Consider the humble newspaper editorial. Unsigned and often unread, these gray exercises in cautious chin-stroking — representing as they do the theoretically awesome power of the institution — assert, applaud, deplore, and urge. But only rarely do they leap off the screen or page and grab the reader by the throat.
For the past several years, though, The Boston Globe’s opinionators have been trying desperately to break free from that swirling vortex of irrelevance. A satirical front page imagining a Trump presidency drew applause, moans, and brickbats. More successfully, the paper published several digital editorials about gun violence that incorporated interactive data presentations and online tools for contacting elected officials. (Here’s the most recent example.)
Now the Globe has embarked on its most audacious campaign yet: a call for newspapers across the country to publish editorials this Thursday condemning President Trump’s repeated assertions that journalists are “the enemy of the American people.”
H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest didn’t want to run a newspaper. In 2014 the Philadelphia billionaire, who died last week at the age of 88, unexpectedly won an auction to buy the city’s paper of record, the Inquirer, and its sister properties, the Daily News and Philly.com, media outlets that he already owned in part and was hoping to unload. “He did not expect to have to write a check that day,” Joel Mathis, a former reporter for Philadelphia magazine, told me. “He thought he was going to be getting a check that day.”
Just a few weeks later, Lenfest’s business partner, Lewis Katz, was killed in a plane crash along with six others, leaving Lenfest as the sole, unhappy proprietor. Lenfest’s solution to his dilemma was an act of generosity that continues to reverberate, and that could serve as a possible blueprint for saving the shrinking newspaper business.
Should a radical activist be allowed to publish instructions for using a 3D printer to create a fully operational plastic handgun? That’s the question facing U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik, who has said he will hear arguments this Friday in a case that pits freedom of speech against public safety.
The activist, Cody Wilson, has been trying to upload those plans for five years but had been prevented from doing so by the federal government. He nearly succeeded last month, after the State Department withdrew its objections. But Lasnik issued a temporary restraining order in response to a lawsuit filed by eight states and the District of Columbia. Although Lasnik, who’s based in Seattle, acknowledged that the case presented “serious First Amendment issues,” he said there was “a likelihood of irreparable harm” if Wilson — described as a “techno-anarchist” in a 2015 Wired magazine profile — had been allowed to move ahead.
A source sent this to me a little while ago. It’s a message from Vinay Mehra, the president and chief financial officer of Boston Globe Media. Not a lot of news here. For my money, the most interesting revelations are that Stat, the company’s health and life-sciences vertical, continues to grow, and that Design New England magazine has been discontinued. (Confession: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an issue.)
For more on the Arc content-management system and the latest on the Globe’s digital subscriptions, see the email interview I did with publisher John Henry last week for WGBH News.
The full text of Mehra’s message follows.
Happy summer! As we go into the second half of the year, the Senior Leadership Team and I would like to share with you where things stand midpoint of this year. Here are some highlights:
The newsroom continues to hit it out of the park. The Spotlight Team was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for a series on race that spurred an unprecedented conversation in this region. Our recent TSA piece has made waves nationally. Day in, day out, there is uniquely compelling journalism on our site and print pages, including the launch of the latest reader advocacy initiative, the Help Desk.
We continue to invest in the future of the Globe. Our latest investment in our digital future is ARC, our new publishing platform that will result in the redesign of our Globe.com website, and the launch of an ioS and Android Boston Globe app in August. There has been great collaborative work across the company to get to this point, and I am grateful for everyone’s help.
We have been disciplined on reducing costs, from ensuring we establish a robust contract management process to more tightly managing expenses, and continue to push ourselves on creating new revenue opportunities and exploring new ways to meet readers where they are, leveraged by our entrepreneurial spirit.
While advertising sales continues to experience industry disruption, we are excited about the potential of BG BrandLabs and sponsored content — we have completed 21 customer campaigns since the beginning of the year and have 14 more in our pipeline. Leading companies across the region appreciate and seek out partnerships with us and we will continue to build on that momentum.
Subscription revenues are on budget with our digital subscriber base over 94,000, putting us #1 among U.S. major metros in terms of total digital subscription revenue. With Pete [Doucette]’s departure, I have made the decision to conduct a search for a new head of consumer revenues, and I am pleased with the initial results of the search and the caliber of candidates who are interested in the role.
After months of negotiation, we have an agreement with the Pressman, Mailers and the Drivers unions. We appreciated the partnership with the bargaining committees and these new contracts give us the flexibility we need to continue to meet the needs of the market and industry.
