Transcript: Bringing Back the World to the World News

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Interview with Phil Balboni, GlobalPost CEO and Founder

For podcast release Monday, August 12, 2013

KENNEALLY: Once upon a time, journalists could reasonably say, “we don’t make the news, we only report it.” In 2013, though, journalism is the story. E-commerce pioneer Jeff Bezos has purchased the Washington Post from longtime owners the Graham family, reminding everyone of the struggle for survival now overwhelming the newspaper business in the United States. In newsrooms, in boardrooms, and in living rooms, the question is put: Is high-quality, professional news reporting entering its last days?

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. My name is Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. In the GlobalPost newsroom overlooking Boston Harbor, editors and reporters are giving many readers around the world reason to believe that professional journalism does indeed have a place in a digital, mobile world. The online-only news site has earned a reputation for international news reporting in just a few short years, filling gaps in US news coverage left where the old guard has retreated. Joining us on Beyond the Book is Phil Balboni, president, CEO, and founder of GlobalPost. Phil, welcome to Beyond the Book.

BALBONI: Good to be with you. Thank you.

KENNEALLY: Well, thank you for joining us. You know, it’s the worst of times, it’s the best of times for journalism. I want to ask you first, what does GlobalPost do that traditional media either gets wrong or hasn’t figured out yet?

BALBONI: Well, I don’t think I would look at it quite that way. I think we’re all in the same boat. Whether you’re traditional media, new media, purely digital like GlobalPost, the challenges are similar. Of course, if you are a legacy media brand, whether that be a newspaper or a television station or a network or a magazine, you carry over from, shall we say, the old world into this early 21st century problems that are not only lingering, they are worsening. So that’s one thing we don’t have.

KENNEALLY: And those problems would be?

BALBONI: Those problems are a massive migration of consumers to digital, whether that’s online or mobile. Mobile, of course, is becoming enormously important –smartphones, tablet computers, what have you. If you have a legacy media operation, print circulation, if that be your business, it continues to decline across the board. Everyone is experiencing it, with very, very few exceptions.

Even when people raise the price of the newspaper or the magazine, it usually isn’t enough to keep up with the decline in revenue. Advertising revenue in traditional media, particularly print, also continues to go down at a fairly alarming clip. This is some of the most prestigious and valuable brands – New York Times, so on and so forth.

These problems have not been resolved. The migration to digital is wonderful in many respects, but the Internet advertising economy is immensely complicated. It is not nearly as financially rewarding as the old world, shall we say. And these problems do not, as yet, have a solution. I would be the last person in the world to suggest that we have something figured out that no one else has.

I’ll tell you what we do have that is, I think, a great strength. Number one – I think we have an incredibly interesting niche in global news coverage. It’s one that many people have departed from. Most people have. There’s only a handful of people left who are doing it, in terms of original reporting. We have our arms around the world, and we have an opportunity to tell really important stories that aren’t being told by many other people. That’s a great opportunity, and it’s an exciting one.

We understand that, since the American audience is our primary focus, that in America not everyone is interested in international news. But there is a large segment of people who are. They tend to be the most affluent, the best educated. Many of them are very young, because young people are very interested in the world. So that’s one great advantage.

Another one is that we built GlobalPost from scratch. We created our entire operation to be highly efficient, to produce high-quality content at the lowest possible cost. We really have tremendous control over our cost structure. While we spend millions of dollars, it’s a modest amount of cost compared to the scale of what we’re doing, and it gives us a greater opportunity to be financially successful.

This is not something that legacy media is able to do. They’re busy – I’m sure you see it all the time – almost every day you can read a story about this newspaper or that newspaper or a magazine or a television station is cutting back, laying off. This has been going on steadily for five or six years, and it hasn’t stopped. Maybe it’s moderated, but it hasn’t stopped.

I think, lastly, operating in the purely digital realm is – you develop a sensibility. You only have that one focus. We only live in this world. Everything that we do is focused on that. It’s in your DNA, and you really are focused on it. You don’t have divided loyalties. You don’t have to worry about getting that print newspaper out and delivered to Mr. Jones, who lives 50 miles away.

Everything that we do is focused on the digital consumer. That continues to be a huge growth industry, not only in the US, but around the world. We have a very global audience. Every single month, we have readers from more than 220 countries – almost every country in the entire world.

KENNEALLY: Well, that digital native status is clearly important to you. But I wonder if you could help distinguish the kind of coverage the GlobalPost does as well as – or from Reuters or Agence France-Presse – that kind of thing.

BALBONI: Sure. While we cover breaking news, we tend to focus our reporting on four principal areas, where we think we can excel and we can do things that others aren’t doing. That’s politics – global politics – business, culture and conflict. Those are kind of our specialty areas. You mentioned Reuters and Agence France-Presse. We actually license both of those excellent news agencies. Their content appears on GlobalPost in a quite high volume. So we give our readers the opportunity to follow all of those stories.

We also license four other international agencies in Asia and in Europe. We have an extraordinary range and volume of that kind of material, which is the stories of the day – some of them important and some of them not so, but they all have some level of interest among readers somewhere. We can really target our reporting to focus on really interesting perspective on the world. We’ve expanded our team of full-time correspondents. Now we have 13 of them and we have another 50 who are purely freelance.

It’s a fascinating editorial challenge. I always say that journalists have the opportunity to take the spotlight and train it across the landscape, and you can stop anywhere. It’s a big landscape. There’s no science to it. It’s really all art, and what an editor or editors believe is important and what reporters can reach and cover.

We’re still very young. So we’re still determining how to best refine what the GlobalPost brand means to people, how we can be most valuable in this world. This is a process I can imagine going on for at least another five years before, hopefully, we’ve landed on just the right formula where we believe that we’re important, that we’re doing something good and substantive in journalism, and that also meets the needs of our readers.

KENNEALLY: You mentioned licensing deals to put content from Reuters and AFP on your site, but you’ve also done some licensing deals that will put your material onto most recently the NBC.com site, as well as, in the past, CBS and PBS. When you’re going to be licensing content to those American organizations, what do they tell you they’re looking for in GlobalPost? I think they need, first of all, an assurance of credible, high-quality journalism. That’s clearly an important point to them.

BALBONI: Sure. Well, syndication is part of our business model. The NBC agreement is the apex of that, for sure. Our agreement with NBC is very broad ranging, so that we are making our correspondents available to them 24/7 to help with their coverage. Television networks have greatly reduced their foreign bureaus. They usually only have a handful of people who are actually resident overseas. Usually they’re clustered in places like London, maybe Tokyo, a few other places. We’re able to help them be sure that when something happens, there’s somebody that they can trust that’s close by.

We’re also making our content available – not all of it, but a portion of our content – that can be published on nbcnews.com, and we’re working with them in a variety of other ways. It gives them a trusted partner whose focus is purely international to augment what they’re able to do themselves.

Because NBC is multi-platform – you know, they have NBC broadcast network, they have MSNBC, CNBC for business, and then they have a very big digital platform – they’re very interesting in the range of opportunities that it presents to us for assisting with their coverage of the world.

KENNEALLY: Tell us more about the correspondents who are providing that kind of coverage. They are all Americans – is that correct?

BALBONI: Most of them are Americans. Probably 80% or 90% are. That isn’t a criterion that’s hard and fast. It just seems to turn out that way. Usually, American journalists write with the idiom and the ear that’s best for the audience that’s the most important to us. But we certainly have others. Our principal conflict reporter, Tracey Shelton, is Australian, and we have others. Our London, UK, correspondent happens to be British. But most of them are American.

KENNEALLY: For those correspondents, what’s the relationship you have with them? You mentioned you’ve got full-time correspondents, you’ve got freelancers. Have you learned how to work with freelancers in the digital age in ways that were different from your previous experience, for example?

BALBONI: Well, we pay them, first of all, which is very important to them.

KENNEALLY: In a retainer basis – I think, if I read correctly? Or are you talking about simply the fact that so much of reporting these days goes unpaid.

BALBONI: Well, we began in 2009 with retainers for a large number of our people. We’ve moved those relationships, with a fewer number, into full-time. So these 13 what we call senior correspondents work exclusively and full-time for GlobalPost. We found that that really gave us the kind of control that made the most sense, so that we could do the kind of coverage that we really wanted.

With the others, the relationships can be more frequent or less frequent, depending on where they are, what’s happening in the area that they are, how aggressive they are about pitching us stories, how good and interesting those stories are. But it’s wonderful to have a broad network of good people.

And I say correspondents. We also have a quite a broad network of videographers as well, because we’re doing a fair amount of video, and it’s important to have those people on your team. It would be wonderful if every, you know, reporter could shoot and edit video or do sound, as we’re doing now. But a lot of journalists are still single track. We certainly have some who can do it all. But it’s not the majority yet.

At the end of the day, you’re really looking for somebody who’s as good a reporter as you can find and whose writing is really good. That’s kind of the irreducible minimum for producing great journalism.

KENNEALLY: What’s the role of social media for you? I follow you on Facebook and on Twitter as well. That’s clearly been something that wasn’t even around or wasn’t considered in 2009, when you began, and now is an essential part of what journalism is for most people. How have you adapted to that?

BALBONI: We have a social media team – three people, who that’s all they do. Social media is immensely important for all news sites, and there are so many different platforms. You mentioned Facebook and Twitter. There’s LinkedIn, Tumblr, Instagram.

There are social bookmarking sites, like reddit. Reddit is one of the largest referrers of traffic to news sites. It’s a community of people that post articles in scores, in hundreds, of different verticals. World news happens to be one of them. Politics is another big one. And then they vote those up or down. The higher they rise in the list of stories, the more likely they are to be clicked on. And when they’re clicked on, the reader comes to your site.

But there are people who believe that social media is the way that most or all people will get their news in the future – that brands will become less important or not important at all. I don’t think I believe that. But I believe that the sharing of stories by people in the various platforms that they’ve become accustomed to is clearly very important.

