Johnny Jones 2.0

It's not just financial: GlobalPost offers a new editorial model, too

Journalists, these days, have little reason for cheer. At a time when Romenesko’s updates increasingly read as real-time obituaries for journalists’ careers and craft—and at a time when terms like “slashed budgets,” “fighting for their lives,” and “bloodbath” permeate media reporting, likening newsrooms to war zones with a remarkable absence of irony—defeatism is often the order of the day. Foxholes may have no atheists, but they don’t tend to have optimists, either.

Save for this week, that is, when GlobalPost, the Web-based, international news startup, debuted to much—much, much, much—fanfare. And to much—dare we say?—hope. Indeed, it’s hard to remember a time when an online news organization has, at its outset, gained so much glowing attention from a world-weary media: Innovation! Ambition! New financial model! (New financial model! New financial model!)

Given the breadth of the coverage it’s received, the basic elements of GlobalPost’s story are, by now, familiar: that it was founded by veteran journalists Phil Balboni and Charlie Sennott; that it currently employs seventy freelance correspondents covering nearly fifty countries, seven of them dedicated to transnational, idea-based beats; that these correspondents are supported by fourteen U.S.-based staff members focused on editing and multimedia production; and that the outlet’s three-tiered financial structure relies on advertising, syndication (in print and online), and—this is the biggie—reader subscriptions. (TimesSelect Redux it’s not: the “media transformation” maven Ken Doctor compares GlobalPost’s $199-a-year ($50 for students) subscription fee not to the Times’s failed venture in Web monetization, but rather to the subscription model of MinnPost—a site, he points out, “which has something more than 1,000 members after a year.”)

The subscription service in question, Passport—whose $199 price tag, it’s worth noting, is an “introductory” rate for “charter members”—promises not merely access to “premium content” (podcast-y “conference calls” with correspondents, “newsmaker interviews,” a monthly digital newsletter and a weekly editor’s brief), but also access to the ears of GlobalPost’s editors. Passport members will have a say as to which stories correspondents are assigned: editors will choose their top story ideas, and paying readers will get to vote for their favorites. Those readers will be able, in other words, to take part in crowdsourcing that is editorial, rather than reportorial, in nature. GlobalPost’s is a model driven not only by the core premise that good journalism should be paid for, but also by the hope that the promise of investment on an editorial level will engender investment on a financial one as well.

GlobalPost’s editorial agility—you decide, we report—is echoed in its anatomy. A lack of legacy infrastructure (foreign bureaus, printing presses, print distribution costs, etc.) means that, while “a lot of newsrooms are struggling to retrofit…..[w]e can create this for the web right from the start,” Sennott told NextNewsroom’s Chris O’Brien. And also that individual GlobalPost correspondents—armed with portable video cameras, still cameras, and audio recorders in addition to their pens and notepads—will be able to offer “a sui generis take on the wider world,” as The Phoenix’s Adam Reilly had it. Resources both physical and financial can thus be channeled directly toward GlobalPost’s primary goal: being there, and telling people what it’s like. “It’s a different structure than most traditional media outlets,” Beatblogging (NewAssignment’s beat-focused blog) notes. It’s “a flatter, nimbler structure that should allow the Global Post to add more correspondents where demand is high.”

What that structure will mean to journalism—GlobalPost’s own efforts, and those of the wider media world—remains to be seen: coverage of GlobalPost is, by necessity, consigned to the future tense. The general consensus, however, early on, is that the outlet has a solid business plan…which has, built into it, some obvious X-factors. (The most glaring of these is the audience itself: are there enough people interested in foreign coverage, especially in the U.S., to justify GlobalPost’s existence?) Whether those variables will affect GlobalPost’s final analysis—and with it, to mix a metaphor, the outlet’s bottom line—is itself an unknown.

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.”

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.”

Beyond Funding

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.”

Voice—though not bias—is encouraged, and not just in reporters’ blogs, but in their stories, as well. The point of hiring correspondents who live in the countries they’re covering is to avoid parachute journalism, to be sure, but it’s also to publish pieces of writing whose assertions are bolstered by their reporters’ daily experience. “Voice” suggests authenticity, but it requires authority to be truly effective. The logistical challenges faced by parachute correspondents—developing sources; learning which of those sources to trust; navigating, in every sense, new locales—won’t be as common for GlobalPost correspondents who, even when they’re not in their home cities, will be reporting from their home countries. Those correspondents, the thinking goes, will legitimize themselves and their stories—and the way they tell those stories—not just by being there, but by living there.

An American Focus

If living there is a standard for foreign coverage, though, then the obvious question is: why not hire local journalists—the true experts—as your correspondents? Indeed, the most common criticism GlobalPost has received in the run-up to its launch has concerned its unapologetically America-centric approach to foreign affairs. “I still think that in the current climate a more sustainable model for an international news bureau would be one that cultivated local journalists,” Georgia Popplewell, managing director of Global Voices, told PBS’s Brian Glaser in an e-mail. But some countries simply won’t allow their own journalists to report for a site like GlobalPost. “Chinese nationals are not allowed to work as foreign correspondents for foreign news organizations,” Kathleen Mclaughlin, one of GlobalPost’s China correspondents, pointed out in an e-mail. “The sad fact is that local journalists in China (and there are a lot of damn good ones) are constrained by government oversight and censorship, whereas foreign reporters have more freedom and protection.”

