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Where Is Digital Media Going? GlobalPost's Phil Balboni

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Disruption in media is happening at a record rate. One week it's BuzzFeed and then next it's VOX. It's hard to decipher how things will shake out. There is a deluge of content, and we can't keep up. Who is going to finish? Who will win? This week I interviewed Phil Balboni, co-founder and CEO of GlobalPost on the future of journalism, niche media and the quickly changing landscape of digital media.

With tech billionaires Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post and Pierre Omidyar launching his 250-million-dollar First Look Media and the incredible success of the now venerable Huffington Post, I wanted to talk to a seasoned veteran of old news now succeeding in digital media. Balboni is a winner of the great journalism awards: a Peabody, Murrow and duPont-Columbia to name a few and he also founded NECN and Chronicle, one of the most successful prime time news programs.

Five years ago, funded by billionaires Amos Hostetter of Comcast success and James Stone, who founded Plymouth Rock Insurance, Balboni created GlobalPost.com, a niche media, online only, international news site. It's like a fallback to the old AP and Reuter days or the CBC News in Canada, where I grew up, with many international paid correspondents on the ground. GlobalPost appears to be growing fast. Even The Atlantic editor I had finally cracked as a freelancer up and left to join GlobalPost last month. (Thanks Balboni!)

I sat down with Mr. Balboni to explore this great disruption.

What's the most burning item on your desk?

Survival. All journalism organizations are struggling with the economics today, big or small. And for a new entrant like GlobalPost.com, all of those pressures are intensified because we are building a brand at the same time we're building an audience and at the same time we're trying to build revenue. The interplay among those three things is crucial.

There are very few journalism organizations, other than the biggest television networks that are part of big conglomerates, where you don't have to worry about staying in business. The news divisions of the three broadcast networks are all supported by the entertainment programs. ABC News is part of Disney, which is one of the largest media companies in the world. NBC Universal is now owned by Comcast, which is the largest cable company in America.

What is "news" to these big networks?

News is not very important. It's not important to their bottom line and it's not in their DNA. Certainly they recognize that there is a public trust aspect to it. The mandate is to get the best ratings you can. Make money. Don't lose money... and if you can make more money, that's better.

There are so many things that we used to do at an earlier time in television news: documentaries, deep reportage, preempting evening programming to put something on that was important to the American people. These things are seldom, if ever, done today. Isn't it ironic that we have three cable news networks, maybe four or five if you include CNBC and Headline News and now Al Jazeera America, and yet there are no newscasts in the evening? They're all talk, interview and opinion but not news, not reportage. It seems crazy to me that we don't have a single national primetime newscast.

You could do a very, very harsh critique of where we are journalistically on television, and in other places as well, and the reason for that is generally the economics. It is not very profitable to do news journalism. It may even be a money-losing proposition, and this means that the pursuit of excellence is something that people feel, even if they were so moved, constrained or unable to do.

What is next for digital media?

I think we're still absorbing/digesting the enormous changes of the last 10 to 15 years. We are kind of in the early-to-mid stages of a social media revolution, which is very powerful and is trying to be exploited by many people. It's still being sorted out and it's hard to say where it's going to end up.

Some of the new and very successful sites like Buzzfeed get most or all of the traffic from social media and not from "search." When this information revolution got underway in the '90s and the early 2000s, "search" was the biggest thing for the discovery of news, but now "social" has risen to challenge it. It hasn't displaced it yet but you can see how it could.

The number of people who are consuming news because it's their favorite place has diminished, and among young people it's completely evaporated. I think that, with rare exceptions, people who are 18 to 30 are being satisfied in very different ways and a lot of it is through social media. It is creating a whole new dynamic for a new generation of news.

I think it will be quite some time before we fully absorb this and for the journalism community to figure out how to be successful and perform our mission and still be discovered and get new readers.

Who will win in this new journalism?

I don't know. I don't think anybody knows.

Will we move to niche media?

I think so, and that's why I like the niche that we have with GlobalPost.com. It's not one that is heavily occupied, particularly in America. In a way there's nobody else who has created a niche that is solely built around international news.

We see billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Pierre Omidyar funding media now. Is this a turning point?

I don't know if it's a turning point, but it's certainly remarkable. There are only a few multi-billionaire tech geniuses out there in the league of Jeff Bezos, who has so brilliantly exploited consumer needs and interests with Amazon. Then you have Pierre Omidyar who was the chairman and founder of Ebay who, from all you can tell by reading, has a deep interest in the role of journalism in a democracy as the watchdog over malfeasance by government.

There are already some pretty powerful companies that own general interest news sites: the television networks, New York Times, Washington Post, Time Magazine, USA Today, The Huffington Post. If you're throwing yourself into that level of competition, you're setting yourself a very tall order, and it's admirable.

Is journalism the new charity?

I would say no. First of all, it's not charity, and that's an important thing. The Washington Post is going to be run as a real business. Now, Bezos can have a very long-term horizon on any return on this investment and that is his instinct anyway, because Amazon doesn't make much money and sometimes loses money and yet its stock price is extremely high because people see enormous potential. He'll almost certainly take the same approach with the Washington Post.

This is not charity. He didn't buy it for charitable purposes. It wasn't a tax-deductible kind of thing. Same with Omidyar: He is a believer in business. He has a foundation but this was his money. It's not from his charitable side. He's creating a real business too. This is simply not what is happening here, and I think their instinct is to create a business.

I think it's fine to have nonprofit journalism, but it's not the solution for journalism. It's not. It may produce some good things and where that is possible that's great, but anything that has to live for the long term or a century or more has to be a self-sustaining enterprise. It has to generate sufficient revenue to cover its costs.

What are you trying to solve with Globalpost.com?

It was designed initially to address the lack of choice in international news in America. We are trying to expand the choices available to people, particularly in America. Even though we have a global audience with 45 percent of GlobalPost.com readers coming from all over the world and 230 countries sending readers to our site every month.

Over the last 20 years, the television networks have almost stopped reporting international news except for the most important things. Newspapers have closed their foreign bureaus and, with less than a handful of exceptions, no one is doing international reporting in newspapers anymore in the United States. We have NPR for radio, which is excellent, so you have some choices but they're limited.

I believe there are lots of people who care deeply about the world in America.

Who is your audience?

Our audience is about 60 percent male and very young. Two-thirds are 18 to 49. Affluent. High percentage with over $100,000 household income. Highly educated. Large percentage of people with college degrees or graduate degrees.

What public opinion would you most like to change in media?

I think we journalists have developed a rather bad reputation over recent decades. It's been building for a long time. When I started out as a reporter in 1967 in Richmond, Virginia, it was a highly respected profession and you were admired. Today we're kind of wrapped in there with politicians and others who are in a kind of a swirling mosh pit of activity that is not leading to any very particularly productive or good result. I'd like to go back to where people saw us as the guardians of the public interest and serving a hugely important constitutional bulwark of our society. I think that's the beating heart of what we do as journalists.

The full interview with Phil Balboni can be seen at TheEditorial.com