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NEW YORK — After two decades of cutbacks in international bureaus, ABC News is bucking the trend by creating one-person operations that will dramatically boost its coverage in Africa, India and elsewhere.
The small offices, staffed by a reporter-producer with the latest in hand-held digital technology, cost a fraction of what it takes to run a full-time bureau. But the work they file will be featured not only on ABCNews.com and ABC News Now but also occasionally on such ABC shows as “World News Tonight” and “Good Morning America.”
The mini-bureaus are being opened in Seoul; Rio de Janeiro; Dubai; New Delhi and Mumbai, India; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Nairobi, Kenya.
“Technology now makes it possible for us to have bureaus without a receptionist, three edit suites and studio cameras and so on,” ABC News president David Westin told The Hollywood Reporter. “The essence of what we do is reporting, it’s not production. Production is the way you get it on the air and to people, but reporting is the essence.”
Each of the seven reporters will work from home and travel around their region carrying a small DV camera and editing-enabled laptop. They’ll report, write, shoot and edit their pieces, though they also will have support from others at ABC News. Most of the work will be uploaded via broadband to New York, though they will carry a portable satellite dish for the field where broadband isn’t available.
It’s the explosion in affordable, hand-held technology that makes this possible, ABC News London bureau chief Marcus Wilford said. While it won’t eliminate big bureaus like London, it allows the news division to create more content to satisfy its expanding digital platforms without a lot of expensive infrastructure.
“We don’t always need a bureau of the old style,” Wilford said.
The concept of a foreign bureau isn’t going away anytime soon, but the networks are using digital technology to make smarter investments. ABC’s seven digital bureaus cost about as much as the full-featured Paris bureau did when it was open. NBC News also extensively uses digital technology in its bureaus with correspondents like Richard Engel (who reported and filmed a documentary about his life in Baghdad for MSNBC last year) and in such far-flung places as Cairo, Moscow, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
For its part, ABC News is in the middle of a transformation into a more digital company — and one that can expand its reporting. Westin said that with the digital bureaus, it’s free to report from more locations, including places where it wouldn’t be able to afford to open a full-time bureau.
“It’s a source of stories that we wouldn’t normally hear from, and it gives us eyes and ears on the ground,” he said.
These digital bureaus are being staffed by some of ABC News’ youngest and brightest. The network reached out to its own instead of hiring locals or stringers.
“We felt it was important to have people who had been trained within our organization in the tradition of reporting,” Wilford said. “We could train them for all the technical skills they need to do this.”
Some, like Nairobi reporter Dana Hughes, already know how to run a camera and edit from her stint as an associate producer in Brian Ross’ investigative unit. Others have received specialized training because Wilford said you can’t just give someone a camera and expect a compelling video story to be produced.
Hughes said she heard about the deployment and itched to become a part of it. She acknowledges that she’s not as well trained as a 20-year camera veteran but doesn’t think it’s a drawback.
“We’re not going to be in a studio, we’re not going to have people do our makeup,” Hughes said. “The challenge for us on-camera is making sure that we find a great story and report it — reporting it in a way that people are going to watch.” She thinks it’s a myth that Americans aren’t interested in foreign news.
Westin believes that the growth of India and the rest of the Far East make it important for ABC News to increase its coverage of the region; two bureaus are in India, one in South Korea and another in Indonesia. Westin has been considering opening a bureau in Latin America but said that the digital bureau in Rio makes it easier for them to cover the countries down there.
Westin and Wilford said a second wave of digital bureaus is in the works, including one in Tehran, Iran, and at some point smaller markets in the U.S.
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