CRISTI HEGRANES

United States,

Cristi Hegranes seeks to develop a new, better quality, and more sustainable model of international journalism that is rooted in the perspective of local communities—and especially women from those communities.

This profile below was prepared when Cristi Hegranes was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.

INTRODUCTION

Cristi Hegranes seeks to develop a new, better quality, and more sustainable model of international journalism that is rooted in the perspective of local communities—and especially women from those communities.




THE NEW IDEA

Cristi founded the Global Press Institute (GPI) to demonstrate a new way forward for the declining field of international journalism. She’s not alone in the recognition that the current model isn’t working. Most newspapers have closed their foreign desks, and the few that remain are expensive and limited in their capacity to write about anything other than international crises. Her premise is simple, and flips today’s model on its head: Train those within countries who have access to the stories to be professional quality journalists and build a syndication pipeline that features their reporting in major platforms across the globe. And do so at a fraction of the current cost. GPI focuses on women in particular, both because of their traditionally marginalized status and because they’re less likely to flee their communities once trained. In this way, in addition to elevating global awareness, GPI uses journalism as a development tool to educate, employ, and give voice to women around the world. 

At the core of the GPI is a rigorous training program that equips women with the tools and support network to produce high-quality, ethical, objective news pieces suitable for the most discerning news platforms. Women who complete the training are then given jobs and pursue a range of stories, many of which shed light on important social and political issues, and most which feature overlooked issues, angles, or perspectives. As Cristi says, when you change the storyteller, you’re changing the stories too. Meanwhile, the position of GPI journalists and editors as pioneers of truly independent media serves as a model for other local media outlets to follow. 

A robust syndication model means the reach of GPI stories extends well beyond local communities and regions. Today, GPI operates news desks in 25 countries and employs close to 150 women around the world. GPI stories are accessible to over 5 million people monthly and can be found in English on the GPI news wire as well as on UPI, Reuters, the BBC, and the Huffington Post. For Cristi, this combination of new voices and perspectives together with broad audiences is a powerful formula—not just for rescuing journalism but also for combating apathy, cultivating empathy, and enabling social change. 




THE PROBLEM

According to Cristi, three interrelated issues plague international journalism today: quality, diversity, and cost. The quality problem is driven by a flawed model that sends foreign correspondents to report on countries that they know little about. Most correspondents don’t speak local languages, have little familiarity with the local culture, and lack access to real people and sources. The result is often reporting through a lens of bias and stereotype. Journalistic quality has been further compromised in recent years by increasingly blurred lines between professional and citizen journalism.

The lack of diversity in story topics, storytellers, regions, and sources is also troubling. For instance, according to the Global Media Monitoring Project, for every woman who appears in the news there are five men, while an International Women’s Media Foundation report found that less than 2 percent of sources in international news stories are women. Meanwhile, Routledge Media recently found that 97 percent of international news coverage is focused on just four topics—war, natural disaster, poverty, and disease. Mainstream news outlets are simply missing a massive range of perspectives and stories—especially those of progress—from the developing world. 

Finally, the cost problem has been widely recognized, as the modern business model of journalism is now considered a failure. According to the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, a single foreign correspondent costs a newspaper around $250,000 a year. As a result, over the past 25 years, more than 60 percent of all foreign news bureaus have closed and foreign news in daily newspapers has declined by 53 percent.

These problems with international journalism persist due to a lack of true innovation in the field. Mainstream media have been so consumed by revenue problems that they are mostly blind to the quality and diversity issues. Even their cost focus is shortsighted, centered as it is on cutbacks and layoffs, establishing online pay walls, and letting advertising needs drive content. A number of nonprofit organizations have attempted to address one or another of the problems, but their solutions are partial at best. For instance, GlobalPost hires expats living in foreign countries to report on those nations, lowering costs and providing more local context, but largely leaving the diversity problem untouched. Federally funded organizations such as InterNews and the International Center for Journalists conduct local journalism training, but these organizations don’t publish news and most of their trainees remain unemployed at the end of the programs.

At the most fundamental level, as these problems persist, journalism is less able to serve its intended role in the world, and the pace of social change is slowed rather than accelerated. 




THE STRATEGY

GPI’s strategy is to influence the field of international journalism by demonstrating a model that works and marketing its unique content to news agencies and other partners around the world. Doing so requires simultaneously (i) expanding the number of countries, editors, and writers contributing stories to GPI, and (ii) ensuring that those stories are picked up widely both in country and beyond through a robust syndication model. The hope is not only that major news outlets will feature GPI content, but that they will themselves begin to re-envision where journalists come from and where they source stories. 

Maintaining quality and rigor is essential, and this begins with the training program itself. All GPI journalists complete a 6-month training that covers the principles and practices of ethical journalism, which includes everything from traditional reporting skills to digital literacy and advanced writing skills. The level of practice required—and how quickly someone can begin producing stories—depends in part on her level of experience when she joins. Most GPI reporters have no professional background in journalism and limited formal education, and include members of the untouchable caste in Asia, former sex workers in Africa, and indigenous women in Latin America. At the end of the 6 months, each trainee must complete an evaluation of the GPI material. Women who excel as reporters and then editors are trained as trainers themselves, both in country and regionally. Today GPI has 12 certified trainers. The model of rigor and decentralized knowledge sharing is effective: GPI has only had to run two corrections to its stories over the last seven years. 

The GPI is unique in that it also guarantees jobs for the women that complete the training as reporters for the Global Press Journal. Reporters receive a strong living wage and operate in traditional news bureau environments complete with editors, fact checkers, translators and mentors—as well as opportunities for growth into editorial positions. The training doesn’t end once employment begins either. In fact, GPI offers more than a dozen specialty reporting seminars on topical reporting issues that are often difficult to cover—from climate change to HIV/AIDS. And writers get ongoing support and mentorship for each story they produce, both from the local and global teams. 

