A Conversation With Cristi Hegranes ’03

Cristi Hegranes ’03, former editor of The Los Angeles Loyolan (2002–03) was a foreign correspondent in Nepal in 2006 when she decided local women were better suited to telling Nepal’s stories than she was. She founded Global Press, a news organization now with 37 bureaus in 13 countries around the world, and Hegranes is its CEO and publisher. Global Press identifies and trains local women journalists to report on the news occurring around them. Hegranes earned a B.A. in communication studies in the LMU College of Communication and Fine Arts. We talked to her about dangers faced by journalists, disinformation, the First Amendment and lessons she learned at LMU. Hegranes was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch. This interview was edited for clarity and length.

How do you find your correspondents?

To change the story of the world we have to change the storyteller. When we open new locations around the world, we go into a country and we do two assessments. First, who lives here? What is the population make-up in terms of urban density vs. rural — we’re looking at race, caste, tribe, etc. Then we overlay that with an analysis of who works in and controls the media. Then, we ask a simple question: Who is missing? 

Imagine doing that in the United States. You’d do a population assessment and then overlay the media assessment and you’d say, “Media is predominantly owned and controlled by people on the coasts, not the middle of the country. And it tends to be white men and women in prominent coastal locations.” And when you ask the question, “Who’s missing?” the answer is a lot of people. 

When we build representative newsrooms — newsrooms that represent the people that they’re covering — we work to solve one of the core problems in journalism today, which is trust. We believe that when people recognize themselves when they read the stories about their community, they’re more likely to trust that journalism, in the same way that people in Oklahoma don’t recognize themselves in stories told about them in The New York Times. The same premise is true in our coverage across the world. When an elite in a community tends to own and control the narrative, local people don’t recognize themselves in those stories. So, we ask the question, “Who’s missing?” then we go out and find those people. Across every nation on Earth, the first answer to the question is women. So, at Global Press, 100 percent of our reporters are women. They come from different tribes, castes, religions, socio-economic backgrounds and urban areas. 

My reporters are powerful, professional, ambitious women who are absolutely willing to do what is necessary to reframe narratives and become reporters of record in their countries and communities.

When you’re making your assessments on the ground, how can you tell the people who have potential as storytellers?

There are technical ways to do that: Do they have past experience in journalism, what is their educational background, etc. We’re looking for people with natural curiosity and critical thinking. The core component of Global Press is that we are seeking narrative disruption. We’re seeking to tell stories about Mexico, Haiti and the Congo in a way that disrupts the legacy media’s rote narrative of “War, poverty, disaster — repeat — war, poverty, disaster. We have a non-assignment policy, so our reporters are responsible for leveling up the most important stories in their community that nobody else is telling. 

So, we ask applicants, “What if you had the opportunity to tell any story you want?” We typically get three kinds of answers. One is general topics, such as education and politics. That’s not our person. The second kind of answer regurgitates headlines. “This thing happened yesterday, and I want to find out more about that.” Not our person. The Global Press person is the person who says, “You know, I walk by this one street every day, and every time I walk by that street I notice such-and-such. I’ve always wanted to understand that.” That’s the type of person we’re looking for: the person who has intellectual independence and curiosity, who when every journalist in the community is running this way to tell this story, they have the courage and the confidence to go that way.

Everything you just said is very professionally oriented. But it seems to me that your goal is as much to transform individual lives — the lives of your correspondents — as it is to disrupt journalism. Is that true?

It is. Across the world, we are all so busy lamenting the poor quality of journalism without taking into consideration that the majority of the world’s journalism jobs are low-quality employment. You can work for some of the best news organizations in the world and have poverty-driven wages — no health benefits, no safety and security [components]. So, a huge component of what we do is invest in the exceptional employment of these journalists. At Global Press, all of our reporters earn strong professional salaries, they have health benefits, they have six months of paid family leave. They have access to our award-winning, industry-leading Duty of Care program that prioritizes their security across the board. We are aiming to change the standard and practice in journalism to say journalists are not a means to an end. Protecting and investing in your journalists is, No. 1, the right thing to do, and, No. 2, an opportunity to improve storytelling over the long haul because when your journalists stay with your organization for years, the quality of your coverage only improves.

