Tag Archives: Boston Business Journal

More on those inflated digital circulation numbers

Jon Chesto of the Boston Business Journal takes on a subject that I tackled recently: trying to make sense of The Boston Globe’s paid circulation figures at a time when no one seems to know how to count print and digital sales.

As Chesto and a number of us have observed, the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), whose numbers are considered to be the industry standard, has gotten carried away with digital subscriptions, allowing the Globe and other newspapers to count some subscribers two or even three times. Chesto writes:

This potential for discrepancies and confusion is one reason why the AAM board, which oversees how newspaper circulations are reported to advertisers, is weighing whether to tighten its rules.

It’s hard these days to get a precise number for unique paying subscribers, a figure that AAM was generally able to provide, back when it was known as the Audit Bureau of Circulations, and readership was essentially measured by the number of copies sold.

There’s no question we need a standard that everyone can agree on and that makes sense. Paid digital has enabled the Globe to improve its circulation numbers, and that’s fine. But the AAM system is so out of whack that it’s in danger of not being taken seriously.

Four takeaways from new owner John Henry’s message to readers of The Boston Globe

John Henry at celebration of the Red Sox' 2007 World Series victory.

John Henry in October 2007

This article was published earlier in the Nieman Journalism Lab and The Huffington Post.

John Henry’s nearly 2,900-word message to readers of The Boston Globe could have been little more than an exercise in public relations, standing up for what is good and deploring what is bad.

There’s a lot of that, of course. We’re only into the second paragraph before he dutifully informs us that the Globe “is the eyes and ears of the region in some ways, the heartbeat in many others.” But Henry, a billionaire financier who is the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, is also unexpectedly revealing about himself and how he intends to run the Globe. (Henry purchased the Globe, its BostonGlobe.com and Boston.com websites, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester and several smaller properties from the New York Times Co. for $70 million. The sale, announced in August, closed last week following a brief delay over a labor dispute at the T&G. Henry also made a bit of news when folks at the T&G noticed that his message omitted Worcester entirely.)

Henry’s piece, headlined “Why I bought the Globe,” takes up a full page in the Opinion section of Sunday’s paper. It’s teased on the front page as well. He writes about his life, the Red Sox, the financially struggling news business and what he thinks needs to be done to set it on a sustainable path. Here are what I think are the most important takeaways.

1. He plans to be an activist owner. Just the atmospherics of the essay itself are a pretty strong indication that Henry does not see this as a passive investment. He wants to be the face of the Globe.

To counter his image as a reserved, slightly eccentric rich guy who dabbles in sports, Henry goes into some detail about his involvement in the civil-rights movement and his subsequent retreat “into what most of my friends thought was my primary talent at the time — writing and performing rock music.”

Somewhere along the way he made a lot of money, but he writes about that only briefly. Instead, he describes his stewardship of the Red Sox as a possible model for what he intends to do with the Globe:

When we acquired the Red Sox, profit was literally at the bottom of our list of goals. We were determined to do whatever it took to win.

Now I see The Boston Globe and all that it represents as another great Boston institution that is worth fighting for.

Here’s another intriguing example of what sort of profile Henry intends for himself as the Globe’s owner: Recently the Boston Business Journal reported that toxic waste at the Globe’s Dorchester property could complicate any plans Henry might have to develop the site and move the paper to a cheaper location. Henry used his Twitter feed to dispute the BBJ’s story and slam an earlier piece about the Globe’s break-up with a classified-ad site called Cars.com:

A feisty newspaper owner who fights back in public? Bring it on. That’s certainly an improvement over the gray management style of the Times Co.

2. He’s looking for advice in all the right places. If the Globe and other large regional dailies are going to survive and prosper, they need to develop new ways of doing business. So it’s encouraging that Henry mentions alliances the paper already has with Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, the MIT Media Lab and the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Henry also gives a shout-out to Clay Shirky, which I take as a signal that Henry is reading and talking to the right people. It doesn’t sound like he intends to take the approach adopted by Aaron Kushner, a one-time Globe suitor who’s winning plaudits for trying to revive the Orange County Register by focusing on the print edition. The Globe has been a leader in digital journalism. So it’s good news that Henry sounds like he’s going to double down on innovation.

3. He has some retro ideas about paid content. Near the top of his commentary, Henry repeats an old trope, writing that newspapers have been losing money because “Readers were flocking from the papers to the Internet, consuming expensive journalism for free.”

Now, I’ve got nothing against charging for digital subscriptions, and the Globe has had some success with that — 39,000 at last count. But it’s important to keep in mind what newspaper owners are up against in asking readers to pay for online access.

