International Business Times hopes to make its mark around the world
by Chris Roush
In May, business journalist Jeffrey Rothfeder was named editor in chief of International Business Times, a business news site.
The International Business Times, which is based in New York, has 10 country editions and is published in seven languages. Launched in 2005 and reaching more than 10 million monthly unique readers globally, it is one of the most popular websites in the world.
Rothfeder, who reports to chief content officer Johnathan Davis, has been overseeing the transformation of IBTimes into a multimedia news service, building and executing editorial strategies across the company’s global newsrooms.
Rothfeder previously held editorial and executive positions at Bloomberg, Time Inc., BusinessWeek, Booz & Co., and PC Magazine.
In a phone conversation with Talking Biz News on Wednesday, Rothfeder discussed the site’s strategy. What follows is an edited transcript.
What changes have you made to how International Business Times covers business news since you started in May?
IBTimes had been around for six or seven years but it’s only in the past year that it began to reflect its identity and what it’s going to be. So when I arrived it was still a bit amorphous. And what I found was that they called it a digital newspaper and they were trying to follow the news as it was breaking.
It occurred to me very quickly that Bloomberg, Reuters and AP are great, and there is no need for another wire service. It also occurred to me that the kinds of things that mattered so much in journalism a decade ago, such as breaking news and scooping the competition, don’t really matter any more. That’s more inside baseball. To most readers, if someone breaks a story, it is aggregated and everyone else is covering it in five minutes.
To try to make money like that on the Internet and to try to compete with those organizations just doesn’t make sense. There is no way to scale that in today’s world. So looking at that, I realized that what really had changed in journalism, what the Internet has brought about, is that what we used to call the second-day story is what you can do to engage readers, but you have to do it as the news breaks. You have to provide insight and reporting as the day goes on, primarily on what it means and not on the news.
The real power of that for us at IBTimes is globalization. We were in a good position to cover geopolitics and business in a global way by providing insight and analysis and context in a story and assuming that the readers coming to our site already know the news. We have to use the news as a given, now what else do they need to know about it.
So when the Supreme Court made its ruling on the health care law, we had stories written about what it meant if the mandate got pushed down or approved. What it meant to companies, individuals and global issues, the U.S.’s place in the world. The insight and the context was already ready to go depending on how the court ruled. It was a really powerful way of reporting. You’re getting to the ideas and past the facts very quickly. It is more high level and more lofty. And for readers it has real value. These kind of stories immediately give them what they want.
How do you determine what they cover in any given week or day?
We have about 50 reporters and editors in the United States, and another 15 stringers in the rest of the world. We are opening a China edition of the IBTimes that will be locally produced, with news shared from the U.S. We’re not a big organization. If there are 200 great global business and political news stories to cover on any given day, we don’t need to do all 200, and we don’t need to do the top 80. We can do the bottom 80. But we need to provide the insight and context and analysis. That is what the Internet brings to journalism and what journalism should be on the Internet. It needs to be honest and unbiased.
It’s a harder task than what Bloomberg or Reuters are doing in the sense that they don’t have to filter. They know they are going to cover every story. We have to think about what we want to do and what we can add value to. That is our goal as a news organization. In the last month, we had about 8 million unique visitors in the United States and about 12 million to 13 million globally. That puts us up there with Bloomberg.
In choosing the stories, we try to use good Internet techniques in trying to uncover little things that are important, like SEC filings, unique data points, speeches business and political leaders give in the more obscure venues, and think tank or NGO reports. There are many meetings around the world, and we follow them closely. We have a Chinese language reporter reading all of the Chinese blogs and newspapers. We have someone doing the same thing in Syria. We want to look for the news and what the buzz is, what people on the ground are talking about.
Our goal in choosing stories is to stay off the beaten path. We’re trying to find the numbers that people are not following in the same way.
Who do you see as your biggest competitors?