When I started Global Press 16 years ago, our first news bureau was in Chiapas, Mexico. I trained five reporters in Chiapas in 2006. Two of those women still work here. The caliber of journalist that you become over 16 years is what makes us the best in business in each of the regions that we cover; it’s our ability to retain that talent over time. We train up the talent, and then we retain it.

From Malta to Mexico to Hong Kong, reporters have been attacked, imprisoned and murdered. Do your correspondents face those dangers, and how do you try to protect them?

We absolutely do. Our industry does a terrible job at protecting journalists. We count the dead ones very well. What we don’t do is protect them when we have the opportunity to mitigate risk and elevate their safety and security, particularly for local journalists like those I work with. There’s no security parity in the industry between a foreign correspondent and a local reporter. When Nicolas Kristof goes into the Democratic Republic of Congo, he has flak jackets, security, weapons, drivers, land rovers, kidnap and ransom insurance, access to helicopters. And the fixers, the local people and translators he’s working with on the ground, have none of that. They’re probably making $50 a day. So, there’s no security parity in the industry. 

We believe that when people recognize themselves when they read the stories about their community, they’re more likely to trust that journalism.

Ten years ago, I built our Duty of Care program. It’s a very specific security program designed to protect journalists who live in communities that they cover. Those are the journalists who are in the most danger. We make the biggest deal about the foreign correspondents who die or get hurt, but it’s actually the local journalists who are taking the biggest risk.

We allow reporters to control their own risk profiles. We do that by not forcing reporters to tell specific stories. Reporters have the agency to tell any story that they want according to their own risk profile. We have a set of safety and security protocols in place so that we can activate network after network after network to help reporters who are in trouble. We really focus on risk mitigation. Only about 5 percent of our Duty of Care focus is on crisis response. The rest of our time is spent on mitigating risk. And we uniquely strive to equally protect a reporter’s physical emotional digital and legal security.

Digital security around the world in the past five years has become an area with one of the biggest threats to journalists’ security. We know, statistically, that journalists are as likely as active-duty service professionals to face stress and trauma-related issues. Yet, in the industry we don’t talk about it, bbecause if you talk about it you’re considered weak, or a bad journalist or you’re not going to get the assignment. 

Meagan Demitz, also an alumna who worked on The Los Angeles Loyolan, helped us build the Global Press Wellness network, which gives our reporters access to licensed mental health professionals around the world who speak the language of all our reporters. We pay them to provide free unlimited services to our reporters. During the pandemic, about 85 percent of our reporters were active in the wellness network. That’s a powerful indication of how challenging reporter security has become and that it’s imperative that news organizations prioritize how they’re thinking about security. It’s not just crisis response. That’s not enough.

Do you feel your correspondents are in heightened danger precisely because they are women?

In some places, yes, being women makes it a lot harder. In other places there are other types of risk. In a place like Haiti, which is virtually lawless, risks abound. In Mexico or Mongolia, digital security risks are heightened — hacking, phishing, digital espionage targeted at reporters. Not to mention COVID. COVID made reporters’ jobs so much harder, so much more stressful. You can’t work from home and be a journalist. 

What did being editor of The Los Angeles Loyolan offer you that you have carried into your career?

I learned a lot of things. Had I not gone to LMU, I’m not sure that Global Press would be in existence today. What I learned at LMU was the relationship between journalism and social justice. It’s the single most important aspect of Global Press. When we allow local journalists to become the storytellers of record, they produce dignified, precise news coverage that gives policy makers, movement builders and educators the tools to go out and build a better world. We’ve compelled governments to criminalize human rights practices.

I know that Lane Bove retired not long ago, and I think I’m responsible for a few of the gray hairs on her head. I’m the editor who started First Amendment Week. I did that because we were trying to do some big things and take some risks. For the initial First Amendment Week, I invited Larry Flynt to campus to speak. I found Larry Flynt because his third wife’s brother is an LMU alumnus. He got me in front of Larry Flynt. 

I went to Hustler Enterprises as a senior in college. We had an amazing conversation about the First Amendment. Then I proudly went back to campus and let Jonathan O’Brien and Lane Bove know the storied news that Larry Flynt was coming to campus. And they promptly said he could not come. So, we had the amazing tagline that First Amendment Week has been censored. 

