GlobalPost embraces challenge of covering world news as U.S. papers trim bureaus

Philip Balboni, left, (with Charles Sennott) launched GlobalPost after spending years at New England Cable News.
Philip Balboni, left, (with Charles Sennott) launched GlobalPost after spending years at New England Cable News. (Jodi Hilton)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010

The morning after a powerful earthquake struck Chile, "Face the Nation" was frantically trying to find a journalist in the suddenly ravaged country.

With phone lines jammed and major news outlets caught flat-footed, CBS tracked down Pascale Bonnefoy, a reporter for the online news service GlobalPost. "It was terrifying," she says, recounting the devastation to Bob Schieffer from Santiago after several attempts were aborted by dropped phone connections. "I was in my home on the second floor in my bedroom. We were all sleeping. The house started to shake, then rock, then jump up and down."

Schieffer's executive producer, Carin Pratt, was relieved: "She was quite good. We were definitely scrambling. She was the only person we could find."

The interview late last month underscored the value of a Web site that has taken on the ambitious challenge of covering the world -- big chunks of it, anyway -- but remains a blip on the media radar. With newspapers and networks shuttering many of their bureaus abroad, the fledgling company is trying to fill part of the gap by tapping seasoned foreign correspondents as part-time stringers.

"GlobalPost is a young organization, still finding its financial feet, and this is a tough time for journalists," says Jean MacKenzie, who is based in Afghanistan. "Remuneration is not as high as we would like -- some of us still remember the days of pampered foreign correspondents, and would love a bureau, fixers, translators, drivers, the works. This is, so far, more a seat-of-the-pants operation."

The site has a picture-postcard feel, with colorful dispatches and short videos that are off the breaking-news path: Arabic dying out in Dubai. Cheetah conservation in South Africa. Saving condors in Chile. A new generation of lepers in India. More immigrants in Tel Aviv. A Toyota robot in Japan that plays the trumpet. Backyard pigs back in fashion in Ireland.

When Google ended censorship in its China operation this week, GlobalPost led its site with a report from Beijing that was adequate but not much different than various newspaper accounts. On the other hand, the site recently followed up its coverage of the Chile earthquake with Bonnefoy's piece on why some of the country's newest buildings were prone to collapse.

GlobalPost has also done a series on "Silicon Sweatshops" -- risky conditions in factories making electronic gadgets -- that recently won one of the site's four awards from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

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In an era when foreign reporting is on the wane, the site has journalists in 50 countries, including Vietnam, Turkey, Morocco, Colombia, Yemen, Senegal, Cuba, Indonesia and the Philippines. GlobalPost attracted 750,000 visitors last month, according to Google Analytics -- not bad for a year-old startup.

"This is something I've wanted to do almost my entire career," says Phil Balboni, who launched GlobalPost in Boston after resigning from the company he founded, New England Cable News. GlobalPost has 25 clients in the United States and overseas -- including New York's Daily News, the Newark Star-Ledger, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Times of India -- as well as a cooperative arrangement with CBS.

That connection occasionally pays off. In September, the "CBS Evening News" built a story around a piece by MacKenzie, who quoted several unnamed contractors in Kabul as saying that a chunk of their budgets went to paying off the Taliban so it wouldn't attack their projects.

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