I want to be an embedded journalist!

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 8 months ago

On February 21, 2008, sitting in for Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit, Michael Totten linked an article by Michael Yon, in which he said the following:

It no longer makes economic sense for many news agencies to keep people here. Those who do stay operate at a loss. If making a profit is important, reporting from Iraq is a bad business decision. This seems to be holding for the new or alternative media as well. I haven’t seen a blogger in maybe a year, though I know that some, like Michael Totten and Matt Sanchez, have spent a good deal of time embedded with the troops. Matt Sanchez seems to have more staying power than most; he says he’s spent eight months here.

The best reporting comes from reporters who have spent the most time on the ground here, because the context is complex and evolving. Long distance reporting is like exploring the moon through a telescope. To get a feel for the ground here, a journalist has to be like Captain Kirk. I have often commented on how very different the reality is over here from what most Americans seem to think it is. There is no way to explain how different, except to say “you would have to be here to understand it.” When mainstream reporters get the story wrong, it’s usually because they lack the context and depth of experience necessary to correctly interpret what they see and hear. The same is true for bloggers, some of whom are grandiose in implying that they spend a significant amount of time in the field, but an inventory and audit would not support the claims.

The mainstream media continues to carry the overwhelming bulk of the load. On the other hand, bloggers like Bob Owens, Blackfive, Glenn Reynolds and Michelle Malkin, have served as important media watchdogs, without whom shoddy coverage of the war likely never would have been revealed. Hopefully they will continue to apply spotlights to keep as much accurate and quality reporting as possible, regardless of whether it comes from mainstream or alternative sources.

In Mosul this week, at least five other writers and two photographers were here, from such organizations as The Washington Post, New York Times, The Telegraph and Agence France-Presse. All seven are veteran international reporters, and most have substantial experience covering wars. I have never been in a group of journalists in Iraq where all of us had so much war experience. The A-team is definitely here. Yet by the time of the American presidential election, the Iraq news stream likely will have diminished to almost nothing, precisely when events over here will demand the most skilled and experienced reporters. That is when, bets are on, many of the bloggers will again trumpet Iraq-experience they do not possess. Fact is, for battlefield reporting, mainstream media retains a virtual monopoly, and the bloggers are not in a position to compete, or at least are utterly failing to compete on teh (sic) most important battle ground: the ground. These harsh truths come as plea to bloggers to get over here and walk the walk. Alternative voices are needed. Stop talking. Start walking.

Michael Totten agreed with Yon in his post at Instapundit.  On February 24, 2008, Pete Hegseth writing at National Review Online also lamented the current paucity of reporters traveling to Iraq.  A little of my history is in order at this point.  I began blogging as an honor to my son in the Marines.  As I learned more and shared his experiences – if only in words, reading and visits - I grew in my blogging efficiency and experience.  Before long, it was time for my son to deploy to Iraq.  He and his unit left in April of 2007, deploying to FOB Reaper in Fallujah in support of Operation Alljah.  As a side note, the interview with Lt. Col. William F. Mullen (now Colonel Mullen) had to get me by (along with some good embedded reporting by Bill Ardolino).  As I told Colonel Mullen (only partially joking), I would have given my right testicle to be there in Fallujah with my son, but I couldn’t find a buyer for my right testicle.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

I had talked a good bit with Michael Fumento about the cost and difficulty of embedding, and I knew that it was almost always a money-losing proposition.  But I thought I had it worked out.  David Danelo (who is a great journalist and writer, combat experienced warrior, and all around good guy) and I had been discussing the possibility of sending me to Iraq to meet my son.  At this time David was with U.S. Cavalry On Point.  By the time I had gotten my things about in order to go, I found out that David had left U.S. Cavalry to pursue other things (and I feel sure that we will benefit in the future from his work).  For reasons that I don’t now know and probably never will, the funding dried up and I was left without a way to Iraq.

But let’s be more precise; it’s more than just “a way to Iraq.”  The costs are huge.  I knew about the body armor, the photographic equipment, the laptop, the satellite uplink equipment some bloggers use, the airplane fare, the wasted time in airports and through customs, the hotel fees prior to entry to Iraq, etc.  But until I had thought about it, it didn’t occur to me that the biggest expense for a blogger is the loss of his salary.  Danelo had a soft agreement with me to pay me for stories to match the loss of my salary.  But in order to embed for any length of time (say a month or two), this cost becomes exorbitant.  After Michael Totten linked Yon and weighed in that he also would like to see more bloggers embed, I conversed with Michael Totten by e-mail.

