NPR MIDEAST correspondent Emily Harris has covered war, famine and other grueling assignments, but one of her toughest, she recalls, came in 1998 in Washington, D.C. A service called Feature Story News had her read The Economist out loud for their client, Audible.com, hour after hour.
“There were so many names that no one knew how to pronounce. But it paid the bills and let us do more interesting things,” said Harris, who credits FSN— a private, boutique agency catering to international clients that’s virtually unknown outside the industry— with launching her career.
British journalist Simon Marks launched FSN in Moscow in 1992 with used equipment and a shoestring budget. It has carved a niche alongside news agency giants like Reuters and AP with consistently well reported and presented video and radio news for a clientele of international English-language broadcasters. FSN has no deep-pocketed parent, wealthy mogul or publicly traded stock behind it. Bucking the odds, it is thriving as an indie content provider at a time when information has become a cheap commodity and hard news often supplanted by lighter fare.
“We are, in many ways, the best-kept secret of the TV news industry,” said Marks, 50, with a brush of salt-and-pepper hair and the high-wattage hustle of a prolific newscaster—he’s FSN’s chief correspondent— and passionate entrepreneur.
FSN’s business is surging. Revenue surged to $8 million last year from $6.5 million in 2014. The numbers of employees and clients have more than doubled over the past four years along with revenue, Marks said. He credits the uptick to a few trends in the video news business, including the proliferation of global English-language cable news networks and digital outlets seeking product. At the same time, advances in IP technology have made it cheaper and easier to transmit video.
“We didn’t know 15 months ago that the Turks were launching a 24-hour English-language news channel [TRT World, a client], or that The Fuse would come along [an energy news website, also a client]. Or that there would be a market for short-form digital videos,” Marks said.
FSN, now based in Washington, D.C., has 63 fulltime reporters across 19 bureaus. It serves an eclectic roster of clients from Channel News Asia, China’s CCTV News, and South Africa’s eNCA and SABC, to Ireland’s RTÉ, France 24, PBS NewsHour, Al Jazeera America, Vatican Radio, Radio New Zealand, Mexico’s Televisa, TeleSur in Venezuela, Singapore’s Mediacorp and ITV’s Good Morning Britain. Fox News, launched in 1996, relied on FSN for years as it built out its bureaus.
FSN recently opened a Caracas outpost, hopes to set up shop in Havana soon and is expanding in Africa, where it already has bureaus in Kampala (Uganda), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Abuja (Nigeria) and Juba (South Sudan).
Patrick Conroy, group head of news for eNCA in Johannesburg—one of three 24-hour news networks in South Africa—said FSN “allows a smaller news operation like ourselves to be competitive in our own market when it comes to international news.”
Given the close links between South Africa and the U.K., Conroy said, it’s ideal “to be able to use FSN as our London bureau. Their correspondents have become household names in South Africa, using our branding.”
FSN’s reporters hold broadcast clients’ own microphone flags and are presented as client’s own correspondents. Over the course of a day, Marks may file as the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for a dozen international news outlets.
This carefully honed strategy of invisibility has been key to the service’s success. “If I am introduced as South Africa Television’s Washington bureau chief, you are not encouraged to know that I might also be also introduced to a Singaporean viewer as Washington bureau chief,” Marks said.
FSN also tailors its reports to specific outlets, a degree of hand-crafting that can require extensive collaboration with clients. “We have always defined our mission differently than other, larger broadcast news agencies,” said Marks. “APTV and Reuters do a fantastic job of being where the story happens. They get the [videos] and send them out to thousands of networks. We have a more customized, flexible service, not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
“When the Obama administration presents TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] we understand viscerally that is huge for our clients in the Asia-Pacific region and that their audience has a more innate understanding of what it is. Less so for Good Morning Britain.” U.K. viewers, in turn, desire considerably more detail than their Asian counterparts when Prince William visits Washington, D.C.
“What they do is very bespoke,” said Sandy MacIntyre, director of global video news for the AP, by comparison a giant wholesaler of news, sports and entertainment video, calling FSN “a very impressive outlet.”
Mervyn Hall, head of media for Wimbledon and a nonexecutive director of FSN, described the service as “the difference between drinking out of a fire hose or drinking out of a garden hose.”
Both Hall and MacIntyre first met Marks working at ITN (International Television News) in London in the mid-1980s.
Marks’ journalism career took off in the summer of 1985, interning at KSAT in San Antonio, Texas, when two major stories broke—the crash of a Delta flight in Dallas/Fort Worth and a massive earthquake in Mexico. He covered them for ITN and Independent Radio News, and joined ITN after college.
He was hired away to Moscow 1989 by The Christian Science Monitor to help launch a television network that folded in 1992. “They wanted me to stay on as a radio correspondent. I said, ‘I’ll stay on and will give you as much radio as you want, and you won’t pay me. Instead, you will lease me all this television equipment you have here, and I won’t pay,” Marks said. “We assumed the costs of the office and bought the van.”
