A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to chat with Joy DiBenedetto, the CEO and founder of HUMNews, an organization dedicated to closing the geographic gap in media. A 20-year news veteran, award winning journalist with CNN and Turner Broadcasting, and former Global VP of domestic and international booking, production, and journalism assignments, Joy DiBenedetto is a clear expert in her field, and I am delighted to share our conversation with the OpEd Project’s readers:
AHD: What are the foundational goals of HUMNews?
JD: The current global perspective in mainstream media is incomplete. The world’s fastest growing, youngest economies and populations are not included in the flow of major news gatherers and distributors. Currently, most major news organizations have bureaus in only 37 countries – how do you cover the world when that is that case? Generally, as a news distributor you buy material from at least one of the four largest news agencies in the world to supplement reach. The problem is that these agencies cover only approximately 125 of the 237 countries and territories in the world. What’s missing is approximately 116 nations from the global information supply. In those 116 countries not covered by mainstream media almost 2/3 of the world lives and about 80% of the population is under the age of 20. These nations are the future of the world’s storyline for the next thirty or forty years; we’ve got to know what’s going on there. The goal of HUMNews is to extend coverage and to generate coverage from those places and populations not being addressed in mainstream media. We are the first news agency ever to develop media to inform a global populace with a complete geographic picture.
AHD: Many of the countries and regions that you are trying to cover lack the basic infrastructure needed to gather information and get stories. How have you dealt with those logistical challenges in extending coverage to all of those places?
JD: Even if we don’t hear much about what is going on in other places, the truth is that media already exists in every country of the world. Media is a growth industry, so in countries that are just opening up, technology is growing and media is rapidly developing alongside it.
HUMNews is partnering with media organizations and other non-traditional partners that already have presence on the ground around the world. We are seeking affiliations and partnerships such as NGO’s, academic institutions, and social media partners. In working with these groups we are getting unique content to our website, and are able to connect to other media outlets for distribution. Today, we have contributors from many global locations and we have staff that travels to many global locations, spending a month on ground gathering stories. As our funding grows we will be able to have more reporters on the ground, cultivating contacts on issues and generating sources that people haven’t yet considered.
AHD: How do you get booked on CNN?
JD: It’s not a simple process. One of the first things that really matters is your credibility. You need to know and understand everything about the issue you are there to talk about. An organization such as CNN won’t want anyone who has to go “read up” on the topic. They want people who are real experts in their field.
In terms of getting attention of bookers- today is very different because people have the opportunity to make their own media. If you have the credentials and some connection to the media community, through an organization or institution, you have a much better chance than if you are an individual trying to break through. It is enormously helpful to be part of the currency of news because if you’re an unknown it’s really hard for a CNN booker or anyone else for that matter to pay attention to you. Guest producers wake up and read four newspapers, and then scan everything on the web. The fact of the matter is that most media feeds off of other media. If your voice is out there it is more likely to be heard. It is about those who make their voices louder, and newspapers provide those people. Your name needs to have credibility – and voice – somewhere else; making it much more likely you’ll be booked.
Generally it is really helpful if an opinion writer is really honed in on their message. You have a much better chance of getting booked if you have a specific expertise rather than being a generalist.
Alternatively, if something completely unexpected happens and you are a relevant expert, and your name is already out there you have a very good chance of getting booked. But again, it is incredibly important for your name and expertise to already exist. It’s really hard to be on someone’s radar in the middle of breaking news. Bookers search social media for experts, so post to a facebook page during a crisis, or create a twitter feed that’s devoted to your line of expertise. You have to be in the currency and flow of media to really be noticed.
Finally, having relevancy to the current news is essential. TV journalism is a daily or weekly process, and it’s very difficult to plan in advance. Having relevance to the immediate news subject will help you to get booked. It is really important for people to be sensitive to what is happening in the news. Do not reach out if the time is not appropriate.
AHD: In your time at CNN and now at HUMNews, do you see a significant discrepancy in the number of women and men in opinion journalism?
JD: As unbalanced as some people might say it is, at CNN there is a constant conversation about balance – did we get as many sides as possible, is the debate balanced? Was diversity considered? If there is an imbalance, it is a result of the time crunch because everything is so minute-to-minute. A CNN guest producer often needs guests for an hour or two later. That’s why accuracy and credibility are so essential. A guest producer will do pre-interviews with every single guest. They will call people and run questions by them to feel them out for their knowledge and opinions. Then, the next step is to draft a path for the interview that is discussed with anchors and producers so that they understand what the guest is there to talk about.
AHD: As a the Social Media Intern at the OpEd Project I am conducting a byline survey of major news publications to find out how many women are writing and what kind of issues they are focusing on. Interestingly I have found that a large percentage of female-authored op-eds are about women related topics, either in the realm of health, entertainment, or politics. Women rarely write about the hard sciences or military issues. As a booker at CNN, did you actively look for women in traditionally male-dominated fields?
