Ideas That Change The World: Exclusive Interview With Cristi Hegranes, Global Press Institute

Cristi Hegranes

VENTURES AFRICA - Global Press Institute (GPI) is the brain child of Cristi Hegranes, a 31-year old American journalist and former foreign correspondent that is changing the face of international journalism and women’s empowerment. In 6 years, GPI has grown from just Cristi, to news desks which employ 120 women in 25 countries, including desks in Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Uganda and South Africa. Winner of the 2012 Grinnell Prize, a $100,000 cash prize and over a dozen other social justice awards, Cristi sat down with Folake Soetan of Ventures Woman to give a special insight into the passion behind GPI.

It is an honour to interview you Cristi, thank you for giving us your time!

VW: You’ve been in the news a lot lately, the winner of the 2012 Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice, can you tell us a bit about that award?

CH: Absolutely, Grinnell College is a really extraordinary a liberal arts college in Iowa with a really amazing commitment to social justice. Every year they do an award called the young innovator for social justice where they recognise people under 40 who are doing something with social justice in new ways. We applied for the Grinnell Prize last year and actually found out in May that we won but had to keep it a secret for 3 months, which was really difficult! So it’s a tremendous honour for GPI for our work to be recognised on this level. The entire team here is just really thrilled!

VW: Congratulations! So you started GPI in 2006, why?

CH: The idea for this organisation came out of my experience working in Nepal. I found that the system of foreign correspondence was lacking when you wanted to tell in-depth stories that touch the humanity of a place. As a foreign correspondent you just don’t have the context and access you need to be able to tell those stories. Context being social, historical, political, and cultural and access in terms of I didn’t speak the language fluently and my official interviews went through translators set up by the government. So my ability to cover the critical issues of what this country in the midst of civil war was facing was slim to none and my stories were only scratching the surface.

Then I had an experience in a small village in Nepal where I was able to spend a bit of time with an amazing woman who, I think if she was still alive would be shocked to see the impact she had on my life and what we’ve created out of it. She was the matriarch of her village and had everything I wanted to tell better stories. She had the trust of her community, amazing access to real human narratives and she had the context to tell stories in a way that could really create systemic change. So in spending time with her and thinking about the things I was struggling with I realised I had two things that she didn’t have and that was journalism training and an incredible global platform on which to display my work. People looked at me and said, she went to New York University, she has a master’s degree and all these newspapers publish her stuff, so it must be true. Certainly if Fatima was writing and publishing something she would struggle against those two problems. So the challenge I gave myself was to create something that solves those two problems simultaneously, and this idea became the obsession in my head. Eventually I left Nepal and went back to New York. I moved to San Francisco and I got a job as a feature writer for SF Weekly but I could not get the idea out of my head. I realised that the opportunity to hear from real people around the world in a meaningful way could be revolutionary in three ways. The person reporting the news, their life would change dramatically; the communities generating the news would change as people are given greater access to information, tools to make better choices and to live fuller and freer lives and on an international level, global awareness would increase extraordinarily because the world would get news from someone who is actually very qualified to tell those stories.

So I worked for SF weekly for about a year and then I did something very stupid (laughs) which was quit my job. I was a 25year old writer earning a good salary; something many students would die for. But I quit my job and got to work putting this idea into practice. I developed the business plan, the training-to-employment model, raised a little bit of money and just went for it. We launched the first programme in Chiapas, Mexico in 2006.

VW: Wow! Why Chiapas, Mexico?

CH: I actually really wanted Nepal to be our first country but given that I had absolutely no fundraising experience when I started GPI, Mexico was a less-expensive option. It’s actually funny that it was our first desk because it is our most difficult desk to fund. It has struggled with being underfunded almost since it was founded. Chiapas is the southernmost state, right at the bottom of Mexico, both rurally and figuratively. People just don’t think about Mexico as needy in the same way they think about other countries.

VW: Can you tell us a bit about the GPI business model?

CH: In the original business plan, GPI was not actually a gender specific model. But as I went through the planning process I realised that I didn’t want to do what so many international organisations around the world do, which is provide training in a vacuum. We see resumes of people who have attended over a hundred trainings, every training the UN and any international NGO coming in to the area has ever done, yet they are unemployed; they have no practical application for those skills. I didn’t want to do that, I had seen the negative effects of that all over the world. So we developed a training-to-employment model, which means that anyone who goes through the GPI training programme automatically receives an offer of employment. So they are not just getting training but also a very practical, supportive environment to use those skills. After the training each of our reporters produces about one story a month and they work with our local and global editors to do story coaching and source development so in every story they’re growing, practicing and learning new things. After 6 years we have a little more than 91% retention rate in our programme so people that join GPI are sticking with us!