We made the difficult but necessary decision to discontinue publishing Design New England magazine in order to redirect resources into our growth. This was hard news for our colleagues affected by the change, but we were transparent with the decision making process and explored all options before coming to this decision.
STAT, our bold life sciences initiative, continues to see impressive growth – year over year growth in advertising by 59% and growth in subscribers by 308%.
The constant change we are experiencing is what it feels like to be in transformation, and frankly, it will continue. While it is no doubt challenging to navigate in a business as dynamic as ours, I can tell you that we are not alone in this challenge and I believe that our organization will be positioned for success. Since starting at the Globe, I have spent a lot of time out in the field speaking with CEOs in the greater Boston area, familiarizing myself with the unique perspectives within the region and forging relationships that will ultimately allow our organization to help tell the incredible stories of growth, disruption and innovation in our backyard. The good (and bad) news is that I hear the exact same set of challenges in all of these discussions. Everyone, in every industry, is experiencing the very real ups and downs of transformation. The key for us is to stay focused on why we do the work we do, because what I also hear in these conversations is that we, the Globe, are critical to this city.
Success will require that all of us — and particularly the Senior Leadership Team — work across boundaries as one Boston Globe and in harmony with our partners. In the coming month, the Senior Leadership Team and I will be engaging in a strategic planning process to determine our plans for long-term growth. Expect to hear more from us after some of that work is done.
Finally, I truly believe that each of us must find meaning in our work. The best work happens when you know that it’s not just work, but something that will inform and improve other people’s lives. This is the opportunity that drives each of us at this company.
Thank you for your ongoing support and hard work. I recognize we wouldn’t be where we are without the contributions made by each and every one of you.
Two Fridays ago the 37-year-old New York Times publisher met with President Trump at the White House for what he thought was an off-the-record discussion. Trump, as is his wont, later tweeted out his own dubious version of what had happened. “Spent much time talking about the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, ‘Enemy of the People,’” the president wrote. “Sad!”
Which created a dilemma for Sulzberger. Should he act as though their off-the-record agreement was still in effect? Or should he push back at what he regarded as the president’s false characterization of their conversation? He chose the latter.
Many thanks to Cosmo Macero and everyone at O’Neill & Associates for a two-part interview on their podcast, “OA On Air,” about “The Return of the Moguls.” The first part is here; it starts at 11:30. The second is here.
You’ll find information on how to subscribe to “OA On Air” right here.
I recently had a chance to talk about “The Return of the Moguls,” fake news and other media issues on “SouthCoast Matters,” a local-access cable show carried by Taunton Community Access and Media. We did two half-hour programs, which you can see here and here.
Thanks to host Paul Letendre and Taunton Daily Gazette city editor Rebecca Hyman for a great conversation. The post-taping pizza was excellent as well.
Nearly five years after the billionaire financier announced that he would buy The Boston Globe, there’s a low but persistent buzz within the city’s media and political circles that Henry is tired of losing money and looking to get out. But Henry, who is also the principal owner of the Red Sox, insists there’s nothing to it.
“I don’t think of selling any local assets during my lifetime,” Henry said in an email interview. “Linda and I love and are committed to this city.”
Henry holds the title of Globe publisher. His wife, Linda Pizzuti Henry, is the managing director and, even more than her husband, is a regular presence at the Globe’s offices.
Henry responded to a range of questions I recently emailed to him. He declined to offer answers on two issues: whether he thought columnist Kevin Cullen could regain the trust of his readers after he returns from a three-month suspension for ethics violations; and how he plans to handle former Boston.com editor and reporter Hilary Sargent’s claims that she was sexually harassed by Globe editor Brian McGrory — claims that she has continued to assert even after the Globe’s recent announcement that investigators had interviewed Sargent and cleared McGrory. Henry did offer praise for McGrory’s performance as editor, saying, “Brian has done a terrific job of early on moving us primarily into local reporting and over the past year or so has really moved us to more and more relevant, interesting and compelling stories across New England. Every day there are ‘can’t miss’ stories.”
As is the case with many daily newspapers, the Globe has staked its future on its ability to sell digital subscriptions. The Globe missed its target of signing up 100,000 digital-only subscribers by the end of June — a crucial benchmark on the way to 200,000, which McGrory and other Globe executives have identified as one of the keys to long-term financial sustainability. Those efforts are about to get a significant boost. Earlier this year, it was announced that the paper would adopt The Washington Post’s highly regarded content-management system, Arc, both for internal operations and for re-energizing the Globe’s web and mobile platforms.
