Ask an Insider: Michael Bociurkiw, “The Savvy Traveler,” talks about the changing face of international reporting, HUM news, and going for the story no one else is getting

Michael Bociurkiw has worked as a reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press; the Toronto Globe and Mail, the South China Sunday Morning Post (Hong Kong) and as Malaysia Bureau Chief for Asia Times Bangkok) and was part of the start-up team of Eastern Express newspaper in Hong Kong. He has covered numerous events, from: the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine to the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China and has reported on several major global summits, including the Sixth Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 and the 2002 G-8 summit in Calgary. Michael has also interviewed world leaders including: Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore), Fidel Ramos and Corazon Aquino (Philippines), Kim Campbell (Canada), Mahathir Mohamad (Malaysia), Chatichai Choonhaven (Thailand), B.J. Habibie (Indonesia) and Yulia Tymoshenko (Ukraine). He has appeared frequently on CNN, al-Jazeera and other broadcast outlets to speak about emergency operations. He is also part of the management team of HUM (Human Unlimited Media) an initiative to launch concentrated, sustainable coverage of 116 of the poorest countries of the world. You can read his travel blog at www.mysavvytraveller.com

Michael joined me, Ravenna, the OpEd Project Social Media Intern, for a phone chat in early July from his home in Vancouver, a place he had recently returned to after spending more than three weeks in South Africa covering the FIFA World Cup games and establishing future contacts for HUM news:

RK: You have been reporting internationally since the 1990’s— a time frame that has witnessed huge international political and economic changes, but perhaps more importantly for reporters, technological changes. How has the Western reporting presence abroad changed in that time?

MB: What we’re seeing now is a very rapid deterioration in foreign news reporting, and that’s happening for a number of reasons. Foreign reporting by nature is very, very expensive and very labor intensive and fewer and fewer news organizations are able to afford it. The business model is now unsustainable. Foreign bureaus are often cut, which cuts down on the ability of many news organizations to cover distant stories. Gone are the days when you’re going to dispatch a six-man crew with generators and satellite dishes to a distant country.

HUM has looked at the world and catalogued those who don’t have a permanent western news presence— there are at least 116 such countries like that. These are mostly countries that are developing… if you take the number of developing countries and you overlay it with the countries that aren’t getting covered, it’s almost a direct match. We asked ourselves [at HUM] how we could cover these countries in a way that is economically sustainable. We realized that instead of sending people to distant places, we can look at what resources are available there already. For example, there are already local, regional, national news organizations that do a pretty good job of reporting… but there are a lot that need help, and we’re prepared to help them raise their standards of reporting.

You have a lot of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or UN agencies on the ground in many of these countries. Take UNICEF for example… they have field offices in over 100 countries; they have logistical access, political access, and a lot of video footage and photographs. It’s very important for us to partner with these NGOs because they really are capable of giving us reach and access. The stigma of news agencies and NGOs working together has really almost disappeared. A few years ago CNN would be very wary of teaming up with a UN agency to get coverage from a disaster area, but now I think a closeness has developed where both sides are much more comfortable working together.

Then, of course, there’s the phenomenon of citizen journalism that’s happening too. If you go, for example, to Northern Nigeria everyone has quite advanced cell phones with cameras, and there’s pretty good connectivity, so that’s another layer of essential contact generation. But having said that we’re all about validation. You have a lot of ordinary people with the ability to send photos, information and whatnot but you have to validate it.

And then, another thing that’s dumped the old form of reporting on its head is technology. We’ve developed a field kit that is very miniaturized, a camera, solar panels, GPS, Bluetooth microphones that all fit into a backpack and are very inexpensive. In a lot of the countries we have visited they have wifi—and even wimax in some— and if you have a pretty good connection you can transmit back to the news bureau. So all these factors have come together at the right time and have allowed HUM to be born.

RK: Tell me about your work with Human Unlimited Media (HUM).

