December 13, 2006

The Whole World is Reading

Even in the rapidly evolving and expanding world of online news and information, Global Voices is a daring innovator. Founded two years ago in Cambridge Mass, it is an international network of bloggers based around the world who offer up a diverse sampling of political and social commentary from regions that do not always receive much coverage from a mainstream media that focus largely on a handful of global hot spots. On December 8, the PEJ spoke with Global Voices co-founder, Ethan Zuckerman, about the roots of the web site, its editorial structure, and what role it plays in contemporary journalism.

Q: Could you tell me a little background on Global Voices?

Zuckerman: What you see on the web site is an attempt to deal with some of the problems of media representation or under representation.What we try to do on the site is to call attention to parts of the world that may be getting less attention.But what Global Voices is sort of beyond that is a network of bloggers, activists, and citizen media people from around the globe who are not only working on those media issues but are also working on free speech issues and outreach issues and trying to get more people involved with citizen media.

Q. Could you talk about the funding and a breakdown of where the resources are spent?

Zuckerman: Our first funder was from the MacArthur Foundation which funded us through their support of the Berkman Center at Harvard Law School.The second foundation that stepped up is Hivos, which is a Dutch foundation. They have been very active supporting our work on free-speech advocacy…And then the lion share of the funding this past year has come from Reuters, which put up about $400,000 which largely went to support our editorial structure.The way the GV [Global Voices] works is we have a lot of volunteers who are supported and organized by a whole structure of paid editors. We have two managing editors who work as a half-time job, they basically split the job of managing editor.One is based in London and one is based in Trinidad. We have ten regional editors responsible for different parts of the globe:sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia. Those folks are generally in the region they are covering and those folks are paid $800 a month which ends up being a 15-20 hour week job.

We also have language editors who are basically translators and they are responsible for all the blogs in Russian, Spanish, for instance, and they get paid $700 a month.So you add all that up and that is where the Reuters money is going.The other thing is that there are quite a few technical expenses to run a site like this. Not so much the hosting which is largely free these days and we have hosting through Harvard.We have a pair of designers based in Montreal who are very active participants in our community and they work not only maintaining the platform of tools which we use, but also developing some novel tools that we can adopt. They’ve done a lot of interesting development with aggregation tools…To do what we are doing these days costs a bit shy of half a million a year. To start doing what we want to do more of, more advocacy, more outreach, more tools development, we are going to start spending more money.

Q. I imagine there is so much content coming in all the time. How is it authenticated, what is the verification process?

Zuckerman: Keep in mind we are not a news site.We are a citizen media site. A great deal of what we are covering is observation and opinion. So, we are not saying in any way, “Here is the Truth brought to you by Global Voices.”What we are trying to bring is, “Here is what people are saying in different corners of the blogosphere brought to you by Global Voices.”We are not shooting for objective, nor are we shooting for fair and balanced.What we’re shooting for is transparency.

It certainly is a real fair question in that it is an edited site and editing implies a gatekeeper function. So what we try to do is find regional editors who are well respected within their blogosphere and have the relationship with a large number of bloggers in that spaceHow we evaluate our editors, are you doing a good job or not, is whether people feel they are being fair to that region, whether they are giving a fair and diverse picture to that region. But the question of fact checking is not one we are spending a lot of time on.

Q: What would you consider the major shortcomings of corporate media?

Zuckerman: Herd mentality. The media ends up flocking to one international story and focusing on it with ferocious intensity at the expense of a lot of other stories. A great example of this is what happened when Israel invaded Lebanon. We saw coverage, even on places like Iraq which had been the traditional flocking point, drop down sharply …We have seen across the board international news become less and less a priority for American media, and less and less funded by American media.There is more and more dependency on services like AP and Reuters. There are many fewer news bureaus and what this leads to is a great deal of homogeneity of coverage…

Q: Looking 15 years down the road, do you think there is any way traditional media would implement the principles of blogging?

Zuckerman: They are doing them now.The lines are blurring sharply.Many, many journalists are maintaining blogs, sometimes they are using them to express opinion they would not express in their own coverage.Other people are doing this as a way to get to the story behind the story.Christian Science Monitor does great work on this. Abe McLaughlin, when he was their South Africa bureau chief, would write a story and then post a blog on getting the story, or a blog posting on his emotion in getting the story.

This does not mean that journalists are going to abandon objectivity anytime soon and it doesn’t mean you are going to have a bloggers news network on CNN. What you are going to have is that the sense that the blogger-versus-journalists battle is increasingly silly because you are going to have bloggers committing acts of journalism and you’re going to have reporters being less afraid to express their opinion.