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WGBH to acquire GlobalPost, merge part of news team with PRI

GlobalPost President and CEO Philip Balboni said the service never broke into the black.
GlobalPost President and CEO Philip Balboni said the service never broke into the black.Elise Amendola/Associated Press/2014

When Philip S. Balboni launched GlobalPost in 2009, he made a bold bet that the international digital news service could eventually thrive as a for-profit company.

That bet, in the end, didn't pay off as he hoped. Despite the long list of awards GlobalPost's news team racked up, the Boston company never made it into the black.

On Thursday, the nonprofit public broadcaster WGBH unveiled plans to acquire GlobalPost, but it did not disclose the financial terms. WGBH plans to move most of the GlobalPost news team from Boston's waterfront to its Brighton headquarters on Guest Street; it will merge the remaining GlobalPost team with its Public Radio International group, a provider of radio programming.

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Last year, GlobalPost made headlines when one of its contributors, James Foley, was killed by Islamic State militants in Syria.

Excluding Balboni, GlobalPost has eight full-timers and seven contract staffers.

Alisa Miller, PRI's chief executive, said she expects nine people to make the move to WGBH. Balboni will not be among them: He will serve only as a strategic adviser to PRI, and said he is planning a new venture that he is not yet ready to unveil.

In the 1990s, Balboni built Newton-based New England Cable News, now owned by Comcast, into a successful for-profit enterprise, and he hoped to replicate that success with GlobalPost.

"Almost everything surprised me about the journey, to be perfectly honest," Balboni said. "It was multiple times more challenging and difficult than we could have ever imagined."

At its inception, the venture was viewed by media experts as an ambitious experiment, an effort to make money with in-depth foreign reporting in a digital age when free online news and short attention spans ruled the day. The goal was, in part, to fill the gap in international news caused by the closures of traditional media outlets' foreign bureaus. But the going was rough from the start, with digital advertising rates plunging by 90 percent since GlobalPost's launch, Balboni said.

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GlobalPost did not rely just on selling ads for its website. The company offered a premium subscription service to readers willing to pay for extra content, and it syndicated its material for other news outlets to purchase. Balboni also hunted down grant money from foundations to underwrite some of GlobalPost's bigger reporting projects. He said the company's operating deficit was cut in half in the last two years.

Balboni said his two other major investors — philanthropist Amos Hostetter and Jim Stone, chief executive of the Plymouth Rock insurance company — continued to support the mission even in the face of losses. But in the end, all three wanted to make sure that GlobalPost found a way to survive for the long term, Balboni said.

Hostetter, who built Continental Cablevision into a telecom powerhouse before selling it in 1996, is GlobalPost's biggest investor and chairman of its board. He is also chairman emeritus at WGBH's board of trustees. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.

But Balboni said Hostetter's position at WGBH played only a small role in the decision to execute the deal with WGBH. In the end, he said, GlobalPost's board members gave Balboni the sole decision-making authority. He said he expects the deal to close in early November.

"It's really the culmination of a very deliberate and, I think, careful process, looking at the future of GlobalPost and the landscape of journalism and trying to find a smart, long-term outcome for what we've built," Balboni said. "I will not be here in 70 years. My partners will not be here in 70 years. But WGBH will be here in 70 years."

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WGBH president Jon Abbott said conversations with GlobalPost began a few months ago. He said he sees this deal as an opportunity to add talented staff and bolster the reach of PRI's "The World" global news franchise. Abbott said PRI is open to working with GlobalPost's roster of dozens of freelancers around the world, depending on its needs.

"In the end, we became familiar through Phil that GlobalPost was looking at its options for the future," Abbott said. "It felt to me like those who invested in the work of GlobalPost clearly cared about global journalism and reaching Americans with high-quality journalism."

Balboni launched GlobalPost with Charles Sennott, previously a reporter with The Boston Globe, at his side running the news team as executive editor. But Sennott ventured out on his own last year, leading a nonprofit that he incubated at GlobalPost called The GroundTruth Project. Sennott's nonprofit, which provides training and resources to foreign correspondents, now leases space at WGBH. Sennott still has a small stake in GlobalPost, but he said he wasn't part of the deal to bring it to WGBH.

"In the last six years, GlobalPost built an editorial operation that punched way above its weight class," Sennott said. "[But] there was a really tough challenge finding a business model that could sustain international reporting."

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Boston University journalism professor Lou Ureneck said that Balboni and Sennott deserve credit for trying a number of approaches to build a sustainable revenue stream.

"Advertising is a commodity on the Internet, so advertising is not going to pay the bills, and you have to look for subscription revenue or other sources," Ureneck said.

"It took a lot of courage to start this thing, and to keep it going has been a struggle. . . . You have to admire the energy and the creativity they put into this."


Jon Chesto can be reachedat jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto. Jack Newsham can be reached at jack.newsham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheNewsHam.