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August 10 2012

14:56

Viewfinder: Video journalism that works

Whenever I go out on an assignment I get a few of the same questions from onlookers who see me with my tripod and my reasonably large video camera: “What channel are you from?” or “When will this air?” But my favorite, and the one I get most often after I explain that the video won’t be on TV and that I work not for a channel but for a newspaper website is, “How are they going to get a video into my newspaper?” It’s an old joke by now. Video has graced the websites and mobile offerings of traditionally text-based outlets for nearly a decade.

Video or film storytelling is more than a century old, and print storytelling has a couple of millennia under its belt, but the last few years have brought the two together in exciting and evolving ways, particularly for journalism. Outlets like The Atavist and The Daily, and many newspaper and magazines’ mobile applications, make it possible to seamlessly pogo between a print narrative and snippets of video or a short documentary production. The form is in its infancy but loaded with possibility.

As any writer who has had to wait for a video journalist to get some b-roll knows – and as any video journalist who has wished she could avoid wading through a traditional print reporter’s interviewing knows – collaboration is a dance. For this, the first installment of Viewfinder, an occasional column on video journalism, I talked to a few friends and colleagues about the pleasures and pains of building video and print packages. It’s a common conversation, one I’ve had over lunch at work and on long car rides with fellow print reporters. It’s fair to say that most agree the product is a richer audience experience, but how we get there is still being worked out. I hope this column will be a place to parse this and other aspects of the burgeoning craft of web and mobile-based nonfiction video reporting.

Let’s start with what works. I’ve seen terrific packages, many of them big blowouts like the L.A. Times’ series about the effects of the recession, or the Detroit Free Press’ Motown retrospective. The Seattle Times did a laudable job with its in-depth look at the removal of two dams on the Elwha River.

How you make all the parts work together is no small challenge. I talked with my New York Times colleague Shayla Harris, who spent a good four months laboring, along with the photographer Marcus Yam and the reporter John Branch, to weave text, video and photos together to tell the story of the life and death of professional hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard. Ten or 15 years ago, the story would have been a terrific package at a paper – exhaustive reporting, stellar photography, maybe some good graphics. A few weeks or months later, a TV station or an independent documentary filmmaker might start in on a video/film project. Harris, who started at NBC News as an assistant/associate producer, confirmed as much: “A lot of our stories would basically be ripped from the pages of the New York Times. So, right now, we’re basically the in-house version of that. Unfortunately, when you’re working alongside a reporter you don’t get the benefit of having a finished story in front of you to work from.”

Harris also didn’t have much footage to work with, but when the team approached the Boogaard family about telling Derek’s story, the “floodgates” as she put it, opened up. The family had handwritten diaries, some from Derek’s earliest bouts, plus scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about Derek, family photo albums and perhaps most valuable, eight DVDs of every fight Derek had been in from his time in the Canadian Junior League until he landed in the NHL.

Though Branch relied on the same fight material to flesh out scenes in his print story (and were included in a pop-up version called a “quick-link” for mobile and web audiences) the videos felt distinct and complementary rather than duplicative. Harris explained that she felt like Branch’s story could handle the contextual aspects of the story and that her job would be to create a visceral experience for the viewer. “The thing that video can do, that words sometimes can’t, is … evoke a mood or feeling on a multisensory level,” she said. “Just hearing the inflection in someone’s voice and the way they say things can convey a lot of information.”

Video can convey emotion with much greater power than a text quote can. You can see this in Harris’s videos, especially in the interviews with Boogaard’s fellow enforcers. They’re big, imposing men whose job is to intimidate and often to bare-knuckle box on the ice, and their recollections of Boogaard are powerful.

That acknowledgment of video’s strengths has also worked well for my friend Erik German and his wife, Solana Pyne. German works for The Daily as a text reporter, but he’s always thinking about ways to make video work. “In our shop, video is just part of the production process, but there are three major areas that are suddenly very different,” he said.

The three areas: planning, execution and assembly.

“Each of those is a lot more complicated if video is involved,” he said. German argues if you’re really going to have video be a part of the story, reporters need to know from the beginning, for the best possible outcome. This entails thinking about everything from the pitch to the questions you ask a source before you leave the office – quite different than if you’re headed out with just a pen and pad. He says, “I find myself now asking TV producer questions like, ‘What does it look like when you do your job? If I followed you around all day, what would I see?’”

