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Feb. 8, 2010, noon

From Ken Doctor’s “Newsonomics”: What Phil Balboni learned about online journalism from cable news

[I’m very pleased to say that Ken Doctor, one of the smartest minds out there on the business side of journalism’s digital future, is going to be joining us here at the Nieman Journalism Lab. You’ll see his pieces on the economics of news here weekly. But at the moment, Ken is focused on the release of his new book, Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get. Today, tomorrow, and Wednesday, we’ll be running three brief excerpts from the book, each a Q&A with a leading journalist whose career has been shifted by the Internet. First up is GlobalPost CEO Phil Balboni. —Josh]

Phil Balboni launched GlobalPost in January 2009, just as many news companies were further reducing international reporting. He acted on a forty-year-old idea he’d had about bringing back global news to American audiences — and had seen that the ability of Internet efficiencies now made it possible. GlobalPost is his second career; he founded and ran the award-winning New England Cable News (NECN) business for many years. Now he can look out on the harbor, where clipper ships came in, and beyond, to his growing network of more than seventy correspondents working around the world.

Q: How did your cable news experience inform your GlobalPost plan?

A: There are quite a few, seminal lessons learned from NECN. First, the enormous value of more than one revenue stream and not being solely dependent on advertising.

The most important thing I did on the business side of NECN was throw myself totally into building distribution and selling the network to cable systems — always for cash and never for free. This generated over time enormous growth in steady, reliable revenue that was recession proof and not subject to the ups and downs of the ad market. In my final year, thanks to new contracts with new distributors like Verizon, we were headed toward a double-digit net revenue increase from license fees. Second, the essentiality of intelligent cost control.

Finally, quality works. In journalism, this is generally not believed and, therefore, virtually all media companies chase the largest audience with the lowest common denominator content. We started with a determination to be the high-quality provider of local news on television in New England. We also knew that we would never be the most viewed station with the highest ratings. We created our entire operation and our entire business to be able to be successful as a high-quality provider of content and to live happily with the smaller number of people who wanted an intelligent news product.

Q: What’s the moment when the lightbulb went off on how dramatically this new digital business of journalism would be radically different from legacy media?

A: For me, it was probably the fall of 1997, when we launched necn.com as the first all-video-news web site — perhaps in the world, certainly in the United States. There were probably not more than a couple of dozen broadband connections in the Boston metro area, but we believed in the promise of digital, of being interactive, of letting people have what they wanted in the order they wanted it, and only what they wanted.

And then I saw how slowly this built, how long it took for people to catch on to the power of the web to deliver video, but we never doubted that we were doing the right thing, and today the power of video has swept over the Internet.

Q: What have you learned about the role — and economics — of bloggers that surprised you?

A: I am constantly amazed at the enormous scope of blogging and the immediacy of its viral power. I would never have expected it to have come this far but it has, and shows no signs of any significant slowdown. To the contrary, the economics are generally not there, and blogging is not of great interest to advertisers. There are certainly some exceptions, but I don’t see this changing much. It is more of a social networking and intellectual engagement tool than an economic one.

Q: Is this “freelance stipend” model a big part of journalism’s future? [GlobalPost correspondents are generally not full-time employees; they’re paid a regular stipend as freelancers in exchange for a set number of pieces a month.]

A: I do believe that it will be a meaningful part of the future for journalists as the large and well-endowed media companies disassemble. It puts the burden on the journalist to cobble together the means of his or her support, but, on the other hand, it offers more freedom, more flexibility, and more creativity than being yoked to one entity. We do hope, and expect, to reward the best of our correspondents with compensation that will look more and more like full- time payment. That depends on our overall economics, of course, but it is part of the game plan for GlobalPost.

From Newsonomics by Ken Doctor. Copyright 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

POSTED     Feb. 8, 2010, noon
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