POLITICS FEBRUARY 4, 2009
Earlier this month, Joe the Plumber Wurzelbacher--last seen serving as the third wheel on John McCain and Sarah Palin's increasingly disastrous blind date--traded in his toilet jack for a handheld microphone and traveled to the Middle East to become a foreign correspondent covering the Israel-Hamas war for the conservative website Pajamas Media. Alas, he wasn't terribly impressed with his new colleagues. "I think media should be abolished from, you know, reporting," Wurzelbacher said in the Israeli city of Sderot, where he was, from all appearances, reporting. "You know, war is hell. And if you're gonna sit there and say, 'Well, look at this atrocity,' well you don't know the whole story behind it half the time, so I think the media should have no business in it."
Thousands of miles away from Sderot, Charlie Sennott, a former foreign correspondent himself who once covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for The Boston Globe, returned the favor. "I have no interest in what Joe the Plumber has to say about Israel," Sennott said one recent morning, as he sat in his office overlooking Boston Harbor. "Joe the Plumber doesn't know Israel. Joe the Plumber shouldn't be reporting in Israel." It was the first day that Sennott's new journalism venture, a website devoted to international news called GlobalPost, was available to readers, so it was understandable that the prospect of Wurzelbacher's amateur hour getting more traffic than Sennott's professional operation might leave him feeling a bit churlish. "That's the silly shite of the Internet that we don't want to have anything to do with," said Sennott, who, with his burly build, dark hair, and blue eyes, looks (and talks) like the Boston Irishman he is.
Indeed, with GlobalPost, Sennott is poised either to give new life to foreign reporting, or to put the final nail in its coffin. That's because, as it stands now, U.S. newspapers, magazines, and TV networks seem to be in tacit agreement with Joe the Plumber: As they shutter their foreign bureaus and pay less and less attention to international news, they too think that the press should be abolished from reporting--at least, overseas. According to media analyst Andrew Tyndall, the three nightly network news shows devoted a record low number of minutes to foreign news in 2008; meanwhile, only four U.S. newspapers now have foreign desks. It's enough to make normally hard-bitten hacks a bit misty. "The era of perks, school fees, rent subsidies, unlimited travel, moves to different posts every three, four years--gone like the woolly mammoth," lamented Josh Hammer, a former foreign correspondent for Newsweek (and frequent TNR contributor) who's now covering Germany for GlobalPost. Sennott himself has been a victim of this retrenchment. He took a buyout and left the Globe last year, at the age of 45, after he realized his dream of eventually becoming its foreign editor was no longer possible--given that the paper had closed all of its foreign bureaus. "We're talking about men and women who really can write and really can report and have great skill and talent, and they need work," Sennott said of the foreign correspondent class. "Too often now, a freelancer will call up The Philadelphia Inquirer [to pitch a story], and it's like, there is no foreign editor. There's nowhere to go."
Sennott and his partner, the former TV executive Philip Balboni, speak of GlobalPost in the jargony language of Internet entrepreneurs, with the requisite mentions of the long tail and crowd-sourcing and Web 2.0. They've found 14 private investors who have contributed $8.2 million to their venture; they hope to raise an additional $1.8 million near the end of the year. And, with revenue from advertising, syndication deals (the New York Daily News has already signed up to use GlobalPost's correspondents), and subscriptions for premium content, they project GlobalPost will begin turning a profit by the end of 2011. "As we grow stronger and develop the quality of our content," Balboni said, "the economy will be strengthening at the same time. I think there's a good synergy there." But, as much as GlobalPost is about making money, it's also about tossing foundering foreign correspondents a lifeline. It has so far recruited 65 journalists in 46 countries--including refugees from Time, CNN, National Public Radio, and the Associated Press--offering them five-year contracts at $12,000 per year, plus shares in the company, in exchange for an 800-word dispatch each week. It's not full-time work--"We'll just be a part of their portfolios," Sennott said--but it's something. Sennott's hope is that, with so few other outlets at their disposal, the foreign correspondents will give GlobalPost more than what's asked of them. "What we're trying to do," he explained, "is say, 'We're here, we're all ears, you got an idea, we want to run it. We want as much as you can give us.'"
Of course, even GlobalPost may have its limits. As Sennott sat at his desk and tooled around his publication's hours-old website, he came to a fun story about the credit crunch's ruinous effects on British professional soccer. It was by the talented London-based foreign correspondent Michael Goldfarb, who, until a few years ago, had a full-time gig with a U.S. public radio station. ("I refused to believe that someone with my C.V. would be out of work for long, " Goldfarb recently wrote in an e-mail. "I am extremely happy to have the opportunity to get back in the game.") If GlobalPost was going to devote bandwidth to British soccer, did that mean it would do the same for other foreign sports? Sennott was quick with his answer. "We will never cover cricket, " he vowed. But then he thought better of his pledge, perhaps realizing that, at this point, no one working in international news can afford to be too choosy. "We may try to explain cricket," he backpedaled. "It's a very important global phenomenon. I don't want to diss cricket. We will cover cricket as the expression of an empire and what that means today. We'll do it from a different angle. We're trying to cut across these boundaries."