Print reporters rarely ask a source they’re going to visit what the inside of someone’s office is like or if it gets good light in the afternoon or if there’s anything noisy going on that might make doing a recorded interview difficult, but those are all concerns for a video journalist. Yet thinking about those challenges as a text-based reporter can help set up a good video collaboration.

One of my favorite pieces by German, with great videos produced by Pyne, is about a new law in Texas that made it legal to hunt feral hogs from helicopters.  They interviewed game officials, farmers upset by the damage the hogs cause to land, and representatives from the two camps of hog eradication. The hunters and the trappers were all convinced their differing methods were superior.

One aspect of the story they hadn’t counted on was a heat wave that sent the hogs deep into the brush, nowhere to be seen. “You could do a print story about a hog infestation even if you don’t see any hogs,” German said, “but for a video you’ve got to see the pigs.” Yet you’d never know about the missing pigs to read German’s story or to watch Pyne’s videos, in part because they artfully used what footage they could shoot, including material from small-action sports cameras mounted on the stocks of rifles. They bought a bit of stock material from a local shooter and had some great material of very clever hogs working their ways out of traps.

The Daily, which is designed from the ground up every day, elegantly meshes video and text and, like the Boogaard series, uses shorter embedded elements to good effect – “like visual and aural snapshots,” as Pyne puts it. “They conveyed things that would have been hard to get across any other way.”

The effect is, I think, one of the best ways to meld video into a print story. Texan twang and drawl about the difficulty of hog hunting came across in little snippets of video that might not have had a home in the bigger video story, and when transcribed for print might have lost their punch.

Pyne also does a lot of thinking about what makes for good video and print. She’s a senior video producer at GlobalPost, which produces a good deal of video, sometimes as a standalone report. She assigns many of the video journalists; most are freelancers who work on GlobalPost packages, often in tandem with a staff reporter. She often tells video journalists to follow their instincts. “I think it’s important to ensure that the print reporter doesn’t take over the story, because then you get a video that’s just like the print piece,” she said. “It’s useful to have them work together, but I want the videographer to feel comfortable leaving (or staying) to get good video.”

I recommend a deep read and watch on the touching series she helped put together from Japan shortly after the earthquake and the nuclear disaster. Like many of the best collaborations, the text stories anchors the bigger-picture thoughts and the video focuses on characters: everyday Japanese people whose lives were upended.

Sean Patrick Farrell (@spatrickfarrell) is a staff video journalist at the New York Times. He has made videos about tracking wolverines in Montana, dangerous medical radiation and aspiring young opera singers, among many others. He is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied documentary film. Before becoming a journalist, he spent a decade working as a  bicycle mechanic. You can find more of his work at www.seanpatrickfarrell.com. This is his inaugural Viewfinder column for Storyboard.

 

May 03 2012

14:55

The newsonomics of Pricing 101

When the price of your digital product is zero, that’s about how much you learn about customer pricing. Now, both the pricing and the learning is on the upswing.

The pay-for-digital content revolution is now fully upon us. Five years ago, only the music business had seen much rationalization, with Apple’s iTunes having bulled ahead with its new 99-cent order. Now, movies, TV shows, newspapers, and magazines are all embracing paid digital models, charging for single copies, pay-per-views, and subscriptions. From Hulu Plus to Netflix to Next Issue Media to Ongo to Press+ to The New York Times to Google Play to Amazon to Apple to Microsoft (buying into Nook this week), the move to paid media content is profound. The imperative to charge is clear, especially as legacy news and magazines see their share of the rapidly growing digital advertising pie (with that industry growing another 20 percent this year) actually decline.

Yes, it’s in part a 99-cent new world order as I wrote about last week (“The newsonomics of 99-cent media”), but there are wider lessons — some curiously counterintuitive — to be learned in the publishing world. Let’s call it the newsonomics of Pricing 101. The lessons here, gleaned from many conversations, are not definitive ones. In fact, they’re just pointers — with rich “how to” lessons found deeper in each.

