Given their shares in the company’s spotlight and its stock, the correspondents are players in a game whose stakes are high: if this crack team of reporters and business-side operators can’t make international reporting profitable, it’s hard to imagine that anyone else can. Still, they believe, the high stakes are worth the gamble, in part because it’s a gamble whose winnings can be shared. “We must—must, must—create new, for-profit models of journalism,” Balboni says. “The best way to ensure long-term sustainability is by having a real business that is fired in the marketplace, and that has revenue that’s generated by consumers and other means that will sustain it for the long term.” He respectfully disagrees with those who have argued that journalism’s economic future lies in the nonprofit world. “Nonprofit is great—we have NPR, which is one of the great journalism organizations created in the last 100 years—but it’s an unusual phenomenon. And even NPR, as we’ve seen, has financial problems,” he notes.
For Balboni, quite literally, it’s profit-or-bust. “I believe that this is the best way,” he says of GlobalPost’s model. “I don’t believe it’s the only way, but if you want to look at the overall future of journalism—we have to have for-profit models if we’re going to have a future. That’s why we’re going down this road.”
It’s fitting that the attention GlobalPost has received this week—and, indeed, the attention it’s been receiving since the organization announced itself last March—has focused on the financial-model aspects of Balboni and Sennott’s venture: at a time when journalism as we’ve known it is [insert your favorite dying-a-slow-death euphemism here], the need for financial sustainability is literally vital.
And yet. In all the Will This Save Journalism? flurry, less attention has been paid to the editorial aspects of GlobalPost’s plans for innovation. Which are in some ways just as significant as the financial. “We always said that GlobalPost is not a breaking news organization,” Balboni says. “Our correspondents are not primarily focused on reinventing the wheel”—they have no interest in changing a reporting model that the AP, the BBC, and other organizations already use to great effect—but aim rather to add new dimensions to the breaking-news stories that other organizations write. In that, the journalism GlobalPost plans to produce—contextual, narrative, with an emphasis on good writing and, as Sennott is fond of reiterating, “good storytelling”—promises (or threatens, depending on your point of view) to shift the balance of power between breaking-news and more context-driven stories in international coverage. By focusing on the latter, GlobalPost is effectively rejecting the view of a world whose contours are shaped and shaded by breaking news’s general tropism toward tragedy—a view that not only tends to lump the world beyond our borders into the euphemistic blur of “foreign countries,” but that also broadly conceives of those countries as plagued by explosions and floods and angry riots, and populated by militant men, sexually oppressed women, and bulge-bellied, empty-eyed children.
While to an extent, of course, there’s some accuracy to those sweeping depictions—and while the international wire services’ breaking-news coverage is, it should go without saying, immensely valuable—our general emphasis on breaking news, rather than contextualizing it, has in this case brought with it the subtle suggestion that “foreign countries” are little more than backdrops for ongoing catastrophe. Without countervailing coverage—coverage, for example, of other countries’ cultures and politics and sports teams and education systems and leisure pursuits, coverage tuned to the humming frequencies of everyday life—American audiences are generally left with a doom-and-gloom impression of the world that is neither accurate nor necessary. And that impression, in turn, leads many members of those audiences to adopt that classically American posture of self-defense: isolationism via apathy. Not in my backyard, and all that.
The newsroom culture of traditional media organizations has itself helped to enforce that cycle. As Matt Beynon Rees, GlobalPost’s Israel correspondent (and formerly the Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine), points out, “There’s a tendency among news people to assume that if they’re not doing so-called ‘hard news,’ then they’re not showing a talent to be tough—so then they’re not real journalists.” Pretensions to “toughness” can lead journalists to suppress their own voices in favor of hard news’s peer-approved vernacular. “The big newspapers and magazines, no matter how hard they try not to be, always tend to become a little bit stodgy,” Overdorf, GlobalPost’s India correspondent, says. “One of the keys to succeeding in this thing will be to avoid that.”