Tag Archives: Mike Sheehan

Here’s an idea for how to fix Boston.com

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

I have an idea for how to fix Boston.com, whose executives on Wednesday found themselves apologizing yet again — this time for some juvenile humor about House Speaker John Boehner’s alleged drinking problem following a death threat against him.

The screw-up has gotten widespread coverage from, among others, Politico, the Boston Herald (where the story landed on page one) and The Boston Globe.

First, some context on why John Henry and company find themselves in this situation.

When Boston Globe Media Partners decided to remove all Globe content from its free Boston.com site, a strategy that Justin Ellis explained at the Nieman Journalism Lab last April, they created a difficult challenge. Boston.com was one of the first and most successful newspaper websites, and had spent most of its existence primarily as a place where you could read the Globe for free. The challenge was to create a compelling news site without running anything from the Globe — and, at least based on what I’ve seen, to do it on the cheap.

The route that Boston.com has taken is a lot of aggregation, a lot of attitude and a lot of viral content — such as the phenomenon it had on its hands in December with Harvard Business School professor (and lawyer) Ben Edelman, who was revealed to have sent a series of legalistic, threatening emails to a Chinese restaurant owner because he’d been overcharged by $4 when he placed an online order.

The story went sour after the site published and then pulled a post falsely claiming that Edelman had sent a racist email. It then turned out that deputy editor Hilary Sargent, the lead reporter on all things Edelman, was selling T-shirts online making fun of him, which led to her suspension. (My former Boston Phoenix colleague David Bernstein, a WGBH News contributor, recently wrote a good summing-up of the Edelman affair, with links, for Boston magazine. We also talked about it on “Beat the Press.”)

It hasn’t helped that Boston.com has been without a top editor for most of its reincarnated existence. Globe Media chief executive Mike Sheehan told his own paper Wednesday that he hoped to have an editor in place soon, though he didn’t specify a timetable.

The deeper problem, though, is that Boston.com has a fundamentally different mission — maybe even an impossible mission — compared to the Globe’s other online verticals.

Both Crux, which covers the Catholic Church, and BetaBoston, which follows the local innovation economy, are free to excel and be the best that they can be. Stories that have broad appeal can be picked up and run in the Globe.

Boston.com, by contrast, is hampered by being a general news site that in some respects overlaps with the Globe but can’t really be allowed to compete in any serious way. There are exceptions, of course. For instance, the Globe — and news organizations around the world — picked up on the Edelman story, an entertaining morality tale about a hardworking restaurateur being harassed by an arrogant Harvard professor. And Globe editor Brian McGrory told Justin Ellis he expected to “compete like crazy” with Boston.com.

In the main, though, Boston.com has suffered by what we might think of as an imperfectly applied example of Clay Christensen’s disruption theory — by which I mean that the free Boston.com site can’t be allowed to disrupt the Globe’s business model, which is based on paid print and digital subscriptions as well as advertising. (Henry is known to be an aficionado of Christensen’s work. I wrote in some depth about disruption theory and journalism last summer for Medium.)

I disagree with critics who say Henry ought to shut down Boston.com (it still has great value, built up over nearly 20 years) or sell it (and let the Herald or another competitor grab it?). So what do I think the solution might be?

How about a first-rate arts-and-entertainment site with a truly comprehensive, searchable database of listings? It would fill a real need, and it might attract high-quality local ads. And it would be more like Crux and BetaBoston than the current Boston.com in that it could function as a Globe vertical rather than as a separate-but-not-quite-separate-enough enterprise.

I don’t know whether such an idea would work, and I would observe that the Phoenix didn’t have a lot of success with that model during the last few years of its existence. But the Henry ownership is supposed to be all about experimentation. And the Globe has two advantages the Phoenix lacked: great technology and a huge built-in audience. Some experiments will pan out; some won’t. This one strikes me as worth trying.

Boston.com 2.0 has been troubled from the start. Maybe the right editor can fix it. But maybe it’s not too soon to be thinking about version 3.0.

 

Globe to replace g section, Brian McGrory tells staff

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 11.59.30 AMThe Boston Globe is replacing its tabloid arts-and-feature section, g, with a standalone full-size Living section later this month, according to a year-end message to the staff from editor Brian McGrory.

