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News Orgs Turn to Indie Sites To Fill In Coverage Gaps

News organizations with shrinking budgets are forming an increasingly symbiotic relationship with a new wave of independent online news sites—many of them staffed by pink-slipped print reporters.

CBS News recently formalized a partnership with GlobalPost, which boasts 70 correspondents in more than 50 countries. The network's news jewel, 60 Minutes, has an ongoing partnership with ProPublica, the site run by Paul Steiger and Stephen Engelberg, late of The Wall Street Journal and The Oregonian, respectively. PBS' Frontline is also working on a project with ProPublica about the federal investigation into post-Katrina corruption within the New Orleans Police Department. And last month, the PBS program agreed to a resource-sharing deal with Tehran Bureau, a Website that established itself as a go-to source during Iran's disputed elections last summer.

The knee-jerk reaction is that Western news groups are using these partnerships to put a Band-Aid over the gaping hole of cuts in their foreign bureaus. Technology has in fact made foreign reporting less expensive, less cumbersome and more immediate, in turn making the physical and personnel infrastructures of large foreign bureaus increasingly anachronistic.

But, concedes Paul Friedman, executive VP of CBS News, “The one weak link in an argument to close bureaus around the world for economic reasons is that you need people on the ground to tell you something important is happening, something different is happening, here's the person to speak to, here's the place to go.”

CBS News, looking to ensure “that we still had that capability,” Friedman adds, was essentially seeking “a first-rate stringer operation so that we have a first line of defense all over the world with people who know the countries they're [working] in.”

GlobalPost fit the bill. Many of the site's correspondents have years of experience reporting overseas. Executive Editor Charles Sennott headed the Boston Globe's now-shuttered Middle East and European bureaus. Kabul-based Jean MacKenzie, also the Afghanistan program director for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, has reported for CNN and The Christian Science Monitor.

For GlobalPost, which approached CBS News about the partnership, the deal means validation and crucial visibility, with the potential to take the operation to another level. “My hope is that we will be someplace in the world where there's an important story, and we can really make CBS shine by letting them be right on top of a breaking story when nobody else is able to be there,” says Phil Balboni, GlobalPost's president and CEO.

GlobalPost supports its journalism through syndication deals such as this one (other clients include the New York Daily News, New Jersey's Star-Ledger, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, South China Morning Post, Cambodia Daily and PBS' World Focus), as well as advertising and premium content memberships. So far the site is halfway to reaching its revenue goal for 2010, according to Balboni. It's also on track to reach its traffic goal of 600,000 unique visitors monthly by the end of the year, and Balboni is confident that the traffic goal he's set for 2010—more than one million unique visitors per month—is within reach. He calls GlobalPost a “boutique service,” with revenue and traffic goals commensurate with the Website's status as a specialty product.

“We don't [need] to be the most successful news Website,” he says. “If we're in the 1 to 3 million monthly unique-users range, with the quality of the audience we have acquired—intelligent, well-educated, affluent people, a very desirable audience from an advertiser's standpoint—we can be very successful.”

New methods, old dangers

If the modest overhead of independent sites means they can operate with reasonable profits, their correspondents nevertheless face the same perils that have increasingly befallen their network counterparts. GlobalPost has a strict review process for reporters wishing to enter conflict zones. Journalists have already paid dearly in Iraq; more than 200 journalists and media workers (including Iraqi translators and drivers) have been killed in the country since the war began in 2003, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. And Afghanistan is becoming increasingly perilous both for coalition forces and the journalists who cover them.

There are no established procedures between CBS and GlobalPost if one of the Website's reporters should get caught in the crossfire, according to Friedman. “We would work with GlobalPost to do whatever we thought was right,” he says. “We have a pretty spectacular record of standing behind people who work for us overseas. We have spent an incredible amount of money to protect them in the first place and take care of them if that protection fails.”

If these partnerships are a new reality of doing business, they also offer opportunities to incubate the next form of journalism. Tehran Bureau, run by Kelly Golnoush Niknejad—an American journalist with Iranian roots—established itself during last summer's disputed elections in Iran, a story that morphed into a referendum on the power of social media. When the Islamic Republic kicked journalists out of the country and interrupted cellular service, many Western news organizations were left in the dark. Golnoush Niknejad continued to report on a story that riveted the globe because she had already established a deep network of contacts in the country. was relaunched earlier this month with Frontline branding.

Golnoush Niknejad is working on a film for Frontline, A Death in Tehran, that uses the murder of Neda Soltani, the young woman shot at a protest in Tehran, to explore Iran's increasingly futile attempt to control its image in a wired world.

“We have a television program. We have a Website. Kelly has this hybrid, a print site with video on it,” says Ken Dornstein, senior editor of Frontline. “There are all of these questions swirling around about what new form reporting is going to take in the digital age. We think this is a good laboratory for us to be working in.”

Tehran Bureau also gives Frontline a way to cover a country that continues to impose strict controls on journalists and yet is assuming an increasingly important position in global affairs. “We recognize that Iran is not going away as an important story,” Dornstein adds. “Instead of starting from scratch every time, we figured we could use Tehran Bureau to keep our foot in the door on a story that we know we're going to continue to report on.”

In a world of fragmentation and disintermediation, social media (Twitter, Facebook) have enfranchised citizen-journalists. The video that defined the Iran story—Soltani's murder—was not shot by a network cameraman, but by an Iranian with a cellphone camera. And news executives must deal with new rules of reporting that have redefined concepts of editorial control.

“We have no intention of giving up our editorial role,” Friedman says. “There are plenty of deals that all of us make to provide ourselves with the raw material, and then we make the editorial judgment. Our fundamental rule is we want to be able to keep covering the news in a responsible way. If we can do that at a lower cost with more efficiency, all the better. People don't get that this is not a decreasing game.”