I think our competitors are not really doing what we’re doing. The Economist comes closest to what we try to do on a daily basis, and they do it on a weekly basis, looking at the business and political world as one world. Frankly, the Economist, some would argue, is too British sounding. But I am impressed with their coverage.
Globalization has not only shaken up manufacturing, but it has done the same thing for journalists. There’s aren’t many journalists who cover the world as a single entity very well. And that is a goal that I have for us here.
In working on manufacturing stories from around the world, I have realized that the way the world is covered by business journalists is still not good enough. Most business journalists don’t understand supply chains, for example. Why does a company make everything in Thailand, and what are the risks in doing so?
In coming here, I am trying to focus our reporters in looking at the world that way. We just did a piece a couple of weeks ago from our auto reporter on opening up the African auto market, and basically the story was more about Chinese companies opening up the African auto market than U.S. companies. I think that was a really good example of covering the world, with statistics and anecdotes and looking at Africa as part of the world and not as an outlier. But it took a good understanding of how supply chains work and how Chinese manufacturing works.
We do a lot of stories about Africa because I see that as a continent that is going to be opened in the next few years. I think we’re writing more stories about Africa than any other publication, including the New York Times. We write a few each day. Our readers need to know about the openings and where the corruption is and where it’s easy to work with the government. We try to bring people inside these other places and do it in a way that they’re on the home court. We’re speaking to them from inside the countries.
How is the International Business Times different than other business news outlets?
The global distinction is very important and our ability to look at the world from a global perspective. We don’t always achieve it, and it is not an easy thing to train U.S. journalists to do. I also think our propensity to view stories not from the perspective that you have to break the news, or that you have to write about every bit of news that is out there. There are some stories that you can’t ignore, like today’s Libyan story.
We also have an opportunity because we are an Internet publication completely to look at the movie that sparked this in a way that is a little bit more edgy and more hip. If you are The Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, they are still print first and Internet second, and even through The Journal does extremely well online, they are still writing in the tone that they are a print publication.
With the iPhone5 today, we must have 15 stories on that. That topic may not be the most high-minded subject in the world, but people are interested in it and because we are natively digital, we have the opportunity to cover a story like that from multiple angles. That is a great opportunity and a great distinction. I don’t think there are any others that have the pretense that we have for being a serious global business news publication with our digital sense that it’s OK to cover a story from numerous angles and thus serve your reader well in a fast-paced Internet environment.
What do you see as the biggest issue in covering international business news?
One difficulty, and something we have to work on, is how do you create an international organization that looks at the world as one. The majority of our people are American, and the majority are in New York City. I don’t think it gets resolved by having a lot of reporters around the world. Bloomberg and The Journal and Reuters still sound like they’re writing from one place because the management is still so structured around the U.S.
I think we have a solution to that in starting up local versions around the world. This is not just translating IBTimes into other languages. We’re going to launch in China in November, and we have built a local staff. That’s the critical distinction, or the critical challenge, instead of having an international system of bureaus that just reports in. Globalization is changing all the rules.
How is the site generating revenue?
It’s all advertising. We don’t do any subscriptions. We have a big enough number of uniques so that we can generate some pretty good advertising revenue, and we have recently hired a VP of sales. So we’re living off that and have been profitable.
What about syndication of content?
There are a lot of questions about syndication. We’re stepping our toes into that in terms of partnerships. We like the idea, and we have talked to a number of newspapers about starting to syndicate some of our content to local newspaper websites that aren’t covering global news at all. We’re beginning to get close to some of those types of relationships. But we want to step lightly into that because we don’t want to lose readers from our site.
It is very interesting that the home page, or your front page, doesn’t matter as much as it used to. The number of people going to the New York Times front page is dropping, and that is happening everywhere. So search remains really powerful for most people, and most people don’t have much loyalty to news organizations any more. So even with syndication, that becomes a harder thing to do, to get a reader to come to your site. When they come to your site, you don’t want to share them.
We have a redesigned website that will go live next week that will be much easier to navigate.The goal now is to make the experience good for the reader once they get there.
Who are your readers?