Most of McGrory’s message, a copy of which was sent to Media Nation by a kind soul in the Globe newsroom, is a look back at what has been a year of accomplishment for the paper. (McGrory has also written a round-up of his picks for the Globe’s most important stories of 2014.)

McGrory’s superlatives aside, it’s hard to think of a news organization this side of Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post that is expanding its coverage the way the Globe has under the ownership of John Henry. The paper has also been consistently excellent journalistically under McGrory’s watch, and, as he notes, it seems to be paying off in terms of advertising, paid circulation and a growing digital audience.

The full memo is below. But before I get to that, some other Globe news: veteran New Hampshire political reporter James Pindell is returning to the Globe as “a digital-first political reporter and playing a key role in our effort to augment our coverage of the first-in-the-nation contest,” according to an email by Jennifer Peter, the Globe’s metro editor, which someone forwarded to me.

Pindell, whom I’ve known and respected for years, worked most recently for WMUR-TV in New Hampshire, a stint that ended in a minor controversy after he asked U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown an impertinent question that turned out to be based on a mistaken premise. Pindell apologized and briefly disappeared from the air, which suggested an overreaction on management’s part. WMUR’s loss is the Globe’s gain.

Also this week, the departures at the Globe continued. Among those announcing their retirements were columnist Larry Harmon, business reporter Chris Reidy, health writer Deborah Kotz and former Spotlight and higher-education reporter Marcella Bombardieri. Harmon has been an important voice in holding city politicians accountable. I hope interim editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg finds a suitable replacement.

As for g, which was launched under New York Times Co. ownership, I doubt many will miss it. Mrs. Media Nation was a fan, but since we’re digital subscribers except on Sundays we rarely got to see what it looked like in print.

And now (drum roll, please) Brian McGrory’s year-end message to the staff.

Hey all,

Same-old, same-old in 2014, so I’ll be brief.

Wrong again.

We, meaning you, had an extraordinary year by every possible measure, certainly in terms of consistently superb journalism, but also with a driving sense of innovation in the work we produce and the way we present it. This was a landmark year for the Globe, one that I hope gives you a deep sense of pride.

Consider, for a moment, the new initiatives — Address, the absurdly readable Sunday real estate section; Capital, the Friday political section that is equal parts delightful and vital; the stand-alone Business section, which is off to a strong start and is set to improve even more; Crux, the company’s groundbreaking website dedicated to Catholicism around the world, done so well it will serve as a template for future initiatives; a restructured Spotlight Team that is set to produce signature investigative journalism with greater frequency; a stunning stand-alone Living broadsheet section to replace the current g tabloid, debuting the second week of January; the Cape Cod summer initiative; record-setting Business magazines, including the new “Game Changers;” the reintroduction of Score, as beautiful as it is insightful; artfully redesigned Sunday regional sections to the north, south, and west of Boston; and a revitalized Sunday Travel section that has become mandatory reading.

None of this came easy. All of it is vital. What made it possible is the high quality journalism upon which everything new and old is built.

Let’s be honest: 2013 was a tough year to follow in terms of accomplishment. And sitting at Columbia University in May, watching Chris Chinlund, Jen Peter, and Mike Bello accept the Pulitzer Prize on behalf of the entire staff, well, that’s a moment that I’ll forever cherish. I’m not sure Bello ever cradled any of his kids as lovingly as he did that plaque.

But you followed great work with still more great work, even amid the demands of so much new initiative. Mike Rezendes gave voice to those who wouldn’t otherwise have had one with his landmark stories on the inhumane and sometimes deadly treatment of inmates at Bridgewater State Hospital — work that led to immediate, meaningful reform. Likewise in the accountability category, Spotlight produced a searing, three-part series on dangerous student housing conditions in this, the college capital of America, a project that has launched vows for widespread change. Kay Lazar and Shelley Murphy kicked the marijuana dispensary licensing process on its side through their in-depth reporting, forcing the state to scrap its deeply flawed work and start from scratch.

