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Jan. 13, 2022, 11:40 a.m.
Business Models

Can U.S. journalism truly serve global audiences? Not if it treats them like an afterthought

What would a truly global media company look like?

2022 started off with some high-profile movement in the media entrepreneurship space, when Ben Smith, the media columnist for The New York Times and former editor of BuzzFeed News, announced he was leaving the Times to start a news organization with Justin Smith, who also announced that he was stepping down as the CEO of Bloomberg Media.

Their vision is a big, new, global player, and Ben Smith was quoted about the audience it will target: “There are 200 million people who are college-educated, who read in English, but who no one is really treating like an audience, but who talk to each other and talk to us.”

But who (and where) are these 200 million global readers? Are they really an underserved audience, just waiting for a new outlet to target them? What could a truly transnational, global media outlet look like? What pitfalls need to be avoided? And why does centrism of the United States often stand in the way of global community building?

These were some of the questions that were plaguing me — along with a lot of other thoughts on the news. What prompted me to tweet was the realization that all too often, U.S. journalism ventures don’t really understand their international audiences and fail to engage them in a meaningful way. I wondered: Would Project Coda, as the founders nicknamed the new initiative, make the same mistakes?

The topic feels kind of personal to me. I’m an an Austrian living in the U.S. I moved here three years ago to build and run executive education programs at the Newmark J-School at CUNY — a job that lets me interact with many smart people from all parts of the world including the U.S., something I’m very grateful for. The buzzing New York City media scene in general feels as international as it gets. New York, after all, is the media capital of the world.

But I have learned one thing in my time here: The amount of U.S. centrism and exceptionalism, even amongst my mostly liberal and highly educated media peeps here, is stunning. With all the talk of globalization, the American perspective and way of doing things are still at the core of everything. The surprising thing is that every immigrant or expat will tell you that they agree with this sentiment in a heartbeat while Americans often aren’t aware of their bias.

The bias, of course, does not stop at the newsroom door. From bigwigs like The New York Times to smaller newsrooms and broadcast news to local radio stations in the United States mostly treat the world from a U.S. perspective, even in their international coverage.

A Twitter user responding to my thread named examples:

What does that mean, and how does it feel to be treated as an outsider” from a homogenous system? As a news consumer, every story I read or listen to has cultural cues or words that are not easy to understand and that work with assumptions that are only true for a U.S. consumer. The scarcity of rapid Covid tests? An assumption that’s not true for many countries. Student loans? Not a thing in most of Europe. Universal healthcare? Not perceived as “socialism” in the majority of the world.

The problem is that we internationals mostly read the big U.S. papers for their different, outsider perspective on “us,” the others. And, of course, we read them because there is fantastic journalism, often produced by newsrooms way bigger and better resourced than the ones in our home countries. We don’t read them because we feel like the true target audience or even like part of a community.

Why is there no real feeling of belonging? Because a true feeling of community would require us to not lose in translation our cultural and historical beliefs and underlying assumptions. It would require true representation, diversity of perspective and authentic international voices and not just American voices commenting on foreign issues.

The vivid discussion led mostly by “internationals” working in the U.S. media scene that followed my initial Twitter thread shows that I’m not alone here:

And at least one person who is in a managerial role in U.S. media reflected on their work trying to address global audiences:

Which brings us back to one of my original questions. If we try to imagine it, what could — or should — a truly international media organization look like? I created a list, based on my own expertise and experience. I am a journalist, editor, media manager and have been a journalism educator in four countries, have led several internationalization projects for news organizations and have kept tabs on media startup activities all over the world. Here’s my vision for a truly global media company:

  • It would be launched in and run from international homes and hubs, not simply hire correspondents and open bureaus all over the world.
  • It would be run by a truly international team and leadership. And no, the United Kingdom and Australia do not count as enough international representation because the Anglosphere makes up only a slice of the world. We are talking Eastern Europe, the Global South, Africa, Asia outside of the four Tiger States. In other words, parts of the world with fast moving digitization and a need for high-quality journalism.
  • The team and leadership would represent a bold future that’s diverse when it comes to race, gender and nationality. They’d virtually scream “We are different,” not represent the past with a mostly white, male and affluent U.S.-based management team.
  • It would be an organization that avoids automatically replicating U.S.-centric work principles, ethics, regulations, social safety nets (and lack thereof), HR principles, and journalism traditions. For example, it might decide to follow the majority of countries in providing paid family leave and sick leave as a rule, and not follow the outsider path the U.S has chosen.
  • It would have a clearer target market than “everyone who is college educated outside of the U.S.” and would be way more regionally specific. The world outside the U.S. is not one unified pool of news consumers, but rather an extremely diverse set of audiences with different behaviors, needs, and consumption patterns, as shown each year in the Reuters Digital News Report.
  • It would focus laser-sharp on specific user needs. Transnational belonging? A global sense of community? Tackling the climate crisis? Navigating the future of work? Whatever these topics are, pure general interest news is most likely not the answer. While niche publications exist, they often don’t tackle major global issues from a transnational lens, which a successful international venture would need to do to gain traction.

Now the big question is: Will Project Coda (or whatever it ends up being called) do this, or will it tap into the pitfalls mentioned?

It will be crucial for it to analyze the shortcomings of past global efforts. There are enough historic examples of globalization gone wrong — from the botched launch of The Correspondent in the U.S. to the ultimately economically unsuccessful Buzzfeed expansion to Europe. If one outlet came close to building a truly global brand for the elite audience the Smiths seem to be going after, it’s probably Quartz, as Gabriel Snyder analyzed in depth for Off the Record. Quartz’s idea of “obsessions,” very specific beats for an elite, global audience, was revolutionary and part of what’s helped it succeed. The idea is built on the assumption that passions unite us — that a vegan, urban millennial in Jakarta has more in common with a vegan, urban millennial in Vienna, New York, or Kiev than with their next door neighbor who might live a totally different lifestyle.

And there are more promising examples of addressing global audiences that are really underserved and include the Global South, such as Rest of World, a “new global nonprofit publication covering the impact of technology beyond the Western bubble,” or Global Voices, which claims to be “the first global community-based newsroom.”

The world’s audiences, it seems, are slowly waking up and demanding journalism with new perspectives that empower them. It remains to be seen if the Smith/Smith venture can overcome the biases and assumptions of the past to truly center international audiences. Internationals like me who are craving to be treated as core audiences rather than an afterthought by U.S. media hope so.

Anita Zielina is a media manager, digital strategist and journalism educator running the executive education and professional development department at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY in New York City.

Image of 1859 map by James Bryce from the British Library/Rawpixel is being used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 13, 2022, 11:40 a.m.
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