As has often been said, newspaper readers never paid for the news — they paid for the expense of printing and delivering the paper, with advertisers picking up the rest. These days, readers are paying — a lot — for their own printing presses (computers, tablets and smartphones) and their own delivery (broadband and cellular access). It’s perfectly understandable that they don’t want to pay more.

What went wrong was not that newspapers started giving away their content but, rather, that the advertising model collapsed, especially from classifieds. Henry understands this, writing, “I feel strongly that newspapers and their news sites are going to rely upon the support of subscribers to a large extent in order to provide what readers want.”

I wish any newspaper owner well in persuading readers to pay for journalism. But we have to understand that we are asking them to do something they’ve never done before: pay for news in addition to paying for printing and delivery. We need to be humble about how much we’re asking of our audience.

4. He wants the Globe to act as a guide to the larger conversation. One of the most important roles professional journalism can play is to aggregate and curate the torrent of information — not just when big news breaks, but on a daily basis.

The New York Times does this with The Lede; the Globe does it from time to time, as it did following the Boston Marathon bombing. The idea is to become the go-to place for trustworthy links to other news sources, blogs and citizen media. Henry clearly gets that, writing:

We will provide what we will call the Globe Standard when it comes to curated links that will ensure our readers do not waste their time when they click on news, reviews, writers, columnists, ecommerce, events, opportunities, and social engagement from any of our platforms.

One thing Henry gets absolutely right is that the newspaper business is not now and never was compatible with ownership by publicly traded corporations and the quarterly demands of Wall Street. For more than a generation, corporate chains slashed newsrooms, first to drive up profit margins, later to stave off mounting losses. The debt they took on to build their chains is one of the prime reasons for their inability to set themselves on a new path. Henry understands that.

“I soon realized that one of the key things the paper needed in order to prosper was private, local ownership, passionate about its mission,” Henry writes. Farther down, he adds: “But this investment isn’t about profit at all. It’s about sustainability. Any great paper, the Globe included, must generate enough revenue to support its vital mission.”

Leaving aside the obvious fact that profit is a key to sustainability, Henry articulates a vision in which journalism comes first — which is another way of saying the customer comes first. Too many newspaper owners have forgotten that.

Photo (cc) by Patrick Mannion and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Globe publisher calls BBJ report “misleading”

Boston Globe publisher Christopher Mayer is disputing a report that toxic contamination at the paper’s 16-acre Dorchester property could interfere with any plans incoming owner John Henry might have to move the Globe and redevelop the land.

In an internal message to Globe employees that I obtained, Mayer refers to the story as “misleading,” and says the contamination will not be an obstacle to redevelopment.

Craig Douglas of the Boston Business Journal wrote on Tuesday that pollution from underground diesel tanks, first discovered in 1996, has led the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to ban “any work or potential development that might disturb sections of chemical-soaked soil in their present state.” [Note: Douglas responds below.]

The $70 million purchase of the Globe has already been delayed by a labor dispute at the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, which, like the Globe, is being sold to Henry by the New York Times Co.

Douglas’ story makes it clear that the such problems are not unusual in urban areas, and that the typical solution is rehabilitation and reuse. But he notes that such efforts can run into the tens of millions of dollars depending on the seriousness of the contamination.

Douglas reports that the Globe and the New York Times Co. declined to comment and that Henry could not be reached.

Mayer’s message to employees refers to “reports,” but the news was broken by the BBJ. For instance, this article in Go Local Worcester, posted on Wednesday, credits the BBJ.

I have emailed Douglas for a response to Mayer’s message.

The full text of Mayer’s message follows.

Dear Colleagues,

I would like to address recent press reports concerning environmental conditions at The Globe’s headquarters on Morrissey Boulevard that raised questions about the safety of two areas of the property.

These reports are misleading. The conditions referred to are nearly two decades old and measures taken at that time addressed the issues that were identified.

Like any property holder with industrial activity conducted on its site over several decades, The Globe has, on occasion, needed to address environmental conditions. Development on the site is governed by health and safety rules and regulations, but it is not prohibited or banned.

Indeed, during the sales process, and prompted by requests from potential buyers (including John Henry), The Globe conducted an updated environmental assessment that did not identify any environmental conditions that warranted further review.

Chris

Christopher M. Mayer
Publisher, The Boston Globe
President, New England Media Group

Update. Craig Douglas responds: “As your blog suggests, there is nothing misleading in our story. The environmental reports we cited speak for themselves, making it clear there are certain activities and uses that are prohibited on the Globe’s property in its current state. We never claim or infer, as the Globe’s publisher suggests, that those problems can’t be remediated or that the Globe employees are exposed in any way to health risks.”