I’d put our 2014 narrative work up against any news organization in the country, and in that regard, I’m specifically thinking of Jenna Russell’s breathtaking account of Michael Bourne and his mother, Peggy, as they battled not only his mental health issues, but a cruelly complicated system that seems to go out of its way not to help. Include there, too, Evan Allen’s heartbreaking story of a Newton father’s quest for justice after his son’s overdose death, Maria Sacchetti’s tense, poignant look at the deaths and recovery efforts along the Mexican border, and of course, Sarah Schweitzer’s extraordinary account of a Woods Hole biologist and his lifelong attempt to save the endangered right whale, a story that was accompanied by a groundbreaking online presentation. There are more, many more.

Day to day, Metro performed an extraordinary public service by driving the heroin epidemic into the public conscience. Business blanketed the single most readable storyline of the year — the Demoulas saga — with expert coverage that drove the plot for months. Photography continued to produce the kind of thoughtful, magnificent images that made readers linger on our pages in awe.

Sports did what our Sports staff always does: It offered the best coverage for the most sophisticated audience of any paper in the nation. Washington produced the deeply reported Power Lines series, along with its consistently probing coverage of two of the most interesting officials in the country — Elizabeth Warren and John Kerry. Living/Arts gave us a record number of colorful front page offerings and, as important, solidified Sunday Arts as one of the most popular and important sections of the Globe. Perhaps that last point is inevitable when you have the all-star roster of critics and writers that we have. The Sunday magazine remains among the most vital aspects of the paper, with consistently sophisticated stories that are devoured by readers.

Our design team was ever bolder in print and online, not only with new sections and sites, but with the front page as well. Our copy editing is ever more meticulous and consistently collaborative. Our graphics are often the envy of the industry, which explains why bigger organizations keep hiring away our directors.

And our digital team has quite literally been transformative, newcomers and veterans, all of whom have banded together to produce an evolving, ambitious namesake site that is a pitch perfect platform for our collective work.

Does any of this matter? Yeah, it does, very much so.

Advertising came in better than expected this year, by no means enough to declare success, but certainly a sign of improvement. In terms of readership, there were many, many weeks in the autumn that saw a net upside in print subscriptions. There are precious few papers that see anything like that. And Bostonglobe.com saw a 34 percent increase in visits and a 26 percent increase in pageviews. We also have more digital-only subscribers than any newspaper in the country outside of the NYT and WSJ, and we’ve begun adding to that number at a strong clip in the last quarter.

I’m way too late to say, “To make a long story short,” right? But please bear with me for one final point.

We can’t let up. To sit still is to beckon defeat, what with the breakneck pace of technology advances and the irrefutable fact that competition continues to lurk all across the web. We need all your creativity, all your ambition, all your brains – all across the enterprise. We also need to take full advantage of an enviable moment. We have committed owners, the Henrys, who value quality over short-term profits, and who believe to their core that the way to make the Globe a self-sustaining enterprise is by thoughtful investment combined with unfailing discipline. We have a CEO, Mike Sheehan, who believes deeply that great journalism is good business. We have a thriving region. We have a robust staff of stellar reporters, editors, and visual journalists, many of the best in the nation. We have all the ingredients in place for profound, durable success.

I’ll set up some times in January to share plans and trade ideas for 2015. Meantime, please take more than a few moments of pride on this New Year’s Eve, for where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are poised to go.

My deepest respect and appreciation to you all.

Brian

Correction: An earlier version of this post described the departures of Larry Harmon, Chris Reidy, Deborah Kotz and Marcella Bombardieri as “buyouts.” That was based on an incorrect assumption on my part. Harmon told me he was not offered a buyout, and I do not know about the other three.

Globe real-estate dealings move forward

Boston Globe staff members received the following email from chief executive office Mike Sheehan earlier today:

As you know, we’ve been working with Colliers International to market our headquarters on Morrissey Boulevard. Bids were received mid-September, and we met with three of the most favorable bidders soon thereafter. We are in the process of completing a purchase-and-sale agreement with Winstanley Enterprises. Winstanley is a Concord, MA-based, family-owned firm experienced in mixed-use development, and would make a terrific steward of this place we’ve called home since 1958. Though we’ve reached an agreement in principle with the Winstanleys, there are still details to be worked out and a period of due diligence, so this is far from a “done deal.” But we wanted to inform you of the direction we’re heading.

