Q & A: Charles Sennott

GlobalPost’s founder talks about his site’s recent multimedia Afghanistan package

GlobalPost co-founder Charles Sennott recently spoke to CJR about his news outlet’s recent partnering with MediaStorm for their multimedia story package on Afghanistan, called “Life, Death and the Taliban”—the first of what Sennott hopes will be many in-depth, online packages for the fledgling foreign news outlet. The series takes the Afghanistan’s pulse at a time when the country is poised to see major changes following its hotly contested presidential election and the heightened U.S. military presence there. It includes five audio/video slideshows, an interactive timeline and five in-depth written pieces on subjects including counterinsurgency, Taliban funding, a school founded by an American woman who lost her son on 9/11 and an Afghan family’s struggles over fifteen years. Besides collaborating with MediaStorm founder Brian Storm, Sennott also teamed up with Afghanistan-based photographer Seamus Murphy and GlobalPost correspondents Jean MacKenzie and Shahan Mufti.

Alexandra Fenwick: How time-intensive was the production of this story package?

Charles Sennott: I was in Afghanistan and Pakistan for most of June and then wrote it most of July and then launched it in August [11th]. I think our metabolism is so fast that spending six to eight weeks on a project in Web land is considered unbelievably long, but in print land it’s barely scratching the surface.

AF: You wrote an essay in the March/April issue of CJR about the launch of GlobalPost, explaining your background as a print journalist taking a gamble on the future of news in this new online format. Are you sold on the multimedia format and what was it like to work with the MediaStorm team?

CS: I know [MediaStorm founder] Brian Storm through his work for several years and first started to follow his work when I started to do multimedia at the Boston Globe. I invited him formally to GlobalPost about six months ago, right when we were in the early phase of our launch, with an eye toward bringing him in as a consultant and developer on a special project at some point and “Life, Death, and the Taliban” afforded that opportunity. I feel like with Brian we’re speaking the same language of what we want to try to achieve.

A lot of times the difficulty and struggle when you’re dealing with extremely talented Web developers is that they don’t necessarily understand the long-form of journalism and they don’t understand the balance between video, the written word, and still photography, and what kind of environments we need to create in order for them all to come together with each of them being honored in their own way. And I really think that is the best part of this project we did. That is, it really was a collaboration with Brian in the sense that he listened to what I hoped to achieve with this project, which is to have that balance, to have video, but to also have the power of the written word and good reporting from the ground and great still photography and working across those platforms in a way that is intuitive for users of the site, but also a good guide for walking them through a very complex story.

I don’t know that there is a more complex story that we have to cover in the world than Afghanistan. It is just one of those places where we really need to present stories that provide all those shades of gray and bring us inside the complexity of the place if we’re going to understand it in a way that we can actually have some kind of enlightenment on what’s going on over there.

AF: What were some of the technical challenges of doing this piece?

CS: The idea is to connect the video as a tease to draw you into the written stories and then get you deeper and deeper and more and more layered into the story, and also for the podcast crowd, to offer this partnership with PRI’s The World. I did forty minutes of radio for them—I did four ten-minute pieces. In terms of workflow, we’re trying to come up with a multimedia workflow across platforms. In this one, we did audio as radio pieces for The World, and four ten-minute pieces is a lot of radio. Pretty much like doing a documentary on the Taliban.

But the discipline of gathering the audio to make those pieces work is a great and important part of successful multimedia because a lot of multimedia falls short, particularly on audio. And you know if you can’t hear it, it’s particularly hard on the Web where speakers are small and people are distracted. Our goal was to really have an enhanced audio experience. I think one of the better successes of the project is that the audio was quite clear and quite good. It’s all natural, it’s all occurring, there’s no journalistic line being crossed there, that was real and live and we just had to find the great moments to make it all come together. Even the music is real; the music that accompanies it is not canned music that we took.

AF: What are the ethical questions there if it weren’t authentic, ambient sound?

CS: I think it lessens the journalism. When you know you have authenticity to every aspect of your reporting I think that comes through. I think people are aware when they’re in confident hands. [In the Stonecutter Street piece] we’re not vaguely showing you Afghanistan fifteen years later and today—we’re showing you precisely the same street, and doing so with real audio from that street. And I think it all feels very authentic that way and really captures one of the goals of GlobalPost, which is to do great multimedia using all of the new developments and breakthroughs and creative new designs and development of different Web landing pages, but also do it with really old-fashioned journalistic standards in what I call Shoe Leather 2.0, good old-fashioned reporting but taken to new heights on the Web.

