By Global Journalist Staff Posted Dec 9 2009
GlobalPost is a U.S. news company whose editorial mission is to cover in-depth, international issues often forgotten by the mainstream press. The company was founded in January 2009 by Phillip Balboni, a former cable news network president, and Charles Sennott, an award winning journalist and author. Today, GlobalPost boasts 65 correspondents in nearly 50 countries and has close to 20 syndication partners (news services that use their content), including the New York Daily News, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Reuters.com and thehuffingtonpost.com. More information can be found on their missionís page at http://www.globalpost.com/mission-statement. Balboni is the President of the GlobalPost. He is also the founder and for the last 16 years, the president of the U.S.ís largest regional news network, the New England Cable News. The network reaches more than 3.6 million homes in six states. While Phillip was president of the NECN, the station won numerous awards including the George Foster Peabody Award, the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, two national Edward R. Murrow Awards, three national Gabrieal Awards as Television Station of the Year and a Walter Cronkite Award from the Annenberg School of the University of Southern California.
How did you come up with the idea for the GlobalPost?
This is actually something that I have wanted to do for almost 40 years… When I was at Columbia Journalism School in the early í70s, I actually had an idea to create an international news service for daily papers in the United States. I spent about a year and a half developing that, but I didnít know anything about business at the time. And I couldnít raise the money to do it, even though I had actually built up a considerable body of support. I had a distinguished board and correspondents in about 30 countries. At some point I needed to move on and get a job, and my life turned to television in 1972 until last spring of 2008 when I opened the door hereÖ But that idea of creating an international news organization had never died, and in those intervening years I saw the amount of international news coverage by the American news media, both print and television, continue to go down and down and down. So what I believed was needed in the early 1970s was profoundly needed by the beginning of this new century. I stepped down [from president of NECN] to create a business plan, and after about 2 years of work on that, I was able to raise the money for GlobalPost and launch the site and the business in January of this year. So thatís the short version of the story.
How is GlobalPost ís model successful? How are some of GlobalPostís innovative marketing strategies like Passport benefiting the company?
I think we have three revenue streams: advertising on the site, Passport, which is a paid membership model, and then the syndication of our content to newspapers, radio, TV networks and online sites for cash. Theyíre all in varying stages of development. The Passport membership is the most intriguing and interesting of all of them. It is also the most challenging and difficult because as you know people are not accustomed to paying for content online. There are very, very few exceptions to that. So what we are trying to do has never been done before… We created a site within a site and tried to provide deep interesting content and benefits that would be appealing to people who are very interested in global issues. And we set a price. What weíve learned over the last 10 months is an enormous amount, and I would say the learning process continues. We set the price much too high, we brought it down, and I donít know if we have it exactly right yet. We really didnít know much about ecommerce and building ecommerce systems. We had a huge challenge there, which we finally overcame. The real experience with Passport, from the point where it became more fully formed and we had the pricing more inline with something that would be reasonable, has been a relatively short period of time. By no means 10 months, Iíd say maybe four months. People are signing up every day; itís still a modest number, in the hundreds. We need to build that into the thousands, and we donít need to build it into the hundred of thousands, but we need to build it into the thousands. Our goal for next year is to have several thousand membersÖ and I think we can do that. We are looking at all kinds of ways to make the proposition more effective. Itís really the message that you are giving to people and how they feel about your site. People so far love GlobalPost; most people come back many, many times in the course of a month. A third come back 15 or more times [a month]. So they like whatís there. Getting the right message to them, that itís important to be a member of Passport to support the overall enterprise, is the message we have tried to communicate. I think itís one that resonates with a lot of people. People are fans of NPR or public television, for example, know this completely because they are donating to their local public radio station or to their local public television station to support the programming that they have come to depend upon. Itís somewhat similar here although weíre a business. But the idea is that great journalism, high quality journalism, in the digital age is not going to survive if we canít get people to support it directly, and thatís the bottom line. That is the challenge that not only GlobalPost faces but really traditional news organizations, newspapers and others, that have seen their business models upended by the transition of people online. Everyone is struggling to find out how they can engage readers online and get them to contribute to the support of those enterprises. As a new brand, of course, thatís even more challenging. We do not have a 100 years of history with people; we have 10 months. So we have to be smart and creative and work as quickly as we can to make the proposition to people that we need their support and that we need to give them something in exchange. And Passport is really what we are giving them. Itís a fascinating endeavor; there is not road map to all of this. It all depends on your ingenuity and your insights and your hard work.
How do you think news organizations can encouraged more Americans to read international news?
Well I donít know that itís possible to do that. I think what weíre doing is trying to give people really interesting stories. Thereís event oriented news, Obama in China. He goes to the Great Hall of the People, and he sits next to President Hu. They make a certain statement, and you write a story about that or you broadcast a story about that. Thatís one kind of international news. Thatís probably the most common kind. What GlobalPost is doing is very little of that because thatís pretty well available from conventional sources. What we are doing is telling interesting and important stories from all over the world that you donít find anywhere else. And when you begin to see those stories and youíre exposed to them, theyíre fascinating, interesting, and it opens up a whole new realm of insight for people. So we need to bring them to GlobalPost, I think thatís the bottom line. Thatís why we formed a wide array of partnerships with other media to gain exposure for our brand and bring people to our site. This is the way we are going to do it. I donít think anyone can take on the challenge of getting people to be more interested in international news. Itís maybe like getting people to eat their spinach. I think what we can do is create a site thatís interesting, that has powerful story telling and find ways to help people to know that this site exists and to get them to come. 43% of all people that go to GlobalPost return, which is a very high percentage. So we are succeeding in getting people to come back to us because they find it very interesting.
What do you hope will be the legacy of the GlobalPost?
I hope that we will build a vibrant news organization and company that demonstrates that high quality journalism can survive and prosper in the digital age. We can be a model for others to follow because I believe even in the midst of all the difficult and disturbing news about journalism today that this is the time of extraordinary opportunity. Itís the most exciting time in many respects that has existed in my lifetime as a journalist, and this is my 43rd year in the profession. The Internet has made possible the opportunity to create new sites to offer reporting for people and to build an audience without anybody able to interfere with you. You donít have to buy printing presses. You donít have to buy a television license. You donít have to create a magazine and send out copies through wholesale distributors. You donít have to make deals with cable companies to get carried. You only have to open up a website, have good content and be clever enough to get it notice. That is a very exciting wonderful opportunity. I hope we can set an example for others to followóthat you can do something of very high quality, that you can make it successful financially and editorially, and create a good living. I think thatís what young journalist everywhere in America want to believe is possible, and they want to be part of it.
Is there a potential problem with many news sources getting their international news from one organization?
I think there is, but I donít think that exists now. The news landscape is very fragmented. If you look at the studies done by the Pew Center, more people get their news from television than from any other source. The audience for the network evening newscasts, broadcasts now we are talking about, have dramatically declined. Each night maybe 12 million people in America watch the evening news, and there is relatively little international news there. Newspapers in every city and townóthere are about 1400 newspapersóthey donít carry a great deal of international news. Most of that comes from the Associated Press and also from some other sources like Reuters or some of the supplemental news services, and hopefully GlobalPost will be a significant contributor there overtime. Now there is the whole online world. People can go anywhere. They can go to the BBC, they can go to other English sources of news, and they can go directly to a newspaper in another country. So I think the Internet opens up all kinds of opportunities for people to have diverse sources. Yet itís true that people like to have things organized for them and make it easy for them to find what theyíre looking for. The answer to the question is yes, conceptually it would be bad for that to happen, but we are not there.