Foreign Correpondents Reporting From Afar

The Latest Tools:
laptops and cell phones










Even in the 1960s, foreign correspondents would cable dispatches back to the main office. Craig R. Whitney, who just completed a stint as Paris bureau chief for The New York Times and has been a correspondent for most of his 35 years there, said that while a correspondent in Saigon he would take his typed dispatch to the local post office so it could be sent by cable.

"When I last saw it, it was put in a wicker basket attached to a string and lifted to the ceiling," he said. Eight hours or so later, it would be in New York.

And as William Montalbano of the Los Angeles Times said, the foreign correspondent could have always been picked out of any airport by the black typewriter case they lugged around.

The ignominious telex

But the ignominious machine that characterized foreign correspondence during the 1970s and 80s was the telex. Part-linotype, part-fax, an operator would punch in the article into telex tape, which then relayed the information across phone lines. While the telex could transmit much faster than cable, the problem for correspondents usually revolved around finding a telex operator to send it.

For the first ones to find the operator, it occasionally meant getting the scoop. For the rest, it meant bribery, asLos Angeles Times veteran correspondent David Lamb recalled.

"In Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, after the now forgotten Ogaden war, about 40 hacks showed up at the post office, which had the only two available telexes in the city. There was one puncher, and we bribed like hell to get at the head of the queue."

Unlike today when editors can now easily call a correspondent in an instant, a fact some note somewhat ruefully, with a telex machine correspondents could literally choose which messages they would receive. Or in the case of former Washington Post correspondent Jonathan C. Randal, the telex was "a delight in the Congo because it shut down at nine p.m., allowing a fellow to get drunk and not worry about editors until the next morning."

The 80s marked a period of transition with the first computers and faxes. But those machines were just the preliminary models for today's tools: the laptop and cellular phone. As Al Goodman and John Pollack say in their book on how to be a freelance foreign correspondent, "technology has democratized the process of filing stories from abroad. In most situations, inexpensive computers and the proliferation of sophisticated telecommunications give almost all correspondents access to the outside world in a matter of minutes, even seconds."

The laptop

Now correspondents can be just about anywhere and still have access to the wires as well as the entire Internet. Some papers like the Christian Science Monitor offer databases and wire services to its correspondents through a Web page. In some cases, having both a laptop and cellular phone obviates the need for correspondents to waste time by going somewhere unnecessarily. Paris-based Peter Ford of the Monitor said it would have been a waste of time for him to attend the failed Rambouillet peace conference that preceded the war in Kosovo because he could get what information he need from the press conferences on the wire and could talk to sources by phone.

With the laptop, correspondents can send stories in closer to deadline.

Foreign reporters can also use the combination of their laptop and cellular phone to file stories. Charles Truehart, Washington Post's correspondent in Paris said he e-mails his stories in through his cellular phone when he's travelling to save on the hotel charges for outside calls. "So we can file from a train or sitting outside," he said.

But when that doesn't work, there's always dictation.

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Last Updated: December 7, 1999