Even in countries that have no such constraints, though, Balboni and Sennott are envisioning their outlet’s distinctly American perspective as an asset—and even as a kind of journalistic currency. GlobalPost aims to establish “a new voice in international news,” they write in its mission statement, “a voice that is consciously attentive to an American audience.” As Mclaughlin put it, “American journalists understand Americans—their interests, their worldview, what they care about.”

The American focus represents a marriage of sorts between Purpose and Profit: if a core element of GlobalPost’s business plan is to attract and retain audiences for world news, and if audiences want coverage that is attuned to their sensibilities, then…everyone wins. “The world knows a lot about us, but we don’t know a lot about the world,” Seth Kugel, GlobalPost’s Brazil correspondent, told me. “Americans tend to have a caricatured view of Brazil—and Brazilians know that and feel that and are to some extent frustrated by that.” His goal for his work at GlobalPost, says Kugel, is analogous to the goal he’s had for the travel writing and city reporting he’s done for The New York Times: “to present the complete picture of what this country is like—to Americans and to anyone else around the world.”

That’s a job a local reporter simply can’t do as well as an American, Kugel says—or at least as intuitively. “My friends here in Brazil, in the Brazilian press, are going to be reading my stories,” Kugel says. “And in a lot of cases, they’re going to be saying, ‘That’s not a story. What are you talking about? That’s something we’ve known forever—it’s just basic.’” But to American audiences, the basic facts of Brazilian life can be—are—a story, Kugel believes. He points to a piece he wrote that explores a choice Brazilians are faced with at the gas station every day: whether to fuel their cars with regular gasoline, or with ethanol. “To Brazilians, that’s like choosing between Diet Coke and regular Coke or something,” Kugel says, “but for us, the idea of having to go to a gas station and calculate the prices and decide which kind of fuel to fill your tank with is a foreign thought. It’s such a non-story to Brazilians, but I think it will be a very interesting story to Americans, who think of ethanol cars as a far-off, distant, futuristic thing.”

American journalists also understand the layer of mistrust that has slowly seeped into the spaces between Americans and their media. Many Americans approach even the most straightforwardly narrated news story, Michael Goldfarb points out, with skepticism. He describes a common reaction to his work: “God, that was an interesting story. But, tell me, what was it really like?”

What they mean, Goldfarb says, is: Beyond the basic facts, what was it like to be there and bear witness?

“That,” he says, “is the kind of reporting that we hope to do.”

Back to Bylines

There was a time when foreign correspondents—David Halberstam, Vincent Sheean, Ernie Pyle—transcended their publications, rather than the other way around. It was their glamour, to be sure, and their breezy sense of adventure, that made them attractive to audiences. But it was also their writing. Foreign reporting lends itself particularly well to the craft element of journalism, to rendering art in the service of information. (Consider how many canonical authors of fiction—Hemingway, Greene, Garcia Marquez—started their writing careers as foreign correspondents.) Audiences may want, on the one hand, quick-hit takes on the news occurring in other countries, but they also want to be led through that news and those countries guided by a trusted scout. We read Halberstam and Sheean and Pyle not for their pith or their balance, but because we want to know what Halberstam and Sheean and Pyle, personally and particularly, have to say about where they’ve been.

As foreign coverage has moved, broadly, toward news and away from analysis, however, shorter takes, bylined by nobody in particular, have become increasingly common. There are exceptions to this, of course: The New York Times’s international section, for example, has produced deeply reported and quite remarkable stories, their authors prominently featured; so have NPR and many other organizations. And one need only say the name “Dexter Filkins” to stop a sweeping no-more-name-branded-correspondents argument in its tracks. Still, in terms of most Americans’ news consumption—and to the extent that journalism is a product as much as a practice, it’s that metric upon which we can measure journalism’s job performance—international news has taken on a decidedly impersonal cast. And detachment easily veers into apathy.

On GlobalPost, however, the aim is global engagement partially by way of personal engagement. Bylines are prominent. They’re listed above the text of each article, next to a relatively large headshot of the author in question. Perma-placed to the right of each story’s text is the personal blog of its author. GlobalPost is, by all indications, attempting to engender anew the cultural cachet of the foreign correspondent. And it’s doing so by following the brand-making currents of the Web—building up its correspondents’ stories and celebrating (or, more cynically, capitalizing on) their voices. As Beynon Rees, the Israel correspondent, notes, “Some people will be coming to the site to find out what’s going on in the world today—but because people who aren’t traditional newspaper readers might be coming to the site, they might also be coming to see, ‘What’s that crazy bastard Matt Beynon Rees saying today?’”

This kind of institutionalized branding is one sign of the synergy GlobalPost is trying to effect between its business and editorial sides. Because if there’s one thing the Web has shown us, it’s that the charismatic voice of a single individual can lure large crowds into listening—and even into caring.

In his iconic 1922 book, Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann wrote of the average American: “He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen,” and “he lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.” Lippmann also accused that same average American of being “slow to be aroused and quickly diverted” and “interested only when events have been melodramatized as a conflict.”

Nearly a century later, Lippmann’s indictment still stings. Even in an age whose technological progress has promised unparalleled connectivity with the rest of the world, Americans remain, in many ways, isolated. It’s an isolation partially of our own making—we simply haven’t cared enough to learn about other countries in the same way that they’ve cared to learn about us—but it’s also been inflicted by a journalistic infrastructure that has routinely snubbed foreign coverage, dismissing it as a luxury rather than a necessity. GlobalPost is putting its faith and its future in Americans’ interest in the world beyond our borders, in our desire to know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen. It’s a gamble, but one in dire need of being taken. “The world is dramatically undercovered by the American news media,” Balboni says. “And it’s time to do something about it, goddammit.”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.