Co-Founder and CEO of GLOBAL POST
Founder of NEW ENGLAND CABLE NEWS (NECN)
It is not very profitable to do news journalism. It may even be a money-losing proposition, and this means that the pursuit of excellence is something, even if they were so moved, that people feel constrained to do... You could do a very, very harsh critique of where we are as a society journalistically.
[Editor's Update 2017: Phil Balboni has now founded yet another top-shelf media product called DailyChatter, an international daily newsletter focusing exclusively on important global issues. DailyChatter.com]
Interview by Heidi Legg
What's the most burning item on your desk?
Survival. All journalism organizations are struggling with the economics today, big or small. And for a new entrant like GlobalPost.com, which we launched in 2009, all of those pressures are intensified because we are building a brand at the same time we're building an audience, and at the same time we're trying to build revenue. The interplay among those three things is crucial. It all takes time and you have to be very disciplined in how you spend money.
When I say 'survival,' I mean that literally, even though we have a terrific group of investors. There are very few journalism organizations, other than the biggest television networks that are part of big conglomerates, where you don’t have to worry about staying in business. The news divisions of the three broadcast networks, for example, have at various times been in the red. They're all pretty stable now. Some are profitable. Some are not very profitable but they're all supported by the entertainment programs. ABC News is part of Disney, which is enormous and one of the largest media companies in the world. NBC Universal is now owned by Comcast, which is the largest cable company in America.
What is 'news' to these big players?
News is not very important. It's not important to their bottom line and it's not in their DNA. Certainly they recognize that there is a public trust aspect to it. There's certainly a historical legacy type commitment, but news divisions are not important to the overall enterprise and the mandate is to get the best ratings you can. Make money. Don't lose money…and if you can make more money, that's better.
There are so many things that we used to do at an earlier time in television news: documentaries, deep reportage, preempting evening programming to put something on that was important to the American people. These things are seldom, if ever, done today. Isn’t it ironic that we have three cable news networks, maybe four or five if you include CNBC and Headline News, and yet not one has a prime-time newscast in the evening? They're all talk, interview, and opinion but not news; not reportage.
It seems crazy to me that we don't have a single national primetime newscast either on the broadcast networks or on the American cable news channels. You'd think that we would be able to achieve at least one of those that went deep into the important issues facing America, facing the world. You could do a very, very harsh critique of where we are journalistically on television, and in other places as well, and the reason for that is generally the economics. It is not very profitable to do news journalism. It may even be a money-losing proposition, and this means that the pursuit of excellence is something that people feel, even if they were so moved, constrained or unable to do.
What is next for digital media?
I think we're still absorbing/digesting the enormous changes of the last ten to fifteen years. We are kind of in the early to mid stages of a social media revolution, which is very powerful and is trying to be exploited by many people. Obviously the biggest success story is Facebook, a multi-billion dollar company. Twitter has had its IPO and that's a multi billion dollar company, and there are a raft of others that are less well known like Pinterest and Tumblr for photo and video sharing. This is having a huge impact on journalism.
It’s still being sorted out and it's hard to say where it's going to end up. We're paying a lot of attention to it. Some of the new and very successful sites like Buzzfeed get most or all of the traffic from social media and not from 'search.' When this information revolution got underway in the '90s and the early 2000s, 'search' was the biggest thing for the discovery of news, but now 'social' has risen to challenge it. It hasn't displaced it yet for most news sites, but you can see how it could easily be the major discovery engine for news.
In the old days, if you will, you chose a favorite: your local paper, your local television, a national network for news. You might have favorites on the radio and you had magazines. That's where you would get your news. It was habitual, usually daily, and it didn't change very much. If you liked Time Magazine, you read it every week. If you liked CBS with Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather, that's where you got your news. Today, it's profoundly different.
The number of people who are consuming news because it's their favorite place has diminished, and among young people it's completely evaporated. I think that, with rare exceptions, people who are eighteen to thirty are, to the degree that they have a news habit, being satisfied in very different ways and a lot of it is through social media. Their friends are sending them articles or it's on their Facebook page or they get a tweet and then they read the story. It is creating a whole new dynamic for a new generation of news. I think it will be quite some time before we fully absorb this and for the journalism community to figure out how to be successful and perform our mission and still be discovered and get new readers.
Are there other challenges?
I think that the mobile revolution is probably the other big factor. We're not rooted to a particular place any longer. You may have a laptop but most people are using their Smartphone or a Tablet. It is certainly going to be incredibly powerful.
Who will win in this new journalism?
I don't know. I don't think anybody knows.
Will we move to niche media?
I think so, and that's why I like the niche that we have with GlobalPost.com. It’s not one that is heavily occupied, particularly in America. I mean, in a way there's nobody else who has created a niche that is solely built around international and world news. There are people who have it as part of other things that they do, but this is our niche.