Globe spokeswoman Jane Bowman said the rollout would begin in August, with updates throughout the fall and full adoption by the end of the year. “The move to Arc will relaunch globe.com with a focus on site speed and driving user engagement,” Bowman said via email. “We will extend our mobile offerings, with Arc powering new iOS and Android apps for digital subscribers. The newsroom will have access to Arc’s advanced testing and analytics tools, giving us deeper insight into how readers engage with our content.”
Henry also had some provocative things to say about objectivity, telling me, “A news journalist (as opposed to a columnist) has an obligation to sift through whatever evidence he or she can find and give the reader what actually has happened or is happening to the best of his or her ability much like a juror in a courtroom is asked to do. Today we get the news interpreted far too often rather than reported.”
The financier-turned-publisher’s efforts to reinvent the Globe as a business have been mixed. Expanded print sections, for the most part, have not worked out, as advertising to support those sections failed to materialize. Crux, a free website devoted to covering the Catholic Church, was given away to its star columnist, John Allen. A new $75 million printing plant in Taunton got off to a slow start, resulting in poor quality, late and missed deliveries, and the loss of client publications such as the Boston Herald and USA Today. A revamped version of Boston.com, stripped of Globe content, never really achieved liftoff.
On the other hand, the standalone website Stat, which covers health and life sciences, keeps chugging along. The newsroom and business operations were moved from the paper’s hulking, outmoded plant in Dorchester (sold for about $80 million) to downtown Boston. The Globe’s journalism remains excellent, and the newsroom, with about 220 full-timers, is far larger than it would have been if the paper had fallen into the hands of a corporate chain — as we saw this week with New York’s Daily News, whose staff was cut in half by tronc, its bizarrely named owner.
According to The Washington Post, the Daily News had as many as 400 full-time editorial employees in the late 1980s. After this week’s cuts, that number is now about 45 — an indication not only of how fortunate the Globe has been to have Henry at the helm, but of how bad it might get if he can’t turn things around.
A transcript of my email conversation with Henry follows.
Q: From time to time people tell me that you are considering selling the Globe. Lately that kind of talk has been more persistent — I’ve heard people say that you’re tired of losing money and perhaps tired of the recent controversies. So: Are you planning to sell the Globe?
A: We have had no discussions about selling nor is anything contemplated. I don’t think of selling any local assets during my lifetime. Linda and I love and are committed to this city.
The Globe cannot ever seem to meet budgets — on either the revenue side or the expense side and I am not going to continue that. This has always been about sustainability rather than sizable, endless, annual losses. That is frustrating and due to a combination of mismanagement and a tough industry.
Q: If you are not planning to sell the Globe, are you committed to keeping it for the foreseeable future, which I’ll define as the next three to five years?
A: There is no time frame, honestly. We want to do our part and will, but ultimately the community’s support and the excellence of the paper will determine the long-term future.
I believe this community will support a news organization of this caliber. Brian has done a terrific job of early on moving us primarily into local reporting and over the past year or so has really moved us to more and more relevant, interesting and compelling stories across New England. Every day there are “can’t miss” stories.
Journalism is under attack in this country. We all know facts are under attack. Facts. What should be under attack in journalism these days are not facts but the lack of objective reporting. Personally I reject the notion that you can’t have highly objective reporting although the media seems to believe it isn’t possible. To me that is a long-held myth that has no place in a democracy. A news journalist (as opposed to a columnist) has an obligation to sift through whatever evidence he or she can find and give the reader what actually has happened or is happening to the best of his or her ability much like a juror in a courtroom is asked to do. Today we get the news interpreted far too often rather than reported.
Q: When I was doing my reporting for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” you and others told me that the Globe’s revenues were about $300 million a year. Could you tell me what they are today? What is the gap between revenues and expenses — in other words, how much are you losing?
A: The annual losses are just not sustainable but even if I personally felt that it was acceptable to continue losing significant sums, it does not put the news organization on the road to sustainability. Sooner or later it must sustain itself and it will — again though it will require the Globe convincing the community that it is worthwhile to support.
Q: Do you have concrete plans to fill the gap and move to break-even? You’ve had some success in charging for digital subscriptions, but what can you point to beyond that? How many digital-only subscribers do you now have — did you meet the 100,000 target that had been announced for the end of June?
