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March 31, 2009, 1:19 p.m.

Interview: Charles Sennott, executive editor of GlobalPost

charles_sennottCharles M. Sennott is executive editor and vice president of GlobalPost, an international news platform based in Boston. I spoke with Sennott on March 24, 2009 and attended the morning editorial meeting following our discussion.

Charles M. Sennott was a veteran of 25 years of journalism including nine years of international reporting with the Boston Globe when he took a mid-career break as a Nieman Fellow in 2005. Shortly after he returned to the Globe, the paper announced that it would be shutting down all of its foreign bureaus and would rely on other sources for international coverage. His hope, or “five-year plan,” had been that his career would evolve into doing special projects, and possibly becoming the Globe’s foreign editor. He dreamed of doing a stint in Beijing, but the paper’s retrenchment eliminated all of those horizons.

globalpostOn one of his final foreign assignments, linked to the five-year anniversary of 9/11, he traveled to Afghanistan. He roamed the country with Gary Knight, a photojournalist who had founded the photo agency VII, which is particularly strong in gathering and marketing “premier conflict photography.” Knight asked him why foreign correspondents didn’t have a similar organization. This “push” led Sennott to hatch the idea of forming an independent, not-for-profit agency of top foreign correspondents who would do grant-funded projects and distribute the resulting content to publishers.

He developed a business plan around this idea and went shopping for financing, applying to the Knight News Challenge program and the Carnegie Foundation, and approaching several private philanthropists. While failing to gain funding commitments, he did receive strong encouragement, including from Knight, to continue his quest.

He began speaking with mentors including Charles Lewis (founder of several non-profit journalism organizations including the Center for Public Integrity) many of whom discouraged him, particularly mentioning that while non-profit startup funding might be obtained from grant-making institutions, donor fatigue would set in and make it difficult to sustain the mission in the longer term with continued operating support from philanthropic sources. The advice was to come up with a self-sustaining model.

At this point, Sennott met and began discussions with Philip S. Balboni, now president and CEO of GlobalPost, who had been thinking for 25 years about a for-profit network of foreign correspondents. Sennott and Balboni began to collaborate. Balboni’s background included a number of successful entrepreneurial launches including New England Cable News, a joint venture between Hearst and Continental Cablevision (now Comcast).

Balboni’s model involved a network of young, low-paid journalists; Sennott’s envisioned mid-career, seasoned, talented and commensurately high-paid journalists doing special projects. The two fused their editorial ideas, but largely adopted Balboni’s business model, including the use of younger, less expensive correspondents. On the strength of Balboni’s previous relationship, they attracted a lead investor, Amos Hostetter, who had founded Continental Cablevision, and who conveniently owned a waterfront office building in Boston where GlobalPost is now headquartered. The second principal investor is the Taylor family, former owners of the Boston Globe. There is no venture capital funding – the founders and investors agree that the plan is to create value, and the investors have a long-term view. Currently, nearly $9 million of the hoped-for $10 million in startup capitalization has been raised.

A unique aspect of the plan is that the correspondents in the field are each granted 10,000 shares of GlobalPost, meaning that they have a vested interest in the enterprise’s success. Employees own more than 50 percent of the firm’s common stock. (Correspondents are paid just $1,000 a month, but are free to augment their earnings through other freelance work.)

The opportunity that both Sennott and Balboni had perceived was that mainstream media were cutting back, particularly in their foreign coverage, creating an opening for an independent niche creator of foreign news content to fill the void and provide a new, networked, digital-age way of assembling and distributing that content. The website would create a “community of viewers who care about international news,” with a decidedly American point of view. Sennott asks, “Why is it that in America so many of us who care about international news end up tuning in to the BBC, reading the Economist, checking the Guardian and the FT? I would like to have an international news organization with an American sensibility, American standards of journalism, and an American ear for narrative and for what we care about.” Hostetter contributed the view that American business often has “miscues” in the global economy because “very rarely are they given news that shapes understanding of place.”

To address that opportunity, Sennott and Balboni created a vision for an online news enterprise with three revenue streams: online advertising, distribution of syndicated content to newspapers, and Passport, a paid subscription model for premium content within the free site. “We believe that journalism has value, and great journalism has great value,” says Sennott, and feels fortunate that his backers believe in the journalistic mission and vision.

As part of the business plan, Balboni and Sennott researched and projected how the site could become self sustaining and profitable, but real testing was not possible. However, Sennott says that today, only two months after launch, “we are on track in every category,” including being “way over” the unique visitor count they anticipated for this stage.

Advertising has come both from conventional advertisers who were given the opportunity to lock in low rates for a period of time while the site builds an audience, and “mission-driven” advertisers who want to tie their message to specific content on the site, such as global warming coverage.

Passport, the $199-a-year “inner circle” subscription service just launched by GlobalPost, is aimed at an audience of people highly engaged in international news, including business leaders, academics, government agencies, NGOs and students. It will offer more in-depth content, analysis and news digests from a selection of countries GlobalPost sees as key, but under-reported developing countries, providing subscribers with a feeling for the “local buzz.” Passport members will form a kind of social network with crowdsourcing features, in which members can interact, propose story ideas, provide feedback to editors and reporters, and participate in some of the coverage decisions.

The venture did face challenges in attracting enough investors who believed in the value of journalism and could invest with a long-term horizon, but Balboni’s acumen and prior track record made the difference. Sennott acknowledges that in the current environment, GlobalPost would not be able to attract the level of investment it has achieved, and that he and Balboni were fortunate to have obtained funding commitments before the acceleration of the economic downturn in the last months of 2008. But that downturn has presented new challenges, not expected, to the company’s ability to meet revenue projections. “It was never going to be easy, but it is undeniable that it has just gotten a lot harder,” Sennott says, adding that it may be necessary to modify downward some of the revenue projections and to grow the business “on a different trajectory.”

Rather than viewing any other enterprise as a direct competitor, Sennott and Balboni see GlobalPost as finding an underserved niche among large and long-established news enterprises like the BBC and The New York Times. “We want to emulate them, but we’re certainly no threat to them,” Sennott says, “but that’s the realm where we want to be.” Nor does he see the syndication aspect of GlobalPost’s business model as competing with the Associated Press or others who sell syndicated content, since GlobalPost only focuses on one of the many news categories available from AP.

Sennott also makes the point that GlobalPost does not cover breaking news, which is both a limitation and a strength. Through its network of correspondents, it could (and would in some instances) rapidly assemble a team on the ground following a very major breaking-news event, probably faster than other news organizations, “but we will never win that game” trying to play it every day. “Typically what we want to do is: week in and week out provide the stories that are not being covered by the traditional media. That’s the service we want to offer.”

In Sennott’s mind, that’s the measure of journalistic success; it also describes a niche and a business model not being exploited by others at an international level, which could offer the window of opportunity needed to establish both an audience and the needed revenue streams.

POSTED     March 31, 2009, 1:19 p.m.
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