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International journalism carves out a home in Windsor

  • January 19, 2011

An industrial park in Windsor is an unlikely place to find an international news headquarters that oversees more than 100 correspondents on five continents.

But tucked behind Home Depot, sandwiched in among auto body shops, a vegetable purveyor and a roofing company, sits the administrative offices for The Press Institute, a unique, nonprofit agency that trains and employs women reporters in 23 developing countries.

The stories they edit and package have datelines from Kathmandu to Kampala, from Nairobi to New Delhi.

The articles and photographs appear on the organization’s website,, and recently began syndication to some newspapers, magazines and blogs.

The institute is the brainchild of Healdsburg resident Cristi Hegranes, 30, a former freelancer for international news organizations who worked in Nepal and learned the shortcomings of traditional overseas reporting.

“Generally speaking, a foreign correspondent doesn’t share the social, cultural, historical connection with sources, or have long-term, first-hand experience with the kinds of stories they are reporting,” she said. “That’s not to say there isn’t such a thing as a good foreign correspondent. There is.”

Hegranes said she had an epiphany in Nepal in 2004, when she was finishing her master’s thesis in journalism and political science and filing stories from the area near Tibet, as civil war was unfolding.

She was working on a profile of an elderly village matriarch caught up in the turmoil.

Though Hegranes spoke some Nepali, she found the language and cultural barrier difficult. Frustrated, she asked her subject to write down her story in her own words.

It took more than a week, but the woman wrote a compelling account – what Hegranes described as “a real piece of journalism.”

The Nepali woman delved into “personal experiences of people in the community and tied it into myriad local issues going on — politics, lack of health care,” and other events in the country, Hegranes said.

Hegranes decided then that women in the Third World countries with a natural affinity for story-telling could be trained as journalists.

Two years later, she quit a job at SF Weekly to become the founder and executive director of what was initially named The Press Institute for Women in the Developing World.

Its mission is “training women from underprivileged, under-represented communities to become powerful, conscientious journalists, reporting on the social, economic, political and environmental issues that directly affect their countries and communities.”

The women that The Press Institute trains file stories on topics that range from AIDS, to clandestine abortion and poverty.

Some of the high-impact stories include accounts of survivors of “political rapes” in Zimbabwe, trafficking of migrant laborers in Bangladesh, and caste discrimination in Nepal.

Stories featured on the website last week included an incident of disfiguring acid violence against women in Bangladesh; expatriate Ugandans returning to their country to improve the education system; perennial rice shortages in Nepal; and political reverberations from the assassination of a land activist in Kenya.

Media analysts and observers say a maverick like The Press Institute plays an important role, given the cutbacks by news organizations in the U.S. and around the world.

“Press Institute reporters are boldly covering communities and regions that no major news organization is tackling,“ Ryan Blitstein, a former investigative journalist stated in an e-mail Friday. “Frankly, if the Press Institute did not exist, a lot of this information just would not get covered —- and almost none of it would get to readers in the developed world.”

Blitstein, whose work has appeared in the New York Times and TIME magazine, is now a chief strategy officer at a foundation in Chicago.

But he was so impressed by The Press Institute’s work that he joined its board of directors last year.

He said that because of the training, the quality of the reporting is relatively high, given the business model and the extreme challenges of working in the places its journalists cover.

Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, is enthusiastic about the work The Press Institute does.

“In journalism, we always talk about the power of stories,” McBride said, explaining that Hegranes’ very small non-profit is taking a half-dozen or more women at a time and teaching them how to do journalism, giving them the skills to tell a story.

“What her organization teaches them, is ‘you have an authentic voice first of all, and you can access that voice to tell a story,’ ” McBride said.

Admittedly, the women writing the articles are “amateurs,” she said, but they still have the ability to draw attention to problems, help solve them and bring change.

“Will they look like something in the New York Times? No,” she said of the news stories. “Will they be more important and fill a greater need? Yes, for the people in that community.”

Since its founding in early 2006, the non-profit organization has steadily grown with a budget this year of more than $120,000.

It’s supported by individual donations and grants, including the largest from the Boston Foundation, an anonymous family fund.

The Press Institute’ website gets 12,000 unique readers a month, according to Hegranes, with hits from 160 countries. There are also podcasts and stories broadcast by radio partners.

Some of the stories get reprinted in newsletters of international non-governmental agencies.

Hegranes relocated The Press Institute from the East Bay and opened an office this month in Windsor. The reason is proximity — she now lives in nearby Healdsburg, where her partner, Patrick Brown, manages De La Montanya winery.

She continues to teach journalism classes at San Francisco State University and Cal State East Bay.

Hegranes hopes to begin drawing a Press Institute salary this year, although the handful of U.S based-staffers get some remuneration in the $20,000 to $30,000 range.

A large portion of the Institute’s income pays the nascent overseas journalists. It takes only $70 a month for instance, to provide a middle-income wage for a reporter in Varanasi, India.

Hegranes initially ran a regional editorial site in Chiapas, Mexico and has added two more in Nepal and Kenya.

There are 23 different country “desks” where the women get basic skills training, ethics and specialty reporting seminars.

Locations include many African countries, as well as India and Sri Lanka, with offices in Kosovo and Haiti set to launch this year.

Editors and story coaches help prepare stories, which are translated before being sent to the United States. In Windsor, Hegranes and her small staff give stories a final edit for style and grammar before publishing on the website.

“We want to produce amazing, unique and ethical news content,” said Meagan Demitz of Santa Rosa, a 1998 Ursuline High School graduate and a grant writer and associate trainer for the Press Institute’s journalism programs.

She will be traveling to East Africa in March to help recruit new regional editors to train journalists.

Hegranes is gearing up for a similar two-week trip to Nepal and India.

Many of the travel expenses, she said are paid for by donated, frequent-flyer miles.

In a blog last year, Hegranes spoke of journalism as a way of life, a tool that frees people in developing countries and allows them to earn a living, feed their families, educate and participate.

“For all those who say my aims are antiquated … I say meet Tara, Meet Juana. Meet Anju. Meet Joanne. Meet Kalpana. Meet the 119 women who have taken the Press Institute up on their offer to use the craft of journalism to uplift themselves,” she said.

“Their journalism lives. It breathes. It gives life.”

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