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Charles Sennott, co-founder of GlobalPost, speaks on covering Egypt’s revolution in the digital age

Charles Sennott, co-founder and executive editor of international news agency GlobalPost, visited campus recently to speak of journalism, revolution, and his experience as an entrepreneur during the most recent Alan Shapiro Entrepreneurial Lecture on March 26.

GlobalPost is a US-based news company with the goal of redefining news media for a digital age, while providing comprehensive international news coverage for Americans. Founded in 2009, it has grown to a robust site with 3 million monthly unique visits and 70 correspondents in 50 countries. Since founding GlobalPost, Sennott has found himself on the front lines of two revolutions: the transformation of news media and the digital world, as well as the revolution in Egypt.

Before GlobalPost, this self-described “reluctant entrepreneur” had what was for him “the greatest job you could have” working as a foreign correspondent and bureau chief for the Boston Globe in the Middle East. However, in 2005, he realized that the Globe, much like every other regional newspaper in the US, had to cut its foreign bureaus, leaving his job in limbo.

One day while on assignment in Afghanistan, Sennott started complaining about “the death of print journalism” to his colleague, photojournalist and entrepreneur Gary Knight. Knight told him to “quit whining” and suggested that Sennott start his own agency. This got his gears turning.

After chronicling the beginning of his entrepreneurial thought process, Sennott addressed the aspiring entrepreneurs in the room when he observed that one of the best things about being an entrepreneur is “being around people who want to find their own way to do what they love and believe there’s a business model for it.”

He received similar support for his idea from two more friends, the social entrepreneurs Vanessa Kirsch and her husband Alan Khazei. In a discussion on New Year’s morning after a “low-key” family party at his house, Sennott pressed his idea of starting an agency. Their response: “Go out and change the world. Don’t be afraid to do that. This is a great idea, it’s needed, and you need to have the courage to go out and change the world.”

Through his personal network, Sennott was introduced to Phil Balboni, founder of New England Cable News. Phil just so happened to have both a desire and a plan for creating an international news agency, and as Sennott told the crowd of students and faculty, “I had a network, Bill had a business plan…[and] we began to talk…and that’s how the entrepreneurial journey for me started.”

From the outset, Sennott understood his role and Phil’s importance. Sennott at one point joked, “I didn’t get into it because of my business acumen. That would be laughable to my wife,” a quip which drew some laughs from an alert crowd. Instead, he “got into it because I love what we do, and I think that is a really important role as an entrepreneur…if you lose touch with that [love], I’m not sure your entrepreneurial journey is going to be successful.”

So as to not lose touch with his love for work, Sennott knew he had to go back into the field. After the “barn-raising” of GlobalPost, Sennott found himself applying for grants left and right to go do field work. Eventually, he received funding and a partnership with PBS Frontline to cover the revolution in Egypt. This meant that GlobalPost was “going to be on the biggest story in the world.” In Egypt, Sennott formed a team of 16 young and extremely talented journalists, 8 of them American and 8 Egyptian. They set out to cover the revolution, and broke story after story before more mainstream news media outlets.

Egypt showed Sennott another side of the revolution in digital media that was reshaping his industry. “Egypt was an extraordinary moment of digital revolution,” Sennott remembered. In his mind, the events and use of digital media during the Egyptian Revolution and the Arab Spring have changed the international game. As Sennott posited, “we thought security was a good goal in the Middle East. The revolution in Egypt challenged our rhetoric about democracy, and now we have to decide. Do we support security, or do we support democracy? I think the digital revolution has exposed that to us. And I think it’s a really exciting time, and a time to have hope and faith in the potential for change.”

In his closing comments, Sennott offered a piece of advice and a reflection on GlobalPost’s future. First, he noted to the prospective entrepreneurs on hand, “when you take a journey like this, I don’t think you know where it’s really going to go.” That, of course, is part of the entrepreneurial experience. As for GlobalPost, Sennott sees us living in a time of digital democracy. In that light, “the journey of GlobalPost has been one of digital revolution, and I think we’re really well-placed to cover this time.” Spoken like a true journalist.

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