On January 12 last year GlobalPost was launched, a new international news service focused on getting the context behind the headlines, hoping to combat diminishing foreign reporting in the US. Its number of foreign correspondents is second only to the Associated Press and they are expected to provide both text and visual reports.
A year on, and the news outlet has made considerable progress in terms of covering a wide range of international stories, establishing a significant audience, and implementing a successful business model. The Editors Weblog spoke to President, CEO and co-founder Philip Balboni about his first year at the helm of this project.
Balboni was clear that he considered GlobalPost's first year a success. "It has been an extraordinary year, it has exceeded any reasonable expectations that I could have had when I started out on this journey," he said.
"To a large degree, the stories on GlobalPost are ones that you would be unlikely to find elsewhere," said Balboni. As one of GlobalPost's aims was to fill the gaps in the reporting of traditional outlets, this must be satisfying. The news outlet has also remained true to its original stipulations: its reporting has broad geographic diversity, and consists of a wide range of types of stories and topics.
And much of this reporting has had the potential for considerable impact. Balboni highlighted a recent story on how the Taliban have been taking a cut of funds supplied by the Indiana National Guard to local Afghan contractors for development projects in Afghanistan's Khost province. The issue of the Taliban skimming American aid in Afghanistan is one to which GlobalPost has dedicated much coverage over the past few months.
Such investigative pieces are accompanied by more entertaining reporting, such as an article from Paris about how the French are rediscovering the joy of wearing berets. Correspondents also write ample blog entries.
GlobalPost adopted a relatively unique correspondent model, hiring country-based, part-time reporters who could produce one article a week. The compensation level - a monthly salary plus shares - has proven "very successful" and working for GlobalPost seems to be a popular job: the news service now has correspondents in more than fifty countries and "we have far more people who would want to work for us than we could possibly hire."
The correspondents work with regional editors based in Boston and Balboni said that so far this system has been functioning "with a remarkable degree of smoothness."
Building an audience from scratch
Developing an audience is "really more important than anything else," said Balboni. "We could have the most spectacular content in the world but if you can't build an audience for it then you can't succeed, right?"
The news outlet's highest-traffic month this year was November, when more than 750,000 people visited the site. This exceeded Balboni's goal of 600,000, set before the launch. In addition, "we are retaining more than 50% of all the visitors," he said.
The target for 2010 is to top one million unique visitors, and Balboni mentioned the company's "very sophisticated marketing strategy" aimed at audience building.
Building a brand on the web with no support from legacy media has been a considerable challenge, and GlobalPost's partnerships with other high profile brands have been very helpful in doing this, and "particularly important in the validation of GlobalPost as a brand," Balboni said. Such partnerships have helped present the outlet's content as authoritative, and often "raising our visibility is more important than any compensation we might achieve." From the beginning, GlobalPost has sought to present itself as a complement rather than a competitor to newswires and newspapers.
The partnership formed with CBS in September, for example, is a syndication deal, with CBS paying GlobalPost for help with foreign reporting. But having a broadcast news partner was also something that Balboni and his team considered a high priority in terms of brand-boosting, and such a deal "certainly goes beyond" purely syndication. He sees the recent partnership with PBS NewsHour as a "significant achievement" and mentioned that GlobalPost has upped its video production so that it might have the chance to forge other broadcast partnership.
Compensation is obviously an important consideration, however, and syndication is one of GlobalPost's major revenue streams, the other two being advertising and subscriptions. Currently, advertising comprises about 70% of GlobalPost's income, but Balboni hopes that over time this share will fall to around 50%, with syndication and membership rising to make up the other half.
Passport to premium services
The most unusual of these revenue streams is the subscription, or membership, scheme called Passport. For $99 a year (discounted to $50 for students, academics or seniors), readers can have access to conference calls with GlobalPost reporters, the chance to suggest stories, global and country briefs and newsletters. There is also the option to commission custom research projects, something Balboni said he was "very excited about." One client, for example, has ordered a series of ten reports for the coming year. "It takes careful shepherding but it's very interesting and I think it could scale up to be a meaningful part of our Passport financial strategy," he said.
"I am very bullish on the membership aspect," Balboni said, "I think it's the hardest one but if you want to point to one thing that could be a potential salvation for quality journalism then it's that." He always wanted to encourage a subscription or membership scheme, but explained that as a new little-known media brand it would have been foolish to put up a paywall immediately.
Passport does not offer pure paid online content, rather additional editorial services. "My hope and my expectation is that GlobalPost will remain free and open to all but we need to find more effective ways to get all of the people who are most engaged to help support our mission," he said, specifying that GlobalPost was likely to continue to ask for, rather than to require, reader contributions. He does think, however, that it would be "entirely fair" for a news organisation to demand payment.
So far, Passport has 450 - 500 members: "just not enough," according to Balboni. He hopes to increase this by making "a strategic shift in how we market our membership" and by using some new technology starting this spring that will help the membership base and subsequent revenue to grow. Currently, visitors to the GlobalPost site can read about Passport but there is no chance to test it out first and they have to "take a leap of faith" if they want to subscribe, Balboni said.
From a purely financial standpoint, 2009 was "a decent year," especially given the global economic recession. Balboni specified that the $1 million revenue figure that was reported in November was not accurate, but described the amount as "consequential." The company's original business plan projected profitability in 2012, and Balboni thinks this is still likely.
GlobalPost seems to have demonstrated that there is an audience for more international news and has set up a structure to cover this that works. As Balboni explained, its challenges now are to build that audience into the millions and (like almost every other news organisation) to shift its business model so that it depends less substantially on advertising.