Speaking of the direction we’re heading, we’re also working with Colliers to evaluate proposals from potential new sites for our headquarters and production. We have many exciting options in a number of locations, so it’s anyone’s guess — mine included — where we ultimately move. We will update you as we get closer to making a final decision. We’re looking to move sometime in late 2016/early 2017, so it won’t be long before we have a much clearer picture of our future.

Globe to offer buyouts to some staff members

Here’s some late-Friday-afternoon-in-August news for you: Boston Globe chief executive officer Mike Sheehan says the paper will be offering buyouts to some employees. Sheehan says the buyouts will be “voluntary in nature, the terms of which are generous by any standard.”

No numbers are given in either Sheehan’s memo (posted earlier at Universal Hub) or in a follow-up from editor Brian McGrory (exclusive to Media Nation). “There’s no set number we’re trying to achieve,” McGrory writes. “Most significantly, it’s not meant as a cost-cutting exercise in the newsroom. In fact, when all is said and done, I don’t expect staffing levels here to change much, if at all. We’ll see growth in some areas as we’ll see cutbacks in others. Hiring will continue.”

But, McGrory adds: “That’s not to say there won’t be difficult moments in this process. We’ll undoubtedly be saying goodbye to talented colleagues who have committed themselves to this great institution.”

(Update: Craig Douglas of the Boston Business Journal reports that layoffs are possible if the Globe doesn’t achieve its buyout goal.)

First, Sheehan’s email to the staff:

Over the past two years, there have been a number of significant changes at the Boston Globe: a new owner, a new editor, and new leadership in a number of departments. Since January 2013, we’ve added a number of new people as well — 250, to be precise. These key hires are helping us create a media property whose commitment to excellence in journalism is second to none in New England, and on par with the best in the business globally. They’ve allowed us to improve the quality of our offerings across the board and to introduce initiatives like Address and Capital in print, a re-imagined boston.com, plus Betaboston.com and Crux, the new Catholic digital site which will launch in a few weeks. On the business side, our efforts are paying off — after the first six months of 2014, our circulation and advertising revenue are both ahead of plan, which reflects the enthusiasm of readers, visitors, and advertisers.

Our mission of creating award-winning journalism that’s “aggressively interesting” is only realized if we create a business model that’s sound and eminently sustainable. To reposition our business for the future, we have decided to offer some employees a buyout, voluntary in nature, the terms of which are generous by any standard. These employees will receive a letter at home over the next few days outlining specific terms.

We will continue to adapt and change, to stay ahead of the market and our competitors. We will continue to recruit and hire and explore new initiatives. But we will do so with financial discipline and rigor.

While the letters will be detailed and thorough, if you have any questions, feel free to ask me, your supervisor, or anyone in Human Resources.

All the best,
Mike

And here is McGrory:

Following up on Mike’s note, I’d like to offer my assessment on what this means for the newsroom.

Thankfully, this newsroom has embraced necessary change since the dawn of boston.com in 1995, right up through the new sections and sites we’ve introduced over the past year, with our most ambitious undertakings yet to come. This innovative spirit has allowed us to be one of the most successful papers in the nation in terms of digital subscriptions. It has allowed us to deliver our stories and images to readers in bold new ways. It has allowed us to rack up awards of every stripe. It’s also allowed us to beat financial forecasts over the first half of this year.

But change, as you well know, rarely comes easy, or at least not easily enough. It means making difficult decisions on what facets of our journalism we need to curtail to allow more investment in what we believe is most important to our readers. In other words, we can’t keep doing things just because we’ve always done them. We need to be ever bold in the way we think about the journalism ahead.

With that in mind, this buyout is different than many that have come before, in terms of what it means for our operation. For starters, it’s more generous (the details will be in the packets). There’s no set number we’re trying to achieve. Most significantly, it’s not meant as a cost-cutting exercise in the newsroom. In fact, when all is said and done, I don’t expect staffing levels here to change much, if at all. We’ll see growth in some areas as we’ll see cutbacks in others. Hiring will continue.  The goal of this buyout is flexibility, to allow us to devote people with just the right talents to the areas where we need them most.

That’s not to say there won’t be difficult moments in this process. We’ll undoubtedly be saying goodbye to talented colleagues who have committed themselves to this great institution.

