Digital First’s acquisition of the Boston Herald closes on Monday. I’m told that even inside the Herald, there is very little known about who’s staying and who’s going. But the memo below explains what is happening to those who are losing their jobs.
One who has confirmed that she’s leaving is editorial-page editor Rachelle Cohen, who signs off today with a classy farewell. She writes:
As an institution in this community it will live on; it will continue to vigorously compete in the marketplace of journalism because the people who have labored here — and those who will continue to do so — actually don’t know how to operate any other way.
Former Boston Globe and Boston Phoenix media critic Mark Jurkowitz reviewed “The Return of the Moguls” for the Globe. And he’s weighed in with a thumb’s up, writing:
Exhaustively researched and authoritatively written, “The Return of the Moguls” gives readers a bird’s-eye view and an important understanding of the ongoing efforts — ambitious and in some cases, downright courageous — to reconstruct that business model while introducing us to some of the key people engaged in that enterprise.
Thanks to my old Boston Phoenix pal Sue O’Connell for having me on her NECN show, “The Take,” on Wednesday to talk about “The Return of the Moguls.” You can watch our conversation by clicking here or on the image above.
The news cycle on Tuesday began in the frenetic manner we’ve become accustomed to in the Age of Trump. No sooner had I finished my snowbound perusal of newspaper websites than the president took to Twitter and announced that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was out. My phone began buzzing with breaking-news alerts. Twitter filled up with quick hits, some serious and some snarky, as to what it all meant. And, at least for a little while, our collective attention was diverted from Stormy Daniels, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, and the rest of the Trumpian mishegas that has preoccupied us for the past 14 months.
Many of us sense that we’ve become overwhelmed by the rush of news and that we don’t know what to do about it. The quantity if not the quality of news has been growing exponentially in the decades since we relied mainly on the morning newspapers and the evening newscasts. But we seem to have reached a tipping point with the endless obsession over Trump, especially on cable news and social media.
Which is why, I think, New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo struck such a chord last week.
Important thread by David Roberts of Vox on how President Trump has exposed the right for what we knew in our hearts it was all along: an inchoate collection of grievances uninterested in policy or ideas. He’s also got some smart things to say about what’s wrong with The New York Times’ conservative columnists, who are monolithically anti-Trump. Start here:
1. All right, this controversy over conservative columnists in @nytopinion is bugging me. Everyone is dancing around the central point! (The same central point everyone dances around in *numerous* contemporary controversies.) So I'ma lay it out.
There was a time not too many years ago when nearly every newspaper except The Wall Street Journal made its journalism freely available online. This was not entirely crazy. At the dawn of the commercial web, newspaper executives were optimistic that free news would prove lucrative thanks to multimedia advertising and the dramatically lower cost of digital distribution compared to print. As The New York Times naively put it in 1996 when announcing the debut of its website, “With its entry on the Web, The Times is hoping to become a primary information provider in the computer age and to cut costs for newsprint, delivery and labor.”
The limits of that strategy became apparent starting about 10 years ago. Because of its very ubiquity, digital advertising lost its value, bringing in pennies — at best — compared to print. Far worse, Google and Facebook, neither of which existed when newspaper websites first popped into existence, now scoop up more than 60 percent of digital ad revenues. In response, newspapers began charging for digital content. Today, the idea that reader revenue is the future has taken on the aura of received wisdom.
Yet there remain questions about how much news organizations can charge for their journalism as well as how many subscriptions a typical internet user is willing to pay for. Last week, Lucia Moses of Digiday explored the issue at some length. And though there have been some winners, with the Times and The Washington Post leading the way, they are likely to be outnumbered by the losers. Moses quoted Vivian Schiller, a former executive with the Times and NPR, who offered this pessimistic assessment:
A lot of people are going, “Reader revenue, it’s working for The New York Times, it’s working for specialty publications; that’s our path.” I’m afraid for most news publishers, it’s going to end in tears.