It’s so easy to do it now. You can share a story – you can tweet a story on GlobalPost with a single mouse click. You come to the site, it recognizes who you are, and you’re immediately – you have to log in on the site one time. That’s all. After that, it recognizes you. And then you can tweet a story. You know, it’s just so easy.

We never could do that before. If you were interested in a story that you read someplace, what did you do about it? You probably didn’t call somebody up. We didn’t have e-mail. Maybe you were a very good friend, and you clipped it out of the newspaper or you ripped it out of the magazine and you put it into an envelope, put a stamp on it, addressed it and sent it off to somebody.

But now we can share things that are interesting to us so easily. So it’s logical that this social sharing has become a huge way that people find out about things that they would never have known before. We have to pay an enormous amount of attention to it.

We are looking to create more and more stories that are in our brand-appropriate arena that are inherently more shareable. There’s a site that you may know of called BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed was created by one of the founders of the Huffington Post. And BuzzFeed is all about social media. Their stories are all created – or I shouldn’t say all – maybe some huge percent are created just for sharing.

Many of them, in truth, are just large aggregations of cute animals or other things that are amusing but have no substance. So you can carry it too far. But I think social media has become an incredibly powerful force – really right up there with search as vitally important for any news site.

KENNEALLY: You mentioned the way that certain brands have lost their luster, the traditional legacy brands, but GlobalPost is one of those brands that is in a small company – would include Politico and ProPublica. I think that you would probably find yourselves sort of very similar in many ways. Those are the new brands, aren’t they, that are coming to have real value in this age?

BALBONI: Yes. That’s a very good point. There’s half a dozen or so purely digital sites that have bubbled up to a level of awareness. We look at our audience delivery every month in comScore, which is really the bible for digital measurement, and we are in the top 35 national news sites in the country now, with CNN at the top. It’s a waterfall that comes down from the Huffington Post, NBC News, the New York Times, Washington Post, so on and so forth – all the familiar names.

Within that group, GlobalPost is not number 35, but nearer the bottom. Politico is there. The Daily Beast is another one. Slate and Salon are the two oldest purely digital sites. Salon was started in 1995 in San Francisco. Slate was started in 1996 by Microsoft and was headquartered in California. It’s now owned by the Washington Post. RealClearPolitics is another one.

But there’s not many in this – it’s a small fraternity. Each has its own niche. Politics is a big one. There are others that are more general. Slate and Salon are really kind of like magazine-y. Culture, politics, opinion, certainly some news, but not known as news sites. So it’s an interesting group. We know many of them quite well, and we certainly pay close attention to what they’re doing. I imagine they probably pay close attention to what we’re doing, too.

KENNEALLY: Finally, your history with the journalism business is quite distinguished. You really helped to established the WCVB brand as a news provider here in Boston, went on to found, very successfully, New England Cable News – very much traditional media background. What’s it like for a traditional media man to find oneself, at this point in your career, in this digital environment, in this startup environment? How do you make it in that kind of a very different world from when you began your career?

BALBONI: You know, it feels very natural. All the things that I’ve done – this is my 46th year in journalism, believe it or not, and I’ve been in almost every medium in which you can do journalism. But I’ve always taken on interesting, tough challenges and have always been kind of an entrepreneur – either literally or de facto entrepreneur.

My last enterprise – NECN, which you referred to – we started that from scratch, against all odds. People said, oh, why would anybody want to watch 24-hour local news when you could watch at 6:00 or 11:00? Well, because it’s a 24/7 world, and people really don’t want to wait. We built something that we were very proud of, that was high quality, and that developed quite a large following.

Digital – I say this often – is so much harder than anything I’ve ever done before. It makes television seem easy. I could develop massive nostalgia for television in this business, because everything about it is complicated, particularly the technology and what lies behind it. Either you learn it and you throw yourself into it and develop a lot of new muscles, or you don’t, and you sink.

I think it’s a fascinating challenge. Many things are the same. People aren’t different. Problems and challenges and whatever motivations of people are always the same. Building the brand and developing credibility is very much the same also. I think one of the things that all of us are very proud of is that in four and a half years, we have built a brand that is widely respected, to the degree that, most recently now, NBC News said, yeah, we’ll partner with you and we’ll tell the world that we’re proud to do that. You just don’t do that with anybody.

But it feels very comfortable. You have to be prepared to work hard – very hard. And you have to be prepared to have a large dose of disappointment and frustration. But that’s the startup world. I feel very comfortable in the environment that I find myself. I know that this is where the future of journalism is going to be made. We will either survive and prosper in this environment, or we’re all going to be in tough shape.

KENNEALLY: Phil Balboni – president, CEO and founder of GlobalPost – thanks for joining us on Beyond the Book.

BALBONI: It was my pleasure. Thank you.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center. Copyright Clearance Center is a global rights broker for the world’s most sought after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as images, movies, and television shows.

You could follow us on Twitter, find Beyond the Book on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at the Copyright Clearance Center website copyright.com. Just click on Beyond the Book.

Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.