The challenge for us is to build more dominance around GlobalPost.com. When you asked before, 'what's the burning issue for me?', along with survival, it is being more aggressive with an offensive strategy to try to dominate our niche far more than we're able to do right now. We simply can't spend enough money to do that. We are looking at ways to be more powerful and I think that that is where we need to be because if you're going to have a niche, you better fill it well, and ideally you want to be the dominant player and the strategy is something you keep pretty close to your vest.
Would you share it with us?
No, but there is a plan.
We see Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post, and Pierre Omidyar funding the Snowden story journalists with 250 million dollars. Have we hit a turning point in news being the poor cousin?
I don't know if it's a turning point, but it's certainly remarkable. It turns out that Omidyar got the number of $250 million from Don Graham who approached him as a potential buyer of The Washington Post, and that was the number that was bandied around. So, on one end of the spectrum you have one of the elite newspapers in America, The Washington Post, a multi-generational family ownership (it was a public company but the family still really controlled it), and the Graham family decided that they couldn't see a path out of the difficulties that they faced. The Washington Post newspaper was losing money and that problem was not going away, so he made a courageous decision to find somebody who had the resources and the technology skills, because technology does drive journalism today, to take it over. We'll see how that turns out.
There are only a few multi-billionaire tech geniuses out there in the league of Jeff Bezos, who has so brilliantly exploited consumer needs and interests with Amazon. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, you have Pierre Omidyar (who as of this week launched First Look Media, a digital journalism startup.) Omidyar who was the chairman and founder of Ebay and is not as wealthy as Bezos, but is also a billionaire. He, from all you can tell by reading, has a deep interest in the role of journalism in a democracy as the watchdog over malfeasance by government. He was impressed by Glenn Greenwald's work on the Edward Snowden story and decides to invest in a general online only news site, in which Greenwald and his colleague Laura Poitras and a British journalist named Jeremy Scahill are involved. This goes against the grain of niche versus general interest.
There are already some pretty powerful companies that own general interest news sites: the television networks, New York Times, Washington Post, Time Magazine, USA Today, Huffington Post. If you're throwing yourself into that level of competition, you’re setting yourself a very tall order and it's admirable.
Is journalism the new charity with limited revenue creation but the backing of billionaires? Even Globalpost.com is partially funded by Comcast’s Amos Hostetter.
I would say no. First of all, it's not charity, and that's an important thing. The Washington Post is going to be run as a real business. Now, Bezos can have a very long term horizon on any return on this investment and that is his instinct anyway, because Amazon doesn't make much money and sometimes loses money and yet its stock price is extremely high because people see enormous potential. He'll almost certainly take the same approach with The Washington Post.
This is not charity. He didn't buy it for charitable purposes. It wasn't a tax-deductible kind of thing. Same with Omidyar: he is a believer in business. He has a foundation but this was his money. It's not from his charitable side. So, he's creating a real business, too. This is simply not what is happening here and I think their instinct is to create a business.
I think it's fine to have nonprofit journalism, but it's not the solution for journalism. It's not. It may produce some good things and where that is possible that's great, but anything that has to live for the long term or a century or more has to be a self-sustaining enterprise. It has to generate sufficient revenue to cover its costs.
Where can that revenue come from? It can only come from users or advertising or some other commercial activity, or it has to be given every year in charitable gifts. No foundation is prepared to do that. They usually make grants of a few years and then they will stop.
Why did you choose to focus on an international online news organization?
I wanted to move into international news. That’s why I started GlobalPost.com, because it's something that I've always been deeply interested in and goes back to my time in Vietnam. My studies at Columbia were in international reporting. I lived overseas and studied at the Sorbonne. I'm just interested in that part of the human condition, and it's ironic that I spent the vast majority of my career in local news, which I enjoyed greatly and was blessed with a lot of wonderful success.
The only way that you could move into international news today is to do it digitally, because it allows you to produce more efficiently and to be competitive. I literally set out to create an international news entity in my study just a few steps away from where we're talking. I opened up my laptop and I began to write a business plan and that's how it began.
If you have an idea for something then you have to create a plan. I wrote a first draft. I sent it around the country to people that I know and respect. They gave me their feedback. I rewrote it, revised it, went through the same process again with a new group of people and rewrote it, revised it and expanded it a third time, and it was when I finished the third revision that I went out and started to try and raise money. That was the summer of 2007.
What are you trying to solve with Globalpost.com?
I felt that it was important to expand this very limited group of people who are covering the world, give the people more original reporting, and try to build a business around it at the same time. We are trying to expand the choices available to people, particularly in America. Even though we have a global audience, with 45% of GlobalPost.com readers coming from all over the world and 230 countries sending readers to our site every month, it was really designed initially to address the lack of choice in international news in America.