AF: I thought it was worth noting that the multimedia pieces did have a print counterpart that a lot of multimedia presentations on the Web don’t. They’ll have a text block to set it up, but they don’t always have a written story.

CS: The idea is to complement the Sally Goodrich story about the school; if you watch that video it’s two minutes, like a tease [for the print piece]. We wanted to hook you. Because the visuals were so powerful with Seamus Murphy’s photography with the “One Family, One Street” feature about Stonecutter Street, we felt like we had the visual goods to bring you on a six-minute journey. Our goal was to be honest with the viewers of the site about what we have, and when we have strong audio and strong photography we will have it threaded together as a long narrative. When we have good audio and good visuals, we will make it shorter and try to point you toward the reporting that is really undergirding that story, and where the detail can come out through solid reporting and through the time it takes to get really great narrative journalism from the ground in a war zone.

AF: Speaking of the time it takes, something like the Stonecutter Street piece —

CS: Fifteen years (laughs).

AF: Right, tell me what’s behind that piece beyond the planning to show up exactly at the right spot on the street to match the original photo.

CS: Seamus is one of the most respected eyes on Afghanistan and the world as a journalist, as a photographer. Seamus really knows the story; he’s been covering it for fifteen years. And I have as well; I first started reporting on the Taliban in 1995. Seamus first started reporting on Afghanistan in 1994. We both went back to our starting points. We’re colleagues and friends and we’ve reported together in Iraq and Afghanistan and Ireland and elsewhere. I really respect his photography and was honored to be working with him and excited that we had an opportunity to have him work for GlobalPost.

The purpose of this report was to go back to the people and the places we know and that we’ve known for a long time and use them as the touchstone to assess where things are today. For me, that was to go back to the first madrassa on the Pakistan side of the border where I first heard about the Taliban. You saw it in my story; I think it’s really interesting that those same refugee camps that lay dormant are now filled up with Swat refugees. If you read the lead story, “Blowback,” I’m really in the exact same spot of earth. And then Seamus had this great idea to go back and see this family that he’s known for fifteen years and use them to tell the story so I recorded all the audio of him talking about the story on the rooftop, I recorded the sound of the brother telling the narrative of the family, the sounds of the street, the sounds of that rite of passage for his two sons. And, also, we tried to capture through Seamus’s photography, but also through the reporting of the story, the resiliency of the Afghan people and I think that is really the most powerful theme of Seamus’s piece: resiliency.

AF: When you set out to do this was there anything that came up that made you change your plan for the package?

CS: The Sally Goodrich story unfolded in continuing and unpredictable ways. Again, Sally Goodrich and the girls in that school are people I’ve grown to know over many years of reporting. When I first did the story on Sally Goodrich two and a half years ago, it was a feel-good story for the Boston Globe Magazine and it ran on Mother’s Day and it was called “Educating Sally.” [Vermont schoolteacher Sally Goodrich lost her son, Peter, on September 11th, and built a school in his honor in the Logar province in Afghanistan]. It was such a beautiful moment to be there when she gets to see the school in session for the first time, and the joy and hope there on the girls’ faces and the way Sally engaged with them, it was really beautiful. It was really touching having covered the war for so many years and so many bad things, to see this good story coming out of the despair of Sept. 11th, to be about people connecting and hope—it was great, right?

But then five months ago, Sally started calling me with news that all these [village elders] who we had known—and we have snapshots of us arm-in-arm and we ate lunch in their home—had, according to the U.S. military, gone with the Taliban. And in shifting to the Taliban, that village represents a microcosm of where things are headed in Afghanistan. But then the story unfolded in even more complex ways on the ground for me. I did a lot of reporting and got the whole dossier of facts from the military, I met with the Ministry of Education, which oversees the school, I talked to the principal through intermediaries and then I finally got to even meet with the village elders who had been accused of going with the Taliban.

And in all of that reporting, what I found out was, this is an incredibly complex story in which, yes, it looks like these village elders did side with the Taliban. But my reporting lead me to connect to the dots to say, they did that to keep the girls’ school open. And that’s the kind of complexity for ground reporting and narrative reporting that we need in Afghanistan right now because that’s how complicated it is. It ends incredibly tragically.