Larry Flynt was disinvited, so he gave us the text of his speech that he planned to deliver. My incredible staff and I at the Loyolan produced a dummy page of the paper’s first page that we handed to our advisor to sign off on. When he went home for the night, we produced on our real front page the full text of Larry Flynt’s speech. That was such a gratifying, powerful moment for every person on the staff. It gave us the fuel to ask, “What can student journalism do? What is its role?” The notion of continuously holding power to account is something that I take with me from that experience all the way to now: We’re in a knock-down, drag-out fight with the government of Mongolia around virginity testing of girls in schools. That real practical experience at LMU of trying to hold power to account followed me throughout my career, and as a result I’ve built Global Press.

What was the positive result of getting Larry Flynt’s speech onto the campus even though he didn’t appear on campus himself?

I think it is a lesson that America needs today. You don’t have to like a person, but you do have to understand what the U.S. Constitution means. The First Amendment doesn’t mean we all agree. It means that there is space for different viewpoints to prevail. It means that freedom of speech requires us to listen. That’s something that we don’t do anymore. The second you hear that someone is a Biden fan, a Trump fan, a whatever fan —  if they don’t agree with you then you turn that off: “We don’t talk anymore; I don’t watch that TV station.” There is no space for collaborative discord in the U.S. anymore.

Publishing Larry Flynt’s speech was more impactful than his actually being on campus, because it wasn’t surrounded in controversy as much. It just allowed people to read his words. He says, “Yes, I know I’m distasteful. The point is that I have the freedom to be. And if I am free, imagine how free that makes you.” As a woman who runs a women-led news organization, I am certainly not pro-pornography, but I am pro-his message about the First Amendment to this day. That’s an important message for the whole world. Over the past two and a half years, we have seen a total assault on press freedom, a total erosion of access to information, authoritarian control of media systems, misinformation and disinformation — it’s all on the rise.

Over the past two and a half years, we have seen a total assault on press freedom, a total erosion of access to information, authoritarian control of media systems, misinformation and disinformation — it’s all on the rise.

Are your stories primarily disseminated when other outlets pick them up or do people come to your stories as they do to a news service?

Both. We now have GlobalPressJournal.com, where we publish our stories in six languages. The majority of our audience comes to us through partner publications. We work with super tiny local radio stations and publications in rural Congo and Haiti. We also increasingly work with large media outlets like Quartz and BBC. Our audience has really transformed. We now reach about 20 million people a month with our stories.

This project seems to combine both a sense of personal mission and professional ambition. Has GPI always been important to you for both reasons?

Yes. I founded Global Press two years after I left LMU. All I ever wanted to be was a foreign correspondent. I had a singular focus. I finally got the chance. I was in-country in Nepal for a couple of days when I discovered I was the wrong person to be telling the story. I didn’t have the context or access to tell true, impactful stories. My reporters in Nepal have produced thousands of stories that have influenced legislation and totally transformed society in Nepal, and I could have never done that. The simple fact of recognizing that I’m not the right person and someone else is and transferring that power is what has made Global Press so impactful. 

I remain ridiculously ambitious. I am rebuilding an industry from scratch that people like me have no business rebuilding from scratch. My reporters previously were never considered to be reporters of record. We’re fast proving that they are. They are powerful, professional, ambitious women who are absolutely willing to do what is necessary to reframe narratives and become reporters of record in their countries and communities.

Are they ambitious in terms of a desire to change their society or in terms of their personal career?

Both. I came to rural Democratic Republic of Congo in 2015 to build a bureau. One of the first women we hired was a housekeeper and a tomato salesperson. At her interview she said, “I was born to be a journalist, and I live in a society where I would never be given that chance. You are here for me.” Now, seven years later, she is our most syndicated journalist in the world. She is our most award-winning journalist in the world. Now the narrative of the Congo, of refugees, of the conflict is totally changed because one storyteller got the opportunity to tell stories on a bigger stage. That’s what it’s all about. 

Had I remained a foreign correspondent, I’d have maybe a couple hundred bylines to my name. But there are tens of thousands of Global Press stories that have been told.