The gender specific component became important because around the world men would tend to take a training programme and go to a place where they could make the highest dollar with those skills, which is culturally acceptable. But by training women we not only invest in them, data from the around the world also shows that women will reinvest up to 80% of the income into the community. And we’ve seen that come into effect in real ways; women are sending their children to better schools, living in better homes and have greater access to medical care because they are earning strong living wages from a dignified profession. We’ve absolutely seen the impact of training women.

VW: How else do you measure the impact?

CH: This is a difficult question since the impact of a story is potentially limitless… but we measure impact in 3 ways. We look at the basic analytics like how many people are reading the stories, how many are syndicating, how many stories we’re producing. We also track the impact on the women we’re working with, how their lives change over time, how their skill sets change. The third one, which is nebulous, is the impact of the story. Story can and probably does change people’s individual lives every day but we don’t have data points to track how the way you think and feel about something changes. We do track tangible social actions from our stories, so when Members of Parliament and the Prime Minister’s office credit a GPI story for changing a discriminatory law in Nepal, that’s huge impact. When people come together to protest or create new organisations after a piece on political rape in Zimbabwe, that’s huge action. When major organisations come forward to pledge to donate equipment to a children’s hospital after one of our stories reveal that dozens of infants are dying every month from asphyxiation because they don’t have proper access to medical care, these are all real tangible impacts that can’t be underestimated. One of my favourite parts of GPI is that we’re journalism optimists; as much as the whole world is lamenting the death of the profession we’re demonstrating every day that it is alive and well.

VW: How then do you make money?

CH: By the skin of my teeth most days! (laughs) We are funded by foundation grants and donations from individuals. GPI doesn’t take any money from any government or government agencies from anywhere in the world, locally or globally, so we can maintain our independence. Right now we are 70 percent funded by foundations and 30 percent by individuals.

VW: Do you have any plans for sustainability?

CH: Sustainability has been a huge focus for us this year and we were really thrilled to get a big grant last month that will help us achieve some of our sustainability goals. The key to GPI’s sustainability we believe is going to be syndication or content marketing as people now call it. By the nature of our work we are producing a very sellable commodity; we’re producing incredibly accurate and authentic news content from places that most news organisations don’t operate. Because of our model, our news is also produced for a fraction of the costs that other media would pay to actually get stories from around the world. We are in the process of developing a new syndication platform that would allow the news outlets all over the world to take our content in multiple languages for a fraction of the cost and we hope that within 3 years GPI will be 30 to 40% sustainable based solely on the sale of our content. We’re very confident in the credibility and uniqueness of our product and we hope that syndication is the key to our sustainability, helping us alleviate funding needs and escape fundraising trends. Six years ago, not many people funded media. Today media is a somewhat sexier thing to fund but we want to be prepared for the day when it’s no longer so sexy. We’re taking some really bold steps in that direction.

VW: And how do you find and train your reporters?

CH: Usually we target a country based on a variety of indicators, taking into account safety and security and a country’s media laws. And once we’ve decided on a country, we get to work building local partnerships so that we can get greater access to a diverse population of women. Then using a variety of diversity indicators we try to recruit as diverse a team as possible. The women of GPI come from all walks of life. Many of our reporters are former sex workers and members of the untouchable caste in Nepal and India. We also have reporters who have master’s degrees and are well-educated but just happen to live in countries and places where unemployment is particularly strong or the opportunity to practice this kind of journalism doesn’t exist. So GPI attracts all types of women and offers the opportunity to all types of women. English in not a primary requirement for our programme so much of our content is produced in local language and translated to English. The diversity indicators (ethnic and religion) are different in each country but we include diverse women who can work together to really tell the stories of the community. This is something you don’t get with one foreign correspondent who’s an outsider.

We have developed our own training programme called the principles and practice. The principles part goes through the ideals of the traditional journalism because we don’t really identify with the citizen journalism model at GPI. What we produce is the more ethical, investigative, narrative-rich, fact-checked news as opposed to blogging or social media models. The principles deal with the ethics of journalism while the practice takes you through the nuts and bolts. Depending on prior experience and education levels the practice part is different for different women. Typing drills and learning how to use software on a computer is available for those who have never done it before; others who come in with that basic skill set are able to produce more news faster but the same opportunity exists for all women who are paid hourly for training then monthly for every piece produced.

VW: What kind of news does GPI produce?

CH: We cover pretty much any issue in a community. Just because our reporters are women doesn’t mean we cover only gender-specific news topics but certainly it is a specialty. We do a lot of reporting on education, the environment and health, some political stories but that’s not always our focus. And we really try to get away from the traditional stereotyping of foreign coverage where all you hear about is poverty, war and disease. We try to do a lot of arts and culture coverage, celebrating what is unique and beautiful and working well; solutions-based stories that are talking about progress. This is a really important piece of our coverage. We are also launching a video initiative which will bring video reporting to 5 news desks in the next couple of months. (Click here to watch a video about GPI)

VW: These are real women writing about real situations currently going on, even in some post-conflict areas. Do your reporters risk repercussions for their work and how are they protected?

