Local means international, says Houston Chron’s correspondent after closing of Mexico bureau

By Zach Dyer

After reporting for the Houston Chronicle for over 20 years in Mexico and around the world, former Mexico City bureau chief and reporter Dudley Althaus ended his career with the newspaper last month when the Chronicle decided to shutter the bureau. After the announcement, former New York Times Mexico City bureau chief Marc Lacey called it the “end of an era.”

Althaus started his career as a journalist with The Brownsville Herald and worked his way to the Dallas Times Herald, its Mexico City bureau and eventually the Houston Chronicle. Working for the Chronicle, Althaus reported across Latin America, Somalia, Pakistan, Haiti and Sudan. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1992 for his report on a cholera epidemic in Peru, Mexico and Guatemala.

Althaus spoke with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas about the future of foreign news bureaus, how drug violence changed foreign coverage of Mexico, and gave advice for how young reporters can start their own careers in international news.

Knight Center: The Houston Chronicle is not the first paper to re-focus on local news. Is there room for foreign news at local newspapers today? What should be the model?

Dudley Althaus: Well, you have the big three or four that are still going to be playing. That’s The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The Los Angeles Times is there slightly below the others, I think, as far as reach and the sustainability of their bureaus. But even the Washington Post is pulling way back. They’ve converted a lot of their bureaus to “laptop bureaus.”

Basically, the way we ran my bureau I worked out of my house and didn’t have the infrastructure that a lot of other bureaus have here in Mexico City: secretaries, drivers, researchers; that sort of thing. I worked by myself most of the time. We never had a big formal structure of a bureau. We were always small and light, considered ourselves kind of ‘guerrilla warfare,’ taking on the big boys and that sort of thing. I think there are a lot of ways to cover foreign news that don’t have to be costly. I think that’s the model that we all have to start looking at more and more.

KC: It sounds like you were already working on tight budgets. How can foreign correspondence survive when newsrooms perceive it as expensive?

DA: When I started in Mexico in the late 1980s, I worked for the Dallas Times Herald. At that time, you could do any story in the Mexican provinces for around $500. That’s gone up because of inflation but you can still do most any story out in the countryside for $700. Some stories where you stay for a week get more expensive, $1,200.

I think you have to be smarter about your choices, what planes you board, which cars you rent, hotels you stay at, and you can cut costs a lot. I told one of my former editors I was never questioned on one of my expense reports at the Chronicle and he said, "well, that’s because you’re cheap."

In models like the Global Post and others where you’re still filing stories and there is very little travel budget you can still cover a country from the capital but I think to cover a country like Mexico, or any large country, you really need to be out in the provinces. That’s going to be the real issue going forward.

KC: There is a strong connection between Mexico and Texas. Were stories about Mexico not driving newspaper sales?

DA: I don’t know, I think it’s a good question. I think there’s a misperception about what the demands are. I think the importance of Mexico to Texas readers is obvious but in general it fits into this trend of going local, very local. Papers across the industry are doing it. They’re making the bet that most readers only care about their own city and they can pick up the wires. I think there’s wider interest in the world.

The problem with these papers is that they’re trying to cover these huge metropolises and their staffs are reduced and they have to find a way to be relevant to most readers, to be relevant to the newsstand, to be relevant to people facing higher subscription rates. It’s really a problem. They don’t have the staff to cover their metropolitan area and the bureau stands out as a major expense. I don’t envy their choices.

KC: Did you write for a Houston audience, a national one, Mexican?

DA: We have a huge immigrant community in Houston and a huge Mexican-American readership throughout south Texas. I saw my audience a lot as average Anglo and Mexican-American readers. A lot of the immigrant community doesn’t read the Houston Chronicle in English but the newspaper has a Spanish-language weekly, La Voz, which has really increased in circulation.

I think that it’s a mistake to think that the only people interested in Mexico in Houston or Texas are immigrants or second or third generation Mexican-American families. I don’t think that’s true at all. There’s a lot of business interest in what’s happening here. A lot of people vacation in Mexico. There’s a tremendous amount of business ties to Mexico. People are concerned about what’s going on in Mexico, as far as the violence and the drug war, but also a number of different issues. I think I had a broad spectrum in mind while I was writing it.

KC: How has being a foreign correspondent in Mexico changed due to the uptick in violence over the last several years?

DA: Throughout most of my time here one of my biggest thrills was just to go out to small villages unannounced and start talking people up about any kind of story. Since this hyper violence, you think about it three times before you go do something like that. A lot of times, these small villages in the most violent areas near the border and Guerrero, are really dangerous to walk into these days. You have to know as a foreigner that as soon as you walk into town everyone knows you’re there.

