Global Post’s Anti-Hamster Wheel Scheme

A Q&A with executive editor Charles Sennott

Global Post, an international news service for an American audience, with seventy correspondents in fifty countries, is forming a nonprofit arm to help fund its longer-form, multimedia “special projects.” Executive editor and vice president Charles Sennott previously spoke with CJR about one of those packages that Global Post had put together, titled “Life, Death, and the Taliban.” Among other things, that project broke the story that USAID funds were going to Taliban insurgents through subcontractors in Afghanistan—a story that was later acknowledged by a government probe into the matter.

Two years after the site’s launch, assistant editor Lauren Kirchner checked in with Sennott about how Global Post is changing the way it does business in order to produce more stories like that one, and about how—when it comes to online content—sometimes less (or, rather, fewer) is more.

What have you learned so far in the past two years of Global Post about what works best?

Two years out, I’m thrilled to know that our daily news operation is working efficiently and effectively. We have some work to do to deepen our consistency of coverage, and we’re on our way to doing that, we have a game plan to get us there. But now, at two years, there’s an opportunity for me to really focus on special projects, to really work more closely with correspondents and editors to take our special projects and break new ground. That’s how we know we can really get noticed, how we can be part of the national conversation and drive traffic. So that will be my focus going forward. And we will also be relying on a nonprofit arm to search for institutional and individual funding that can help us with that, while, of course, retaining full editorial control.

What have you learned specifically about how to manage your content flow?

What we’ve learned two years out is that we actually had too much content. We began with the idea that we’d start with seventy correspondents in fifty countries, and we’d further broaden our regions, and continue to step up the number of shorter—as in, 800 to 1,000 word—stories we were getting from every corner of the world, with one sort of fixed rate at a competitive freelance price. But what we realized was, we could actually get a further engagement on the site, a better story, and therefore a better overall editorial approach by having fewer stories.

So we took an overall cost-neutral approach to saying, what if we asked our correspondents in many places to actually deliver fewer stories for the same amount of money in our monthly contracts with them? Wouldn’t we maybe get a better story, that we could sustain longer on the site, that would tell us more about that corner of the world, and really show our visitors that we’re going to do the stories with a little bit more depth, rather than give you something that just skims the surface? That has produced good results, and we’re seeing our traffic rise as a result of that. We think that shows that more is not always better.

At CJR we often talk about The Hamster Wheel; this seems like a good antidote to that.

I think the hamster wheel is something that everyone in the digital age of journalism is worried about. What if we really lower our standards and we end up scurrying and scrounging around, trying to do stories way too fast, trying to have everyone do everything all the time—as if everyone can report in the field, file the story, write the blog, come up with video, know FinalCut Pro, and, by the way, produce the story, send it to the FTP, and then, you know, We’ll get back to you at the end of the day. That approach to journalism is not going to create excellence. It’s just going to create overworked and underpaid journalists who aren’t able to focus on the stories that matter. At GlobalPost we’ve taken a different approach, we’ve decided that we want to have great stories with that extra bit of reporting, and we’re willing to pay more for that to get it.

We also have a recognition that not all journalists are going to be videographers in the field. We have some who are really good at that, and work across platforms, but we’ve allowed people to go to the form of storytelling that they’re most passionate about. If you care about the storytelling, you’re going to do a better job at it. We’ve learned that you can’t have a cookie-cutter approach; you can’t demand everything of everyone. And you can’t consider each correspondent someone who you can pay a flat rate and expect them to just keep churning the stories out. We want to be able to go deep into some stories, and pay for them, where necessary, allow reporters more time to make those extra phone calls, or go that extra day of reporting, to really deliver the story.

Every corner of the world where we have a correspondent, we have a different situation, of course. In some places, we’re actually going to pull back the level of coverage, but we’re going to step up our coverage in other places that we think have a stronger story to tell, whether because of emerging economies, or ongoing conflicts, or other themes that really cut across a region. In general we’ve peeled back in some quieter European and Asian countries; we’ve pushed forward in Brazil, Russia, India, and China, and we have increased fourfold our coverage in those countries, and increased the budgeting to our lead correspondents there. We also want to put a marker down on Southeast Asia, with a correspondent in Bangkok, and in Africa, with a correspondent in Kenya. We’re hoping to expand this into other regions as we see that we’re getting success in this more concentrated form of coverage, but this is something that’s really just starting to take shape.

What went into your decision to create a nonprofit arm in addition to the for-profit structure?

I think we’ve recognized that some of the stories where we get noticed the most and are then able to drive traffic to the site are the in-depth stories. Those stories, where we break new ground, are the ones that get us on television, allow us to work through our editorial partnerships with PBS NewsHour, CBS News, and NPR Digital, push those stories out there, and they really resonate. There’s a recognition that we need to do special projects in a more ambitious and focused way. We think we can really do great journalism with these special projects in the field, and we’re going to need funding to do that. Two years into a start-up website, it’s hard for us to put together the money we need to give our reporters the opportunity to do the kind of stories they’re capable of doing, which are in-depth, investigative stories. We’ve already been funding these special projects, and we’ll continue to fund them, but we’ve also had a lot of interest from foundations in supporting our reporting, and so we should really take them up on that.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner