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NECN founder starting news site

With $7m funding, Balboni aims to fill foreign coverage gap

Email|Print| Text size + By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / February 14, 2008

Veteran journalist Philip S. Balboni, who built New England Cable News into the nation's largest regional news network, is leaving the station next month to start the first US-based website devoted exclusively to international news.

The site is expected to launch early next year with correspondents in nearly 70 countries. The company, Global News Enterprises LLC, will have its headquarters on the historic Boston waterfront at the Pilot House on Lewis Wharf.

The business so far has raised more than $7 million from a group of local investors led by billionaire Amos B. Hostetter Jr., chairman of Pilot House Associates; a cofounder of Continental Cablevision, one of the nation's first cable companies; and chairman of AT&T Broadband. Benjamin Taylor, former publisher of The Boston Globe, and Paul Sagan, president of Akamai Technologies, are also among the investor group.

"There is a tremendous interest in what is happening in the world. The world in every respect is globalizing, and we're being swept up in it with the economy, our lives, our leisure times, our children's education," said Balboni, who turns 65 tomorrow. "And the American people are not being well-served by our media. The moment is right for this."

The launch of Global News comes amidst a decline in coverage and resources dedicated to international news in recent years, with the exception of coverage of Iraq, as traditional media have suffered drops in circulation and advertising revenue with the rise of the Internet. Over the past few years, The Baltimore Sun, the Globe, and a number of other major US newspapers have cut foreign bureaus, while many television networks now rely on one-person bureaus. According to a 2005 study of 16 US newspapers by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, front-page coverage of foreign affairs in 2004 was roughly half of what it was in 1987.

Global News will use wire services for breaking news and rely on correspondents living abroad to provide in-depth enterprise stories on social, political, and economic news, especially from countries that have historically been neglected by the American press, such as Indonesia and South Korea. The Global News website will feature free content supported by advertising as well as premium content sections available to users for a modest subscription fee. The site will also offer forums for discussion and in-depth special reports on major world issues.

"What this is going to demonstrate is that you can have serious news done by serious newspeople on the Web and make a commercial business out of it," said Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

"A number of efforts so far have been based on philanthropic models and they are always subject to the whims and tastes of funders," said Jones, who also sits on Global News' editorial advisory board.

Correspondents for the website will not be full time or receive benefits, but Global News will offer ownership shares to correspondents and other key employees in an effort to get journalists more deeply invested in charting the future of their profession, Balboni said. He expects to attract reporters living abroad from newspapers, magazines, radio, and television to write for the site.

"We're in a major metamorphosis in how news and information is delivered," said Hostetter, the lead investor. "Some of the more established media are having trouble finding their way and a great deal of content and readers are migrating to the Internet. Phil saw the impact and is now moving on to the next generation. He's one of the most principled individuals I know and I'd back him in almost any endeavor."

Balboni, the former Channel 5 executive who in the early 1980s created the TV magazine show "Chronicle," left the station to found NECN 16 years ago. The network is described by some media observers as the last bastion of serious local television news in Boston. NECN reaches about 3.7 million homes in New England and last summer finally made its entry into Rhode Island. The network is trying to negotiate with satellite services EchoStar Communications Corp. and DirecTV Group Inc. to distribute NECN to some 750,000 New England homes.

"Phil's a very talented guy with a proven track record and all the right instincts of journalism," said Taylor. "There's a need, a hunger for information about the world."

Before breaking into broadcast television in the early 1970s, Balboni worked as a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, an editor and correspondent for United Press International, and served as editor in chief of International Correspondents Report. Charles J. Kravetz, NECN's vice president of news and station manager, will take over Balboni's post. Kravetz, who has directed NECN's news coverage since its inception, and Balboni are the longest running management team in local TV news.

"A lot of what we are doing from a product perspective is going to remain intact," Kravetz said. "Hopefully in my new position I can find ways to help our product grow, to get better and more refined, and create more opportunities to put resources into NECN."

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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