I come back, I have all this information to share with Sally, and I show her some of the video. We had to secret a camera into the school because this was the same area where David Rohde was kidnapped. I was really seriously warned not to go to that school and I took those warnings seriously and I am not a cowboy—I have four sons. I listened to the military, the village elders—everyone said, “Don’t come.” Even the principal said, “Don’t come.” I instead found someone who lives in the village, who happened to be a cameraman for Afghan TV, and I sent a handheld camera in his hands with no notice, just surprise, one day just show up and start taping. And he did. And we did capture that the school is indeed still open, but with a trickle of students. Kids were afraid.

So I had all this stuff I wanted to share with Sally and her husband Don and we’re sitting here watching it in my office in Boston when I got back. And then that night, which is the morning in Afghanistan, the road into the school was bombed. And that’s when the twenty-five people were killed, including thirteen schoolchildren, two of whom were girls in the school, and the other eleven of whom were boys in the neighboring school. It’s so sad; it’s such a journey. It’s so truthful to what is happening in Afghanistan, which is complex and fraught with peril and fear and diminishing hope and I thought that story, in and of itself, says so much. And I thought Seamus’s story also, visually, gives you that sense of a contrasting reality, really, which is—in the long run aren’t things a little bit better? Even as bad as they are now, let’s really look at the fifteen-year trajectory. And that family story tells us that, slowly, Afghanistan is rebuilding.

AF: In talking about the sheer amount of planning and production that goes into something like this for the Web in which, you said, the metabolism is really quick., Media Storm and Brian Storm put together these beautiful, almost documentary pieces—so how do you reconcile the two?

CS: We tried to bring our metabolism and try to balance that with Brian Storm’s. I did a lot of reporting on veterans. [MediaStorm’s] “Marlboro Marine” is the best narrative that’s been done on veterans in America. Period. It is the most powerful and searing portrait of what it’s like to come home. It is excellent. But. It’s very difficult on a Web site to get someone to watch something that is eighteen minutes. So we very intentionally wanted to break this up so that we could appeal to those faster metabolisms of the Web but not compromise fully the sense that we do need to tell you some long, cool stories and to gird them with history, with reporting, real old-fashioned reporting, you know? Names, sources, dates, times, all that stuff. That balance is what we’re looking for.

AF: So how do you do something that can be very high-gloss and very production-intensive and make it sustainable?

CS: One of the ways we sustained this project was we partnered. We partnered with PRI’s The World. I worked with Bob Ferrante of PRI to get funding for global religion reporting. The Henry Luce Foundation provided that to PRI. We, GlobalPost, paid for the photography, videography and the editing and the build out the landing page but we took the audio and combined it with what we were able to gather and then we used our reporters in the field to complement the reporting. Then we created our own package. So it’s not like it’s all one partnership but it’s a partnership that allowed us to each go to our strengths, for radio, for the web, through GlobalPost. In a more ad hoc fashion, we did it with the NewsHour as well. The NewsHour used our content to build an online profile of the Taliban leaders who I interviewed, and then they did a piece in which we talked about “Life, Death and the Taliban,” and they showed B-roll behind it. I wouldn’t call it a full-on video package that aired on the NewsHour, but next time we’ll get there. We’re on our way. We did The World and GlobalPost this time, and NewsHour sort of fell into partnership with us. And now NewsHour, The World, and GlobalPost are intending to do another one down the road, to be determined.

AF: Is the tension between getting the daily story and doing long-form narrative pieces any more strained in the field of foreign reporting, where just being able to have a reporter on the ground at all has become a luxury?

CS: The tension is there, and in order for us to succeed in doing the more ambitious project reporting we will need to be entrepreneurial and creative in how we fund it. And in this project we were. And in how we balance time—in what we can invest in a project versus what we have to pay attention to every day. On a separate note, our network of seventy-five correspondents, sixty-five on contract in more than fifty countries, that network lends itself to project reporting. Another example I would throw out to you, which is a much lighter metabolism for project reporting, is our “World of Trouble” series. It was a really fairly simple concept, which was twenty correspondents in twenty countries will tell you what’s happening with the global economic downturn. We produced these short text blocks from twenty countries that can capture in a snapshot some metrics and some anecdotes of what’s happening all over the world as the economy turns down. That is a very good kind of project for our organization. Very different from “Life, Death and the Taliban” but something we also want to pursue.

