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Innovation: An interview with GlobalPost.com co-founder Charlie Sennott

Charlie Sennott, a former foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe, likes to say he had one of the last great rides in international reporting. He came up as a metro reporter, got sent overseas, and got to do international reporting for the paper he loved. But when he returned to Boston a couple years ago, he learned the Globe was pulling the plug on its international bureaus.

That set off some soul searching that has turned the career journalist into an entrepreneur who wants to reinvent the model for international reporting with GlobalPost.com. The online only international reporting site launches Jan. 12, 2009 and will have 70 correspondents around the world covering international news from an American perspective.

Sound crazy? I thought so. But I changed my mind after listening to Sennott. I saw him speak at the New Business Models for News Summitt in New York a couple of weeks ago (see the video above). And I got to talk with him last week to fill in some of the details of what he has in mind. Sennott is passionate about journalism, and clearly believes he and his partners have a sustainable model for a new international news organization.

“I’ve covered cops, courts, war zones, huge stories,” Sennott said. “I’ve never done a start-up. I’ve never been so busy in my life. But I’ve never been so excited about an opportunity to try to build something.”

You can listen to my interview with Sennott here:

Or download the podcast here.

Not every journalist who leaves a newspaper will have the drive to start a new company. Even Sennott sounds a bit surprised to find himself in this position. But now he’s on the cusp of seeing his concept go live in just a few weeks.

GlobalPost.com has hired 45 of the 70 correspondents it needs. These folks will be based in the countries they cover. You can see the full map of countries here. These folks will be paid using what Sennott calles the “super stringer model.” This is actually a throwback to a previous era. Correspondents will be paid a set fee (he wouldn’t disclose how much) each month for a set number of stories. Those correspondents must commit to living in those countries for three years, and he wants them to develop a voice for an American audience.

First, let’s look at how this “newsroom” will operate. The correspondents’ core job will be to produce sharply written pieces of 600 to 800 words for the GlobalPost.com web site. They will also keep blogs as a kind of reporter’s notebook. Sennott wants these notebooks to take readers inside the reporter’s thoughts and processes as they go about their work. Correspondents will also be expected to produce multimedia pieces.

While reporters will post directly to their blogs, their “stories” will actually be edited. At the summitt in New York, there was a big divide between folks who thought editors were essential, and those who thought their roles could be reduced or eliminated. Sennott clearly believes editors are invaluable.

“We will have editors,” Sennott said. “Great reporters have great editors.” Sennott argues that editors will be key to establishing voice, and keeping story lengths tight and efficient. Reporters will also product longer pieces that Sennott wants carefully edited as well.

Sennott wants the GlobalPost.com brand to stand for quality. He argues that is essential to making the site a successful business.

“The key is quality content,” Sennott said. “If you’re good, people will find you.”

And what of the business model? How is GlobalPost.com going to take an online only model and make it profitable enough to pay for 70 correspondents and several editors? And earn a return for investors?

Sennott said the first key is keeping costs low. The biggest advantage at the start is the lack of printing presses and distribution costs.The stringer pay will also keep labor costs moderate.

“We really have a chance to create a newsroom that is web based,” Sennott said. “A lot of newsrooms are struggling to retrofit. We can create this for the web right from the start.”

There will be three revenue streams.

First, of course, is advertising. Sennott said the goal for the first year is to attract an average of 600,000 unique visits per month. Folks at the summit in New York felt this was pretty reasonable, and maybe even a bit conservative. And that’s good since no one is setting a goal that’s delusional.

Next, GlobalPost.com wants to syndicate its content to newspapers. Sennott notes that so many local newspapers have been hit hard economically and he intends to provide an affordable alternative that delivers high quality journalism but also helps those local papers cut their costs. He’s likely to have some competition here from CNN.com which recently announced it intends to make its content available to newspapers.

Finally, GlobalPost.com will launch a premium service which will allow loyal users to participate in an “inner circle” of special content, such as chats with newspapers or correspondents.

Sennott is confident the time is right. With a new president, he thinks the world is going to want to re-engage with the U.S. And that U.S. citizens will hopefully have a greater hunger for international news.

And if all goes according to plan, the company will be profitable in three years.

For now, Sennott is getting down to work of producing the journalism, developing story ideas and mapping out coverage plans. Watch for a beta of the site to appear next month some time.

What do you think? Do you have an appetite for this kind of international reporting? And do the think the business model makes sense?


3 Responses

  1. I think this is a great idea in theory, I especially like the idea of editors — an essential element to “news” — but how will this ever manage to compete with AP and the now emerging CNN wire service? What’s the sales model?

  2. I’ll try this again. Everything I’ve read and heard about local online news sites suggest that the best way to build traffic is with a hyper-local model: birthdays, anniversaries, zoning boards, etc. But I’ve always foolishly clung to the notion that we should at least try to spoon-feed the sort of news that will help them understand the world and how developments in Brazil impact the sale of pick-up trucks in Northwest Iowa.In the past, The Des Moines Register has done a very good job of providing its subscribers with detailed information about politics and public policy around the world and its agricultural coverage, until recently, has been unparalleled. The Register has a vibrant web site and seems to receive its share of kudos for innovation. But it’s not a site make me feel any smarter or better informed once I’ve visited it.So I like the idea behind GlobalPost.com and would be interested in figuring out how to tailor a package of targeted stories to our website if we could afford it. One of my favorite sites these days is http://www.minnpost.com, a internet-only site that makes an effort to provide its readers with the kind of in-depth journalism that you don’t find at too many traditional sites. Their strategy seems to be paying off in terms of reader loyalty. I hope Mr. Sennott’s work can have the same impact.

  3. Hi, Chris,Great interview with Charlie!Charlie left out one key element that will also differentiate Global Post from the other news services: the fact that in addition to the 70 correspondents, Global Post will have 350 of the best bloggers in the world writing about life at the street level in each of their countries.And that’s my job as their Director of Global Blog Development (fancy title, huh?!). Along with 14 interns, we have been scanning the Web for the very best bloggers writing in or about 53 countries from Algeria to Zimbabwe. And we have found some incredible stuff.I have posted samples on my blog where you can see their pictures and read excerpts of their best writing.The combination of correspondents and bloggers will be a very compelling package.John Wilpers (jwilpers@globalpost.com); blog: johnwilpers.wordpress.comPS Chris, I added NextNewsroom to my favorite media blogs blog roll!

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