The decision to focus on women is due in large part to their underrepresentation as voices in the news and in world affairs. GPI journalists can and already have shed light on a range of important social and political issues that are traditionally overlooked. But the decision is also a function of strong evidence of the advantages of investing in women and girls. When women are educated and employed, the United Nations and countless nongovernmental organizations have documented that poverty is alleviated, infant and maternal mortality rates decrease, population growth is more controlled, and overall quality of life indicators in a community improve. Journalism in particular gives women the tools to be changemakers in their communities by using investigative reporting methods to shine light in dark corners. In Ghana, for example, the exposure of epilepsy camps where patients were chained and starved to be “cured” of their illness was picked up by six local partner organizations and then by Human Rights Watch.

Finally, for Cristi, there’s a very pragmatic reason to focus on women: women who receive skills training tend to stay closer to home, whereas men tend to leave their villages in favor of large cities, taking their skills and income with them. Today, GPI boasts a 93 percent retention rate among the women trained in the last seven years.

Of course, to achieve transformative change in the field of journalism, GPI must do more than produce quality stories alone. Getting its unique content and model recognized and adopted widely is thus a central strategy going forward, especially now that GPI has proven its journalists can produce award-winning coverage. Like many news organizations, GPI relies on syndication, whereby content is given or sold to newspapers, magazines, and websites. Currently over 80 organizations syndicate GPI reporting for free. Cristi’s goal is to saturate local media markets in the countries in which GPI operates through free local language syndication, and to continue building GPI’s global market presence in mainstream media through paid syndication of English language versions. 

GPI syndicates its content to media partners around the globe, ranging from small, local language publications to major mainstream outlets such as NPR, Reuters, and UPI. After launching a new paid syndication platform this summer—an innovative tool that streamlines the use of Global Press Journal content by offering a content delivery system unmatched by other small publishers—GPI will syndicate its content even more broadly and seeks to earn 5 percent of the organization’s total operating budget within the first year. Syndication is thus a central component of GPI’s strategy to increase both social impact and long-term organizational sustainability through revenue generation. 

The marketing and sales process for GPI’s news content is also an opportunity to make other news outlets aware of GPI. Once a syndication relationship is established with a news agency, the sheer act of them publishing GPI content is itself evidence of GPI’s influence. And through on-going relationships with these media outlets, appreciation for the value of GPI’s content and model will increase as they learn that there is a better way to collect and disseminate international news. The more GPI content is featured and mimicked by mainstream media, the more pressure is exerted on the rest of the field; even those outlets that don’t syndicate GPI reporting will be compelled to compete with the GPI style of news. In short, Cristi sees her model prompting three kinds of reactions: (i) purchasing GPI content (ii) relying on GPI reporters for exclusive coverage, and (iii) independently producing different content with more local and diverse coverage. 

Since its founding, GPI has trained and employed nearly 150 women across 26 countries, on an annual budget of less than $1 million—most of which has come in the form of charitable contributions from individual donors and foundations, as well as from awards and prizes. The FY13 budget of $1million represents dramatic growth for GPI over the past few years: it is a 248 percent increase over the 2012 budget of $284,555. The budget growth reflects programmatic expansion to new countries over the past two years, the professionalization and expansion of GPI’s US-based editorial team, increased professional training and provision of technology to GPI reporters, and the development of GPI’s syndication strategy and platform. Over the next five years Cristi hopes to continue expanding and reach more than 50 countries while employing 300 women. She also expects to establish paid syndication relationships with more than 500 news agencies and earn at least 25 percent of GPI’s operating budget from syndication revenue.




THE PERSON

Cristi has been interested in journalism as far back as she can remember. In grade school she wanted to write and publish, in high school she turned an ailing student newspaper into a thriving journal, and in college she founded the First Amendment Education Week in response to her university clamping down on student voice. She launched her career as a reporter and soon found herself in her dream job: as a foreign correspondent searching for compelling stories to share with the world. 

But as a young reporter in Nepal in 2004, Cristi had an epiphany: she was the wrong person to be reporting the news. In many ways, she was an ideal foreign correspondent: she spoke Nepali and had an extensive network of local sources from years of work and travel in the region. But it occurred to her that no matter how familiar she was with Nepalese culture, she would always be an outsider—a foreigner facing an unbridgeable gap in the social, historical and political context of her reporting. It seemed obvious that the people most qualified to be reporting the news were the locals themselves.

Cristi’s realization occurred after she met Pratima C., a woman living in a tiny, remote village in eastern Nepal. Although Pratima had dropped out of school after the fourth grade, she was literate and highly respected in her local village. She was the community matriarch and a mediator, with access to exceptional sources and fascinating stories about the region’s struggles with civil war, disease and crushing poverty. Cristi realized that if savvy, inspired women like Pratima had the opportunity to be trained in the principles and practices of ethical journalism, the stories they told would not only change they and their families’ lives, but they could also change the world.

Cristi began to brainstorm a journalism model that empowered women and communities, drove community development and offered a more viable future. Cristi had always seen journalism as a development tool, capable of elevating global awareness of the human condition, increasing tolerance, and promoting justice. The stakes were too high to stand by and watch as the field declined at the very moment when the globalized nature of the world has made understanding other peoples, cultures, and nations more important than ever. So Cristi set out to create the kind of media she wanted to see in the world, and what began as a vision and an experiment in Nepal in 2006 has grown into the Global Press Institute of today.