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.