Roll the Dice

How one journalist gambled on the future of news

Nine months. We’d been at this project for nine months, beginning with a few sketches on a whiteboard about how we might design a Web site for international news in the digital age. Back then it was just Phil Balboni and me in our Boston offices, surrounded by empty cubicles. First came the “wireframes,” the Web-development equivalent to a sonogram, a fuzzy glimpse of life but pretty hard to decipher. Then the final design and branding, which was a burst of fun and creativity before the grueling, detailed labor of final Web development.

All through these shifting seasons I worked the phone across time zones and traveled around the world, recruiting sixty-five foreign correspondents to write for us. Then we assembled a team of editors for the newsroom—a small, start-up-sized newsroom—and by November it was suddenly fully staffed with about fifteen people.

And now the moment had arrived for to be delivered onto the Web. It was Saturday, January 10, another late night in the grinding, over-caffeinated days before our January 12 launch. I was staring out the window at a snowstorm, large flakes swirling in the darkness and descending into the black waters of Boston Harbor. I had not slept more than a few hours a day for a week. The air was pregnant with expectation and possibility and most of all vigilance.

I was on the phone with our Web developer, Jason Oliver, as he clicked away on his keyboard in his office in Wisconsin. He was redirecting our beta URL over to receive our domain name,, an act that would begin a process of “propagating” the site onto the servers and making it possible for the public to come and see what we had created. With a final clatter of programming code at precisely 11:11 p.m., Oliver pronounced in the steady, dry voice of a technical engineer, “It’s done. I hit the button. We’re live. Congratulations.” With a keystroke, our Web site was lighting up on our hosting site and flowing across all of the continents. And what struck me most was the hushed silence of it all.

The digital files that contained the stories our correspondents had reported and so beautifully written, and we had so carefully edited, were reduced to zeros and ones and racing through a labyrinth of computer networks. The process of this “propagation” was an algorithm of technology nearly as mysterious to me as birth.

Nine months earlier, on a rainy April afternoon, I had left The Boston Globe, where I had worked for fourteen years. It was my hometown paper and the place where I had wanted to work from about the age of thirteen, when I first started reading the paper. It was the era of the legendary editor Tom Winship, who built a team of great reporters and strong voices that included George Frazier, Peter Gammons, Curtis Wilkie, Ellen Goodman, David Nyhan, Walter V. Robinson, and Mike Barnicle. It was the end of a great ride in newspapers that had lasted twenty-two years.

My path had been fairly traditional. I started out at The Record in Hackensack, New Jersey, covering planning-board meetings and two-bit mobsters. I had my shot at the Big Apple in 1988, writing for the New York Post for all of ten months and then jumping over to the Daily News, starting with cops and courts. Two years later, I covered the Persian Gulf War, my first big foreign assignment, though the paper went on strike just as the war got under way, and I filed for the strike paper. Afterward, I went back to street reporting, and was in lower Manhattan in 1993 when a huge explosion rocked the World Trade Center, the first glimpse of a plot that would be brought to fruition eight years later. In 1993, this was a local news story, not “foreign reporting.” It was a Daily News story. It was about New York but had a Middle East angle. City Editor Bill Boyle dispatched me to follow the trails of suspects in Egypt, the Sudan, the West Bank, and Pakistan.

I didn’t know it, but that was also the start of a fifteen-year body of work on Middle Eastern religious extremism and terrorism. I had experimented with the adrenaline addiction that is foreign reporting during the gulf war, but after chasing suspects all over the Middle East, I was completely hooked. The five-part series I had hoped for was cut considerably, however; New York shrugged off the bombing as the work of a bunch of loser taxi drivers. It was hard to see at the time that this was nascent Al Qaeda.

Soon after that series, I was hired by The Boston Globe. Finally, I was at a paper with a foreign desk and foreign postings, and the editor, Matt Storin, knew I had my eye on one of them. In 1997, he gave me the greatest reporting assignment I ever had: Middle East bureau chief. I spent most of the next decade in Jerusalem and London, and covered the Palestinian intifada, the war in Kosovo, conflicts in Algeria and Lebanon. I traveled throughout the Middle East. When September 11 hit, I was among the first reporters on the ground in Afghanistan. All that police reporting that began with the first World Trade Center bombing gave me the grounding to do worthwhile work. I also went to Iraq and, eventually, “The Long War” became what I covered for a living. I had three sons (soon would have four), yet the work seemed worth the considerable risk. I felt like I had something to add, like I was doing work that mattered. But then the paper put me up for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University and used it as leverage to extricate me from the London bureau.

