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March 14, 2016, 11:01 a.m.
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GlobalPost’s founder hopes to find freedom from platforms and ads with a new email newsletter

“At GlobalPost, I saw the loss of control over so many things that are important to your success.”

When Philip Balboni sold his international news website GlobalPost to WGBH’s Public Radio International last year, he could have exited journalism as well. After all, he’s been in the business for 49 years now. But “I realized, unexpectedly, that I wasn’t ready to leave my profession,” Balboni said.

Philip BalboniInstead, he began thinking about email newsletters. “I became enthusiastic about the possibility of working on something that is sustaining and sustainable, that doesn’t depend on all of the things that are outside of journalists’ control now, like advertising technology and social media,” Balboni said. “At GlobalPost, I saw that loss of control over so many things that are important to your success.”

In Balboni’s view, “the publishing, and the monetizing, and the growing of the audience are controlled by others,” with platforms like Facebook and Google holding the most power. As he oversaw the sale of GlobalPost to WGBH on September 30, 2015 for an undisclosed sum, and wound down the parent company, he kept the rights to GlobalPost’s email newsletter Chatter and decided to relaunch it as an independent email newsletter, now called Daily Chatter.

The first issue of Daily Chatter came out Monday. The slogan is “The world in two minutes,” which is “around the time it’d take a reasonably fast reader to go through Chatter in the morning and come away with a deeper understanding of the world,” Balboni said. The newsletter will be sent to subscribers each morning around 6:30 a.m ET. You can see the first issue here.

Balboni’s partner in the venture is Alex Jones, who was the director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Media, Politics and Public Policy from 2000 to 2015. He also won the Pulitzer Prize for media coverage at The New York Times (and is a former Nieman Fellow). There are two employees: Jabeen Bhatti, senior editor and principal writer, is an American foreign correspondent based in Berlin, and Jason Overdorf, Asia editor, is an American foreign correspondent based in New Delhi.

“The ad I wrote for journalism jobs said clearly that they needed to live in a time zone that would permit them to deliver Chatter somewhere between 6:00 and 7:00 Eastern time,” Balboni said. Based in Europe and Asia, Bhatti and Overdorf “will be able to live inside the news cycle and even be ahead of it, from the perspective of East Coast time.”

For now, the team’s goal is to refine the voice and direction of Daily Chatter. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, Jones will begin recording a weekend podcast as well.

Daily Chatter will cost a modest $12 a year, after three free months, and will be sent out every weekday and also published on Daily Chatter’s site. It will include no advertising. As of last Thursday, there were 900 subscribers signed up (again, they won’t be paying for 90 more days). Balboni is providing the bulk of the funding to support Daily Chatter, with Jones also contributing. “We may take a couple more investors, but we don’t really need it,” Balboni said. “Our breakeven point is not heroic, at all. Daily Chatter will be very efficiently run, I will do a lot of things myself, and we’ll be able to produce a very high-quality product at a total cost that gives us a chance to be successful.”

Somewhat unusually for an email newsletter, the stories don’t rely heavily on links, though there are a couple scattered throughout. “This is almost — it’s not a column, it’s kind of a new animal,” Balboni said. “I don’t know that it has a category to drop into other than that it’s an email newsletter.” Balboni has spent months studying the category, reading daily offerings from sites like Quartz and Vox, and “generally speaking, these are brand extensions that focus on promoting their own content in various ways.”

A better comparison to Daily Chatter, he said, might be The Skimm, which is aimed at 18- to 34-year-old women and has grown to 1.5 million subscribers. “The founders had a very clear mission about what they wanted to accomplish” and a defined target demographic, Balboni said. He hopes for the same with Daily Chatter, though its demographic is a little different: “The very well-educated segment of the population, across all age groups and income levels…I think there will be a substantial percentage of young people, and I think many of these people, both young and others, have little news brand loyalty at the national and world level. That gives us the opportunity to serve them.”

Monday’s issue of Daily Chatter includes five stories. The lead story is about violence in political campaigns — an increasingly prominent issue in the U.S. thanks to Donald Trump, but a problem in Europe as well. The story contextualizes Trump’s violent rallies as a piece of a broader worldwide trend of the “politics of fear.” Other stories cover rallies in Brazil, attacks in West Africa and Turkey, and a Japanese farmer who is taking care of the animals abandoned after the nuclear meltdown in 2011. The goal is for the newsletter to be “progressive, but not ideological,” and most of the content will focus on areas outside the U.S.

“When a U.S. story is clearly of global interest, it should be part of what we write about,” Balboni said. “But there’s so much done on U.S. news, and so relatively little done on world news, and that is my particular passion. The U.S. presidential election is clearly of interest around the world, but we don’t need to write about it every day.”

Lessons learned from GlobalPost

Balboni hasn’t said much publicly about the sale of GlobalPost, which launched in 2008 as “the first online-only world news service.” Balboni and cofounder Charles Sennott created the site partly as a response to the trend of American newspapers shutting down their foreign bureaus. The site launched with 65 foreign correspondents, in 48 countries, working on a “freelance stipend model” of $1,000 a month, plus a stake in the company. The plan was to derive revenue from advertising, syndication to newspapers, and a paid premium product called Passport.

Passport was initially set to cost $199 a year, but it didn’t attract many takers at that level. The price of a subscription fell over the years — to $49.95 a year and then to $29.95 a year or $1.99 a month. “This is a five- to 15-year effort to get consumer behavior changed,” Balboni told Ken Doctor at the time. Balboni had hoped that eventually membership would make up 50 percent of GlobalPost’s revenue, but that never came close to happening.

By 2014, GlobalPost had eight full-time employees and seven contract staffers. The site was struggling and had never broken even.

“Any CEO needs to be thinking all the time, and everybody knows that journalism is a tough business,” Balboni told me. He went over GlobalPost’s options: “We could stay independent, we could be sold to somebody else, we could do some sort of joint venture with another party.” He spent 18 months looking at different outlets, he said, “but it came down to finding a place that our values would be respected and the mission would be continued by people that we respected.” It was clear WGBH was that place, he said. Though he didn’t disclose the price WGBH paid for GlobalPost, “it was never about money.”

But the experience changed the way he thought about the funding of journalism. “When we launched GlobalPost, CPMs were quite high, but by 2011, 2012, they had fallen, and they continued to be very unrewarding,” he said. With Daily Chatter, “we are going back to the model that has always worked in the past, where you pay for the journalism. It creates a stronger two-way relationship, thinking of your readers as your customers…It’s very liberating to not have to focus on advertising but to just focus on the product and making the customer happy.”

Photo of a globe by Luke Price used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 14, 2016, 11:01 a.m.
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