JD: We absolutely look for women who are experts in unusual disciplines and issues. For example, during the invasion of Iraq we looked for female generals. The fact of the matter is, those subjects that make mainstream media are usually not women oriented subjects, but subjects of the general population. It is very important for women to focus on broader issues, rather than solely women oriented topics, because those issues often don’t make the front pages. Those issues that do are of a general kind, be it on politics, health, education, or the environment. Certainly you will get some attention around women in political discussion or around an event such as the midterm congressional elections. But if you report on politics in general, and you happen to be a woman, you open up your possibilities even wider. Women’s issues deserve attention, but the truth is you gain more opportunities if you write about general topics overall.
CNN is a general news organization- it is not focused on women or any one group in particular. Writers need to address the demographic that the publication addresses.
AHD: As someone who has been working in the realm of media for over twenty years, you have undoubtedly seen tremendous technological changes. How have developments in technology influenced how news is reported and the kind of news that makes headlines? Looking forward, do you have a sense of where media coverage is going?
JD: Technology has changed media completely, especially in booking. When I first entered media, we didn’t have regular access to the Internet. We would call the library to have them run a few searches and then wait a few hours. It took a long time. There were no cell phones, we had beepers and used pay phones. Now we rely on the Internet as an instant research tool, and cell phones and smartphones mean you are reachable anywhere and can have access to your databases instantly. This has really changed things out in field because you can be in touch with home base from almost any location, and often times have access to information and the ability to research on the fly wherever you are. Developments in technology has also meant that you can take access to thousands of contacts have, and carry them with you at all times- which places an enormous resource at your fingertips.
Technological developments have also altered methods of newsgathering. Previously we had huge cameras, which were always difficult to carry, and often slowed you down from country to country. Today, you can enter a country with a pocket camera, or a smart phone, and send photos via email half way across the world. In the past year, technology has taken the public places we have never seen before – 3,000 feet below the Earth’s surface during the Chilean mine crisis and this summer onto the ocean floor during the oil spill.
In terms of where these changes are taking media, wireless technology is about to change everything in terms of transmission. Places that we thought were inaccessible for a long time, that were just too hard to reach because it was hard to transmit from, will soon be reachable. Wireless technology will establish a new level of connectivity everywhere.
For HUMNews, technology plays a huge role. It is a marriage between technology and journalism. We need both of those components. We are trying to find ways to overcome logistical obstacles by working on developing technology with companies like INTEL.
AHD: What are the most valuable lessons you gained in your time working at CNN?
JD: Out of all the organizations it has been compared to, CNN is unique because it is a consortium of elements that come together to feed a huge and diverse audience on many channels and platforms. CNN has affiliates and partnerships around the world and so many different sections, networks, and audiences and it all feeds the business.
This model for the industry has helped me to think about HUM and what we can do. Those 116 countries are under-covered in so many ways. From politics and education to entertainment- I want to know who the hot pop star in Senegal is, and what they’re eating in Malawi. We are trying to collect all the information that we can generate from these countries and put it into one big bucket, and specify from there.
HUM is the parent company; then we have HUMNews, HUMMedia, HUMMusic, HUMMovies and several other businesses we’re working on. We have one central gathering and distribution platform and then each sector can pull out what they need. The main lesson from CNN is that efficient business comes when you merge all of your ideas into one and see where they overlap.
AHD: What led you to leave CNN? What were your primary goals in founding of HUMNews?
JD: I want to see the world through a different lens. The future of the world’s story line is not going to be led by a country like ours. In those places HUM aims to cover, 80% of the population is under the age of 20. Here and in Western Europe, 80% of the population is over the age of 30. The most exciting things are happening in the places where we don’t have a camera yet. In developing countries they are trying new things because they have to- in South Africa they are using windmills to charge cell phones- so they have phones but not electricity. We have got to pay attention to these places because they have many of the resources of the world. Silicate for solar panels comes from hillsides of Africa. Lithium often comes from Mongolia, and electric card batteries are manufactured in the Congo. If we don’t pay attention to these places we are quickly going to lose sight of the future and lose out competitively.
Mainstream media does not cover those countries and is not going to- not because they don’t want to, but because the media landscape is brutal and competitive. You can’t take your eye of the ball long enough to try and do something else when you’re an organization like CNN or Fox or the New York Times- it’s very difficult to devote resources away from anything they cover.
HUM covers every country of the world. We quickly saw that we couldn’t cover Sierra Leone or the Maldives or Peru without Iran- because everyone is doing business with everyone else. We have to pay attention to how the rest of the world is developing, not just the world that we already know a lot about.
I once read about Donna Karen’s reasons for founding DKNY. She couldn’t find clothes that she liked, so she decided to make her own. I had a similar experience in media- you can find some things but you have to look very hard. I wanted an easier source. After working at CNN where everything is at your fingertips, I got bored with what I knew, and wanted to know more. Curiosity about the world is the drive behind HUMNews.
AHD: What are you an expert in?
JD: I am a media expert- I have spent the last 20 years working in it from Corporate Finance to the streets and fields, to the executive offices. I can tell you what the TV networks are in Malawi, and what the demographic of TV viewers is in Argentina. I have spent a lot of time analyzing on a social, as well on a market and business level what is out there. People are curious about how media is developing around the world and how people are responding and accessing that media, and I humbly work at knowing the answers to those questions. It’s what excites me.