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Global Press Journal’s exaggerated web traffic numbers are part of a wider internal debate about the͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
 
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October 23, 2023
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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where we, too, are just trying to learn the virtue of patience.

I’ve never been more relieved to be late on a story than on the explosion at al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, where our small breaking news team took a long pause before publishing even a carefully-hedged attempt to describe what happened and what Hamas and the Israeli government had said about it.

The great Financial Times data journalist John Burn-Murdoch wrote last week that the main cause of mainstream media’s errors, from Gaza to COVID-19, “is a failure to keep pace with modern news gathering techniques.” I always appreciate a British journalist’s confidence that he’s solved Middle East peace, of course. But he’s right that there’s a growing specialty in figuring out the facts of war from painstaking analysis of photographs and video.

But as I write, few of those analysts are claiming to be absolutely sure what happened in Gaza five days ago. Most seem to have reached the consensus that it wasn’t the result of a direct Israeli strike, and many think it could have been a stray rocket fired from Gaza, but few are sure.

What’s left is a demand for patience. While reporters and analysts compare photographic evidence, heads of state make decisions and protesters protest.

One of the hardest questions for journalists (and everyone else) right now is what to do in the meantime — how to cope with real uncertainty around facts while hoping, as most people do, that a particular version of the story is true.

Also in today’s newsletter: Max and I have spent a couple of weeks reporting on internal conflicts at a nonprofit called Global Press, which attracted big-name funders with a compelling mission of replacing “parachute” foreign correspondents with local women — and with inflated claims about its reach. Marty Baron is sparring with his old publication, a former Cuomo aide is re-fighting the coverage of his fall, and we’ve got one good text with Axios’s Barak Ravid. (Scoop count: 5)

Semafor’s Flagship newsletter was built for moments like this: When you need a quick, sophisticated orientation in a confusing world and a chaotic media space. Sign up here.

Assignment Desk

Is a famous magazine a strategic asset? The consortium attempting to buy Forbes is really doing its best to attract the attention of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. The Washington Post reported last week on a new recording of a Russian tycoon bragging about the influence it will give him when he (secretly!) controls it. CFIUS, which can ask the president to block the deal, is reportedly looking into it. If the deal somehow survives, the new sanctioned Russian oligarchs list will be a hot property.

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Ben Smith and Max Tani

A global news nonprofit wooed top foundations with exaggerated reach

THE SCOOP

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 monthly 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 group’s own head of 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.

 

Read on for the backstory on tensions within Global Press and what it means about nonprofit journalism. →

 

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One Good Text

Barak Ravid is a reporter for Axios covering foreign policy and the 2024 election.

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Intel
 
 

⁛ News

Pushback: Melissa DeRosa, the former secretary of the ousted New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is threatening legal action against New York Magazine over an upcoming story about her new book. In a letter last week to top editor David Haskell, a lawyer for DeRosa said New York Magazine journalist Rebecca Traister is “ill-suited to provide objective coverage” of DeRosa’s book, What’s Left Unsaid, due to DeRosa’s heavy focus on Traister in her book. The letter also cited Traister’s March 2021 piece about Cuomo, saying the piece “attacked Ms. DeRosa personally—unfairly commenting on her business attire and quoting a former staffer commenting on her legs,” and noted that a source for the article admitted in a deposition that they made some exaggerations in the article. The letter also pushed back against some claims that a New York Magazine fact-checker recently put to DeRosa for an upcoming piece by Traister, which could be published as early as next week.

“It is obvious that Ms. Traister has an insurmountable conflict of interest if she is involved in the coverage of Ms. DeRosa’s book,” DeRosa’s attorney Gregory Morvillo wrote in the letter. The letter added that “should New York Magazine decline Ms. DeRosa’s reasonable request to have another journalist report on her book, we will consider all our options in relation to what we may conclude is unfair, unobjective and/or defamatory coverage.”