MB: The idea for HUM News came from Joy Dibenedetto, someone who has worked in the bowels of a global news organization (CNN) for a long, long time. She’s also worked for CARE and that exposed her to the humanitarian aid business and to a lot of global issues. She’s a true humanitarian and a true journalist— she’s absolutely ideal for this type of initiative. She was the head of global bookings for CNN and has the rolodex from heaven. But even having said all that, she’s also someone who simply attracts good people and trust. I’ve been involved with a few startups before, but one of the incredible things about HUM is that people who are involved are very giving—they give their time, their contacts, their technology, equipment, and even resources. Right now we’re going through an economic crisis and no one knows how long it’s going to last; anyone in his right mind probably wouldn’t launch a news organization in this situation but we’re in it for the long run. It’s going to take a village, but we do have that village and it’s growing every day. We’re all people who are prepared to work in a guerilla style. I think also what keeps us all together is a real sense of camaraderie and a real passion… many of us have been to these countries and realize that there are a lot of unreported issues. In my case I was a UNICEF communications officer for many years and my number one frustration was that I knew we had great stories, but I often couldn’t convince foreign correspondents that we had good stories to tell. Many of us [at HUM] came from a background where we had to jump through hoops to get a story out. We feel that funding is imminent. We’ve poured our hearts and souls into this. Over a two year period we’ve been able to bring this company to a stage where it is investable—we’ve already taken care of a lot of the growing pains, we’ve done our research, we’ve made many contacts, created a really impressive board, a beyond state-of-the-art technology platform, we’re getting new opinion writers coming on by the week. and tons of new hits to our site every day.

RK: What made you want to depart from mainstream media? What’s wrong with mainstream media?

MB: There’s a lot to be desired when you watch the network news. I think a lot of it has been dumbed down, and I think, to be very blunt, people [in the news] have become very lazy. I see, time after time, big named-network or cable news organizations with bureaus in Beijing or Moscow or somewhere… and when an event happens – say— 1,000 km away in the same country, people often just sit at their desks and report from there.

Many people I talk to tell me they don’t watch the news because it makes them depressed. You can’t really blame them; a lot of the news that comes across is quite depressing: disasters, conflicts, etc. But there’s a lot of positive news out there! I’m not saying that HUM is going to become a “happy” news service—HUM is a very meaningful and contextual news service. But some things are misrepresented… for example, people in many of the countries that we cover feel that the African continent is misrepresented, that most people in the world still think of it as a dark continent where everyone is corrupt. You don’t have to be there for very long to realize that this isn’t true—there are so many incredible people there; a lot of interesting entrepreneurialism going on in small villages, but it’s not really getting written about. I think that’s a big reason why foreign investment, especially from North America hasn’t been at the level we’d like to see it at. HUM’s mission when it comes to Africa is really to enlighten people about what’s going on … but we’re not going to just go in and do it ourselves. We’re going to guide the process but we’re going to have Africans reporting on their own continent. I’m not just saying that as tokenism. Much of what I did over the past three weeks [in the field in South Africa], was watch people at conferences or in day-to-day life and then identify those who could write or tell a story or give an opinion on what they see happening and then make contact with them. I think that this sort of commentary will be very interesting to everybody because they’ll be getting a pure perspective from an African reporting on the African continent. We want to take that and replicate it in other regions of the world as well. It’s a lot of work: you have to go there yourself, talk to people, give them guidance. It’s a constant hand-holding process.

RK: You were recently in South Africa at the FIFA World Cup for HUM — how do the articles that you wrote differ from other articles written on the event? How are those articles emblematic of HUM’s approach to reporting?

MB: Our mission is to really cover the back-story of an event. We don’t want to replicate what others are doing—there’s an army of reporters there reporting on the same thing. These big stories can be covered without being in the media center, because I think, when you’re in a room with a bunch of journalists it kind of generates a pack-journalism mentality where everyone is feeding off of the same stories and the same pictures and the same pitches and press releases. I always say ‘a hungry dog is a successful dog’—when you don’t have the information easily at your fingertips you really work for it and that’s when you really find the good stories. We [at HUM] managed to cover the 2010 Winter Olympics and the World Cup without official media accreditation.

