Mr. Powers: How would you like to cover the biggest story in the world today?
Johnny Jones: Give me an expense account and I’ll cover anything.
There has always been a touch of glamour associated with foreign correspondents, able to live in far-away lands and report on wars and strife, as in the Alfred Hitchcock movie “Foreign Correspondent,” quoted above. But today, Johnny Jones would likely be brought back from Europe in a round of cost-cutting at his newspaper, as foreign bureaus disappear at most American media outlets.
But Phil Balboni, the man who started the New England Cable News channel when no one thought 24-hour regional news TV would work, thinks he can bring new life to foreign correspondents with an online hub called GlobalPost, due to launch next Monday. His ambitious goal is to make GlobalPost the nerve center for American foreign correspondents, just as Politico has thrived as an axis of political journalism.
How can he succeed in a field where many major media are pulling back? Balboni told me his main advantage is not having legacy infrastructure.
“The problem with most of these organizations is that the revenue base for their enterprise is eroding for a variety of reasons,” he said. “They have expensive infrastructures that they are starting to eliminate. We don’t have any legacy costs. We have the good fortune to be able to build this from the ground up, and we’ve built it in a lean and focused way. So the barrier to being successful and profitable is not high…We can do it on the web, where we can reach our audience very inexpensively and [we’ve developed] a business model that allows us to be profitable without having to jump over the moon.”
That business model includes site sponsors, who pay for long-term association with the website, as well as syndication deals with newspapers and a $199-per-year premium offering called Passport with more inside information. Balboni has built a team of top-flight journalists, including former Boston Globe foreign bureau chief Charles Sennott and former advertising director for Boston Magazine James Bandera — along with 65 foreign correspondents in 46 countries.
Learning to be Online Natives
While GlobalPost might have no legacy infrastructure, the leading lights of the site have more legacy media experience than online savvy. That could cause problems for a new media startup that will live its life online. Balboni brought in blog consultant John Wilpers to pick out 300-plus outside blogs from around the world to feature on the site. And Balboni defended his team’s online experience, noting that the site’s managing editor for the web, Barbara Martinez, came from Politico.
“In my previous venture, we launched NECN.com as the first all-video website in 1997, and [it remained] an all-video website for the last 11 years,” Balboni said. “We were way ahead of our time, but it’s still evolving. [At GlobalPost] we can provide a full suite of content — well-told stories in text that are not too long, use of video. We want to do a lot of great photography and narrated slide shows. We will invite comments and interaction with our users.”
Balboni told me his staff is looking at experimenting and thinking outside the box, but there’s still an almost quaint dichotomy on the site between what is “journalism” and what is a “blog.” For instance, the foreign correspondents will file regular 800-word objective reports each week intended to be free of bias, partisanship or opinion. They will also work on blog-like “Reporter’s Notebooks” where they are again forbidden from showing subjectivity. But then there will be feeds from independent bloggers running on the site with big disclaimers that the material has not been edited.
Balboni said that all the content will be clearly delineated so readers won’t get confused between the correspondents’ reports and the outside blog feeds. He explained why his foreign correspondents are still necessary despite all the additional news sources online.
“It’s what great reporting brings that no one else does,” he said. “The trained eye. The ability to ask the right questions, and take that information and weave it into a great story. That’s a skill that takes experience, training, and it is not what you find, for the most part, on a blog. Maybe to some it seems naive or old-fashioned but there are standards of journalism that some of us adhere to and some of us think they’re important. And it’s important for people reading too, so they know it’s comprehensive and objective and not from a political point of view. Many of the non-journalist sources, like Global Voices and the blogs, come from a political perspective. We’re not a left-leaning organization or a right-leaning organization, we are a journalism organization.”
The Workload of the Nouveau Correspondent
To stay lean, GlobalPost is not giving correspondents the Johnny Jones expense account from days of yore. Instead, they pay them about $1,000 per month (according to a Forbes report) along with a stake in the GlobalPost startup. The correspondents are on long-term contracts, so they can depend on that monthly stipend for some of their income, but they are expected to file weekly 800-word text reports with photos or video reports and are encouraged to blog in their Reporter’s Notebooks.
Jason Overdorf, a former editor at Dow Jones and currently a special correspondent for Newsweek, is now also a GlobalPost correspondent in India. He admitted that the days when foreign correspondents enjoyed lavish living were coming to an end.
“I want the five-bedroom apartment and houseful of servants, health insurance, 401(k) and a week in Bali every year,” he told me via email. “But…the reality of being a foreign correspondent today is that you’re no longer going to be able to live like an expat in a hardship posting — or at least not very many people are. GlobalPost pays very little from the standard point of view I take as a freelancer — either a word rate or a day rate…[But] I know I’m getting four stories a month — which is a commitment that most ‘strings’ don’t give you.”
As for getting a stake in the company, Overdorf thinks it could pay off in the long run for him.
“I’m excited about the idea of getting a stake in the company, because I missed out on the fun of the whole dot-com startup boom and bust, but I’m not holding my breath until I get my big buyout from Microsoft or whatever,” he said. “Those shares are like lottery tickets — though the odds are a bit better, I hope — but if things keep going the way they have been going, they might wind up being the only thing that prevents me from living on canned dog food when I’m too old to work.”
