When New York Times media columnist Ben Smith and Bloomberg CEO Justin Smith quit to start “a new kind of global news media company,” many of us sniggered at the thought that two middle-aged white American men with literally the same last name could be the ones to bring together all of the world’s news consumers. The Smiths may not be the ones to do it. But can anyone create a truly global news source? And most vitally, would there be an audience for it?
I’ve spent my whole career expanding news brands across borders and trying to address audiences as more than just inhabitants of a single nation-state. And I’ve come to this conclusion: We don’t need a global media, we need a globally literate one.
“People without money don’t monetise” – the pipe dream of a universal media
Justin Smith wrote the kind of memo to friends that is meant to be leaked and gave us some insight into what he and his cofounder are planning. (Not much insight, mind you. His analysis is not wrong exactly, just long on platitudes and short on details. You wouldn’t expect a sound businessman to reveal all before he’s ready to launch. A less generous explanation – superbly written by Alex Sujong Laughlin over at Poynter – is that their kind simply don’t have to try that hard. After hearing Ben Smith speak to the BBC's Ross Atkins, I'm inclined to agree.)
So Justin Smith has had an insight: incumbent media “often see the world through a domestic lens, the international market an afterthought.” But there is a whole generation who routinely works, lives and consumes media across borders. There is room for a media brand that addresses its audience not as Americans, Chileans or Ghanaians, but as global citizens with a stake in the same issues – climate change, inequality, pandemics, migration… The concept will sound familiar, I hope, to readers and listeners of Borderline.
Lofty universal principles rarely survive the confrontation with economic realities, however. The Smiths need to build a sustainable business and are banking on consumer subscriptions and first-party data-led premium advertising. As Emily Bell succinctly put it to me recently, “people without money don’t monetise.” So this new media will not be for all Americans, and even fewer Chileans or Ghanaians. It will be for an “English-speaking, college-educated, professional class of over 200 million people.”
It’d be unfair to accuse the Smiths of only being concerned with the 1%. They’re the 2.5%.
This cohort might be worldly, but they are not the world. They’re me, they’re you, and friends, we’re as representative of the human population as the fast track security queue at Heathrow on a Monday morning. Vale then, dreams of a universal media.
So you think you’re global? (That don’t impress me much.)
If we deserve the Smiths’ attention, it’s not because we’re an easily bankable market and investment is flooding back into premium media. No, it’s because “nobody is really thinking of (us) as an audience,” Ben said.
The New York Times. The Economist. The Atlantic. Bloomberg. BBC News. The Financial Times. The Wall Street Journal. CNN. The Guardian. The Washington Post. The New Yorker. Politico. Quartz. Axios. Foreign Policy. Business Insider. CNBC…
Must I go on?
Everybody is thinking of us as an audience. What the Smiths may be saying between the lines is that it’s by accident, not by design. And there, I partly agree.
Outlets that have managed to reach beyond their birthplace are American or British. They have the lingua franca, the economic might and the proximity to centres of power. They reached new audiences thanks to the Internet and embraced them as welcome revenue sources. The New York Times boasts a million international digital subscribers now, 57% of The Economist’s circulation is in the US and the Financial Times reaches nearly 3 times as many readers in Frankfurt, Dubai or Hong Kong as at home.
Yet these publications carry with them the weight of coming from two of – I’m going to make friends here – the planet’s most insular and ethnocentric countries. American media is especially guilty here. Empires are parochial; they don’t need not to be. I recall a New York Times feature about mushroom foraging around my hometown in France that made our banal Sunday pastime feel like an anthropological marvel worthy of a National Geographic cover. It was never written for us; it was about us. Yet, I was tickled to find my tiny corner of the planet in the world’s paper of record.
It’s why we read it – to see ourselves how they see us, to be a foreigner in the foreigner’s gaze, especially when that foreigner is the world’s superpower. It’s why we forgive them their occasional condescension or the way the editors forget to explain American idiosyncrasies for 12% of their subscribers who are, we’re told, their new priority. I could write reams about US-centrism and exceptionalism in American media who believe they are global, but Anita Zielina has already done so brilliantly for Nieman Lab.
Language is easy. Culture is hard.
When I was managing The New York Times International Weekly at Le Figaro, I selected every week the best of the Times' journalism for a French audience. Popular picks included the kind of investigations that no other paper could afford to do, vignettes of American life and looks at European politics through the US gaze. But the career advice column might as well have been written by a Martian. The work culture described was so alien, the advice it dished out was as likely to get a Frenchman fired as promoted. It was simply unpublishable.
That is culture and no amount of translation will make it go away.
In an age when every brand wants some authentic identity, being from somewhere is not a bad thing. The Economist may be a global business, but it is steeped in English liberalism. That’s why it’s on every nightstand in Silicon Valley and why it’s kindling for the barricades on the Continent.
What Justin Smith seemed to promise, however, is an outlet that would somehow free itself from the bounds of nationality and put all audiences on equal footing (as long as they’re English-speaking, college-educated professionals.) No one and everyone a foreigner. The airport lounge of news sites.
One media brand believed they’d managed it. Jay Rosen pointed me to a blog post of his dating back to 2005, in which CNN executives envisioned their channel as a global cosmopolitan network free of its US roots, by virtue of its majority non-US staff, programming and audience. “We’re not American in our perspective,” said one executive as I choked on my tea.