A: Bridging the gap will not be easy but we have been working on it all year. Last week [early July] we were at 94,797 digital-only subscribers. While the numbers continue to grow, advertising revenues across the country are being gobbled up by Google and Facebook. Bloomberg today reported, “Omnicom Group suffered its biggest decline in nine years after posting sluggish results, renewing concerns that the ad giant can weather media disruption spurred by the likes of Google and Facebook.”
Q: Do you believe the Taunton printing problems have been straightened out or are at least under control? Contracted work was supposed to be a big part of your strategy, but you have lost customers, including the Boston Herald and USA Today. Do you have a strategy to sign up new customers or to lure back old ones (or both)?
A: Yes, and everyone there has been doing everything they can to reduce costs while at the same time getting used to new equipment that initially was extremely challenging.
Whether or not we print other publications comes down to cost primarily. Our cost structure was such that the Herald could be printed more cheaply out of the area. Our costs also led to minimal profit from printing other papers. If we can get our costs in line and be efficient enough we will have almost certainly have more commercial clients than The New York Times.
Q: When will you name a successor to editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg, who recently announced her retirement? [Clegg and I plan to work on a project together. See this disclosure.] Have you chosen anyone? Can you say who that is?
A: This is an extremely important position so we will take our time. Ellen has done a superb job for us and we will miss her.
Q: What do you expect the Globe’s adoption of The Washington Post’s Arc platform is going to accomplish for you? When will that be implemented?
A: I’m not the best person to talk with about this, but it is exciting. Our number one issue is reader experience and having an app experience across platforms as well as a new site will be great for readers.
It’s a basic tenet of press freedom: news organizations may publish public documents they lawfully obtained even if they got those documents by mistake. And so editors at the Los Angeles Times thought they were on solid ground last week when they reported the details of a plea agreement reached between a corrupt police officer and a federal judge — even though the Times obtained that information because the government had accidentally uploaded the plea agreement to a public database.
Judge John Walter ordered the Times to remove parts of the article after a lawyer for the police officer, a narcotics detective named John Saro Balian, argued that his client’s life would be in danger. The Times complied, though its new celebrity editor, Norman Pearlstine, has vowed to fight. “There is sort of a constant effort to nibble away at the First Amendment,” Pearlstine told The New York Times, “and I think there is an obligation to respond to that and push back. Once it’s out in the public record, it is our decision to decide whether it is newsworthy and we should publish.”
Pearlstine was recently hired by the Times’ new billionaire owner, the surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong, in the hopes of leading the paper back to greatness following years of budget cuts and chaotic ownership. Though highly regarded, Pearlstine some years ago found himself on the wrong side of a major First Amendment case. As editor-in-chief of Time Inc., Pearlstine turned over reporter Matthew Cooper’s notes in the Valerie Plame investigation, thus complying with a court order. (No, I am not going to rehash that morass of a story. If you want to know more, click here.) Pearlstine said he acted because Cooper’s source, George W. Bush chief operative Karl Rove, wasn’t truly confidential and because Time Inc. had already lost its legal appeal.
“Although we were ready to spend millions of dollars on litigation, I had to ask whether this strange case was the one on which we wanted to draw the line by ignoring a contempt order,” Pearlstine wrote in his 2007 memoir, “Off the Record,” quoted by Douglas McCollum in the Columbia Journalism Review.
This time, Pearlstine is on the side of the First Amendment angels. Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, put it this way in a statement: “It is plainly unconstitutional for a court to order a news outlet to remove public information from an article it has published. It does not matter whether the information was placed in a court file by mistake.”
Judge Walter’s temporary restraining order is under appeal. The standard for such issues was defined in 1979 by Chief Justice Warren Burger, who wrote in the 1979 case of Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Co. that “if a newspaper lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance, then state officials may not constitutionally punish publication of the information absent a need to further a state interest of the highest order.”
What’s taking place in Los Angeles is censorship, plain and simple. Walter’s order should be overturned as quickly and decisively as possible.
An experiment in public funding of news
Government funding of the media has long been regarded as toxic to journalism’s watchdog role. Public media organizations such as WGBH receive indirect funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Smaller nonprofit news projects like the New Haven Independent and Voice of San Diego receive subsidies by way of their tax-exempt status. But government officials do not decide what news gets covered.
