A New Wave of Foreign Reporting
By Rebecca Wolfson Posted Jul 24 2011
Last summer, heavy rains flooded the Chalbi Desert in Kenya. Most mainstream media outlets ignored the disaster, but Ndugire-Mbugua was there. She grew up as a member of a rural tribal community and now spends her days reporting on social justice issues that affect her region.
Global Press Institute (GPI) turns women like Ndugire-Mbugua, who have no prior journalism experience and who sometimes have very low levels of literacy, into published, professional journalists.
According to GPI’s founder, Cristi Hegranes, local people are better equipped to cover their communities than foreign correspondents who sweep into countries during moments of crisis. Hegranes is creating a new model of international journalism, and she is not alone.
With the near-extinction of American media foreign bureaus, GPI and two other organizations—Round Earth Media and The Common Language Project—are finding a middle ground between participatory media and traditional journalism. All three organizations started about five years ago, and they all provide a platform for social justice-related stories from underreported regions of the world.
Each of these entrepreneurs rejects “parachute journalism”—when foreign correspondents are parachuted into a crisis zone, knowing little about the culture and its people.
Instead of covering crises, all three organizations are interested in returning to disaster hot spots months or years after the mainstream media have left. More than two years after the earthquake, Global Press Institute will open a news desk in Haiti. “There are so many kinds of climate-related hardships happening in Haiti, and as it becomes less of a mainstream media darling, we want to be there to tell those stories,” Hegranes said. The Common Language Project also did a series on Haiti called “Haiti: In the Wake of the Quake,” which covered the aftermath of the disaster, months after it happened.
Hegranes said she doesn’t reject the traditional journalism model but dislikes mainstream media’s 24-hour news cycle. She’s interested in a return to some of American journalism’s roots—muckraking, social justice-style reporting, memorialized by Ida Tarbell and McClure’s magazine from the early 1900s.
All three founders said they are interested in unbiased, fact-based journalism. GPI’s commitment to traditional news values is part of what makes it unique, Hegranes said. “So much of journalism is conducted via email and telephone, and we don’t do that,” Hegranes said. “We are training people to get out there in their communities and gather news in a very traditional way.”
While GPI trains women to be journalists in developing countries, the founders of The Common Language Project and Round Earth Media do original reporting and work with freelancers.
Mary Stucky originally created Round Earth Media so she could get grants to go on international reporting trips. But, as Stucky witnessed what she refers to as the “collapse of traditional journalism,” Round Earth Media transitioned from a two-person international reporting project to a training ground and an outlet for emerging international journalists. Now, Stucky leads an editorial team of four experienced journalists who offer mentoring and editorial guidance to emerging freelance reporters. The editorial team also assists reporters with placing their stories in high-profile outlets, such as NPR and Frontline.
Jessica Partnow and the other two CLP co-founders, Sarah Stuteville and Alex Stonehill originally intended to stick with positive international storytelling in an effort to avoid the crisis and disaster- focused reporting by mainstream media.
Ultimately, they decided that a prohibitively optimistic news filter would result in bland reporting. They wanted to cover bonded labor and debt slavery in Pakistan, and they updated their vision. Now, The CLP focuses on humanizing content related to international issues, Partnow said. We wanted to find that one individual person whose experience ties into broad political issues or economic issues,” Partnow said.
The Rise of First Person Narratives
Partnow and Stucky have both witnessed the rising popularity of a genre, which involves first person, international storytelling. They’ve incorporated this blog-style writing into their body of work. This style enables journalists to insert emotions and insights into their writing. “It’s the kind of writing that I think really helps communicate and helps people understand the context of what is really going on,” Partnow said.
CLP recently added a commentary section to its website as a home for this genre. Photojournalist Sebastian Meyer wanted to write a narrative of his travels with rebels in Libya, but struggled to find a publishing outlet. CLP has provided a platform for Meyer’s written series.
Though they incorporate blog-style writing, the founders of all three organizations are quick to point out that they are not citizen or advocacy journalists.
“We don’t embrace those terms because we adhere to journalistic ethics and try to be balanced and independent,” Partnow said. “We’re not advocating one side of an issue, and we’re expecting people to work according to those standards.”
Sink or swim
The economic recession of 2008 hit all three organizations hard. GuideStar, which collects information on charities, has predicted that about 100,000 non-profit groups were wiped out by the economic downturn. As grant money dried up, each of the founders knew the recession would be a turning point. They would sink, and join the ranks of the fallen, or they would swim, and come out stronger in the end.
GPI turned to syndication as an alternative source of revenue. Since December it has picked up about 35 major media content syndication partners including UPI, Reuters, Lexis Nexis and Women’s eNews. Syndication revenues comprise 10 percent of GPI’s budget, but by 2020 Hegranes aims to increase that to 100 percent.
GPI also tripled the number of online donations within six months through a revamped online fundraising strategy. The new strategy involved changing the fundraising language on their website from gifts to social investments. Rather than having individuals contribute to the organization in general, they enlist people to invest in a place, people or journalism. CLP has also adopted a more targeted fundraising approach. Instead of asking donors to contribute to the CLP in general, they ask them to fund individual reporting projects.
The recession also forced Round Earth Media to experiment with a for-profit funding model. In April, Stucky was negotiating a partnership with Social NewsLine, a public relations firm. For a fee, Social NewsLine would have distributed news releases about businesses, non-profit organizations and academic institutions to Round Earth’s Facebook wall. Social NewsLine was prepared to pay the majority of the costs of an upcoming project in India.
But, Stucky, along with her board of directors, ultimately decided to scrap the partnership with Social NewsLine. “Despite all the safeguards we put in place, we decided we are not going to be able to counter the perception that the journalism could be influenced,” Stucky said. In the end, journalistic ethics trumped Round Earth Media’s need for alternative funding. “The entrepreneurial path is never a straight road and this has certainly proven that.”
But Stucky said she’s determined to pioneer an innovative funding solution. As an entrepreneur, she said she realizes this might result in multiple tests and multiple failures, but she’ll never know what works unless she tries it out.