Global Press Journal is, to read its marketing materials, among the most widely read publications in the United States. According to a 2021 survey conducted for the Global Press Institute, the nonprofit that operates it, Global Press Journal was the international news source of choice of 8% of Americans who regularly read international news, on par with The Guardian and The Economist. The nonprofit’s profile on one donor’s website until recently credited the outlet with 20 million monthly readers, and in a 2022 presentation to its board obtained by Semafor, Global Press said it had 98 million readers.
Global Press has an irresistibly compelling mission: replacing the “parachute” journalism of Western foreign correspondents with the authentic voices of local women from Mongolia to Zimbabwe, writing about their own countries. It grew out of its founder Cristi Hegranes’ revelation, while on a five-week trip to Nepal as a journalism student 20 years ago, that local women knew more than she did.
The organization’s big numbers and its anticolonial mission have helped the group find favor among the nonprofit foundations increasingly financing and shaping global journalism: It brought in more than $5 million in 2021, the last year data is available, and boasts blue chip supporters including the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation and Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective.
But the audience numbers, according to internal figures shared with Semafor, bear little relationship to reality. The largest numbers were compiled by adding together the overall traffic of all partners who republished Global Press content, rather than just the traffic to Global Press’s specific stories. These stats were publicized over the objections of the person who assembled the analytics, two former employees said. They gave Global Press credit for the total audiences of sites ranging from Quartz Africa to PBS NewsHour. The survey, Hegranes said, actually drew from a pool in part of subscribers to Global Press Journal’s email.
Global Press last fall announced a new approach to data and recast its figures to distinguish between its partners’ reach and its own, which it now says is about 100 times smaller than previously claimed.
But the exaggerated numbers are also part of a wider internal debate about the group’s mission and culture that surfaced in complaints from former editors.
“Global Press sells itself as the solution to multiple systemic challenges in journalism, women’s rights, even world peace. But if you look closely, you can see that it’s a mirage,” said Nicole Neroulias Gupte, who was at Global Press as a contract editor in India from April of 2021 to December of 2022. She and a former colleague, Edwin Okong’o, wrote a letter to the group’s board this March accusing it of “deceiving funders, partners, and its own employees and Board about its size, scope, ethos, and operations.”
Global Press’s board responded by commissioning an internal investigation, which it says debunked the claims but which it declined to share, and then sending Gupte and Okong’o cease-and-desist letters. Hegranes described the former editors’ criticism as “harassment” and said it began after she didn’t renew their contracts. (Gupte said she’d quit before her contract wasn’t renewed, and provided correspondence that supported that.)
“So many editors left other jobs because the metrics Cristi presented about the organization’s impact were impressive,” Okong’o said in a message. “Those like us who didn’t catch on stayed. When we became aware and raised concern, Cristi retaliated against us.”
Hegranes suggested that Gupte and Okong’o were specifically hostile to the organization and pointed to angry social media posts. But 12 other former Global Press workers, including headquarters staff, contract editors, and journalists working outside the United States, echoed Gupte’s and Okong’o’s questions about the group’s mission and its culture in interviews with Semafor. Three said they’d faced specific pressure to exaggerate its reach in marketing materials. Several others said that contract editors and a network of fact-checkers and translators play an unusually large role in writing the high-polish English-language journalism that is the organization’s calling card.
“There was a lot of pressure on editors to basically write the stories. You were just kind of the ghostwriter,” said one former editor.
“At the end of the day your voice as a reporter is lost — it’s not your story anymore,” a former Global Press journalist from outside North America told me.
Room for Disagreement
Two sets of current Global Press reporters sent Semafor emails heatedly disputing the allegations that Global Press doesn’t deliver on its promises, and in particular the notion that editors play an outsized role in producing the English-language work. “These claims not only degrade GPJ’s image, but also undermine the work of local, well-trained, and influential GP reporters from throughout the world,” a group of current and former Zimbabwean reporters wrote. A group of Spanish-language Global Press reporters also wrote to dispute that characterization, calling it “offensive” and saying that Global Press’s system gives them full control of their work.
Hegranes acknowledged that the English-language website is in part for fundraising. But she argues, too, that “English language versions of our stories help to shift problematic global narratives that paint much of the world in broad strokes of war, poverty, disaster and disease,” adding that “English language versions also allow important global stakeholders to access hyperlocal information that may have otherwise been out of reach.”
“To suggest our reporters are not properly trained discredits the work they are doing reporting from challenging communities and to know their professional reputations will be harmed by these false claims circulating in a public domain is deeply distressing,” said Louise Scrivens, a former BBC and Bloomberg journalist who is now the group’s lead “editorial coach,” in an email.
The internal critics didn’t complain, however, that the reporters weren’t “properly” trained — but rather, that the training was suited solely for employment at Global Press itself. Part of the tension comes from Global Press’s model as both trainer and publisher, meaning it is creating newsrooms around the world focused on local issues, for local readers — but without the complement of language and editorial skills that would allow the journalists it employs to easily write for other publications. Most of the journalists, Hegranes said, don’t speak English.
“The Global Press model is a training-to-employment program. We train reporters with the intention of offering them full-time, high-quality employment to work for Global Press Journal after they complete our training program,” Hegranes said. “It is our goal to incentivize them to stay with us for significant periods of time.”
Hegranes said it had trained 275 reporters in 17 years, and cited four who had wound up elsewhere. Manori Wijesekera, Global Press’s training manager, told Semafor that at least one other colleague who wrote for the site in Sri Lanka also went on to write for other publications. The site currently lists 47 reporters in 12 countries, about half of whom haven’t published a story since July.