For example, the Lesotho story I did from South Africa. We were led to that story because some people on our board have been pushing for a long time for us to go there and do some reporting. If you talk to most people they won’t know where it is on a map but it’s right in the middle of South Africa and the world cup frenzy and yet there’s very little written about it. They really have huge issues there— skyrocketing HIV/AIDS rates, low life expectancy rates, high poverty. Believe it or not: when a boy or girl reaches 18 years of age in Lesotho, they are already at middle age given current life expectancy rates. It amazed me to go there and see what’s going on—as soon as you cross the border you realize you’re in another country. I wanted to write about how Lesotho was being sidelined by the world cup and I knew that not many people had done that story. We’re always mindful of the marginalized, of the ignored people. Even within South Africa you don’t have to travel far to find that many people feel marginalized by the world cup—people either can’t afford to buy world cup tickets or they don’t have time because they work long shifts. Early on we did a story about how the technology that FIFA chose prevented many South Africans from getting tickets. From the start they were calling this Africa’s game, but FIFA was incredibly insensitive in terms of the realities on the ground on the African continent—they wanted to sell almost all of the tickets by the internet. Even if people have internet access, most don’t have credit cards and even if people do have credit cards many have never done online shopping before. It amazed us how little covered that story was. We come to every story with the mindset: what are the stories that aren’t being covered? What is really happening on the ground? How do we position ourselves to write about what no one else is writing?

RK: Over the course of your career you’ve found yourself in many countries that may have been less than civil to journalists. How have you dealt with the pressure to provide “more positive coverage” when you’re reporting internationally? What’s the most serious consequence, if any, that’s come of resisting that pressure?

MB: When I was in my formative years of becoming a journalist in Asia, I had the good fortune of working for Asian editors and Asian media proprietors… One paper, which happened to be in Thailand, took all our western white boys and girls and taught us how to push the envelope in Asia and not get kicked out of a country. Most Western journalists think it’s sort of a badge of honor to get kicked out of a country but the moment you hop on a plane and leave a country, you’re of no use to your news organization or to that country. What I tell myself and others is that you have to know where the boundaries are.

There was an incident in the Philippines, when Mt. Pinatubo exploded, and there was a lot of criticism of the government’s response to this natural disaster. I’d become, by that time, the type of reporter that called a spade a spade and I reported that the government was doing a very shoddy job of handling the disaster response. I got a call from the Minister of Tourism, who happened to be kind of a friend of mine, and his exact words were ‘Mike, you have to cool it.’ I reported it back to my newspaper in Hong Kong and they were kind of concerned and even thought of pulling me off, but I did stay and didn’t tone down my reporting but tried to explain to these government people that we have to be as honest as we can. The classical communications theory of truth and untruth is that eventually the truth will emerge. There’s nothing wrong with a clash of negative and positive stories because the truth will always come out.

RK: Just for fun – you’ve earned the title “The Savvy Traveler” from your many years as an international correspondent, but savviness is always the result of mistakes made and learned from. What’s one of the most exciting or outlandish experiences abroad that contributed to your current international know-how?

MB: I don’t see myself as a tourist, I see myself as a traveler, as someone who loves the journey, who always has his eyes open and is very curious. I have made a lot of mistakes on the road. Sometimes I’ve missed flights for really silly reasons. Even if you over prepare for things, mistakes will happen. As a journalist I was conditioned to deal with the worst. One time a colleague and I were flown into a flood area in the central Philippians where many people were drowned… we were flown there by the Philippine military in helicopters to this horrible disaster area. We did our reporting, and then it started to get dark and we realized we hadn’t made arrangements to be flown out by helicopter. So the only option to get out was to rent a whole bus, like a Greyhound bus! We were so lucky we had the resources to get out of there.

RK: How do you think we can become better news consumers?

MB: I’m always asking people where they get their news from. I think the best way to consume is to rely on a multiplicity of sources. Don’t trust one source. Media is becoming very fragmented—you have blogs, you have twitter, even MSNBC is divided into different branches and sections so it can be very confusing. I think the best way is to pick a few news sources that you trust and stick with them. If you listen to NPR don’t forget to donate—that model needs support. For someone coming of age it must be a very confusing time to know what to read. I think it was Walter Cronkite who said: if you just have time to read one thing, read the front page because if it appears on the front page it has to be important.

RK: Do you have any publications you’re devoted to?

MB: I switch from day to day, I have an iPhone and all my news apps on there so no matter where I am I can read. The Financial Times of London, I love, The Economist, The New York Times, NPR, The Wall Street Journal does a good job of being diverse, and being punchy, CBC news is still very good in Canada—they spend a lot more time on foreign news than your typical US network. I’m a CBC junkie. HUM (www.Humnews.com) has started to work with parts of CBC, the radio side, to help them ensure that their foreign reporting is diversified. They’ve come to us and said “we need stories from Africa,” and now we’re trying to help them get those stories.

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