Safety and security is the biggest piece of the planning that goes into launching a news desk. We also have a security policy at GPI to mitigate the obvious risks and provide a system in the event that something does happen. After about six and a half years we’ve never had an incident of a reporter being threatened or detained so we really do take the safety of these women very seriously.

VW: Fantastic. Who is GPI’s main audience?

CH: The audience is one of my favourite things about GPI because it’s so diverse. GPI has an automatic appeal to people who are hungry for international news but are tired of traditional reporting. Our audience is generally between 18 and 49; we have people with very different political affiliations regionally, we have regular visitors from over 160 countries and we’re reaching about 5million people now. It’s been great to see the readership grow so much in the last few years. We’ve also launched a new website this week so we’re hoping that gets more individual readers along with our syndication initiative, which will get our material onto as many other news outlets as possible.

VW: Focusing on you a bit, can you share a bit about your background and upbringing?

CH: Sure. I was born and raised in Santa Fe New Mexico, USA, where most of my family still lives. I left at 18 to attend Loyola University in Los Angeles. Afterwards, I took a fellowship at the Pointer Institute for Media studies in St. Petersburg, and then I went to New York University where I got my masters. It was after this that I actually went to Nepal for the first time.

VW: Did you ever envision yourself on this path that you’re on?

CH: Never! I have been a journalist for as long as I can remember – I wrote for my junior high school newspaper, I was the editor-in-chief of my high school and college newspapers, so I’ve certainly done this forever, since I was a little kid, but no, never. One of the things people always ask me is if I miss being a reporter and I do! I love being a reporter and I was always a better reporter than writer. I do miss it but when I step back and look at the body of work that has been created by GPI reporters around the world it’s astounding. I could never have created such an extraordinary body of work on my own. For the past 5 years it had been just me working by myself from my house and in 2011 we added a managing editor then suddenly this year things just changed course! We have six relationships with six new foundations this year including the Nike Foundation and some other larger foundations that have supported us in the past. I’ve got a full team working with me here in San Francisco which is just a dream come true. Our reporters around the world are producing better news than ever so it’s been really fun! Sure I wake up at 4:30am every day but I can’t imagine doing something I really love more than this.

VW: What challenges did you face starting up GPI?

CH: The initial challenge was that everyone thought I was crazy. In 2006 a lot of people did not respond to this idea that some woman somewhere in the world was better at reporting than a trained reporter from a major news organisation. They thought it was a silly idea. That was the initial challenge but once we were able to launch our programme in Mexico and then Nepal, it really became obvious that the model worked. Two different sets of women in two different places took the same programme and came out with the same skill set and instantly began writing amazing stories! My second challenge was that I had no experience fundraising and I had no idea the degree to which fundraising would control my life. It’s a necessary evil that I’ve come to terms with and I’m much better at it now thankfully. We have a consulting firm that works to introduce us to the right people and help us refine our fundraising message; fundraising was definitely a challenge. But the programme has been so amazing to watch unfold, to be a 25 year old with an idea and find out that there are hundreds or thousands of women who are willing to help me make this a reality is just fantastic.

VW: What was the best decision you ever made in your professional career?

CH: I made two decisions that I’m so grateful for. Deciding to quit my job at SF weekly to start GPI is definitely one. There have been points when I was out of money, out of sleep and felt like I was at the end, when I didn’t know what the next step was. I think the decision to always push forward and never waver in my faith in this idea is the other decision I’m grateful for in retrospect. It did take 6 years of slogging it out before getting to a place where tomorrow is certain but that’s a great place to be. I’m so grateful for working in a time that the technology exists to make the idea possible.

VW: And finally what advice would you give to young women pursuing an education or just starting out in their careers?

CH: My advice is two-fold: first, absolutely chase the dream. But the second thing is plan, and be extremely diligent in your planning and research. I think honestly if I didn’t have the really thorough, robust business plan that I did before I launched the first programme, I’m not sure where GPI would be. Get comfortable with things you’re not good at; I hated math my whole life but budgeting has become such an important skill to me! Really embracing things you feel you’re not good at is very important. Always take a step back and look at the bigger picture because although the reality of GPI on a day-to-day basis is challenging, the work that we’re doing is creating exponential change in the world and in the lives of the reporters. The stories they are producing are igniting social change every day so taking a step back to see the big picture is really important.

Thank you Cristi!

 

Undoubtedly, the big picture is at the forefront of Cristi’s mind as she looks to expand GPI’s global reach in coming years. Look out for more information to come about more news desks opening soon in Africa!