Update II. It’s official: John Henry is now the owner of The Boston Globe, the Telegram & Gazette, Boston.com and several smaller properties. (6:41 p.m.)

Update III. I missed this earlier, but I thought it was worth flagging as a sign of how Henry might respond to negative news coverage. (Saturday.)

 

Globe cuts Your Town staffing in half

Just catching up with this. Jon Chesto of the Boston Business Journal reports that The Boston Globe’s Your Town sites are being trimmed by six correspondents — approximately half the staff. Your Town, part of the Globe’s free Boston.com website, provides hyperlocal coverage of the suburbs as well as of several Boston neighborhoods.

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 8.38.56 AMGlobe regional editor David Dahl tells Chesto that there will be no site closures. But it seems inevitable that there will be cuts in coverage, even though Globe staff reporters and freelancers will continue to contribute. There are more than 100 Your Town sites and about 15 related Your Campus websites covering colleges and universities in Greater Boston.

Your Town got off to a shaky start in 2008, as GateHouse Media — which operates Wicked Local sites in virtually all of the same communities targeted by Your Town — sued the New York Times Co. (the Globe’s owner, at least for a few more weeks) for copyright infringement, arguing that the Your Town sites in some cases aggregated virtually all of GateHouse’s content for a given community without offering much else.

The two sides reached an out-of-court settlement in early 2009, as I reported for The Guardian. Your Town eventually grew into a valuable resource in many communities. But it looks like the sites, which carry little advertising, got to be too expensive to operate.

Chesto writes that the cuts call hyperlocal coverage into question as a business strategy, noting that AOL’s Patch sites are in the midst of deep cuts as well. But though hyperlocal may well be a loser at the corporate chain level, there are a number of successful independent sites operating across the country. You could read a book about such sites, hint, hint. The real issue is that hyperlocal is best understood as a grassroots phenomenon.

Did Globe executives reach this decision on their own? Or was incoming owner John Henry involved? And if he was, what does that say about his priorities for the Globe?

(Disclosure: Journalism students at Northeastern as well as several other Boston colleges and universities contribute to the Your Town and Your Campus sites.)

BBJ scores big on two local media stories

The Boston Business Journal has come up aces during the past week with two meaty stories on local media news.

• A shaky future at the Globe. The first, published last Friday, found that confidential financial documents put together by the New York Times Co. suggest The Boston Globe was in slightly worse shape than outside observers might have imagined when the paper and several affiliated properties were sold to Red Sox principal owner John Henry for $70 million in early August. The BBJ’s Craig Douglas writes (sub. req.):

In essence, Henry is buying into a borderline breakeven enterprise already teed up for $35 million in cost cuts over a two-year period before he even walks through the door.

How bad is it? According to the documents cited by Douglas, advertising revenue at the New England Media Group (NEMG) — mainly the Globe, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester and Boston.com — is expected to be 31 percent below the 2009 level next year. And paid print circulation revenue continues to slip despite price increases at the Globe and the T&G.

You may have heard people say at the time of the sale that Boston.com was worth more than the Globe itself. Well, I don’t think you’ve heard me say it. Print advertising remains far more valuable than online, and that holds true at NEMG as well. Douglas writes:

The Globe is by far the biggest revenue generator of the group, accounting for 69 percent, or about $255 million, of its forecasted revenue this year. The Telegram & Gazette in Worcester is next in line at $42.5 million in forecasted revenue this year, while Boston.com is on track to book about $40 million.

Print products account for about 88 percent of NEMG’s total annual revenue. That heavy reliance on print-related advertising and circulation revenue has proven particularly problematic of late, as both categories have lost ground since 2009 and are forecasted to see continued deterioration for the foreseeable future.

Douglas’ story is protected behind a paywall, but if you can find a print edition, you should. Suffice it to say that John Henry has his work cut out for him. The picture Douglas paints is not catastrophic. But it does show that the Globe is not quite as far along the road toward figuring out the digital future as some of us might have hoped.

• Tough times ahead for local papers. The other big media splash, which I linked to last night, is Jon Chesto’s analysis of the sale of Rupert Murdoch’s Dow Jones Local Newspaper Group (formerly Ottaway Newspapers) to an investment firm affiliated with GateHouse Media. The papers sold include three prominent Greater Boston dailies: The Standard-Times of New Bedford, the Cape Cod Times and the Portsmouth Herald, on the New Hampshire seacoast.