Let’s not make any mistake this week, as the Audit Bureau of Circulation’s new numbers rolled out and confounded most everyone. Those ABC numbers wowed some with their high percentage growth rates. Let’s keep in mind that those growth numbers come on the heels of some of the worst newspaper quarterly reports issued in awhile. Not only is print advertising in a deepening tailspin, but digital advertising growth is stalled. Take all the ABC numbers you want and tell the world “We have astounding reach” — but if the audience can’t be monetized both with advertising and significant new circulation revenues, the numbers will be meaningless.

When it comes to dollars and sense, pricing matters a lot.

Let’s start with this basic principle: People won’t pay you for content if you don’t ask them to. That’s an inside-the-industry joke, but one with too much reality to sustain much laughter. It took the industry a long time to start testing offers and price points, as The Wall Street Journal and Walter Hussman’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette provided lone wolf examples.

The corollary to that principle? If you don’t start to charge consumers — Warren Buffett on newspaper pricing: “You shouldn’t be giving away a product that you’re trying to sell.” — then you can’t learn how consumers respond to pricing. Once you start pricing, you can start learning, and adjust.

We can pick out at least nine emerging data points:

  • 33-45 percent of consumers who pay for digital subscriptions click to buy before they ever run into a paywall. That’s right — a third to a half of buyers just need to be told they will have to pay for continuing access, and they’re sold. As economists note that price is a signal of value, consumers understand the linkage. Assign what seems to be a fair price, and some readers pay up, especially if they are exposed to a “warning” screen, letting them know they’ve used up of critical number of “free” views. Maybe they want to avoid the bumping inconvenience — or maybe they just acknowledge the jig’s up.
  • If print readers are charged something extra for digital access, then non-print subscribers are more likely to buy a digital-only sub. Why pay for digital access is the other guys (the print subscribers) are getting it thrown in for “free”? Typically, Press+ sees a 20-percent-plus increase in signups on sites that charge print subscribers something extra. That extra may be just a third or so of the price digital-only subscribers pay (say, $2.95 instead of $6.95), but it makes a difference. Consequently, Press+ says 80-90 percent of its sites charge print subscribers for digital access. The company now powers 323 sites and thus has more access to collective data than any other news-selling source.
  • You can reverse the river, or at least channel it. The New York Times took a year, but figured it out righter than anyone expected. It bundled its Sunday print paper (still an ad behemoth) with digital, making that package $60 or so a year cheaper than digital alone. The result, of course, is that Sunday Times home delivery is up for first time since 2006. It’s not just NYT or the L.A. Times which have embraced Sunday/digital combos. In Minneapolis, the Star Tribune began a similar push in November. Now, of its 18,000 digital-only subscribers, 28 percent have agreed to an add on the Sunday paper, for just 30 cents a week, says CEO Mike Klingensmith (“A Twin Cities turnaround?”). So we see that consumers may well be more agnostic about platform than we thought. Given them an easy one-click way of buying even musty old print, and they will. Irony: If you hadn’t charged them for digital access, you probably wouldn’t have sold them on print.
  • New products create new markets. 70 percent of The Economist‘s digital subscribers are not former print subscribers, says Paul Rossi, managing director and executive vice president for the Americas. That’s surprising in one sense, but not in another. Newspaper company digital VPs will tell you that they’re surprised to see how little overlap there is between their print audience customer bases and their digital ones. The downside here: Many print customers seem not to value digital access that much. The Star Tribune is finding a low take rate of 3 percent of its Sunday-only print subscribers willing to take its digital-access upsell. One lesson: The building of a new digital-mainly audience won’t be easy and will require new product thinking; it’s not that easy just to port over established customers.
  • The all-access bundle must contain multiple consumer hooks. Sure, readers like to get mobile access as well as desktop and print, and maybe some video. Yet some may especially prize the special events or membership perks they are offered, as the L.A. Times is banking on (and start-ups Texas Tribune, MinnPost, and Global Post have applied outside the paywall model). Some will like the extras, like The Boston Globe telling its new 18,000 digital subscribers, as well as its print ones, that they now get “free” Sunday Supper ebooks (“The newsonomics of 100 products a year”). Sports fanatics or business data lovers will find other niches to value — and ones that make the whole bundle worthwhile. Archives — and the research riches they offer — will prove irresistible to some. In 2012, a bundle may offer a half dozen reasons to buy, casting a wide net, with the hope that at least one shiny lure will reel in the customers. By 2013, expect “dynamic, customized offers,” targeting would-be buyers by their specific interests to be more widely in use.
  • While pageviews may drop 10-15 percent with a paywall, unique visitors remain fairly constant. We see the phenomenon of those who do hit a paywall one month coming back in subsequent months, rather than fleeing forever. “It may be the second, third, or fourth month before someone says, ‘I guess I am a frequent visitor here, and I’ll play,’” says Press+’s Gordon Crovitz.
  • Archives find new life. Archives have lived in a corner of news and magazine websites for a long time. They’ve been used, but not highly used or highly monetized. Now, courtesy of the tablet, and a new way to charge, The Economist is finding that 20 percent of its single copy sales are of past issues. Readers will pay for the old in new wrappers, whether back e-issues, or niched ebooks. The all-access offer can be much wider than cross-platform, or multi-device. It can extend across time, from a century of yesterdays to alerts for tomorrow.
  • News media is probably underpriced. Take the high-end Economist. CEO Andrew Rashbass — speaking to MediaGuardian’s Changing Media Summit 2012, in a recommended video — said that a survey of its subscribers showed that a majority didn’t know how much they were paying for the Economist. When pressed to guess, most over-estimated the price. At the Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune, an early paywall leader in the middle of America, a recent price increase to $8.99 from $7.99 has so far resulted in no material loss of subscribers. At Europe’s Piano Media, early experience in Slovakia and Slovenia is that price isn’t a big factor, says Piano’s David Brauchli. “Payment for news on the web is really more a philosophical mindset rather than economic. People who are opposed to paying will always opposed to paying and those who see the value of paying don’t mind paying no matter what the price is.” That suggests pricing power. It makes sense that publishers, new to the pricing trade, have approached it gingerly. Yet the circulation revenue upside may well be substantial.
  • Bundle or unbundle — what’s the right way? Mainly, we don’t know yet, and the answer may be different for differing audience segments. The Economist started with print being a higher price than a separate digital sub. Then it raised the digital price to match that of print — to assert digital value. It now offers all-access: one price gets you both. Next up: You can buy either print or digital for the same price, but if you want both, you’ll pay more. It’s an evolution of testing, and so far, it’s been an upward one.

