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Finding the 'secret sauce' to sustaining foreign news coverage

courtesy Stephen Sartori
Syracuse University
Charles Sennott, co-founder and editor-at-large of GlobalPost, an online news outlet, speaking at Syracuse University.

Charles Sennott is very excited his startup is about to hit its five year anniversary, a big milestone in the industry.

Sennott's startup is the online international news outlet GlobalPost. He helped start it in 2009 when many traditional news outlets, including the Boston Globe where he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years, were cutting foreign news coverage.

The outlet uses a mix of a small staff and a large network of freelance correspondents positioned around the world. GlobalPost also has a different solution for making money. It blends foundation supported long form projects with ad supported daily content and a subscription service for other news outlets.

Sennott thinks they've found "the secret sauce" for making foreign news coverage a sustainable business venture.

Sennott recently gave a lecture at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. The Innovation Trail sat down with him beforehand to talk about foreign news coverage and the new model for making it work.

Editor's note: The following transcript has been edited for both length and clarity.

Innovation Trail: Where did GlobalPost come from and how is it different from traditional ways of covering the world?

Charles Sennott: This right now is a revolutionary moment in media. I think we’re in the middle of a digital revolution and GlobalPost is sort of born out of a lot of the tumult and change that came with that revolution. Specifically, GlobalPost is born out of the collapse of the traditional media in covering the world.

As the industry seemed to be shrinking its vision of the world right at a time when we needed to know more about the world than ever, we saw an opportunity to start an online news organization that would dedicate itself completely to international news. So we very much see ourselves as the first news organization in the digital age to focus on international news.

IT: Is the decline in foreign news coverage tied solely to the cost, or is there just not the interest to sustain it?

CS: News organizations grew to be very successful in the ‘80s and ‘90s and had generous support for foreign coverage and they sort of had a spirit of it’s public service. So whether the ratings are as high on a series from Lebanon as a dieting series, they kind of put that aside. And that kind of idealism was fueled by successful business models that were thriving.

As the web began to transform the landscape of international news, the economic challenges on those traditional news organizations had them rethinking that equation. They weren’t so sure they could be so high-minded. Something had to give.

Suddenly we found ourselves with fewer and fewer eyes out there in the world watching what’s going on, but we at GlobalPost believe there is a market for international news. We live in a global age and we think we need those eyes in the world.

IT: What is the type of global story that Americans care about?

CS: Americans, like the rest of the world, care about the stories that will impact their lives. So they care about stories that have direct bearing on their security, or their economics, or their health, and so we try to look at stories that cut across international boundaries and capture those big themes.

If we look at, for example, global economics and we look at the collapse of the financial markets and we look at how that’s going to impact the global economy and what you need to understand about that and that’s going to have a direct bearing on your pocketbook, we can get people in the door at that way.

So we’re constantly looking for those stories that are global, but we’re constantly looking for a way to make that very real for you.

IT: Are the news outlets left that still have a strong foreign presence, are they telling the right kinds of stories to get people to care about the world, or is it still all famine and war?

CS: We are all at our best when we telling human stories, narratives. I think the digital revolution lends itself to that kind of narrative storytelling. I think we’re going to have a lot to do in our lives pushing short content that gives you the headlines because on mobile and the way in which information flows so rapidly these days, we have to be good at that.

We have to deliver on a mobile platform with short content that makes sense gives you a glimpse of the world, but I also think it’s so easy to download an e-book and it’s so easy to download a documentary now, that you can also offer these long form narratives to compliment that bombardment of information that we’re feeding every day. We need both, but I think what’s exciting about this moment is there’s a way in which long form is also going to play an important role. So we’re trying to toggle between the two at GlobalPost.

I think that’s the real power of this moment, is that we have so much information at our fingertips. That we can sort of report locally and think globally. You can also report globally and think locally.

And I think that’s really what the future is about, is that we need to draw in these resources, we need to not forget our local audience, we need to keep thinking globally because that’s way the world worlds.

WRVO/Central New York reporter for the Innovation Trail