Call it physics. Call it Zen. Call it journalism.
As I cover the waning fortunes of legacy media and rising fortunes of start-up journalism sites, I can't help but think of equilibrium. Maybe it's being back on the Left Coast too long, but somehow the scales seem to be balancing. Recall that Americans still read news 62 minutes a day, just as they did 10 years ago. But of course they spend less time with newspapers, TV and radio, stealing some of those minutes for the web.
It's certainly not a gainly equilibrium, but the announcement that Charlie Sennott is joining Global News Enterprises as executive editor is just one more sign that it's happening.
Sennott, award-winning and industry-esteemed, swings out the Boston Globe door, taking the increasingly familiar buyout route after 15 years there, and busts open the portals of Global News. The site is the first embrace the (lower-case) globe as its reporting assignment. The plan: launch in early 2009, with a complement of 70 corresponents, reporting in from all corners of the world. The correspondents won't be full-time staff, but rather stringers drawing stipends for a weekly report. The site will be staffed initially by 10 full-timers, with the editorial operation headed by Sennott. Over his time at the Globe, he served as Middle East bureau chief in Jerusalem, as European bureau chief in London and then worked on the Globe's special-projects team, doing year-long work in both Iraq and Afghanistan. His recent work has tracked the Iraqi war, including this piece -- "New England's Own" -- on veterans returning home from Iraq. It's an impressive multimedia package, one which Sennott says is a "raw prototype of what the in-depth reports might look like on GlobalNews".
Of course, Global News is just one of many new news sites emerging, from its national cousins Politico and ProPublica to its regional kin, MinnPost, PegasusNews, CrossCut, Voice of San Diego, the New Haven Independent, VillageSoup and more. Their business models vary, from profit-seeking to non-profit, with differing views on advertising, sponsorship, membership and angel funding. But I'm beginning to believe their most important business model is one that's been sucked out of the newspaper industry: enthusiasm.
It is one of the common denominators of all these site founders, and the 45-year-old Sennott's got a good case of it:
"I leave the Globe April 4. I start [on Global News] on April 7....I want to be in the revolution. I want to jump the barricades... Global News will be a dream team of reporters who are at places they don't have to be, ready to commit themselves..."
Sennott was just back from Baghdad, from an embed assignment in a patrolling Humvee, when we talked. He can talk traditional Ernie Pyle war correspondent lingo and the language of 2008. "It used to be you took a brick of notepads," he remembers. Now it's Kevlar, Marantz (as in digital recorders) and a host of audio/video gear to get the whole story. "And I've learned Final Cut Pro."
The site has got more than enthusiasm going for it. It's got almost $8 million to start (intending to raise $2 million more pre-launch), and Phil Balboni as a co-founder. Balboni founded New England Cable News, and he's pulled in as investors former Globe publisher Benjamin Taylor, Akamai president Paul Sagan and Continental Cablevision co-founder Amos Hostetter, Jr. Balboni, whose business and journalistic acumen is well-regarded, will be CEO.
Charlie and Phil's Excellent Global Adventure is one to watch. They put it together as both had separately noodled on the idea. Sennott has been working on the notion for a couple of years, thinking "non-profit", and seeking funds from the Knight Foundation, among others. When they came together, they decided that a profit-seeking model was better, better at raising capital and in providing some skin in the game to the fledgling correspondent corps, who will get options.
Sennott says he started with the notion of depth -- he's authored numerous in-depth take-outs -- and that Balboni talked breadth. The site will attempt to be a combination of the two, aiming for two "special projects" in year one, four the second year and eight the third, in addition to covering news.
The new editor has been out recruiting over the last year, sharing his infectious enthusiasm with long-time overseas correspondent/friends. While all roles are preliminary, as the site turns the idea into a business, some well-known reporters have lent their names to the enterprise, with depth of relationship tba. Among them:
- Matt McAllester, former Pulitzer Prize-winning Newsday foreign correspondent
- Joshua Hammer, former Newsweek reporter who worked as the magazine's bureau chief in Berlin and Jerusalem;
- Sam Kiley, former Times of London bureau chief for Africa and the Middle East;
- Scott Anderson, a veteran war correspondent and contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.
- H.D.S Greenway, a foreign correspondent best known for his Vietnam War coverage and a former Globe editor, will also contribute an occasional column to the website
Global News' timing is timely. Sennott points to recent foreign corresponent cutbacks at both the Globe and Newsday as signs of the times.
I'd glad that the L.A. Times has been able to hold on to its wider reach, if a recent comment to my blog is accurate: "Are 28 foreign correspondents in 22 bureaus and 40 national correspondents in 9 domestic bureaus not enough to qualify as a serious "national newspaper"?" I only hope that the corps survives the New Tribune's zero-basing. If I was wrong about the Times, I believe my sense overall of the decline in foreign correspondents was right, from a recent post on the Times and concern it's likely pulling back, given the recently announced 7.5% cut in newsroom staffing.
The last count I'd seen put the number of US-based foreign correspondents at 141 at the end of 2006, a 25% decline in four years. Anyone have a more recent count?
I didn't get a chance to talk with Phil Balboni yet, so I don't have a lot of depth on the business model.
For revenue, I'd expect that site can anticipate drawing maybe 30% of its revenue from advertising -- graphical, search and video. That's the level of support I'm hearing from journalistic startups. Maybe it can do well with high-level corporate sponsorships, given that its audience demographics should be good.
Let's say the investor funding will supply 50% of the site's budget over the first year to two, another metric pulled from other recent start-ups (though they are local and this is national, so we may see some disparity there).
That would leave another 20% to be found somewhere. With a for-profit model, reader memberships ( a la NPR and MinnPost) wouldn't seem to work.) But Global News should have some powerful licensing ability, reselling and redistributing its content -- especially multimedia -- for consumer, educational and enterprise use.
As the new kid on the block it will find powerful competition from the established global news brands, each of which is making plans to embrace the potential of the global web. Those brands -- Reuters, AP, BBC, ABC, NBC, the Guardian, the New York Times and the Washington Post to some degree -- are all ramping up, yet dogged by legacy business turndowns. Global News may find fertile territory, competing or in the classic web term -- engaging in coopetition. Co-branded products, licensed a la the TV and cable business -- remember Balboni's background -- may be just the ticket to success.