Overdorf is a bit wary about working with video, a medium with which he has little experience. He told me that he respects the work done by professional photographers and videographers, and hopes that the GlobalPost editors will help “make the stuff that I manage to shoot look like cool guerrilla footage rather than somebody’s home movies.”
For correspondents in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, GlobalPost is relying on security costs being picked up by the correspondents’ other gigs. Balboni told me GlobalPost wasn’t aiming to report in war zones, but that if a correspondent wanted to cover a conflict in their country, the editors would first have to talk to them about the risks involved. Most foreign correspondents in war zones spend thousands of dollars on fixers and security to travel around dangerous areas.
So who would be attracted to the GlobalPost foreign correspondent job? Columbia University graduate journalism school student Nikolaj Gammeltoft told me he heard Balboni speak at his school, and thought GlobalPost jobs were more suited for “the young and hungry” because of the mid-line pay. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t sign up. “Would I sign up if I lived for a couple of years in India doing freelance work?: Yes!” he said.
Foreign Correspondents vs. Local Journalists
I wondered why GlobalPost was so interested in having Americans report from other countries rather than using local correspondents, who might better know the terrain and would likely have a lower cost of living as well. Georgia Popplewell, managing director for Global Voices Online, an aggregator of blog content from around the world, had the same concern about GlobalPost.
“I still think that in the current climate a more sustainable model for an international news bureau would be one that cultivated local journalists,” she said via email. “The main reason for the closure of foreign desks is financial — yet a good portion of [GlobalPost’s] budget is obviously going to be devoted toward paying the living expenses of their non-local correspondents…I’m not denying that knowledge and experience count for a great deal in journalism. I’m saying, rather, that there are often local journalists with knowledge and experience equivalent to or greater than that of the people GlobalPost is sending in.”
In an email to me, Seth Kugel, a GlobalPost correspondent in Brazil, noted the advantages and disadvantages of being an outsider reporting there:
Huge advantage: an eye for what would be useful, unusual or interesting to an American audience. The best stories I’ve found so far in Brazil are ones local journalists would not even realize are stories…
Huge disadvantage: a lack of contacts, and the need to cover a very broad array of topics, whereas most local journalists, of course, have specific beats. Of course, in a way, the local Portuguese-language press, which in Brazil is very sophisticated, becomes a great source, even if 99% of what they publish is of little use to Americans. It’s amazing how a throwaway line in an article in a paper like Folha de Sao Paulo or Correio Braziliense can spark an idea for a whole different story.
Balboni told me that GlobalPost wasn’t averse to using local journalists as correspondents, but that it wanted its correspondents to understand the American target audience better than foreigners could.
“We did not set up a filter that said no local journalists could work for us,” Balboni said. “It turned out that most of the correspondents we hired are Americans. We want an American voice, we want our correspondents to write with an understanding of this country, its politics and culture, and know the interests of the American people. That’s hard to do if you haven’t lived here in some time.”
Breaking the Mold
The big question for GlobalPost at launch is whether a group of largely traditional journalists can innovate online. Balboni is convinced that they will figure out how to connect with an audience online, and said that there are plans to include audience-submitted content in some way in the future. The premium Passport service will include a “certain amount of democracy about what stories we pursue,” he said.
“Phil [Balboni] has a long record of pioneering ideas that other people in the business thought were crazy,” said Steve Safran, a VP at Audience Research & Development who worked for Balboni at NECN. “He founded NECN when the idea of a 24-hour local cable news channel was unproven and even derided. He showed that he was willing to ride it out until it became a profitable venture…He is taking advantage of the new tools that are out there — portable cameras, laptop editing, easy delivery of video — to fill a gap in journalism…I look forward to seeing the kinds of stories GlobalPost chooses and whether the American audience embraces the concept.”
> Headquartered in Boston
> $8.2 million in seed funding from 14 individual investors so far
> 65 correspondents in 46 countries
> Traffic goal: 600,000 unique visitors per month by the end of ’09
> 350 target sponsors, with one unnamed advertiser signed up already
Source: GlobalPost CEO Philip Balboni
What do you think about GlobalPost’s chances to revive foreign correspondents? Do you think their business model is viable? What could they do to make themselves a successful online outfit? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
UPDATE [1/12/09]: Today GlobalPost launched on the web and it has a bold, colorful look with big pictures all over. I like the feeling of depth that is has in content and in how much of the world is being covered. I also like the integration of news wire headlines and the way the blog posts are being incorporated in each region.
Those who were worried about an American-centric view had their fears realized as the main set of stories at launch was called For Which It Stands. It has reports from around the globe on how people view America. As one commenter points out:
The first piece, right out of the box, and it’s an Obama heals-the-world-love-fest. I thought this was going to be a re-thought news site for out of work foreign correspondents and journalists. It’s already looking to be Reuters-lite.
I don’t think it’s time to make such pronouncements about a site that’s one day old. I really enjoyed the country view, with a capsule on the history of the country and a timeline of events. The maps were also helpful in navigation. In my surfing around the site, I didn’t see any videos posted, but that should change over time. What do you think?