FSN launched with four clients (Christian Science Monitor Radio, Independent Radio News, Sky News, and the MacNeil Lehrer NewsHour). As change swept the former Soviet Union, “We got ridiculously busy ridiculously fast.”
FSN alumni include Fox News’ Pentagon correspondent Jennifer Griffin, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding, BBC Newshour anchor James Coomarasamy, Marketplace Washington correspondent Nancy Marshall-Genzer and Sky News’ foreign affairs editor Dominic Waghorn.
Still, Hall said, it took a good 10 years before FSN became a viable business proposition.
“We have built everything based on client demand. Only very occasionally have we taken a flyer,” Marks said. “We have a line of credit at the bank but no big institutional stakeholder pouring money in. It was a small business. Now it’s a medium-sized business.”
FSN’s growth was enabled in part by IP (Internet Protocol) technology that’s enabled video transmission using a broadband or wireless connection, reducing dependence on expensive satellite trucks and fiber—an advance that’s been embraced across the industry.
FSN was an early adopter of transmission via highspeed Internet. It is also developing a proprietary, fully-mobile live platform that it expects to launch in the field by early March.
According to Marks, the Scottish referendum in 2014 was a turning point for FSN.
“It changed everything. Our guys found a gift shop across the street from the Scottish Parliament. We equipped it with British Telecom’s finest Internet circuit…and in two days, we did 53 live shots from that position.” FSN created live shot studios in Abuja, Caracas, and other bureaus, installed a position at The Hague and in Athens for the Greek elections in 2015, with the Acropolis in the background.
Politico, The Washington Post, National Journal, The Atlantic and others have consulted with FSN on video production. Marks helps Google produce its annual interview with President Barack Obama at the White House.
PBS NewsHour even hired Marks as associate executive producer from 2008 to 2011, with the primary directive of digitizing its newsroom.
FSN has close ties to public media with three of its U.S. bureaus—Denver, Houston and Orlando— based out of PBS stations. Doug Price, CEO of Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver, said FSN pays the station a fee and provides regular pieces by FSN Denver correspondent, Mary MacCarthy. Price said his news division requires skills in “writing, producing, shooting, editing and fronting from each of our people. And [Marks] was the one who taught us how to do it.”
One afternoon last fall, in the gritty midtown Manhattan bureau FSN has almost outgrown, Marks hunted for pancake makeup ahead of a CCTV talk show where he was appearing as himself to discuss gun violence in the U.S. Reporters passed in and out, editing, filing. Technical director Denis Levcovich, a cameraman who joined FSN in Moscow in 1997 and has shot most of Marks’ major international coverage, assembled a new podcast hub in the main studio. Radio operations had been based in what looked like a broom closet.
FSN’s D.C. headquarters, on the other hand, are “like going to Embassy Row. All these countries are represented,” said Keith Porter, CEO of the nonprofit Stanley Foundation, who worked with FSN on public radio show Common Ground. “Now it looks like a TV news bureau. Before, it didn’t look like that. It’s hard to say what it used to look like,” he joked.
Marks remains focused on keeping cost low and quality high. “They play it straight,” said Price. “Their journalists are very legit—getting the story right, having it well sourced. Obviously, for them the risks of getting it wrong are very great. It would mean you lose your credibility, and your contract.”
SIMON MARKS: A DAY IN THE LIFE
8 P.M. MONDAY: Recorded interview with Radio New Zealand on State Dept travel alert.
OVERNIGHT: Radio package airs worldwide, including LBC Radio’s Morning News, 6:30 a.m. London time.
6 A.M.: Live TV report, Channel News Asia on Turkey downing Russian jet.
7 A.M.: Live TV report, TRT World on Turkey downing Russian jet.
8 A.M.: Live TV Report, TRT World, on Turkey downing Russian jet
9 A.M.: Radio bulletin voicer, Bezos successfully tests reusable rocket (aired worldwide).
10 A.M.: Radio bulletin voicer, Pakistani terrorist sentenced to life in Brooklyn court. Airs globally, and specifically on major commercial stations in northwest Britain (due to Manchester target of his plot).
11 A.M.: Live TV report, CCTV News, Hollande visit to Washington.
12:30 P.M.: Live TV Report, ENCA of South Africa, State Dept travel alert.
12:45 P.M.: Live radio report, LBC Radio (U.K.), Hollande/Obama press conference.
1 P.M.: Live TV report, Channel News Asia, Hollande/Obama press conference.
1:10 P.M.: Live radio report, Radio New Zealand, Hollande/Obama.
3:30 P.M.: Radio bulletin voicer, Pentagon update on Russian jet (aired worldwide).
3:45 P.M.: Live radio report, LBC Radio (U.K.), latest on Russia/Turkey/Hollande/Obama.
4:30 P.M.: Live radio report, Radio New Zealand, Russian jet.
5 P.M.: MSNBC’s Hardball, Russian jet.
6 P.M.: CCTV News, The Heat, Obama/Hollande.
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