A year ago, GlobalPost launched online with an ambitious mission to “redefine international news for the digital age…with a decidedly American voice.” The idea was to hire freelance stringers around the world to report back to the U.S., and thereby fill the gap left by the closure of traditional media’s foreign bureaus. While the site has forged important partnerships with CBS News and others, its hybrid business model of online sponsorships and a paid premium service has been slow to gain traction.

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Phil Balboni

When I spoke to GlobalPost CEO Phil Balboni last year, he was confident that an online-only news operation could be leaner than a legacy one. “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,” he told me.

One year later, Balboni said he is proud of the work done by the army of GlobalPost correspondents in 50 countries, including World of Trouble, a massive report on the global economic crisis that included work from 20 correspondents. The site also broke the story that U.S. military aid to Afghanistan was helping enrich the Taliban.

“I think we succeeded in our first year by bringing back great international coverage, with extraordinary reporting,” Balboni said. “We now have a legion of freelancers, and have had 4 million unique visitors in all of 2009. Our goal was to hit 600,000 monthly visitors to our site, and we exceeded that with 750,000 visitors last November, and 618,000 visitors in December.”

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Multimedia report from GlobalPost on the Taliban

Balboni was also happy with the growing number of syndication partners for GlobalPost’s content. Last September, GlobalPost announced a partnership with CBS News that has brought in more exposure and pay for its correspondents, some of whom have been featured on the “CBS Evening News.” Not only did Balboni promise to be a non-partisan outlet, he delivered with partnerships with outlets across the political spectrum, from Huffington Post to Reuters to Newsmax. GlobalPost headlines are even featured on Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly’s home page.

Seth Kugel, a GlobalPost correspondent based in Brazil, told me the CBS News partnership paid dividends for him.

“I have made a decent amount of money from the partnership with CBS, which shows that they are being pro-active about getting us opportunities with their partners,” Kugel told me via email. “I really feel GlobalPost understands reporters and does everything they can to support us, within their limited means.”

Business Model Challenges

While the site has established itself as a player in the news business in its first year, it has also struggled to bring in steady revenues from its premium Passport service, which has just 400 subscribers. The site initially planned to charge $199 per year for access to special content from correspondents and inside information. The price is now down to $99 per year, with a discounted $50 rate for seniors or academics.

Balboni told me Passport members especially liked being included in the story-making process via a feature called “Foreign Desk” that allows them to suggest topics and story ideas to editors. But he also said GlobalPost did not meet its revenue goals in its first year, hitting the same wall as other media companies during the economic meltdown. Balboni said GlobalPost is revamping Passport and will announce something on that front in the spring.

So far, Balboni said advertising is bringing in about 70 percent of revenues, with syndication deals and Passport bringing in 30 percent. He hopes the split will move closer to a more ideal 50/50. “The less dependent we are on ads, the better,” he said.

Steve Safran, editor in chief of Lost Remote, has worked with Balboni in the past as a consultant to GlobalPost and at Balboni’s previous venture, the New England Cable News network. Safran says Balboni succeeded in establishing GlobalPost as a respected news site.

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Alan Mutter

“GlobalPost has had a successful first year by any measure,” Safran told me via email. “I dare say that this, its second year, will be even more critical. This is when we’ll see if the the site and its reporting can keep growing to a point where it’s clear whether this is a successful business model.”

Alan Mutter, a media consultant and Newsosaur blogger, was also impressed with the ambition, scope and seriousness of GlobalPost, but took issue with the tone and content.

“The work typically is solid, but often prosaic and seldom distinguished,” Mutter said via email. “You can get more up-to-the-minute news at Google News and many of the articles seem to lack the political, economic and strategic insight that characterizes the best of foreign reporting…I suspect they will get better and find their voice as time goes on.”

Support for Correspondents

One of the challenges for GlobalPost is keeping its corps of freelance correspondents happy. The correspondents receive stock options in GlobalPost, as well as about $1,000 per month to produce one 800-word reported piece per week in addition to blog-like “Notebook” entries. That pay is not nearly enough to cover living expenses for most correspondents, who must field other full-time or freelance gigs to survive.

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Jean MacKenzie

Jean MacKenzie is the GlobalPost correspondent in Afghanistan who broke the story on U.S. aid going to the Taliban. She told me via email that the exposure she’s received while being a correspondent for GlobalPost has been satisfying. But she had to run an NGO that trains journalists in Kabul in order to make enough money.

“I have relished being a reporter again, and I believe that having to produce my own stories has made me a better trainer as well,” she said. “The downside, of course, is the lack of adequate financial compensation, which keeps me from being able to devote as much time as I would like. In order to live and work in Kabul, which is a surprisingly expensive environment, I have to have a full-time job in addition to GlobalPost. That makes things a bit frustrating, since I sometimes cannot get as deeply into the story as I would otherwise.”

Kugel, the Brazil correspondent, also has to juggle other freelance writing work with his GlobalPost reporting. Kugel said he would appreciate getting paid more, though he’s thankful that the company has covered some expenses, in addition to the extra work for CBS News.

“Of course, I would like to be paid more, and there have been times where I’ve put in many days on a story and realized that my hourly pay was something god-awful,” he said. “But most stories are not like that, and these days [GlobalPost] has gotten much more flexible about allowing us to do major projects that pay more, and give us expenses to work with…I should note that no one can live off what GlobalPost pays, but that is part of the model: we’re freelancers that devote ourselves part-time to GlobalPost.”

David Carr, media reporter for the New York Times, is amazed by the diversity and quality of the content at GlobalPost, but worries that correspondents who come from legacy media backgrounds might not be able to pass the torch to a new generation of seasoned reporters.

“Many of the best people who file on GlobalPost are correspondents who gained years or even decades of experience while living in far-flung lands on the nickel of MSM outlets,” Carr told me via email. “Those operations now find themselves in reduced circumstances and as a result have cut their global news efforts and the people who make it happen…I’m thrilled to still be reading the work of many of them, but once that generation of talent that was sustained and educated under an old media paradigm peters out, where will the talent come from?”

While GlobalPost has done a good job establishing its credentials as a serious, non-partisan news organization, it still has work to do in exploiting the online medium. Balboni said they had plans to integrate Facebook more deeply into the site, the way that Huffington Post has. And while they have increased video reports to at least two on-location reports per week, the videos are still not embeddable.

[CORRECTION: GlobalPost’s Richard Byrne pointed out that the videos are indeed embeddable, with a “Share” button at the top left part of the video. I stand corrected, though it could be designed a bit better to make that more obvious.]

“In many ways, GlobalPost piggy-backs on other organizations, since a correspondent is forced to use resources from other jobs (Internet, housing, drivers, translators, etc.),” MacKenzie said. “This is not exactly fair. But as I have said, these are teething problems that will have to be worked out if the organization is to progress. GP will have to have dedicated reporters, not stringers who have to chase a million other gigs in order to survive. For now, we are all feeling our way forward — can this new model work? If it does, it is an exciting step for journalism.”

*****

What do you think about what GlobalPost has accomplished in its first year? What do you think it could improve, and would you be willing to pay for a premium membership? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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