My take, no spin, is that this is an exciting endeavor — certainly fortuitous for those inclined to leave for retirement or a new venture, and absolutely for the newsroom at large, as we continue to strategically invest in the excellent journalism that you produce every day. I’m available, as always, to talk this through, and so are your department heads. Don’t hesitate to come by.

Brian

Globe’s Catholic site, downtown move are getting closer

Published previously at WGBHNews.org

John Henry’s vision for The Boston Globe is slipping more and more into focus, as the paper is edging closer to launching its website covering Catholicism and moving from Dorchester to downtown Boston.

The Catholic site will include three reporters and a Web producer, according to an announcement by Teresa Hanafin, the longtime Globe veteran who will edit the project. Look for it to debut in September.

In addition to John Allen, who’s been covering the Church for the Globe since being lured away from the National Catholic Reporter earlier this year, the team will comprise Ines San Martin, an Argentinian journalist who will report from the Vatican; Michael O’Loughlin, a Yale Divinity School graduate who will be the site’s national reporter; and Web producer Christina Reinwald.

Unlike the Globe’s new print-oriented Friday Capital section, which covers politics, the Catholic site will be aimed both at and well beyond Boston with national and international audiences in mind. “It will have a global audience. There’s a natural audience for it,” Globe chief executive officer Mike Sheehan said in a just-published interview with CommonWealth magazine editor (and former Globe reporter) Bruce Mohl.

Because of that, Globe spokeswoman Ellen Clegg tells me, the Catholic site will be exempt from the Globe’s paywall. It will be interesting to see how Sheehan, an ad man by trade, grapples with the difficult challenge of selling enough online advertising to make it work. Although this is pure speculation, I wonder if some of the content could be repackaged in, say, a weekly print magazine supported by paid subscriptions and ads.

The relocation from Dorchester to downtown, meanwhile, has moved closer to reality. Thomas Grillo reported in the Boston Business Journal on Tuesday that John Henry has hired Colliers International to find 150,000 square feet of office space — a considerable downsizing from the 815,000 square feet in the 1950s-era Dorchester plant. The Globe’s printing operations would most likely be shifted to a facility in Millbury, which Henry kept when he recently sold the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester to a Florida chain.

One of the locations Colliers is investigating, Grillo reports, is in the Seaport District. And Sheehan, in the CommonWealth interview, says that would be his top choice: “I’d love to be in the Seaport area. If we were within walking distance of South Station, that would be ideal.”

If it happens, among the Globe’s new neighbors would be the Boston Herald, which moved to the Seaport District in 2012.

CEO Mike Sheehan says Boston Globe is profitable

Mike Sheehan

Mike Sheehan

CommonWealth magazine editor Bruce Mohl interviews Boston Globe chief executive officer Mike Sheehan in the just-posted summer issue. The most interesting takeaway is that the Globe, according to Sheehan, is currently profitable:

The Boston Globe is a profitable enterprise. I think it can be more profitable, but it’s a profitable enterprise. Look, we’re not going to run this like a hedge fund trying to raise crazy EBITDA. You could do that. You could cut. John’s [a reference to Globe owner John Henry] objective is to make the Globe sustainable, to come up with a model that makes it sustainable forever. The better we do on the revenue side, the more we’re going to pump into the content side.

I’ve heard it before, but it’s significant that the CEO would say it on the record. No specifics, though — under John Henry’s ownership, the Globe is a private company that doesn’t have to disclose its numbers.

The headline of the interview is “Mr. Sunshine,” and it fits the tone of the interview. If Sheehan was determined not to make news, then he succeeded. But it’s an interesting read, and there are some details I didn’t know about Sheehan’s longtime family relationship with editor Brian McGrory — who, Sheehan says, “was put on the face of the earth to be the editor-in-chief of The Boston Globe.”

Photo via Saint Anselm College.

Globe editor McGrory gets vote of confidence

The Boston Business Journal has an interview with new Boston Globe chief executive Mike Sheehan, who tells Jon Chesto that he’s a fan of Globe editor Brian McGrory.

So it would appear that McGrory’s job is safe — as it should be. He’s done a terrific job in the year-plus he’s served since taking over for Marty Baron, now the top editor at The Washington Post.