Years ago, Peter Klein was talking to a man from Doctors Without Borders, the globe-trotting physicians' network that treats illnesses around the world.
Klein, a veteran journalist, was looking for a story, so he asked: What's the biggest public health issue that gets zero attention?
The answer came back immediately.
"It wasn't cholera, AIDS, malaria or any of that obvious stuff," Klein said. "All of those things get attention. But most people will end up dying, often in pain, because most people in the world can't access palliative care."
Palliative care, or, in a word, morphine. Painkillers. Because of the global war on drugs, it can be difficult for people in many countries to obtain drugs that dull lethal pain, even if they export the ingredients. Klein had his story, and it was one that hadn't been told exhaustively elsewhere.
And it provided an early template for the kind of stories that Klein, a former full-time producer for "60 Minutes," wanted to tell.
Eight years ago, he received a million-dollar grant from the Vancouver-based Mindset Social Innovation Foundation to start the International Reporting Program at the University of British Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, where he's a professor.
The idea: Use the money to take his students around the world to tackle "big, wonky topics" that weren't getting much attention. Logging. Palliative care. Mental illness. Students would team up with veteran journalists and academics and spend a year on one big project that could be published through partnerships with a high-profile media organization.
But there were a couple of problems with this model: Firstly, doing big projects with students wound up being more expensive than paying professionals to tackle them, Klein said. The quality of the projects was inevitably lower, and they took longer to produce. So, for the last year and a half, Klein has been reimagining the project as the Global Reporting Centre, a nonprofit that pairs scholars, leading journalists and news organizations to cover neglected stories around the world.
"We're jumping in and saying, 'These are big issues that are just not being covered or not being covered in any depth,'" Klein said.
So far, Klein says, the Center has about $2 million in funding, mostly in dribs and drabs from the various projects that are in the works. It's based at the University of British Columbia in Canada and has three full-time staffers: Klein, the director, Dave Rummel, the managing editor, and Britney Dennison, the deputy director. The official launch was two weeks ago, with a kickoff event aimed at reimagining global reporting.
The Global Reporting Centre is, in part, a response to the decreasing foreign coverage throughout America's newsrooms in the wake of industry-wide cutbacks throughout the 2000s, Klein said. When U.S. newspapers began shuttering their foreign bureaus, readers back home lost an important pipeline of international news.
But the stories are still out there, Klein said. Now that a growing number of news organizations — The New York Times, BuzzFeed and Vice among them — are beginning to tap into international markets in a bid to grow their audiences, it's clear that there is an appetite for news that stretches beyond the borders of the United States.
"There's a lot of good intentions, and I think that there's some real investment in this kind of work," Klein said. "But they're putting more money in the foreign correspondence work that's always been done."
Klein says the journalism produced by the Global Reporting Centre will differ from traditional foreign correspondence in a few ways. For starters, it will often seek out journalists in their own countries to tell important stories rather than parachuting American correspondents in.
"Strangers at Home," a project on the rise of xenophobia throughout Europe, for example, has been mostly tackled by journalists who live in Europe's Roma and Jewish communities.
Similarly, the center also plans to create regional chapters in other countries. Klein hopes those satellite chapters will be able to pull in donations from charities and corporate philanthropies in their respective countries. The idea is to start with India as a pilot and, if successful, expand to other countries like Hong Kong and Brazil.
Some of this expansion is dependent on getting additional funding. Klein said the Global Reporting Centre is currently shortlisted for a $2.5 million dollar grant that would enable the nonprofit to cover supply chains around the world. If he gets the grant, Klein plans to launch a reporting project in partnership with Pulitzer Prize winners Walt Bogdanich of The New York Times and Martha Mendoza of The Associated Press.
For Klein, who spent decades in journalism, the center's work will hopefully be a departure from the "America-centric" approach to global reporting that he experienced in U.S. newsrooms.
"As I've gotten older as a journalist, I've grown to realize there's a bigger world out there," Klein said. "As my maturity grew, the funding — and to some extent, the interest — of mainstream journalism kind of declined. So there was a growing gap between what I wanted to do and what I was able to do, Even with the most-resourced and best news organizations."
"The center goes beyond the traditional investigative work," he said. "It's about finding those stories. They're out there. There just aren't enough people looking for them."