Our next partnership is with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. We have partnered with them because they are a syndication newspaper—so they pay for GlobalPost syndication. They have the G-20 hosted in Pittsburgh this year on Sept. 20th. So we are right now turning our attention to a new partnership. It’s a completely different model which takes that “World of Trouble” module that we created, much simpler Flash development than Brian Storm’s model. We did this in-house. It’s much less ambitious in terms of its functionality and how slick it is and how much time it involves putting together. But it’s really practical and it really plays to our strengths. So we’re going to do a G-20 module built off the “World of Trouble” module for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for both our Web site, GlobalPost, but also for their Web site and their print edition.

We’ll do twenty stories that will look at the G-20 countries and where they are and what they expect to get out of the G-20. We’re really trying to help print newspapers to see that we offer something extraordinary, which is we will localize foreign stories for you. So these are not big projects that require Flash development and state of the art videography and photography. But they are also important and we’re trying to balance the different models and both deliver something really in-depth for what I believe is the most challenging foreign policy issue for the Obama administration, which is Afghanistan, and use our network to take on another huge issue for this country and the world, which is the global economy. And in those two you have very different approaches but two good examples of the kind of project reporting we want to do.

AF: In the context of current events, you talked earlier about the purpose of “Life, Death and the Taliban” but what about the timing? Why now?

CS: The Obama administration announced the offensive with the increase of 21,000 troops, which would deploy over the summer, so I wanted to do the reporting in the summer and catch that news wave, which is crashing right now. We also had the election on August 20 and we knew that date, so we were looking at launching at the time of the election to help shape the debate when we knew it would be very much in the spotlight. And, sadly, violence and casualty rates have gone through the roof. They’re higher than they have been since 2001 and the U.S. and international forces’ losses are very high. So there’s a sense of a critical crossroads in Afghanistan and we wanted to time the project to that but we also wanted to build a project that can hold content for the whole rest of the year. So that’s why we called it, “Life, Death and the Taliban” and we tried to frame it as giving you the history and the current context you need to follow this story. We now have our live reporting on the election going into this project and our live reporting on an embed in Helmand Province by Kimberly Johnson, who’s a fantastic reporter.

AF: So now that the election has happened, what is the consensus about how it played out and how does the piece inform what has happened?

CS: I think we’re waiting. Everyone’s claiming victory and the truth is, it’s just too early to tell. There were significant setbacks and there was a lot of violence at the polls and the campaign of fear and intimidation did work in many places, particularly in the south and the east. This became Obama’s war as soon as he announced he was going to turn up the heat in an offensive against the Taliban. And Obama has said very, very pointedly this is a war of necessity. And he has defined the U.S. presence in Afghanistan in a new and far more engaged way. And I think it is fraught with peril.

We wanted, in this project, to begin to create the framework of the reporting to ask the really hard questions. Through the counterinsurgency piece, to our piece on what the Taliban has become—and what I think has become a fateful mistake, which is to view the Taliban as monolithic. The Taliban is many things and I think that’s what our reporting captures. There’s a Pakistani Taliban, there’s an Afghan Taliban, and they have different funding bases. They really come out of different places and we try to unpack that history both through our correspondents on the ground who are excellent—Shahan Mufti in Islamabad and Jean MacKenzie in Kabul—and through bringing some experience and past history to it through my reporting and through Seamus’s reporting.

AF: When was the last time you’d been to Afghanistan before you traveled there to do this project?

CS: Two years ago. And I went maybe a total of ten times for the Boston Globe. That’s a guess, but it’s pretty close.

AF: Were your other correspondents there assigned to Afghanistan by GlobalPost or were they already based there?

CS: They’ve lived there for years. Shahan Mufti is a Pakistani-American whose family is there and has lived there on and off throughout his life. An excellent journalist. And Jean MacKenzie has lived there for at least, I would say, five years. And Jean’s got great language skills and is an outstanding correspondent who also works for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. So through her education of Afghan journalists, she has eyes all over the country.

AF: I noticed Iran isn’t in the list of countries where your correspondents are based.