Overall, this is a revolution in more than pricing. It’s a revolution in thinking and, really, publisher identity.

The Boston Globe’s Jeff Moriarty sums it up well, as his company aims (as has the Financial Times before it: “The newsonomics of the FT as an internet retailer”) to emulate a little digital-first company called Amazon:

I think overall publishers have to start thinking more like e-commerce companies. More like Amazon. You can’t just throw up a wall or an app and expect it to just sell itself. We’re still building that muscle here at the Globe, and some of our colleagues in the industry are even farther along. We have extensive real-time and daily analytics and are employing multivariate testing to try offers and designs to refine the experience that works best for each type of user.

Photo by Jessica Wilson used under a Creative Commons license.

November 05 2010

16:00

The six-figure fan club: How Global Post got 100,000 fans on Facebook

GlobalPost, the online-only foreign news outlet, has over 100,000 fans on Facebook. (As of this writing: 104,180.) While, sure, that’s far fewer fans than some of the bigger, more established publications out there — The New York Times has, at the moment, nearly 900,000 fans; The New Yorker, more than 162,000 — it’s also far more than, say, The New Republic (under 7,000) or, for that matter, the Washington Post (nearly 90,000.) And within GlobalPost’s more direct peer group, both Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs fall in the 20,000-follower range.

Which is all to say: For a startup that, given its age (young), its size (small), and its ambition (huge), can fairly be called “scrappy”…a six-figure fan club is a pretty big deal.

So, then: How’d they do it? The size of the young outlet’s Facebook fan base is to some extent a matter of simple serendipity — it’s “more than we’d ever imagined,” notes Phil Balboni, GlobalPost’s CEO and president — but it’s also one of strategy. “It goes without saying: Facebook is a tremendously important part of the web and people’s consumption of information,” Balboni told me. “And we really wanted to grow our Facebook engagement as much as we could.”