New Jersey, though, is going to try something different. Its recently passed budget includes $5 million for local news initiatives. Donations are being sought as well. Yes, there is still some protection. According to the Associated Press, the money will be distributed by a nonprofit organization to be called the Civic Information Consortium, with a 15-member board comprising appointees chosen by elected officials as well as representatives of the state’s colleges and universities, the news media, and the public. The idea was developed by the Free Press Action Fund, part of the media-reform group Free Press, which has done yeoman’s work in educating the public about net neutrality.
Caught between the New York and Philadelphia media markets, New Jersey suffers from a paucity of news coverage. As described by the AP, members of a community with no coverage of their city government could ask the consortium for money to fund a reporter. The idea brushes right up against the wall separating journalism from government interference, although it seems that those involved have made a good-faith effort to maintain at least some semblance of independence.
Still, as Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute told the AP, “When you start taking public money you have to start with the suspicion that at some point the system will be corrupted by power.” This is a worthwhile experiment, but it will have to be monitored closely.
Marcia Chambers, 1940-2018
A remarkable journalist left us last week. Marcia Chambers, a former New York Times reporter and editor who spent her so-called retirement running the Branford Eagle, the small community news site she launched, died at the age of 78. Chambers operated her site beneath the umbrella of the New Haven Independent, whose founder and editor, Paul Bass, paid tribute to her over the weekend.
I wrote about one of Chambers’ exploits in “The Wired City,” my 2013 book about new forms of online journalism. While the Independent was investigating the murder of a Yale graduate student named Annie Le, Chambers somehow obtained a 2003 police report about an ex-girlfriend of the suspect, Raymond Clark, who claimed he had forced her to have sex when they were both students at Branford High School. As a condition of receiving the report, Chambers promised not to publish it until after an arrest had been made. But that didn’t mean there were not other uses to which the report could be put.
The Independent’s Melissa Bailey typed the woman’s name into Facebook, discovered that she had an account, and friended her, letting her know she was a reporter covering the murder. After Clark’s arrest (he was later convicted), Bailey and Chambers wrote a storywithout using the woman’s name. “I can’t believe this is true,” they quoted the woman as writing on her Facebook page. “I feel like im 16 all over again. Its jsut bringing back everything.”
The revelation that the Independent had the police report created a media stampede, Bailey said later. “People were calling us, begging us for this police report,” she told a researcher for Columbia University. “The New York Times came in and practically tried to arm-wrestle Paul.” It was a triumph for Chambers — one of many in a long and productive career.
Moments ago a source sent me a copy of an email that went out to Boston Globe staff members today about an internal investigation into allegations by former Boston.com editor Hilary Sargent that she had been sexually harassed by Globe editor Brian McGrory. The email is signed by Claudia Henderson, the Globe’s chief human resources officer, and Dan Krockmalnic, the Globe’s general counsel.
As you will see, we don’t learn much. But it sounds like, from the Globe’s point of view, it’s over. The key sentence: “While the investigation revealed a series of exchanges and interactions between Mr. McGrory and Ms. Sargent that were of a personal nature, the investigator found that they were initiated by and reciprocated by both parties, and did not violate our anti-harassment policy.”
The email in full is as follows.
We write to let you know that the investigation conducted by outside counsel into the matter regarding Brian McGrory that was raised by Hilary Sargent has concluded. Over the past several weeks since these allegations first surfaced, the investigator has conducted a thorough review that included multiple interviews of both Mr. McGrory and Ms. Sargent. While the investigation revealed a series of exchanges and interactions between Mr. McGrory and Ms. Sargent that were of a personal nature, the investigator found that they were initiated by and reciprocated by both parties, and did not violate our anti-harassment policy.
We have addressed this personnel matter directly with Mr. McGrory, and will not comment further out of respect for the privacy of the individuals involved.
We very much appreciate that this has been a difficult time for the team. We are grateful for the complete cooperation of Ms. Sargent and Mr. McGrory, and we look forward to moving ahead
As you all know, earlier in the year, we introduced EthicsPoint, a confidential reporting tool to assist employees in addressing workplace misconduct or violations. We also conducted anti-harassment training for managers and will continue to host these on an annual basis.
Thank you for your patience and, most importantly, for the crucial work you do here every day.
Also, Sargent makes it clear on Twitter that the Globe’s announcement is far from an amicable resolution. For instance, she tweeted this morning: “If what I spent more than seven hours describing to the @BostonGlobe didn’t make them want to interview a SINGLE corroborating witness, you have to wonder why. What kind of investigation doesn’t have the truth as its goal? This kind.”