Now, there are different strategies about that, and correspondents debate this here: whether you try to go in on the down low and not get noticed. My personal feeling is that you’re already noticed so I usually go straight to the city hall or police headquarters and tell them why I’m in town so everyone knows.

I’ve always subscribed to the philosophy I first heard from Doug Farah, who used to cover Central America and then West Africa for The Washington Post, and the rule is, ‘don’t die for color.’ You don’t die for the details. Nobody benefits from that. So you have to be really cautious to get out there on the ground and talk to people.

KC: Have you seen a shift in how Mexico is reported, considering the shrinking press corps there?

DA: The New York Times, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, McClatchy, the wires; they’re doing a good job. But the news about the Texas border or that might be of specific interest to Texas business or the Mexican-American community is all being lost. These guys aren’t writing for a Texas audience, they’re writing Mexico national news for a national U.S. audience.

The Chicago Tribune shut down their bureau some years ago when they merged with the L.A. Times. The Chicago area has one million Mexican immigrants in it and you just shut that off. If they want to cover something in Chicago that relates back to Mexico, they don’t have anyone to cover that. They could send down a team to wander around. Maybe they know what they’re looking for, maybe not.

When you go to this hyper local thing, especially in Texas and Chicago or elsewhere, local means international in some ways.

KC: Do you think “parachute reporting” can fill in the gaps left by the disappearing foreign bureaus?

DA: If you come down and you speak the language you can still do parachute reporting, especially if you keep pretty focused on the story you’re trying to cover. But if you’re just dropping into a country and you don’t know the language, don’t have the background, it easily goes into stereotypes and generalizations. I think it’s very easy to criticize parachute reporting but that’s what the model is going to have to be. There’s no infrastructure on the ground for many U.S. news media around the world now.

Somebody sent down a young reporter to do a story about an orphanage in Matamoros that was being supported by somebody back [in Dallas]. He had a line high up in the piece that said the finances were so bad at the orphanage, that they were so poor, that they were eating cactus. Now, in Mexico, nopales (cactus) is a favorite dish, everybody eats it. So it was a small thing and a good reporter trying to do his job but he sees something that’s so foreign to him.

You can do it but you have to be humble and be like a sponge and realize that you don’t know what you’re looking at a lot of the time.

KC: What's next for you?

DA: I’m looking at plans for the future. I don’t have any immediate financial worries. I think I could piece together an income and a standard of living here both inside and outside journalism. I see this as an opportunity to evaluate where I am and where I want to be. I’ve been amazed at the people who have contacted me unsolicited so I’m looking at all those opportunities to stay in journalism. The problem is not having a travel budget. I think that’s a problem a lot of freelancers face.

I had the same editors at the Houston Chronicle for 19 years. We became family. So you could have bitter arguments about coverage and no one would take it personally. I think freelancing you have to do more of a dance. You can have you opinions but you don’t have that relationship with those people. So I think I’m going to have some adjustments.

KC: What advice do you have for people starting their careers who are interested in international journalism?

DA: I always urge young reporters to get on a daily newspaper and get stories thrown back at you. If you’re just getting out of school, you’re 22 or 23, you have plenty of time. I think people need some daily newspaper journalism under their belt.

Look, I didn’t get my first newspaper job until I was 28, pushing 29, at the little Brownsville Herald. It was the best job I ever had. If you want to work in this part of the world, go to the [Texas-Mexico] border. Get on the ground.

Having said all that, I think it’s much, much more difficult. I don’t think I’d be able to do what I did in this environment. You’d have to get back to one of the big papers and work your way out. If you’re a Spanish speaker with experience on the border or freelance experience in the Americas, you have a chance to get out as a correspondent.

When I went to Nigeria, there was a guy in his 20’s who was a photographer. He looked around the world to see where he could freelance. He decided that West Africa was dramatically under-covered by American photographers. So that’s what he decided to do. He flew to Lagos, Nigeria, and set himself up and suffered. Lagos is a tough place to live but he got a lot of work and did that for three or four years. Whenever anyone needed a good photographer in West Africa they called him, there was no competition, so that can work too.

KC: Do you have any final thoughts we haven’t discussed?

DA: I think if [the United States is] the world’s only super power, the citizenry needs to know this stuff; they need to know what’s at stake. That kind of power is impressive and awesome but the citizenry in a democracy needs to be very well informed about world affairs. I think the more you silence diverse voices in foreign news, whether it’s provincial papers like in Texas or the main East Coast papers, I think that’s got to be detrimental to the U.S. public.

We have to find a way to continue doing this the best we can with the current models and hope that something else will come out of the crisis in mainstream media to replace what was really a very small window in foreign correspondence in U.S. media. We all say we lived the golden age of foreign correspondence. Hopefully, something new will come out of it. Some phoenix will rise.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.