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    GlobalPost Aims to Resuscitate Foreign Correspondents Online

    by Mark Glaser
    January 8, 2009

    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.

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    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.

    We're not a left-leaning organization or a right-leaning organization, we are a journalism organization." -- Phil Balboni, CEO of GlobalPost

    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.

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    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.

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    Philip Balboni

    “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.

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    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.

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    Jason Overdorf

    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.

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    Seth Kugel

    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.”

    GlobalPost Facts

    > 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?

    Tagged: blogs foreign correspondents globalpost startups
    • Hi Mark, long time and all that. We haven’t chatted since Scoopt days and the WeMedia conference in London way back…

      I think there’s a lot to like about this model; relatively low overheads in comparison to a trad. print outlet, multiple income streams, the shares for reporters and hopefully interesting content.

      However, what immediately turns me off is the focus on reporting solely for an American audience. I’m not sure what that will mean until I see the reports on the site, but I kinda take Georgia’s line in that what interests local people most should interest me or be important for me to know regardless of my nationality.

      I too worry about the reporter’s online credentials – will be interested to see how much linking out goes on. I think pulling in the RSS feed of 350 blogs is a good idea to pad the site out with other voices. Although I wonder if filtering out the crappy here’s-a-picture-of-my-cute-cat posts might not prove time consuming. Or indeed, will those bloggers syndicating to GP adapt their style?

      Their blogger recruitment method wasn’t entirely savvy and you’ve got to wonder about their understanding of the online world to have made the basic error I touched on that at the end of this post:

      http://www.fromthefrontline.co.uk/blogs/index.php?blog=5&title=global_post_looks_to_engage_bloggers&more=1&c=1&tb=1&pb=1

      Also, with $8 million or so of investment cash you’ve got to wonder how fast that’ll burn with nearly 70 reporters and (I think) 17 U.S. based staff and all the related office costs.

      Having said all that, any operation looking to increase the amount of foreign news and get people talking about foreign news can only be a good thing. I’m looking forward to seeing how the get on.

    • Hi Graham,
      Good to hear from you, and thanks for sharing your thoughts on GlobalPost. I agree that posting comments to a blog is probably not the best way to pitch a blogger on a service. However, sometimes it is difficult to find contact info on some blogs. Your blog post explains the whole thing really well. I am also hoping GlobalPost can add more original foreign news to the mix online.

      I think you raise a really good point about how they are aiming at an American audience. If you are going to be an online-only publication, wouldn’t it make sense to consider your audience as global?

    • Am fascinated and intrigued by GlobalPost and look forward to seeing their launch next week.

      Mark, to respond to your last comment, looking at business model potential from an advertising and syndication position, it actually makes less sense to target a global audience. Drilling down by region, country and demographic is much more viable– and easier to sell. This is a lesson I’ve learned through my own global news startup, GroundReport.com.

      But from a journalism perspective, I think the idea of serving the global public with vetted news reporting–especially as sources and funding dwindle– is much more compelling. I would also challenge the assumption, like Georgia, that Americans won’t be interested in what local foreign reporters have to say. And I don’t see why we can’t challenge the convention that Foreign Correspondents must, in fact, be American.

      It reflects the kind of counterintuitive thinking that has hindered American intelligence efforts– “let’s exclude foreigners from the fact-gathering process because they can’t be trusted.” Intelligence agencies have finally begun reversing this–with the appropriate security vetting– and making progress.

      Both intelligence and journalism are about fact -gathering. A foreign news outlet that goes beyond the American mindset and perspective by including international voices has the potential to evolve world news, and potentially, global relations.

    • Mark, this piece offers some key insights into the workings of GlobalPost, whose development many of us at Global Voices have been following with great excitement and interest. Like Graham above, we’re all for projects that bring international news stories into the spotlight, and we very much consider GlobalPost to be fellow travelers in this regard.

      I would like, however, to correct a couple of misconceptions in Phil Balboni’s statement with respect to Global Voices. Mr. Balboni is quoted in the piece as saying that “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.”

      Firstly, we do consider the work we engage in to be journalistic, in the sense that our editors and authors report on the activity in blogospheres in various parts of the world, filtering that content and giving it context and shape. We’re widely used by journalists as a source of information and story leads.

      And secondly, while our decision to focus mainly on the developing world may be “political” in the broad sense of the word, we’re not political in the partisan sense that Mr. Balboni’s comment appears to suggest. Our content in fact follows the contours of the global blogosphere. Our editors and authors refrain from expressing their own political viewpoints when reporting on the speech of others, and the articles on our site at any given time may highlight an array of political perspectives.

      These are nevertheless quite common misconceptions, and we’re always happy for the opportunity to clarify them

    • Maybe Global Post will choose to change the focus after launch. There’s a certain kind of arrogance to the ‘foreign news for Americans by Americans’ line that doesn’t sit well for us non-Americans… I hope they loosen up on that.

      I’m really think they could be on to something with all the strands of their business model come together. Keeping my fingers crossed for them on that.

      But, please, please GP, stop with the crappy copy and paste public comments recruiting bloggers. Up from 69 results a day or two ago to 368…

      http://www.google.com/search?q=“My+name+is+John+Wilpers.+I+am+the+Global+Blog+Coordinator+for+GlobalPost”&hl=en&safe=off&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&hs=pje&filter=0

      They’re obviously on a bit of a final recruitment push… And I disagree Mark, it’s not that difficult to find a name, email, Twitter, Skype address. Anyone who has blogged for long enough for GP to be interested in has a large enough online presence to be easily discoverable. Just my two cents ;)

      Looking forward to Monday.

    • @ Graham –

      “I think pulling in the RSS feed of 350 blogs is a good idea to pad the site out with other voices. Although I wonder if filtering out the crappy here’s-a-picture-of-my-cute-cat posts might not prove time consuming. Or indeed, will those bloggers syndicating to GP adapt their style?”

      As one of those,happily, supplying my RSS feed to GlobalPost, and a blogger who was approached in a reasonable fashion by GP’s blog hunters, I too am wondering what the other blogs will be like. I don’t think there will be too many cute-cat-picture posts!

      I’ve been told by John Wilpers, who is the one responsible for tracking down blogs for GP, that there is some astonishing stuff out there. I shall be heading to the new GP site tomorrow to see what the other blogs are like. I’m intrigued.

      As for raising the standard of our blogs to GP, I’ve been told to continue to do what I do, but I will bear in mind that my blog is being featured on a potentially top quality world news site.

      And getting nominated as one of the worlds top 350 blogs is one thing, keeping your blog there may be another matter entirely. I have no illusions about this – if I start writing about my cuddly cats, it’ll be bye bye GlobalPost!

      Oh, I have published the odd picture of our cuddly dog, so maybe my days are already numbered…

      All the best and Happy New Year from Italy,

      Alex

    • vernorstanton

      Global Post should only hire American citizens. If they hire local journalists, they will be feed the local bias. This is especially true in nationalistic countries in Asia. Global Post will be only getting part of the story, along with the party line. The same goes for all US news organizations: hiring locals is a slap in the face to all American journos. Fire the non-Americans!

    • Emma Heald

      For more on GlobalPost and the reaction of the established media see: http://www.editorsweblog.org/analysis/2009/01/doing_more_with_less_globalpost_brings_b.php

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