Women Entrepreneurs in Digital News – Maria Balinska

Latitude News™: Looking Behind the Headlines

As a BBC reporter, producer and editor for 20 years, Maria Balinska built an impressive journalistic record in management and in the field. She launched and served as executive producer for nine new programs, including the award-winning “Crossing Continents”, described as “one of the BBC’s most reliable current affairs programs.”

Getting behind the headlines to the people who were living out her stories was always a priority. Just as important was the reaction of the listening audience, who were usually far removed from the broadcast sites. Were the reports engaging the listeners? Could they empathize with the issues facing a businessman, a homemaker or a farmer living in societies distant and distinct from their own?

Like other journalists working in traditional news markets, Balinksa was also keeping an eye on developing new communications technologies. When she was awarded a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University for the 2009-2010 academic year, she took leave from her position as editor of BBC’s World Current Affairs Radio to explore the landscape of reporting in the digital age.

Increasingly, she saw the reporter/audience connections she was searching for in the interactive technologies emerging through Internet-based media. Last July, she left the BBC and her former London digs to launch her own interactive web site, Latitude News™. Her focus remains on international affairs but Balinska, who hails from New Jersey, has re-settled on the western shore of the Atlantic, this time in Boston.

“I think there is evidence of Americans wanting more international coverage,” she says. Her experience and research convince her that articles linking American audiences to real people in overseas communities can be overwhelmingly positive. The key is how one builds the stories.

Balinska proposes turning the tables. Her new approach starts with the local community rather than with an overseas news desk or journalist posted in a far-off field. Let the local community begin the story. What are their perspectives about what’s going on abroad?

“The usual assumption is that most American consumers are not interested in international affairs and I think that assumption is deeply flawed,” she contends. She finds just the opposite to be true: Americans long for a better understanding of the world around them. The disaster in Japan and particularly the nuclear power crisis are good examples of coverage that is “connecting the dots” between American and Japanese lives. Right now, the news media is full of stories about American nuclear plants and whether they are prepared to withstand a natural disaster. What’s still rare in American journalism, however, is to find non-disaster stories that encourage American audiences to pay attention to communities abroad. “It’s a huge canvas to be filled,” Balinska says. “There are lots of stories that people are not looking at.”

“You start with the audience,” she explains. “That’s the primary platform. Develop a relationship with them. Work with good journalists who have their ears to the ground. If you encourage people to take part in the discussion, you can provide a very different kind of coverage. And you hope to get more feedback from them, too.”

Minnesota’s Public Insight Network provides inspiration for Balinska’s own project. She estimates that the network now has a database of about 70,000 members who have signed up, essentially to be news sources for Minnesota Public Radio journalists as they develop stories. If there’s an education issue, for instance, the network taps into members who have identified themselves as teachers, administrators, or parents. While still at BBC, Balinska occasionally worked with PIN and was impressed with its concept and success. A similar model, she believes, could be applied to international news. The audience helps to inform the journalistic process. An entirely new community between those who gather news, share news and receive news is formed.

Whereas broadcast news relies on fast turn-arounds and 20-second sound bites, a multi-level, interactive web site allows the luxury of developing stories slowly so that audiences can more fully relate an overseas situation to the context of their own lives. Balinska calls it “contextual journalism.”

“You can imagine,” she says, “how the stories coming out of North Africa right now are affecting immigrant North African communities here. One could build a story about Egypt by exploring the views of Egypt’s population in – say – Dearborn, Michigan. They know what it was like to live under the Mubarak government. Why did they leave Egypt? Through them, we can look at the concept of liberty of expression, of economic inequities. We can get at the bigger issues.”

In addition, Balinska foresees Latitude News™ developing news agency relationships with other media entities – a potential source for metropolitan papers, broadcasters and regional news providers across the country. The Associated Press serves this function by providing international news stories to many American outlets. From a completely different perspective, Latitude News™ could provide complementary information about global events.

The $20,000 IWMF grant allows Balinska to keep moving forward with the business set-up of her web site – organizing and acquiring intellectual property rights, working with a web designer to customize and launch a beta site, setting up a book-keeping system, identifying her first journalistic collaborators, and developing relationships with social networks to help market the site’s existence. In May, she expects to launch the beta site and begin uploading content. The next step is to seek funding support from foundations and corporations. Some are well-known for their interest in innovative journalism and its impact on community well-being. Although she is initiating her web site in Boston, her long-term goal is for Latitude News™ to have a presence in metropolitan areas throughout the United States.

Maria Balinska is an award winning American journalist with over ten years’ experience in senior management at the British Broadcasting Corporation in London. As Editor, World Current Affairs Radio she led the team producing specialist international content designed to complement the daily news agenda and attract new audiences to international affairs. During her tenure as editor, Balinska launched and executive produced nine new programs for the BBC including Crossing Continents, ‘“one of the BBC’s most reliable current affairs programs” (the Guardian) and, most recently, BBC Radio’s weekly magazine show about the United States, Americana. A graduate of Princeton University, the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and a 2010 Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Maria is also the author of The Bagel: the surprising history of a modest bread, a book described by Slate as “lively and well researched” and by the New York Times as “scrumptious”.

Follow Latitude News on Twitter: @latitudenews.

April 26, 2011

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Maria Balinska