GlobalPost to Test ‘Soft Meter’ with Journalism Online

Phil Balboni believes in his bones that consumers will eventually pay for online news.

But the runway he envisions — maybe 10 or 15 years — is too long to count on, even for the well-financed GlobalPost venture he founded 19 months ago in Boston.

So he has an interim plan he expects to roll out as soon as he can finish implementing Journalism Online’s Javascript to make it happen: a soft, metered approach to paid content, set up to “invite support” rather than charge a fee. [Update: Balboni told me by e-mail Monday that launch with the Journalism Online software has been set for Aug. 12.]

“We’re not charging,” he said. “We’re asking people to support GlobalPost journalism — and not without giving them something in return.”

Balboni plans to use Journalism Online for GlobalPost’s Passport membership program. He envisions significant improvements to Passport, accompanied by a price cut. GlobalPost launched Passport last year at $199 a year, cut it to $50, and now will reintroduce it at $29.95. The site is also introducing monthly pricing for the first time, at $2.95.

His short-term goal is to convert 1 percent of the site’s 900,000 unique monthly visitors from free to paid membership. At about $30 a year, that would generate about $270,000 a year, which would supplement advertising revenue, syndication and paid research fees.

GlobalPost is privately held, and Balboni refused to reveal its finances. He said published reports that the site generated $1 million in revenue last year are incorrect.

A request, not a fee

For those tracking the various paid content approaches, the key difference with GlobalPost is that users who refuse to pay can continue reading the site. What they won’t get is content that GlobalPost has set apart — from the start — as available only to paying Passport members.

Journalism Online’s Gordon Crovitz confirmed in an e-mail that GlobalPost will be the first national — or, for that matter, global — site to use its Press+ service to begin collecting money from users. Balboni said last week that he is in the process of integrating the Journalism Online code.

The idea, Balboni said, is to interrupt readers after they’ve read a half-dozen pages on the site with a pitch to buy a Passport membership.

That’s similar to the metered approach the Financial Times has taken. The New York Times has said it expects to pursue a similar path when it begins charging for its site in January 2011.

But on GlobalPost, Balboni said, “nobody will stop you in your tracks, unlike the hard stops” of other metered sites. “We’ll be urging people to become Passport members and we’re going to try to give them reasons why they should.

“The whole magic here is getting more people to see the message of a way to contribute financially and to receive benefits as a result.”

Changing the Passport program

He hopes several improvements to the Passport program will convince people to join. They’ll get:

  • Brief daily reports from correspondents from the G-20 countries
  • Weekly online chats with one of the more than 50 correspondents the site has contracted with around the world
  • Monthly telephone conference calls with correspondents and editors
  • Travel videos by correspondents offering tourism tips about the countries in which they live
  • Discounted subscriptions to such magazines as The Week and Foreign Affairs
  • The opportunity, for a price, to order specialized research from various hot spots around the world

Balboni set ambitious goals for the Passport program during its first year, insisting last fall that GlobalPost needs 25,000 members to support the level of journalism it hopes to deliver. Yet fewer than 500 people have joined, with numbers dwindling in recent months.

Balboni described Journalism Online as a good partner, but it’s clear that the vendor is wrestling with its own startup issues as it develops versatile tools for publishers to charge online.

He said a plan to offer two tiers of Passport membership (which is still described on the site) was scrapped after it became clear that Journalism Online would be unable to differentiate one type of member from another.  

“We ended up deciding that maybe it makes more sense to lump all membership benefits into one pot,” he said.

Paid content is the (distant) future

As founder and president for 16 years of New England Cable News, Balboni is well versed in TV’s transition from free to paid. As high as he is on the long-term prospects for paid content online, he said he has no illusions that such a path will work any time soon for a site like GlobalPost — one with little brand recognition and a product focus (international news) filled with free competitors.

Advertising remains the major revenue source for GlobalPost, but Balboni is pushing for a day when subscription and membership fees account for half the take.

“It’s difficult to think about the future of journalism,” he said, “and believe that we can even achieve survival — let alone quality — if we don’t get people to pay for the product as they have in the analog world.”

But GlobalPost, he argued, is secure in its run to find a sustainable model. In May, he secured the final investments required to meet the goal he set to capitalize the venture: $10 million.

It remains to be seen how memberships will fare, but for now at least, he said: “We have sold all the shares available to sell.”

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