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

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010; C01

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.

* * *

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.

Charles Sennott, the executive editor, fits the profile of a GlobalPost staffer. He spent 15 years as a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe, which, like the Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer and other regional newspapers, no longer has journalists stationed abroad.

"One of the saddest things is that papers of that size have lost their foreign correspondents," Sennott says. "The freelance world is hurting these days. What we pay is competitive with National Public Radio or the Christian Science Monitor."

That pay is generally $1,000 a month, meaning that GlobalPost staffers -- who once worked at such organizations as Time, Dow Jones, the Chicago Tribune and Associated Press -- must find other sources of income. Bonnefoy, a onetime Washington Post contributor, now strings for the New York Times, works part time at the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and teaches journalism at the University of Chile.

Bonnefoy says that reporters stationed in a country "have a pretty good grasp of its idiosyncrasy. . . . In general, I think we get to cover many more stories and angles from our countries than other media would bother to consider or that ever make it to the cables, and that gives readers a different and richer insight into the country and perhaps the region."

Balboni is giving staffers stakes in the company -- they get 20 percent of their shares each year, for five years -- as an incentive to stick around. "We want to instill a sense of entrepreneurship for our team," Balboni says.

While GlobalPost "does not pay well and has certainly made a few missteps along the way," says Brazil correspondent Seth Kugel, who also contributes to the New York Times and Conde Nast Traveler, it "has been the best of all as far as dealing with writers. They are very encouraging about most of my ideas, the editing is light but usually on the mark, and they seem to really understand reporters and how they work."

GlobalPost has landed a few big names, but they are less active. Former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton writes a monthly column, while H.D.S. Greenway, a former Boston Globe editorial page editor, contributes a weekly piece. Jane Arraf, a former NBC and CNN correspondent who now reports for the Christian Science Monitor from Baghdad, has filed occasional stories.

"I'd love for her to do more, but she's stretched," Sennott says. "Iraq has been really hard for us to have a steady person there, because it's expensive."

* * *

The shrinking media industry has made available an extraordinarily experienced talent pool -- people such as Matt McAllester, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Newsday reporter, who recently interviewed members of a ring of diamond thieves that has pulled off spectacular heists in Montenegro.

"There's a lot of energy and enthusiasm in the Boston office," says Caryle Murphy, a former Washington Post reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner now based in Saudi Arabia. "And I feel like I'm on an adventure with a team of professional, experienced journalists."

But, says Murphy, who also writes for the Christian Science Monitor and an Abu Dhabi paper, "most stories are not drawing a lot of comments, which suggests to me that traffic to the site is not terrific. I wonder if the more featury slant of Global Post, versus hard news, is hurting it in terms of attracting viewers."

MacKenzie, who until recently also ran the Kabul office of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, calls GlobalPost "a news organization that takes foreign affairs seriously but is willing to think outside the box. "I feel that I have tremendous room for exploration -- a political story one day, a piece on young people and music the next."

Balboni, who launched the venture with $9 million from 21 investors, has attracted such quality advertisers as Verizon, Merrill Lynch, Singapore Airlines and Liberty Mutual. He hopes to persuade more readers to pay for a premium "passport service" that enables them to vote on proposed stories -- editors would assign the most popular choices -- and join in weekly conference calls with the correspondents.

As for the site's low profile, Balboni says: "We didn't expect we'd be able to set the world on fire with something that no one has been able to do before."

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