In the Spotlight: Michael Holtz, Kansas University

In his own words, Michael Holtz is a “roving student journalist and wannabe foreign correspondent.” The Kansas University student begins a separate bio of himself online with only one word: wanderlust.

This summer, that word defined him.  Holtz recently concluded a 45-day journalistic tour of sorts across continental Europe that focused on the “rapidly evolving field of foreign reporting.”  The independent research project, made possible via a KU Honors Program grant and generous couchsurfing hosts, included interviews with foreign correspondents and editors and his own reflections on life abroad and as a millennial.

He documented it all on his blog “The Foreign Telegraph.” (My favorite posts: a Q&A with an editor at AP’s Paris bureau and a two-part interview with “an American radio journalist working for a German media outlet with an English-speaking audience in Africa, Asia and Australia-Pacific.”)

In the latest installment of the j-student spotlight, Holtz shares a bit about his trip, his blog, and his desire to discover “the new foreign correspondent.”

Michael Holtz, KU student by day, European foreign correspondent by night.

What motivated you to look into the work of foreign correspondents?

Foreign reporting is something I’ve been interested in ever since studying abroad last year in Bonn, Germany. When I got back to Kansas, a friend told me about an internship at a small German newspaper in northern Germany. I applied and found out six weeks later I didn’t get it. I was bummed and immediately started looking for another way to get experience in reporting from overseas. After spending six months abroad, I couldn’t stand the thought of working at an internship in the States. I wanted to see more of the world.

At first, I considered reporting on something completely different. I wrote an entire grant proposal on comparing sustainability efforts in Germany and the United States.  Then I started researching what it would take to do this project- essentially what it would take to work as a foreign correspondent. I started reading everything I could on the subject, and I was amazed at what I found. It’s an old story really. Media companies are losing money, so they’re forced to cut back on expenses. Americans have traditionally cared less about international news than local news, and foreign bureaus are expensive to maintain. From an economics standpoint, it makes sense to cut back on foreign correspondents.  It was really depressing stuff.

These huge media companies were cutting foreign correspondents by the handful. Hundreds of years of experience has been lost in the past five or six years. For example, NPR doesn’t have more than two full-time correspondents in all of Africa. That’s a billion people covered by two reporters. Of course NPR probably has fixers and stringers in different places around the continent, but still.  So what you get is this self-perpetuating cycle. People care less when there’s less coverage and vice versa.

These are the kinds of things I was thinking about during the spring. I was panicking trying to figure out how I could possibly succeed in a profession that may not even exist by the time I graduate, at least not in the same form. I soon realized that other young journalists had the same question. I grew tired of reading these doomsday scenarios predicted by so many jaded, old-time journalists. I wanted to find out for myself what the future of foreign correspondents would be. So over spring break I completely rewrote my grant proposal to the one I now have available on my website. I bought my plane ticket, networked with journalists across Europe, and soon enough found myself sitting at a hostel in Berlin.

Why does your blog rock?

The Foreign Telegraph provides an outlet for me to share my experiences while working on this project. I created it as a way to track my research and share with other young journalists everything I have learned along the way. It’s also a way for me to test out the one-man band model, a form of foreign reporting that has grown increasingly popular in recent years. I try to incorporate video and photography along with my research. It’s a lot to do, and since my research came first I found myself doing less of it than I had originally planned. But even so, it has been a great trial run.

A screenshot of video Holtz captured of a Parisian pension reform protest.

What were you doing while abroad?

Aside from one-man band style reporting, I primarily interviewed journalists from different media organizations about their work in foreign reporting. These tend to be American foreign correspondents, but I met several European journalists as well. I asked them about the current state of foreign reporting and their visions of the future. Some journalists have been pretty pessimistic when it comes to this subject, but the conversations have all been incredibly engaging and interesting.

Worthwhile lesson learned this summer.

One lesson I learned that surprised me is how easy it is to become a foreign correspondent, but how hard it is to become a good one. All I need is my laptop, digital camera, digital audio recorder, and Flip camcorder to report from virtually anywhere. As long as there’s Internet access, reporting from abroad is as easy as it is to report from a local newsroom.

To become a good foreign correspondent isn’t nearly so simple. It takes experience, commitment, knowledge, language skills, networking skills- the list goes on and on. The world’s an extremely complicated place, and understanding it well enough to accurately report on it is difficult. No number of gadgets or digital shortcuts will ever change that.

Can student journalism embrace any tenets of foreign reporting even while campus-specific?

This question reminds me of a quote by Mort Rosenblum, a foreign correspondent I met in Paris. In his new book, “Little Bunch of Madmen,” Mort explains why “what matters is the message.” Despite the growing role of technology, social networking sites, and media convergence, the foundations of good journalism have never changed. It doesn’t matter if you’re reporting on student government elections, city council meetings or the war in Afghanistan. I think that’s crucial for all journalists to remember, regardless of where they are reporting from.

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