Hegranes dismissed concerns about web traffic because she says the group is focused on distributing journalism in the communities it covers, which may not be reflected in clicks. For instance, Global Press pays to air its stories on local radio in Zimbabwe, which an independent journalist in that country confirmed to Semafor. A Global Press story about the dangers of mining in that country was picked up by PBS NewsHour, and also aired on the radio in a local language, according to a Global Press case study.
But Global Press appears to fly largely under the media radar even in the countries in which it’s active. Prominent journalists Semafor spoke to in Zimbabwe and Mexico said they’d never run across its work. The executive director of the the Press Institute of Mongolia, Munkhmandakh Myagmar, said in an email he knew Global Press had done training in the country but hasn’t seen their work. “I would not say the stories were an important part of Mongolia’s media environment,” he said. (Hegranes said his comment was a typical view from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and Global Press focuses outside the country’s capital. Global Press’s website lists six Mongolian reporters, and highlights the attention a story on virginity testing there received.) In Nepal, however, Deepak Adhikari, a freelance journalist in Kathmandu, called Global Press “commendable” and said they “consistently cover stories that often go unnoticed by or receive insufficient coverage from mainstream news outlets in Nepal.”
Hegranes is currently on tour with a book, ”Byline: How Local Journalists Can Improve the Global News Industry and Change the World,” which tells the group’s story and calls out two American media errors. In one case, the CNN correspondent and doctor Sanjay Gupta performed brain surgery on a Nepali earthquake victim — but misidentified the girl he’d helped, which became a global story after Global Press reported it.
In another, a local Global Press journalist revisited a healer depicted by the New York Times reporter Donald McNeil as dangerously unready for Ebola — only to find that, among other issues, nobody was likely to come to him for treatment of a deadly plague: “People primarily came to him to treat one thing — erectile dysfunction.”
(McNeil said in an email that “If the bulk of his work was treating men for impotence, as Ms. Namara claims, he didn’t mention that to me. Which is a pity because, if he had, I certainly would have included it — I wouldn’t have been able to resist asking him how he did it.” He added that in his own forthcoming book, he’ll argue for integrating traditional healers into the global healthcare system with pay and training.)
The easiest element of Global Press’s story to check, the audience data, was clearly misleading. Other disputes — over the work’s impact, the role of editors, and the internal culture — are subjective and harder to measure. But the extent to which much of Global Press’s glossy public presentation appears geared toward American foundations offers a glimpse at a major shift in global journalism.
It’s hard not to celebrate the new interest giant American philanthropies have taken in journalism, as news organizations struggle to pay the bills. But nonprofits of all sorts can easily slide into the cycle of self-congratulation that’s always been part of the point of philanthropy, and convert into self-licking ice cream cones that are focused more on the benefit of their employees and the reputational auras of their donors.
That’s not to say, of course, that all — or even many — nonprofit newsrooms operate this way. But it’s hard to imagine anyone familiar with the news business buying Global Press’s exaggerated numbers, and it’s equally hard to see why Global Press spends so much money and energy on its little-read website other than to reach wealthy donors and program officers. This practice isn’t unique to nonprofit journalism — for-profits have long created fancy media kits and shop windows just for advertisers. And Global Press’s pitch matched what donors were looking for in the social justice moment of 2020.
Global Press’s mission is truly compelling, and every frustrated former employee went out of their way to tell me they’d joined because they wanted to help. A generation of Western correspondents more focused on what their audiences wanted to hear than the realities on the ground have long helped distort those audiences’ understanding of the world. It’s a hard story to miss if you look closely at global journalism, and it’s been a theme in my reporting on everything from my own early career as a clueless stringer in Belarus to a debacle over the New York Times’ reporting on the Islamic State.
But it hasn’t proven an easy problem to repair. Big U.S. outlets have increasingly responded to that realization by shifting away from using local journalists as “fixers” and crediting their reporting, though deep tensions around that practice remain. A wave of heroic new outlets in difficult environments, most led by women — Rappler in the Philippines, the Russian-language Meduza, Mada Masr in Egypt — have sometimes broken through the Western-centric coverage of their own countries’ stories.
The path Global Press set out for itself is extremely hard. Part of journalism is answering the questions of your specific audience, something that’s tricky for even the most experienced journalist — I have no idea what a Mongolian reader wants to know about New York — and even harder for people who arrive without years of experience and don’t speak the language.
That means that Global Press’s most powerful claims of impact (and the ones that are hardest to verify) come from telling stories to local people where there’s little other journalism around — creating, say, a Texas Tribune of Kinshasa with a team trained from scratch. To some of its critics, there’s an irony in a U.S. nonprofit building that local journalism at all — one former contractor in South Africa called the group “the poster child for white saviorism,” a version of Global Press’s own critique of Western media.
And as giant foundations, steeped in a language and ideology all their own, absorb more and more of the embattled business of journalism, they will at some point have to figure out how to tell if any of it is working. It was hard not to notice that two of Global Press’s key donors, Powell Jobs and the Ford Foundation, were also investors in Ozy Media, a for-profit outlet with a perfect story and unbelievable traffic whose founder currently faces fraud charges.
But the new nonprofit money isn’t accountable to the traditional, albeit fuzzy, metrics of for-profit media — audience, revenue, even political clout. Much ink has been spilled over the years on how best to measure the impact of journalism, often with little consensus. But the unsettling alternative could be a kind of royal court media oriented toward the whims and political jargon of super-rich funders, who in turn put immense pressure on the recipients of their grants to tell patrons whatever they want to hear.
The article was updated to clarify that Hegranes said she interprets the sum of partner’s average monthly unique visitors as an “annual” figure. She also said the group does not have a “head of analytics,” and we’ve clarified to indicate that the person who objected to the publication of the statistics was the person who assembled the analytics.