“Some kind of magic”

The growth came, in the end, from a concerted effort to take GlobalPost’s content and turn it into a campaign. In late May, the outlet began an overhaul of its website — giving GlobalPost.com not only an image-heavy aesthetic that reflects web design’s current trend toward timeless magazine-iness, but also baked-in social plug-ins from Facebook. Now, Balboni notes, in addition to the outlet’s brand-building efforts on Facebook.com, “we’ve completely integrated GlobalPost with Facebook for commenting, liking, and sharing stories.”

Starting in early July, Balboni and GlobalPost’s marketing director, Rick Byrne, built on the site’s social integration with an aggressive, Facebook-based marketing campaign, creating ads to capture the interest of the site’s members. When they began those efforts, GlobalPost had 5,000 or so followers, Balboni estimates; by late October, they’d reached the six-figure mark. (For the statisticians out there, that’s about a 2,000-percent increase.) The ads that fueled all the liking focused on some of the broad narratives that are, for better or for worse, evergreens in the sphere of foreign reporting — among them human rights issues, green technology, and the war in Afghanistan. (The latter of those, “the Forever War,” has drawn particular engagement and interest on Facebook, Balboni notes.) The how’d they do that here, then, comes down not to a strict formula so much as a loose recipe. As Balboni puts it: “There’s some kind of magic between the content, the brand, and the types of issues we cover.”

You might think that the explosion of followers would be tied to particular events that occurred between July and now — I think there was something going on in Chile at one point? — but, no: The fan-base increase “was a pretty steady rise,” Byrne told me. You could argue, in fact, that the evergreen nature of the stories the site’s ads focused on — the environment, the war — allowed for the kind of steady, month-over-month engagement that builds name recognition iteratively…rather than via the momentary surges that come from event-based traffic, which spike suddenly and tend to plummet just as quickly.

You could also add that the narrative- and context-heavy journalism GlobalPost specializes in — “a look at the world that is quite different and richer and varied than you’d get from any other news organization,” Balboni puts it — is precisely the type of journalism that people like to, well, like: It’s political in the kind of broad way that allows users to demonstrate engagement with foreign news without having to act on that engagement. (It’s also often supra-partisan in a way that much of our national journalism is not.) There’s also the more hopeful view that people actually want more foreign coverage than most of us assume. And liking, of course, is an extremely low-barrier form of brand affiliation: see the invite, click the button, and move on. The transaction cost involved is basically zero.

The halo effect

Which begs, then, another question: For a site that has bills to pay and investors to please, does a Facebook-based marketing campaign offer enough in the way of return? Does GlobalPost’s fan base on the closed world of Facebook translate to traffic for a site that lives in the the open web?

Yes and no. While the direct correlation between GlobalPost’s Facebook likes and its site’s traffic is impossible to measure in concrete terms, “we’ve seen a significant increase in direct traffic since we started the Facebook campaign,” Balboni notes. Even if direct causation can’t be determined, the correlation is clear: The Facebook fan base helps GlobalPost build its brand, and brand recognition, in turn, creates a halo effect — the kind of broad recognition that radiates back to the site itself. “It’s important to not only maintain, but also to increase the number of direct visits,” Balboni notes, “because those are arguably the people who are most committed to your brand: your loyalists, your most enthusiastic readers.”

(Slate, it’s worth noting — along with Gawker and several other online brands — employs a similar logic based on branded traffic: A small group of loyal readers, the thinking goes, is worth more to publishers than a large group of casual ones.)

And that logic applies to site subscriptions, as well — aided by the fact that the outlet, which has partnered with Journalism Online to help facilitate its e-commerce activities, reduced its fees this summer. (Membership now costs $2.95 a month, or $29.95 a year.) “I think you can make a logical connection between people who are very interested in what GlobalPost does and those who are becoming members,” Balboni says. “The more people who care about what we do, the greater the chances that they’re going to click on that big red arrow at the top of our site and consider becoming a GlobalPost member.”

Strategy, on Facebook as everywhere else, is key. “You have to take deliberative steps,” Balboni says. “It doesn’t happen just by putting up a Facebook icon on your site. It takes more than that. You have to get people’s attention, in the Facebook community and everywhere else.”