There’s more concerning than an ethnocentric media; it’s one that’s unaware of its biases and the limits of its knowledge, convinced it has transcended what the rest of us cannot. What these execs aspired to – and thankfully I don’t think achieved – is what Rosen described as “the view from nowhere,” this time not just free of political leanings but washed clean of all identity and culture. Somehow every staff’s nationality would cancel one another out until the corporation became what we citizens of the world know full well we are not – a citizen of nowhere.
Imagine the finely tuned diversity of staff and superb blandness of corporate culture it takes to reach that perfect middle where no one person feels less at home than the next. And once you’re there, what fun it must be.
To leave the audience empowered, we must match the scale at which they can act
It’s not where the Smiths are taking us though. I know because of the first sentence of Ben Smith’s interview to Ross Atkins: “Obviously we’re going to start in a handful of markets, the US and the UK, and try to be competitive domestically.”
It’ll be just another news site and it’ll probably be successful. Maybe that’s for the best. When The Correspondent shut down, failing to build a sustainable global English-language outlet, Rosen, one of its earliest supporters, said this in an interview:
“I think the whole idea of global journalism is problematic and perhaps mislaid because there really isn’t such a thing as global citizenship. There’s a kind of global awareness that citizens can have — you can have concern for the planet, for example — but you can’t actually live as a global citizen.”
Half a dozen people sent it to me, hoping I’d contradict him. But he was right. I proudly bear the flag of global citizenship, but not its passport. Practically I am a citizen of France, a resident of the UK and a cultural stepchild of the US. A minority of us routinely cross borders, but the structures within which we and everyone else live are very much local and national. To be relevant, impactful and ultimately financially sustainable, a news outlet must match the scale at which people live, vote and are able to act on the information they receive.
So why try to build a global news brand if it couldn't possibly be for everyone, would constantly bump against the limitations of culture and couldn't speak to an empowered community?
I think there's more valuable, but perhaps less showy, work for us to focus on – building global literacy in the media we already have.
What’s left then? Making the media we have more diverse and world-aware
The British public shouldn’t just now be hearing that cloth masks are useless against Covid, when 21 miles across the sea the French government issued guidance against them a year ago. Slate shouldn’t have an entire podcast series about how Americans got fooled into going to war in Iraq without once asking why other countries hadn’t fallen for it. We should never again hear a journalist mention the immigration status of a crime suspect, but say nothing when they are a native citizen.
There are a thousand projects worth taking on to build media with a better global ethos and help the public open up to the world:
- We need more immigrants in our newsrooms. We must value cultural literacy, hire for it and train for it.
- We must build international reporting as a transversal beat across our content, rather than segregate it to a foreign desk. We must systematically look beyond our own borders for solutions to the problems within them when we report about healthcare, education, environment, infrastructure, political reform, criminal justice, equity… (Quoting Dmitry Shishkin here: “it’s a horizontal, not a vertical.”)
- We must develop a sense of the global public interest (read Anita Li on this), shift the perspective from which we tell stories and learn to question our patriotic instincts. We must ask ourselves why we value the lives of our fellow citizens more than foreign ones.
- We must fund better –and vitally, less boring– coverage of supranational institutions such as the United Nations, European Union or international courts.
- We must improve the English-language reach of European media so that we don’t leave it to American and British outlets to tell the world the story of the European Union. (Wolfgang Blau writes brilliantly about that.)
- We must urgently better our understanding and coverage of human movement and transnational lives. Urgently.
- We must build flexible working environments and run our newsrooms from small hubs all over our coverage areas.
- We must celebrate and support truly globally minded newsrooms like RestofWorld, who have a clear scope and quietly revolutionise journalism every day. (Note: a non-profit.) And then build many more like it on transnational briefs like the environment and fiscal justice.
- We must champion collaborative efforts like the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and build worldwide reporting networks that match the scale of the networks of crime and corruption the free press is up against.
- We must start with ourselves, making sure our own media diet reaches beyond our borders. (If you have 3 minutes a day, start with Barry Malone’s Proximities newsletter.)
I could go on and on. It’s not about building One Big Thing and it won’t get Twitter abuzz. It’s the daily slog of improving our institutions and ourselves. Let’s get to work.
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Many thanks to all the fantastic people who have, knowingly or not, helped me think this through: Anita Zielina, Emily Bell, Jay Rosen, Dmitry Shiskin, Thomas Baekdal, Wolfgang Blau, Anita Li, Heather Bryant, Ade Wondje, Alex Sujong Laughlin, Jim Morrison, my cohort in the CUNY Entrepreneurial Journalism Program, many others I must have forgotten, and of course Ben Smith and Justin Smith, who I truly hope succeed in building a thriving, globally literate media company. This essay is imperfect and unfinished, like my brain. I welcome your contributions.
A tip of the hat to all those in journalism who have long worked on building knowledge and understanding across borders: news agencies (Reuters, AFP...) international public broadcasters (BBC World Service, France24, Radio France Internationale, Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera...) and their private cousins (CNN, Univision, Euronews...); community journalism pioneers like Global Voices and CaféBabel; regional media working on more perfect unions, like VoxEurope, Euractiv or The Continent; pioneers in curation and translation like Courrier International and The Week, and their successors in the editorial teams at LinkedIn, Twitter or Apple News; digital innovators past and present at Quartz, Buzzfeed, The Correspondent, RestOfWorld...; collaborative journalists at ICIJ, GIJN, TBIJ and beyond; and all the many non-profits and foundations that support this work. Lest the discourse of the last week left you feeling like no one was already doing this work.