over pension changes,” written by another foreign correspondent in the London bureau, Karla Adam. These strikes were some of the biggest in recent history in London. Unions of public sector workers, mostly teachers, went out in force to protest massive cuts to their pension schemes. I helped out by going out to the strike in the Holborn area and interviewing people in the crowd.
One difficulty in this situation was how many people there were and how quickly the desk in D.C. needed the quotes. The story had to be filed by 6 a.m. in the US, so in this circumstance it was important that I had very specific questions for protestors. In asking a lot of protestors very pointed questions I was quickly able to weed out the best quotes and phone them into Karla so she could insert them into the story and send it out.
One of the busiest times in the bureau this summer was during the ongoing News International phone-hacking scandal. I ended up doing a lot of reporting on the News International phone hacking and the Murdochs. It was an especially hectic time for news because we only had three people in our bureau including myself and we were competing with the New York Times, which brought in a total of 11 reporters to cover the phone-hacking story.
I was actually the only person in the office when the news broke about the News of the World shuttering because Karla Adam was out at the Harry Potter premier and Anthony Faiola was on vacation. Luckily William Booth, a foreign correspondent for the Post in Mexico, happened to be in London in order to get a visa for Libya and quickly rushed over to the bureau to help. I had to run an initial wire on the story to confirm that News International had shut the News of the World and after that I was on the phone all evening with various press officers and analysts. It was stressful, but extremely exciting.
In the following days News International withdrew their bid for the BSkyB television-broadcasting takeover, the former editor-in-chief of the News of the World Rebekah Brooks was arrested, and Rupert and James Murdoch were called before Parliament for a hearing.
This was a rapidly changing story, for which I was constantly calling political pundits and media analysts to get fresh opinions. One particularly interesting contact I tracked down was a former ‘show biz’ reporter for the News of the World named Paul McMullan. He had reportedly phone-hacked many celebrities and was famously castigated by Hugh Grant for his behavior. I found him working in a pub in Dover, UK, and was able to speak to him about the shady practices of News International employees.
After speaking to characters like McMullan and many others I ended up with a 30-page word document of contacts, interview notes, and press releases. In the end I contributed to over 10 articles on the phone-hacking story and what became history in the making.
During my time at the Post I took advantage of every opportunity to learn from the people around me, whether it was my boss, people I interviewed on the street, or through press bureaus that I nagged to no end. One of my bosses favorite expressions was “if it doesn’t bleed it doesn’t lead.” Although I had heard it before, it didn’t quite resonate as much until I literally felt like each article that came out of the bureau had an actual pulse.