Our Campus: Peter Klein innovates international journalism with launch of Global Reporting Centre

In the early 2000s, Peter Klein did something unusual for a journalist.

He collaborated.

Klein was working on a story for 60 Minutes that would expose CIA connections to the South African apartheid regime’s bio warfare program. He had a problem, though — a New York Times reporter was on the same trail.

“We realized we had huge caches of information on two sides of the story,” said Klein. “So we could either kill ourselves racing to break the story first, or we could share.”

So they shared. Today, that’s not out of the ordinary, but in 2002 it was almost unheard of — journalists were a competitive bunch.

“We had to do it totally on the down low,” says Klein, likening it to dating when your parents wouldn’t approve. “By the time we told our bosses, we made sure it was a fait accompli, so there wasn’t much they could do.”

Klein’s collaboration was the first of many between the two media giants and it’s become a theme of his career ever since. Today, at UBC, he’s once again leveraging new forms of collaboration to innovate how journalism is done.

Klein is a three-time Emmy award winning journalist and filmmaker. He’s a long time producer for CBS’s 60 Minutes. His work has appeared on PBS Frontline, ABC News, Al Jazeera, The New York Times and the Daily Show, among others. He’s been a professor at UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism since 2005, where he served a term as its director from 2011 to 2015.

Klein is well known at the journalism school for founding its International Reporting Program (IRP) in 2008. Each year, 10 journalism students are chosen from a pool of applicants to report multimedia stories about an under-covered global issue. The IRP’s funding expires in 2018, however, and so far the school has been unable to secure more.

“There wasn’t much interest in funding a single class, and we always had so many more than just 10 students hoping to participate each year,” said Klein. “So we realized maybe there’s value in doing something bigger.”

And so the Global Reporting Centre (GRC) was born in June of 2016 — a non-profit whose mission is to report the world's neglected stories and innovate how global journalism is done. Journalists and scholars partner with local journalists around the world to help them tell the stories important to their communities. Today, the centre’s website features 18 projects, 30 staff, 33 collaborators and an advisory board of 25.

“This notion of empowerment journalism is a big part of what we’re trying to do.”

— Peter Klein

Like competition, foreign bureaus and correspondents have long been a staple of journalism. But they’re expensive. As a result, they have been among the first casualties of the industry’s collapsing print advertising revenue. This has led to more “parachute journalism” — when a writer swoops in only for the negative stories that make flashy, scandalous headlines back home. The GRC’s model sidesteps the high cost of bureaus while avoiding parachute journalism.

“The point is to challenge the foreign journalist parachute model by empowering journalists around the world, as well as non-journalist storytellers,” said Klein. “This notion of empowerment journalism is a big part of what we’re trying to do.”

The centre’s 18 projects include America’s Digital Dumping Ground — which exposed the impact of North American digital waste being dumped in China — and Alcoholics Unanonymous, which is ongoing and aims to empower people in indigenous communities to tell their own stories about alcohol dependence.

Despite this success, Klein and the GRC still face some key existential questions as the centre reaches its one year anniversary this month. They’re operating through space cobbled together by the journalism school and the Liu Institute of Global Studies, and it’s unclear if the GRC will be part of UBC or a standalone centre. He’s also working on a replacement for the soon-to-expire IRP class, which may run via the GRC.

For Klein, running the centre is something new, though he’s held managerial roles before. He feels stifled by the paperwork, but appreciates the flexibility it gives for choosing projects and for family time with his wife and four kids.

“I swore I’d never do management again,” he said. “But I think I've come full circle a little bit and I’m doing … the kinds of stories I want to do, with the people I want to work with. There’s a sacrifice you make for that.”

Klein’s come full circle in more than one way. Today, a small keyboard looms large next to the desk in his office — one of the few constants in his life. Before becoming a journalist, Klein was a jazz musician. Music has been an influence on his life and career ever since.

He even submitted a symphony with his application to Penn State . You might assume this was for their music program, but it was not. He was applying to the agricultural school’s wildlife sciences program, hoping to become a park ranger. It was a move at least as unusual as cooperating with competing journalists at the turn of the millennium.

No other genre of music provokes so much debate as jazz. Fans call it “defiant” and “inventive.” It’s a highly interactive genre known for creative collaboration. Miles Davis famously wrote in his autobiography, “I don’t care if a dude is purple with green breath as long as he can swing.” 

Klein’s brought the best of jazz to journalism.