- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 13, 2003

Using our stringers

The fun part of this job lies in working with the reporters to develop their stories and trying to break news that will make a difference to our readers; the not-so-fun side is wrestling with such things as work schedules and budgets, and one of the toughest budgets to manage is the one for free-lance articles.

Without a permanent staff of overseas correspondents, we rely for international news primarily on the wire agencies such as the Associated Press and Reuters and our own network of free-lance “stringers” from whom we purchase stories on an ad-hoc basis.

Each has its advantages and drawbacks.

The wire stories have already been professionally edited before they reach us; we know they will be updated with any developments later in the day, and — because we subscribe to the agencies on a monthly basis — we can use the articles at no additional expense. On the other hand we have no control over the content and we know that the same story is available to all our competitors.

With stringers, we can work with the reporters to influence the angle and tone of their articles, we can ask them to write about subjects that we feel are being overlooked by the agencies and other papers, and we gain the prestige that comes with being able to put “The Washington Times” under the byline.

The drawbacks are that stringer stories require more careful editing — not least because there is no one else to blame for any errors — and are harder to update with new developments. We also have to pay for every story out of a budget that allows us to buy only seven to 10 stories a week.

The extra work for our editors is not really an issue; after all that’s what they’re here for. But the budget constraints can’t be ignored; we have to try to pick our shots so as to get the maximum impact from the stringer budget.

Cancun and al Qaeda

We receive a lot of proposals for interesting slice-of-life features from stringers in countries where there is not a lot of breaking news. Most of these we turn down since we can get all the features we can use from the wires.

We also get a lot of proposals for significant but not earthshaking spot news stories that are already being covered by the wires. We usually turn these down, too.

We try to reserve our funds as much as possible for exclusive hard-news stories that we believe will not be available anywhere else; recent examples included an interview with the director of the World Trade Organization shortly before last week’s WTO meetings convened in Cancun, Mexico, and an item from London on how al Qaeda has revived its Web site devoted to recruiting Islamists to fight Americans in Iraq.

We also turn to stringers for major breaking new stories when we know they are headed for the front page, if only so we can have our own bylines on the day’s top stories. Joshua Mitnick in the Middle East, for instance, has been very busy in recent days between the shock resignation of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian prime minister and the latest wave of suicide bombs in Israel.

Here is an excerpt from the prepared guidance that we send to all new stringers advising them what we want:

“As a Washington newspaper, we are looking for articles that will appeal to our target audience in the State Department, Pentagon, Congress, embassies, think tanks and universities — in other words the foreign policy professionals.

“We cannot spend our scarce resources on stories that are already available from the wires. We seek exclusive reports with real news developments that are of geostrategic or macroeconomic significance. Exclusive interviews with major policymakers are also good, or advancers to important events.

“Basically, we want the kind of stories that the political officers at the embassies will clip and send home to their foreign ministries. These people need information, not spin.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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