Michael’s advice was stark.  It is always a money-losing proposition.  He tells me that Bill Ardolino takes vacation time in order to keep costs down, but of course, this is a good option only insofar as you are certain that you won’t need it later for home repair, dependent care time, or other needful life exigencies.  Michael Yon operates on a shoestring budget, Michael Totten always loses money even though he sells his stories to main stream media outlets, Bill Ardolino takes vacation time, Michael Fumento always loses his own money, and so on the list goes.  And these journalists get thousands of visits per day to their site (and have built a loyal following from which to draw funds), while I get a pitiful 300 – 400 visits per day.  Further, the number of actual committed readers who would be willing to contribute is unknown, but is probably far less than 400.  Please note that I’m not complaining.  I’m simply drawing out the facts of the matter.

My son’s unit will deploy again this year.  He doesn’t know where, and thus we don’t know where.  It could be Afghanistan, or it could be Iraq, or it could be a MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit), or it could be a MEU and Afghanistan, or a MEU and Iraq, or some of all of the above.  But wherever it is, I will want to go with him so badly that I would give my right testicle.  But I am not a wealthy man, and the funds I have to contribute towards such an embed are essentially non-existent.  In other words, I don’t have $20,000 of “throw-away” money.  And I’ve checked with my horrible hometown newspaper, and they get the horrible McClatchy to do their embedded reporting.  They have no money for such things, relying, I am told by the editors, on AP and UPI and McClatchy press releases.  So much for the “news.”

It sounds nice to encourage (even goad) bloggers into embedding with the troops.  If it were not for the fact that I have studied this a bit, I might even feel somewhat guilty for not being there in order to report on the facts.  But Michael Yon said it as well as anyone while in the middle of this encouragement to go: “those who do stay operate at a loss.”  It has nothing whatsoever to do with profit.  It has entirely to do with losses.  For now the alternative (or new) media is just that.  Main stream media has the money and we don’t.  Insofar as this condition continues, we will continue to have a symbiotic relationship with the main stream media, and they will get the lion’s share of the embeds.  Plain and simple, it’s just the dollars and sense of the issue.



  • BillINDC

    Herschel -

    A few things:

    1. Don’t worry about your readership. If you produce quality work while embedded (like you do here anyway), the real traffic will come from the support of big blogs.

    2. You are right about commitments, etc. In fact, while I respect Yon, I get frustrated with the idea that bloggers need to go over for extended periods of time. I think you need about 3-4 weeks to get a handle on a specific city or similarly sized AO, and you can come to know a specific unit well enough to report well within a week. And if all you have is 2 weeks, better than nothing. In addition, most people can’t do the extended tours because of other commitments, like you mention. I take vacation, but after my first trip I was itching to go back and stay there for months. I simply couldn’t/can’t (mortgage, job, etc).

    3. It’s expensive, but you can pull it off for less than you think. I lost money both times (a lot the first time, very little the second). But after you have or borrow equipment, if you attract enough traffic for donations, you can break even or perhaps even profit.

    But your basic premise remains solid. It’s a losing proposition. Yon probably makes money because he’s there for so long that his living and eating expenses etc are nil. As it is, I disagree with him. Collectively, the rotating bloggers are probably providing coverage equivalent to a pretty good bureau. That’s something.

    And if you do decide to ever go, let me know. I have tips that can save you some of the expenses that I incurred.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Thanks Bill. I’ll keep your thoughts in mind. Perhaps I will be able to go, if only for 2 – 3 weeks. I’ll certainly be in touch.

  • http://www.rokdrop.com GI

    You would think this would be an area where the MSM could cooperate with bloggers. You figure that if the MSM sends a full fledged journalist to Iraq they will be working for their usual pay plus whatever incentives they receive by going to Iraq.

    It seems the MSM could send bloggers for much cheaper because most bloggers I would think would be willing to go for cost of the trip and not to make a profit plus they would not mind sleeping in a cot with the troops instead of a plush hotel. Herschel it sounds like you would fall into this category. It just seems like the MSM would be better served to cooperate with bloggers instead of deriding them.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    It’s even worse than you know. I have tried to get official press credentials in order to be able to enter the DVIDS web site:

    http://www.dvidshub.net/index.php?script=

    Because this is a repository for PAO stories and (here is the important thing) high resolution photos. I would like to be able to place high resolution photos on my site. Only those with press credentials can get into the site.

    Problem? I can’t find anyone to give me press credentials, not even for simply entering this site. Right? Get the picture (pardon the pun)? Not for any other use, just for getting into this web site to re-publish HR photos like MSM outlets do.

    The DoD can talk about courting the new media all they want. They aren’t serious about it. And the MSM doesn’t want anything to do with the “new media.”

  • http://www.win-the-war.com gideon1789

    PMI, the group that backs Bill Roggio’s Long War Journal, is sending several men to Iraq this summer and fall to report. You should check with them at http://www.longwarjournal.com

    Also, Jeff Emanuel, who has been at least twice and whose articles have been carried in major publications like the WSJ and the Washington Times, might have some good tips. http://www.jeffemanuel.blogspot.com/

  • Pingback: The Captain's Journal » In Defense of Michael Yon: An Open Letter to Milbloggers


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This article is filed under the category(s) Military Blogging and was published February 28th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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