Chesto’s article is part of the BBJ’s free offerings, so by all means read the whole thing. It’s a real eye-opener, as he explains as best anyone can at this early stage what the sale and simultaneous bankruptcy of GateHouse will mean for local papers and the communities they serve. Unfortunately, indications are the news will be very bad indeed.

Fairport, N.Y.-based GateHouse, which publishes about 100 local papers in Eastern Massachusetts (including The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, The Enterprise of Brockton and The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham), will somehow be combined with the entity that holds the former Ottaway papers into a new company with the uninspired name of New Media (that may change). (Update: Chesto is a former business editor of The Patriot Ledger, which no doubt helped him write his piece with a real air of authority. And thanks to Roy Harris for reminding me of that.)

The deal with Murdoch — at $82 million, quite a bit more than I had anticipated — was done through Newcastle Investment Corp., a real estate investment trust that is part of Fortress Investment Group, which in turn is GateHouse’s principal backer.

The powers-that-be are already talking about slashing the Ottaway papers, which are among the best local dailies in the region. Chesto writes:

The papers are described as “under-managed by News Corp.” with “expense reductions of only 6% since 2010.” Translation: We can take more out of the expenses than News Corp. did. GateHouse has been an aggressive cost cutter in recent years, most notably with efforts to consolidate most of its page design and layout functions. That work was centralized in two locations, including an office in Framingham. But it will soon be downsized further, into one location in Austin, Texas.

Yes, Murdoch, the “genocidal tyrant,” is likely to prove a better steward of local journalism than the people he’s selling to.

Post-bankruptcy, with $1.2 billion in debt off their backs, the executives now running GateHouse are going to be empowered. According to a presentation put together for investors, Chesto writes, New Media may spend $1 billion to buy up local media companies over the next three years.

Chesto doesn’t say so, but if I were working for the Eagle-Tribune papers north of Boston (The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times), I’d be polishing that résumé right now. On the other hand, those papers have already been cut so much under the Alabama-based CNHI chain that it’s not like a new owner could do a whole lot worse.

At a time when there are reasons to be hopeful about the newspaper business thanks to the interest of people like John Henry, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett, the GateHouse deal shows that there are still plenty of reasons to be worried about the future.

BostInno acquired by Boston Business Journal’s owner

Chase Garbarino

For some time now I’ve been keeping an eye on Streetwise Media, a Boston start-up whose chief executive and public face, Chase Garbarino, has been trying to figure out new ways of reaching tech-savvy, city-dwelling twentysomethings.

First came Pinyadda, an attempt to meld journalism and social networking in a way that was supposed to be less serious and more fun than NewsTrust. Well, it may have been less serious, but it wasn’t less cumbersome, and Pinyadda went the way of all pixels.

Next, and more lasting: BostInno, a website that covers technology, city life and higher education for an audience that I would describe as young urban singles. Nothing too heavy, but it’s enjoyed some success. An old acquaintance, veteran journalist Mary McGrath, has been involved with it. A former student of mine had an internship there. Garbarino and company launched a satellite site in Washington, and were planning to open a third site in New York.

So I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it when it was announced a few days ago that BostInno had been acquired by American City Business Journals (ACBJ), the parent company of the Boston Business Journal. What’s posted on the BostInno (here) and BBJ (here) websites is all very hopeful and enthusiastic, as these things generally are. But is this going to give BostInno a chance to grow — or does it mark the beginning of the end?

Although the terms were not disclosed, I suspect that ACBJ’s managers are genuinely interested in BostInno, if only because there was no reason for them to acquire it just to shut it down. I also predict a culture clash ahead. The BBJ and its sister papers are high-quality but rather staid. (Indeed, ACBJ is part of the Newhouse empire, making the BBJ — and now BostInno — corporate cousins of the New Yorker.) BostInno is energetic and can be fun, but it is not a hardcore journalistic enterprise.

Here’s how BostInno put it:

While acquisitions are usually viewed as endings, we believe this is just the beginning for Streetwise. We believe more and more each day in what we are doing and we love doing it.

And here is a considerably more reserved quote from ACBJ chief executive Whitney Shaw that appears in the BBJ:

In a short amount of time, Streetwise has attracted a very loyal and robust audience that is different from but complementary to what we do at our business journals in Boston, Washington and elsewhere.

I’m hoping that the acquisition means good things for BostInno, and that Garbarino and co-founder Kevin McCarthy will be allowed to do their thing. I think they’re on to something, and I’d like to see them have the time and resources they need to figure it out.