- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 6, 2005

Being there

Young reporters and interns occasionally ask us old-timers what it was like to write stories on a typewriter or how we ever managed in the days before computers.

I have often wondered myself, while chasing a story with dozens of frantic phone calls, how those reporters of very long ago ever managed to do their work before the telephone.

All the new technologies — computers, faxes, cell phones, e-mail, instant messaging, satellite phones and so on — have made it much easier for reporters to stay in touch with sources and deliver their stories to anxious editors.

They also have made it possible to cover a story from afar, by watching live events on television, interviewing key participants by telephone and filling in the gaps with information from the wire services.

We do this when we must, but with the understanding that there really is no substitute for being there in person when a story is breaking. A reporter on the spot will always have a better sense of the context in which an event is occurring and will do a better job of bringing it to life with key descriptive details.

No newspaper can have its own reporters everywhere, of course, and we cannot afford to staff a large network of foreign bureaus like a couple of our competitors. So we employ “stringers” in various countries, occasionally send staff reporters out from Washington, and otherwise rely on the wire agencies that really do have reporters almost everywhere.

Sometimes we get lucky when big news breaks. Our stringer Rasheed Abou-Alsamh was on the spot in Saudi Arabia when King Fahd died Monday and was well at work on a story by the time we arrived for work.

“Glitzy malls and traditional Arabian souks were open but deserted. People were seen glued to television sets, catching up on the latest details,” read a paragraph deep in his story. It was not earthshaking, but it gave the reader a sense of being in the place and of how ordinary Saudis were responding.

Sudan copter crash

Globe-trotting stringer Paul Martin, similarly, was temporarily at home in London for last month’s wave of transit system bomb attacks, and able to use his own London police sources to keep us on top of a very big story.

Mr. Martin reported before any of our competitors that all four of the latest bombers were from East Africa and that police were looking for a “mastermind” who might have fled Britain before the July 7 attacks.

On Monday he was again alone in reporting that police had recovered a cache of fake passports and other identification papers large enough to outfit several more terrorist cells.

But the startling death in a helicopter crash of Sudanese First Vice President John Garang — announced on Monday — caught everyone off guard.

The New York Times, impressively, got a reporter to the remote spot where the body was recovered in time for Tuesday’s front page. The Washington Post wrote the story from the Rwandan capital, Kigali, where it had a reporter.

We turned for the story to Nairobi stringer Adrian Blomfield, even though he was in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the time. The logic was that it was more important to explain Mr. Garang’s role in Sudan’s long-running civil war and the political implications of his death — which Mr. Blomfield understood very well — than to have all the details of the crash.

Iraq, of course, is an almost daily story, but security demands have made it prohibitively expensive for us to keep a reporter there for more than short periods. Luckily, we have our staff reporter, Sharon Behn, who has filled a notebook with phone numbers in Baghdad during three trips to that country.

With her ability to reach key players on the phone, she has been able to report several developments in the negotiation of a new Iraqi constitution before the reporters in Baghdad.

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

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