CS: Right, it was impossible for us to establish a bureau there but we had two really good correspondents there [during the recent elections]. We had Iason Athanasiadis who was detained and whom we had to work very hard for his release in coordination with others. And then we also had Cameron Abadi who was out of Berlin but who is of Iranian background—a very talented journalist and freelance correspondent who offered to go for us, and we loved his work. They took two very different approaches. Iason was very much out on the street and reported very live and powerfully and maybe perhaps, as a result, was apprehended at the airport on his way out and was put in Iranian prison for three weeks. We were very worried about him and worked with the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Washington Times, who he was also writing for, and the Pulitzer Center, and got him out.

And then there’s Cameron who was a little bit more under-the-radar. More analysis, a little bit more removed maybe and he sensed the peril and went underground and didn’t write for a while. And then he wrote a few pieces for us from there and then left the country—we were very happy to hear—got back to Berlin and wrote a couple of powerful essays about what he saw. So we tried to cover Iran in two very different approaches but with great concern and great caution for the risks the journalists were taking.

AF: If there were some event developing, some conflict brewing would you ever send someone to cover it specifically?

CS: With Iran we did. We went to cover the election. Like most news organizations, we didn’t realize it would become such a hard news story. But we were well placed to do that, so we have done that and we’ve done it sparingly, but I think with pretty good success. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve had correspondents we have sent into embeds to cover the conflict there but only after they’ve had sufficient training in covering hostile environments. And I feel, and I take this very seriously, that they have the have the maturity and reporting experience to operate safely in a war zone. So we take very seriously the idea that people are going into dangerous assignments.

We have freelancers knocking on our doors every day who want to go to Iraq, but we don’t do that. We use a correspondent who we know is very experienced and who we know can go there and report in an important way and tell us the big developments. There’s plenty of live coverage out of Iraq. We want something we consider value-added and the same is true of Afghanistan.

AF: What I got from “Life, Death and the Taliban” was that this is a crucial moment, time is ripe for dialogue, and lot of factors, including the election and the surge in U.S. troops, have set the region up for a major transition. But a recent report by David Folkenflik for NPR cited statistics from the Project for Excellence in Journalism showing that the story in Afghanistan has not been very high profile. In fact, it saw just as much coverage this whole year as Michael Jackson’s death and that only happened in June.

CS: I heard that and I was dismayed that they [NPR] didn’t include our coverage. Disappointed even. Because I felt like, ‘God, we really have tried to provide context we really have covered it over time.’ And here we are, this very small, new news organization and he was talking with a lot of really interesting people —I thought it was a good report — I just, as a co-founder of a new news organization, you constantly feel like you want to alert people to check out what we’re doing.

AF: Right, he was talking more about legacy news outlets, The New York Times, The Washington Post, andthe Associated Press.

CS: But he said, “the media” and you’re like, ‘Well wait, you’re not really looking at the whole landscape of it.’ If they’re only looking at newspapers, well what about other news organizations? There’s a very retro, mainstream media set of analytics that apply. And we are a stealth news organization. We are, I think, a model for how you can operate without the ancien regime approach of big, old media. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the presence of the networks covering a war, but they set up palaces with heated swimming pools and lots of producers and it’s what I call “the ancien regime.” It’s a lot of profligate waste that could be going to good old-fashioned reporting but it goes to a lot of cachet and access.

AF: Does that still happen now that foreign bureaus are closing?

CS: Less so. It’s more Spartan now for every news organization but some of that was still there. I could still feel it a little bit when I was in Afghanistan recently.

AF: So the funding is drying up for sustaining the kind of foreign bureaus that your organization is replacing, but is the appetite for international news still there?

CS: I think it is. When I do an appearance on “Fresh Air” or I’m on the NewsHour and you sort of tap into the great power and engines of these great news organizations that have great reach, our Web site generates a lot more traffic and then the comments we get are, ‘Thank you for doing this.’ And so we sense a yearning out there. I think there’s no question that there is a greater demand in America for news on Michael Jackson. What that says about America, I don’t know. But I know that there’s also a great yearning for serious journalism about the world and I think the landscape of American news media continues to be pretty barren in terms of what is offered to an American news audience for international coverage.

GlobalPost is a small news organization. We can’t compare to great news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, BBC, NPR, that have a longer tradition and a great tradition of excellence for foreign reporting, but we are trying very much to be many new sets of eyeballs in the world that tell great news stories for an American news audience.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.