“[Traister’s] story is fully transparent about her interactions with Ms. DeRosa, and as a high-ranking public official what DeRosa chose to include or omit in her memoir and a consideration of whether she portrayed events accurately warrants review and consideration,” a spokesperson for New York Magazine told Semafor. “We look forward to publishing the piece.”

Fine line: The Guardian is struggling with internal fissures over its coverage of the attack on Israeli civilians and the subsequent Israeli military action in Gaza. First, the publication fired longtime cartoonist Steve Bell after refusing to publish what critics said was an antisemitic caricature of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Later last week, The Guardian decided not to publish an opinion piece about the backlash to people expressing pro-Palestinian viewpoints in the wake of this month’s attack, prompting complaints of censorship.

Guardian spokesperson Matt Mittenthal said that the criticism was “absurd,” and said the paper “publishes a wide range of opinions on the Israel-Hamas war, including a substantial number of pro-Palestinian voices and opinions.”

Bad press: Former Washington Post editor Baron was not pleased with his old employer’s review of his new memoir. Earlier this month, the paper ran a largely positive review of Baron’s book, Collision of Power, which included some criticism of the former editor and described Baron as “pissed a lot.” One person with knowledge of the situation told Semafor that the former top editor sent an email to his successor, Sally Buzbee, complaining about parts of the review, written by outgoing Columbia Journalism Review publisher Kyle Pope.

In a note to Semafor, Baron clarified that he didn’t raise any issues with the review itself, but he felt that Pope was not a neutral critic, given how he factored into Baron’s book. “Reviewers are entitled to their opinions. I thought The Post should know, however, that he had a conflict of interest: Columbia Journalism Review is slammed twice in the book for work he oversaw as its editor,” he said. The Post, he said, felt its disclosure that Baron had criticized CJR was adequate.

Guilded: The Freedom of the Press Foundation asks of the NewsGuild’s attempts to get reporters’ and sources’ emails: “How exactly does that serve the interests of their members, other journalists, or the public?” The Guild’s president tells Poynter: “I have a First Amendment right to publish what I want to publish.”

Upvoted: The Messenger, still mining for traffic after many of its rivals have basically given up, has found some success sharing its articles on the social news platform Reddit, where it isn’t shy about posting articles in interesting channels. This week, the publication ran a story about the Israeli hostage situation, which it shared in the suggestively named — but legit, this is Reddit! — world news subreddit r/anime_titties.

Pivot to men: Jezebel, one of the iconic and influential brands of the blogging era, is for sale again as its owner focuses on male readers, Axios scoops.

 
 

✦ Marketing

NoAds: At AdWeek, worries about threats to advertising models both online and on television.

 
 

⁜ Tech

Bot wars: While most Americans say they do not want human bias in their news, they’re not ready to let emotionless machines deliver the news either. A new poll from the Artificial Intelligence Policy Institute shared exclusively with Semafor found that just 18% of Americans said they would feel good about artificial intelligence writing news articles. But the same survey respondents seemed resigned to the fact that AI would likely be producing quality news articles soon: 62% of respondents said that AI will be able to write news articles that are indistinguishable from human-written articles in the next five years.

 
 

⁌ TV

Good TV: Two extraordinary interviews offer more clarity on the conflict between Israel and Hamas than any given hour scrolling Twitter. An Al Arabiya host, Rasha Nabil, flatly challenged a key Hamas leader to justify his group’s murder of civilians. And the Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef arrived on Piers Morgan’s show with jet-black humor, which Morgan absorbed with remarkable deftness in a riveting half-hour interview.

 
 

✰ Hollywood

Subscriber fees: Striking actors will pick up talks with the studios’ “Gang of Four” executives — Disney’s Bob Iger, Warner Bros. Discovery’s David Zaslav, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos and NBCUniversal’s Donna Langley — on Tuesday, a hopeful sign after the studios ruled out sharing payments from subscribers.

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