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GlobalPost betting that international news will have online appeal

March 9, 2010 |  6:00 am

Globalpost GlobalPost, the fledgling international news website, is looking to upend a couple of kinds of conventional wisdom at once. In a media world often dominated by the kinds of titillating, star-studded and "viral" news that attracts readers and viewers, it wants to compete by offering stories in the often maddeningly bleak category of foreign news.  And the site wants to make money doing it.

GlobalPost CEO Philip Balboni is optimistic on both counts. 

"When I was doing the business plan, this was the thing that people were most skeptical about: 'You can never build an audience for international news,' " he recounted.  "I'm thrilled to tell you we've proven those skeptics to be decisively wrong."

In the fall of 2008, when Balboni was getting ready to launch the site, he decided to shoot for drawing 600,000 monthly visitors by the end of 2009.  "We blew past that goal," he said, and by last November GlobalPost had 750,000 visitors. 

In another sign of early success, the site last week won several awards from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, including for series on the global economic crisis, migrant workers in China and conditions at the Asian factories that produce many of the world's technology products.

GlobalPost also showed its new-media savvy by recently releasing its own free iPhone app.

Balboni raised close to $9 million starting in June 2007, most of it from wealthy angel investors including  businessman and philanthropist Amos Hostetter Jr.; Ben Talyor, the last publisher of the Boston Globe; and Paul Sagan, chief executive of Web services giant Akamai Technologies.

The site now publishes close to 80 original stories every week, submitted by 74 far-flung correspondents as well as some of its permanent full-time staff of 15. It already syndicates its work to other news outlets, and has partnered with CBS News and the PBS NewsHour, among many others.

The major question is whether Balboni and his team can find a way to beat the odds and make the company profitable. He predicted it would happen in 2012, if all goes according to plan.

"Building a journalism business today is a very different proposition than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago when I started. Everything about it is different.  But it gives you the opportunity to start from scratch," he said.  "You have to figure out, what do I want to accomplish?  What's the potential for revenue?"

Right now, GlobalPost makes about 70% of its revenue from online advertising, but Balboni hopes to get that ratio down to about half. The rest, he hopes, will come from a mix of syndication fees and subscription income -- that is: money from readers.  As of now, its premium "Passport" service costs $49.99 a year and allows readers to access more in-depth reporting and research, including "correspondent calls" -- phone calls with reporters live on the scene of breaking news.

Balboni says he'd eventually like the paid content to be GlobalPost's largest source of income. That amounts to another bet on the ever-uncertain notion that readers would be willing to pay for online news.

Another way of looking at it, of course, is that Balboni and company are looking for an audience that is willing to help make sure that in-depth international journalism remains viable.

Updated to reflect Philip Balboni's title as GlobalPost CEO, rather than editor.

-- David Sarno