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.”