By the time I got back to the Globe in the late summer of 2006, the landscape for American newspapers had dramatically shifted. Colleagues had complained about management and where the paper was headed, but I had dismissed most of their bleak assessments as whining, something reporters are known to do. But then the Globe announced the closure of all of its foreign bureaus. The mission shrank. The ambition to cover the nation and the world was put aside. It was an understandable decision when you looked at the books, but it broke my heart.

Spurred by a friend and colleague, Gary Knight, the cofounder of the photo agency vii, I began to think about starting my own foreign-news agency. While Gary and I were traveling in Afghanistan for a piece about the fifth anniversary of September 11, I told him I feared it would probably be my last foreign assignment for the Globe. He encouraged me to go out and do my own thing, pull together the many friends and colleagues we shared and create our own boutique foreign-news agency. It was a push.

And it got me going. I began quietly developing a proposal for a nonprofit model for an international news agency. Pretty soon I was closing in on several hundred thousand dollars from funders. Yet as I was working up this plan in my basement office, I could often hear my four boys roughhousing upstairs, pounding the floorboards above my head. It was a constant reminder that I was out of my mind to take such a financial risk and leave the paper. Buyouts were pending and that would help, but how would I provide for a big family with a startup nonprofit? I had serious doubts; staying at the Globe meant a steady paycheck. I resolved to stay put, but felt restless.

But then fate turned. I found out that Balboni, a legend in Boston broadcast journalism, had been developing a similar idea, one he had nurtured for more than thirty-five years, to create a collaborative for foreign correspondents, but not as a nonprofit. Phil had already put together a convincing prospectus for investors, one with a clear business plan and modest projections for revenue, built around a confident assessment that ad dollars were shifting from print and TV to the Web. I loved a part of his plan that allowed for the correspondents to own shares in the company, which meant they would be vested in its success.

Perhaps most importantly, it was written with a philosophy that I had come to respect: quality journalism has value and it needs to be paid for. Great, independent journalism should be self-sustaining. I realized I was in the presence of a rare entrepreneur: a journalist with a strong business sense and a track record. Balboni had founded the New England Cable News (NECN), and his success there had led to several key investors who were already on board. We met and combined our editorial visions into a single plan. A partnership was taking shape, and I was excited about the possibility of creating a new news organization.

Newsrooms, I believe, have a tendency to crush the entrepreneurial spirit, and those of us who love the business should resist that part of the culture. Yet every time I felt the entrepreneurial urge, I reminded myself that I had a family to think about. I was at a crossroads, unable to sleep. The buyout offer was pending. I had to decide.

The moment of clarity came thanks to my wife, Julie. In the middle of a sleepless night, she said, “For ten years, you have been getting shot at in war zones for a living. So why are you so afraid of taking a risk when it comes to your own career? You’ve got to do what you love.” The next morning, I worked out the final terms of a deal with Phil, and I signed the buyout papers on St. Patrick’s Day.

On my last morning at The Boston Globe, as I walked past its glorious fleet of green delivery trucks, I was sad, and took in all the things I love about the paper. The biggest part was the chatter with colleagues who know how to tell a great story, who know precisely how and when to give you a hard time, and who could make you laugh even on a bad day. I had it out a few times with some editors, but I knew I would miss the old-school types who loved the craft and had great respect for the tradition of the paper and its place in the city.

I savored one memorable sound from the newsroom in particular—the thud of the huge rolls of newsprint hitting the cement loading docks. It shook the newsroom just a bit on Thursdays before the big Sunday run. To me, this was the sound of a big city newspaper, the heft of it all.

I didn’t know it then, but as we were building this start-up, two statistical lines were crossing. Print newspaper readership was trending downward and being surpassed by the rising number of those who got their news online, according to a Pew Research Center report that would be published in December 2008. We could all feel the trend advancing even if we didn’t yet have the facts. And that’s why on that last day of work, the wondrous thud of the newsprint hitting the docks seemed more ominous, like thunder. And the news of the industry since I left has been devastating. More newspapers have had layoffs, the Minneapolis Star Tribune went bankrupt and The Christian Science Monitor ceased its daily print edition; the Globe is staring down the barrel of more buyouts and likely layoffs.

So nine months later, staring out at the snow on that January night we launched GlobalPost, I was thinking about that last day at the Globe, and struck by the contrast I felt. The newspaper world was tactile. The trucks idle in the cold, pre-dawn morning like horses. The floor in the pressroom is slippery with ink. I had held a union card that guaranteed me “employment for life,” an agreement the unions had reached in the flush days of the early 1990s. And the sound of a big newsroom chasing a breaking story was still great, even if more and more cubicles were empty. Here I was launching an entire news organization in the dead of night with only the quiet clatter of a keyboard. It just didn’t seem the same somehow.

Yet creating a news organization in the ferment of the Internet has been thrilling and nerve wracking all the same. We have raised approximately $8.5 million of the $10 million of capital that we require, which gives us more than enough for a solid footing. We always knew it would be difficult to make this work and the global economic collapse has, of course, made it even harder. We have kept our revenue projections in place, but recognize that we will have to work harder to achieve them. No one ever said it would be easy.

And editorially, I see the global economic collapse as a great and important story for us. It’s the kind of event that seems to cry out for a news organization like ours, one with a breadth of global coverage. We have a total of sixty-five correspondents in forty-five countries filing dispatches. Ten of these cover the kind of beat, or “latitude” as we dubbed it, that cuts across national boundaries and connects us all.

Our site sets out to have a distinctly American voice. Not a tone that is nationalistic or jingoistic, but a writing style with a good ear for American storytelling and a respect for the standards of American journalism. We also want to provide both current and historical context—for instance, by recognizing that Americans do not have enough grounding in history to understand international stories. So we built interactive timelines for many of the country pages. We began our launch with a fifty-part series from many corners of the world titled “For Which It Stands,” focused around a single question that we wanted to pose on the eve of the new presidency: What does the idea of America mean to the world?

GlobalPost has assembled a stellar team that includes veterans such as H. D. S. Greenway and William Dowell, both with distinguished careers that stretch across a half century, from Vietnam to Iraq. We have decorated, mid-career correspondents such as Joshua Hammer in Berlin, Matt McAllester in London, Matt Benyon Rees in Jerusalem, Edward Gargan in Beijing, Caryle Murphy in Saudi Arabia, and Jane Arraf in Baghdad. And we also have tremendous young talent, such as Mildred Cherfils in Paris, Theodore May in
Cairo, and Patrick Winn in Thailand. All are working with us as a piece of freelance portfolio. They are paid a steady retainer of $1,000 per month for four dispatches, and they get ten thousand shares of the company. Overall, employees make up nearly half of the non-investor common stock in the company.

On the business side, Phil has kept us nimble and expanded our opportunities for revenue to include two new streams. First, we have developed a syndication model for newspapers, which are cutting back on or abandoning foreign coverage. We announced during the week of our launch that we had signed on the New York Daily News, a huge opportunity for our company and a great full-circle moment for me personally. Second, we created a membership model for premium content, called Passport.

It’s been thrilling to be on the street for the revolution that is unfolding in our business. And of course we’re not alone. In January 2007, Jim VandeHei and John F. Harris, the former Washington Post political reporters, started Politico, which has capitalized on the most exciting election in a generation and done an excellent job building a news organization that has become a must-read for political junkies. Less than a year before our launch, Paul Steiger, the legendary Wall Street Journal editor, got his nonprofit ProPublica off the ground. More reporters and editors are and will emerge from the traditions of great newsrooms to try to find a niche for well-reported storytelling in the digital age.

There are many of you in your cubicles in the newsroom or your home offices now, I expect, plotting your own escape from mainstream media, and I encourage you to break out. It is an exciting time, a historic shift in how the world will be informed. I compare it to the Middle Ages. The entities that make up the Holy Roman Empire of journalism—the big city newspapers and networks—are seeing the reach of their far-flung armies diminish as smaller principalities emerge and construct their own walled city states.

I still nervously hope that those of us who’ve made the jump will not be remembered as Don Quixotes tilting at windmills. I try hard to convince myself on the drive home from work at the end of some very long days that we are more akin to knights of a new order, marching out with battered armor to slay some dragons.

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Charles M. Sennott is the executive editor and co-founder of GlobalPost.