Over the last twenty years, the television networks have almost stopped reporting international news except for the most important things. Newspapers have closed their foreign bureaus and, with less than a handful of exceptions, no one is doing international reporting in newspapers anymore in the United States. We have NPR for radio, which is excellent, so you have some choices but they're limited.
I believe there are lots of people who care deeply about the world in America - young people, old people, people who are wealthy, people who are not, well educated or not, people whose ethnic background draws them towards particular parts of the world, people whose business interests are in China or in the Middle East or in South America. We had five million readers in October alone.
Congratulations. How do you track your growth?
Every month, we look at the top thirty-five general interest national and international news sites as well as the British news organizations.
How important is syndication?
It's about 15 to 20%. Advertising is more important, but syndication is good and there's a world of opportunity out there.
How is Globalpost.com funded?
Private investors. Twenty four of us and no corporate financing. No venture capital.
My principle partners are Amos Hostetter, an incredibly successful businessman and philanthropist, and founder of Continental, and James Stone, the founder, CEO, and chairman of Plymouth Rock Group of insurance companies, also a Bostonian and extremely clever, with a PhD in economics from Harvard.
Who is your audience?
Our audience is about 60% male and very young. Two-thirds are 18 to 49. Affluent. High percentage with over $100,000 household income. Highly educated. Large percentage of people with college degrees or graduate degrees.
What public opinion would you most like to change in media?
I think we journalists have developed a rather bad reputation over recent decades. It’s been building for a long time. When I started out as a reporter in 1967 in Richmond, Virginia, being a reporter was a highly respected profession and you were admired. Today people are interested in what we do, but maybe not even for the right reasons. We're kind of wrapped in there with politicians and others who are in a kind of a swirling mosh pit of activity that is not leading to any very particularly productive or good result. I'd like to go back to where people saw us as the guardians of the public interest and serving a hugely important constitutional bulwark of our society. I think that's the beating heart of what we do as journalists.
You have been given so many distinguished journalism awards from your time at ABC and NECN, including an Edward R. Murrow Award, Peabody, duPont-Columbia, and Gabriel Awards. What were you hoping to accomplish when you began your career as a journalist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch?
Not any of those things. I never thought about winning awards, I just loved what I was doing. At some point I began to become a creator of things. I had ideas to start things. When I went to television in the early '70s, I started to create programs for Channel 5. The most notable example of that was Chronicle, which has been on the air and successful for thirty years now, which is incredible. It's the most successful local television program in American history. I don't know where that instinct to create things came from, but I've repeated it now several times and it's a wonderful challenge to start with nothing and build an institution.
Creating something out of nothing is very hard, as we talked about. You go through a huge amount of suffering along the way, you really do. I mean, people just have no idea of the difficulties of starting with nothing and all the various component parts. The journalism part is usually the easiest part. It's all the rest of the stuff that's not easy. The fun part is the reporting, and at some point you really don't have much time for that.
Where do you get your news?
I live in both the old and new world. I still read The New York Times and The Boston Globe in print, and I also read the Times online and, of course, GlobalPost.com.
I also read a variety of other sites during the course of the day, some radio, and a little bit of television, but not nearly as much as I used to. It’s a luxury to be able to stop and just concentrate on reading the news - I enjoy that. I mean, that's a pleasure to me but there isn't much time. So, usually I'm finishing my news consumption late in the evening before I go to bed.
Is there an event you are looking forward to?
We had a wedding in Washington that we'd been looking forward to for a long time. It was glorious, but I don't get to do things like that very often. It was two men, one of whom was Betsy's friend and classmate at Harvard, and his partner is a wonderful man. It was a spectacularly interesting group of people and just great to be there.
I also look forward to seeing my children who are coming home. (It was the holidays when I interviewed Mr. Balboni.)
Are they at school?
They're both in New York City. My daughter is at ESPN and my son is a graduate student at Columbia University in Middle East Studies.
Secret source in Cambridge?
There are a lot of places I love in Cambridge. I'm such a huge fan of Cambridge. We really try to visit the iconic, true Cambridge establishments, not chains and things. Rizzo Tailor, which is right on the corner of Church and Brattle. I've had clothes made there by Joe and I get my hair cut at La Flamme in the square. I've been going there for more than twenty years.
Ali. He's only there on Saturdays now because he opened his own shop in Boston.
Is that the older guy with white hair?
No. That's George. He's the owner. He has the first seat on the left. Ali is in the middle on the right side. He's very good. He's lovely. He's Palestinian.
[Update 2017: Phil Balboni has now founded yet another top-shelf media product called DailyChatter, an international daily newsletter focusing exclusively on important global issues. DailyChatter.com]