And yet obscurity affords opportunity: rarely do media-watchers have such an obvious occasion to track the evolution of a news outlet from its inception. Unlike The Huffington Post or The Politico, slow-starting-to-suddenly-successful sites that seemed to spring, like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully-formed into our lives and laptops, GlobalPost is an effort whose nascent days have been, and will no doubt continue to be, under intense scrutiny. It’s an optimistic strain of scrutiny, though: even among those who have been critical of individual components of GlobalPost’s business model or editorial aims or audience goals, the overall sensibility that has permeated its coverage so far has been: Go get ‘em, guys. We’re pulling for you. Because if GlobalPost is successful in the way that it’s currently defining success—essentially, if it can manage to turn a profit by producing quality journalism—then its accomplishment will benefit journalism generally. GlobalPost’s experiment in many ways brings a new dimension to the we’re-in-this-together mentality of the Web: if it succeeds, then, in some measure, we all do.
Foreign Correspondent for a Digital Age
GlobalPost, as an idea, is thirty-seven years old. It was born here at Columbia University, while Phil Balboni (a former member of CJR’s Editorial Advisory Board) was a Ford Foundation Fellow in international reporting at the Graduate School of Journalism. “During the course of the year,” Balboni told me, “I developed an idea to create an international news service to supplement what was then, in my view, the meager reporting from overseas. We’re talking 1970, ‘71,” he laughs. “And I developed a plan—I actually, eventually, lined up about thirty-five correspondents—and I had a very distinguished advisory board…but no money. I didn’t know anything about business.” Balboni decided to establish his new organization as a nonprofit—and getting 501(c)3 status, then as now, required government approval. “It was the Nixon administration,” Balboni says, “and the word came back: ‘We don’t need any more international news.’”
His lawyer wanted him to fight that decision, Balboni recalls, but, again, there was the matter of money. Specifically, not having any. “I didn’t even have any money to pay his bill—which he was nice enough to forgive—and my wife was pregnant, my daughter was about to be born, and I needed a job.”
So, a job Balboni got—one that would launch a thirty-plus-year career in broadcast journalism. And that, for the time being, was that.
Until this week, when GlobalPost’s launch brought to fruition the years-old idea that seems, however, particularly suited to the infancy of the Internet. Indeed, the Web’s ability to collapse space and time—and to bring stories alive in ways that even the most exciting prose cannot—makes it a logical locus for foreign reporting. As Amy Jeffries, GlobalPost’s senior multimedia producer, puts it, “Integrating multimedia with other content, so it’s not off in a corner somewhere, so it’s not divorced from our mission—that is our mission.”
To fulfill it, Sennott (who personally recruited a high percentage of GlobalPost’s editorial staff) and Balboni have assembled a crackerjack crew of reporters: award-winners, experienced shoe-leatherers, former editors and bureau chiefs. They tend to fall into one of three categories: young-and-hungry; mid-career-and-looking-for-a-change; and seasoned-and-looking-for-an-adventure. The correspondents are generally paid $1,000 a month—without benefits—for four 800-word stories, with blogging and multimedia work currently unpaid and (depending on whom you talk to) falling somewhere on the scale between “encouraged” and “expected.” Many of the correspondents, especially the younger ones, are doing their GlobalPost reporting in addition to other freelance gigs in journalism (Jason Overdorf, GlobalPost’s India correspondent, freelances for Newsweek) and other ventures (Matt Beynon Rees, who covers Israel, is doing his reporting while writing the next of his Gaza-focused mystery novels). Many of the correspondents are journalistic refugees, bought-out or laid-off casualties of journalism’s war with itself.
And many of them are indignant about the low priority the journalistic community, as a whole, has given to international coverage at a time when familiarity with world events is more vital than ever. “The fact that our industry is so badly managed is not our fault,” GlobalPost’s U.K. correspondent, Michael Goldfarb, told me. “Clearly the big organizations aren’t nimble enough to react to this new reality that we’re facing.”
The success Sennott had in recruiting what Goldfarb calls “a pretty ace team” of correspondents, Goldfarb thinks, indicates their dedication to good journalism. “It’s a measure of how much the reporters in the field want to do the job,” he says. “No matter how much all of us have taken a kicking…we come back, excited to work.”