March 11 2010

17:00

The Newsonomics of new news syndication

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

It’s tough to get the printer’s ink out of news people’s veins. For many, journalism = printing, and in printing, each copy costs extra. It’s an analog, manufacturing mindset, and one to finally bid goodbye.

Of course, we all know how freely we can fling stories about on the web, but second copy value — and cost — has an evolving business model implication, as the news industry looks for new pillars of support. That business model implication is syndication. Syndication in the old world meant the syndicates — among them, King Features, Universal Press Syndicate and now-put-up-for-sale United Media —and it meant wires, like AP, Reuters, and AFP, all of whom built big businesses on the increasing margin in the second, third and fourth copies of editorial content created and redistributed. Other syndicators (think Lexis-Nexis and Factiva) have built big businesses, selling multiple copies of stories to corporations and governments for their workforces and to schools of every level and size.

Now, we’re beginning to see next-generation syndication embraced by digital news startups, and that’s good news, a good supplement to advertising and sponsorship revenues, to membership charges and conferences.

Take GlobalPost for example. GlobalPost CEO Phil Balboni embraced syndication as a revenue source from the site’s early planning and rollout. “I knew I needed multiple revenue streams to support our business, and syndication of our original content — in a world of rapidly diminishing international reporting — seemed like a no-brainer to me especially given our pricing flexibility.”

GlobalPost now gets about 12 percent of its overall revenue from syndication. It shares its correspondents’ posts with about 30 newspaper, broadcast and other news sites in the U.S. and worldwide. It counts among its clients CBS News, New York Daily News, the Times of India, Australian Associated Press, Pittsburgh Post Gazette and the Newark Star Ledger. Sites pay a monthly flat rate and can use their fill of GlobalPost stories. In addition to web use, print publications can and do use them in print as well.

GlobalPost isn’t alone. Politico added a syndication network, the Politico Media Network, to its bag of tricks early on. For Politico, it’s a multi-pocket pool play, leveraging a related advertising network around the syndication and its own partnership with Reuters.

California Watch, the new initiative of the Center for Investigative Reporting, is figuring out the contours of its syndication business. Early in its life, it has found daily newspapers, broadcasters, start-ups and the ethnic press to be eager customers of its work, with some big stories reaching audiences of two million or more. Early on, CIR has priced its work fairly inexpensively, in the low hundreds of dollars. As it is getting traction, it is thinking of syndication as a key business model and will test pricing models over the next year

The Chicago News Cooperative, the supplier of local news coverage for the Chicago edition of The New York Times, operates on a similar principle, able to sell stories to multiple customers.

The principle here is devilishly simple — but has not been well enough applied. It’s been described from the inception of the Internet: the second copy is free (or really close to free). It’s also part of a basic Newsonomics law, Law #9: Apply the 10% Rule. Let technology do the value multiplication, not expensive-to-hire-and-feed humans.

Every syndication dollar earned is another dollar that doesn’t have to be wrung out of highly competitive advertising markets. Importantly, the syndication dollars derive from what journalism organizations do best: create high-quality content. The big notion: create better-than-good-enough content, the kind of stuff that is beginning to flood the web. It’s another way to affirm worth: the more companies that want to use your content, the clearer the value proposition in the digital world.

So what’s old is new again. In addition, syndication offers the potential of selling beyond traditional media that may offer significant new revenues. For local news companies, established for more than a hundred years or a few months, it’s a destination-plus model. It’s not about readers coming to your site; it’s about getting people to read your content —and get paid for it. It’s also — witness the Politico model — a way to enable an ad network, related to syndicated content. In fact, I can envision a range of locally oriented sites — from the Yelps, Open Tables and Zillows to government sites to niche mom’s and family sites and beyond — that may find use for various kinds of content. The first step for would-be syndicators: inventory and categorize what you have, and talk to would-be customers about what they might want to use.

Some have said that in the digital world, news companies need to think of themselves both as creators and aggregators, doing what they do best and linking to the rest. Let’s amend that: creators, aggregators, and syndicators, doing what they do best, licensing with zest and linking to the rest.

January 29 2010

17:35

GlobalPost Expands Partnerships, Struggles with Pay Service

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.

philip balboni.jpg

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."

life death and taliban.jpg

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.

AlanMutter.jpg

"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.

Jean MacKenzie.jpg

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.

"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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