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Early Correspondents:
a short history



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It's not surprising that a war was the first forum for foreign correspondents. From Crimea to Kosovo, wars have always provided the theater for gripping stories to be read by many back home.


William Howard Russell

Russell helped come to embody the foreign correspondent: cunning, determined, wiling to brave all sorts of conditions to get the story, and attentive to detail with an occassional poetic streak. As Russell referred to the role he helped invent, he was "the miserable parent of a luckless tribe."

The Crimean War in the mid-eighteenth century was the first serious, organized effort by newspapers to get foreign news from one of their own journalists and marked a new stage in the history of journalism.

Russell, who wrote for The Times of London, displayed the ingenuity needed to get a scoop out first in the days before cable and before he went off to Crimea. Russell was in Ireland covering the seditious libel trial of Irish leader Daniel O'Connell, for which both The Times and a rival newspaper had chartered steam ships to report the jury's decision. Russell was lounging while other newspaper correspondents had left to get a drink when his assistant told him the jury had come in. Once the verdict was announced, Russell ran to the station, reserved a train to wait for him once he arrived and got on the steamer in a half-hour, while the rival paper's steamer was still sitting calmly at the dock. Once in London, Russell only had his left boot on as he got to The Times' office, where he saw who he thought was the printer and told him that the jury had found O'Connell guilty. The next morning he found out it wasn't the printer but a man posted by the rival paper, which then published his scoop at the same time as The Times.

Before the telegraph, mail coaches and couriers were the typical means of getting a dispatch back. But all that changed with the telegraph.

In America, the Civil War presented the first opportunity for wide-scale use of the telegraph. This changed the very nature of reporting because the news could be more immediate, with papers leaving space open for the latest update of what happened yesterday as opposed to a week ago. The telegraph also meant stories were written in the so-called "inverted pyramid" style, with the important news on top in case the line was cut during transmission.In a heavy newspaper city like New York, the telegraph put a premium on newspapers being the first to get a scoop.

Yet by this time it was the elder William Howard Russell himself who was nudged into retirement by this invention. During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71, Russell continued delivering his dispatches on the battles from the German front the old-fashioned way and discovered that they were appearing days after another paper, the Daily News, had printed the news. Russell had a harder time still trying to change his literary license to the new concise style that demanded lots of facts and the five Ws.

Meanwhile, Archibald Forbes became the vanguard for the new demands of correspondence. Covering the Franco-Prussian War for the Daily News, Forbes became successful by making a masterful communications arrangement that let him post a letter at any German millitary post office just outside of Paris while it was under siege. The letter was then taken by field-post wagon, placed on a train to Saarbrucken, delivered to a telegraph station there and transmitted to London. The efficiency of the German postal system and Forbes attentive preparation allowed him to get his dispatch to London in 24 hours no matter from where around Paris he sent it.


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Last Updated: December 7, 1999