In 2013, I began working on my book “The Return of the Moguls,” which was published by ForeEdge this week. My original idea was that a new generation of wealthy newspaper owners — Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos at the Post, financier (and Red Sox principal owner) John Henry at The Boston Globe, and entrepreneur Aaron Kushner at the Orange County Register — might figure out innovative ways of running newspapers and thus chart a path for the rest of their beleaguered industry. Over time, though, an additional plot line came into focus: all of them faced the challenge of how to move forward at the very moment when the old idea of free, web-based journalism was coming to an end.
Each of the three moguls approached the problem differently. Bezos, by far the most successful, repositioned what had been a large regional newspaper as a national digital news organization, going head to head with the Times. Bezos bundled the Post with Amazon and pursued a massive online audience with the goal of converting some small percentage of all that drive-by traffic into paying customers. Today, the Post reports more than one million paid digital subscribers and claims it has been profitable for the past two years.
Henry has pursued a number of different ideas at the Globe, some of which have worked out better than others. But Henry’s most elemental idea — that readers should pay for news — has also been his most successful. Despite charging the unusually high fee of $30 a month for digital subscriptions, the Globe is on track to pass the 100,000 mark during the first half of this year. If Globe executives can figure out how to double that, then the paper will be on its way to financial sustainability.
Meanwhile, the Globe’s print edition is being repositioned as a niche luxury product. As Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal reported Tuesday, the non-discounted price of home delivery is being raised to $25.90 a week. For that kind of money, Henry had better hope that the paper’s well-publicized printing and delivery woes are a thing of the past. The Globe’s digital and print fees are now both the highest of any general-interest newspaper, national or regional. It will be fascinating to see if Henry’s gamble pays off. (Update, March 9: In a comment posted to the Globe’s subscribers-only Facebook group, the Globe denied that it was contemplating a price hike of that magnitude: “There are no plans to raise our prices by 80% as reported by the BBJ.” Seiffert defends his reporting here.)
The third mogul, Kushner, is long gone, having stepped down in early 2015, several months before the Register slid into bankruptcy. Unfortunately for his newspaper, he had two main ideas, one good, one disastrous. The good: improve the print edition and make sure people were paying full rate for the paper’s journalism. A print-first approach certainly wasn’t forward-looking, but there’s no reason it couldn’t have worked for at least a few years. The problem was that Kushner added about 150 full-time journalists to his newsroom of 180 and then set about buying and launching additional newspapers in the hopes that advertising and circulation revenues would somehow magically materialize. Today the Register is owned by Digital First Media, the cost-slashing corporate chain that recently won the right to buy the Boston Herald.
Not everyone is pursuing paid digital. A few megasites like BuzzFeed and HuffPost have succeeded by attracting huge amounts of traffic while keeping the size of their staffs to a minimum. Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed’s media editor, shared Moses’ Digiday article on Twitter while adding his own warning:
In a year or two we'll see articles talking about how the pivot to subscriptions failed to pan out for some news orgs. But there is only so much subscription revenue available for news. It's a battle to capture it. https://t.co/1Gn00QXdbo
News organizations that rely on digital subscriptions must also compete with high-quality news sources, both national and local, that are free and are likely to remain that way — such as PBS, NPR, and their affiliates on television, radio and online.
Yet, for newspaper owners, there really isn’t much choice other than to ask readers to pay. The bright hopes that were expressed a quarter century ago have given way to realism. There is no one left to cover the costs of journalism except us. And if not enough of us are willing, then newspapers — still the most effective vehicle for holding government and other large institutions accountable — will continue to shrink and fade away.
My new book, “The Return of the Moguls,” will be released tomorrow, and the first two events will take place later this week. If you’re in the area, I hope you can join me.
On Thursday, I’ll be at Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester at 7 p.m. Bookstore owner Trisha Wooldridge and I recently had a conversation about the future of newspapers and how I went about doing my research and reporting. You can register for the event by clicking here.
On Thursday came the sad news that the comedian and writer Barry Crimmins, who virtually invented Boston’s comedy scene, had died at the age of 64. Barry was a man of several careers. Among other things, he was an activist against child sexual abuse and a towering figure at The Boston Phoenix, which is how I got to know him.
Barry was one of the most thoroughly decent human beings I have ever met. We were all hoping that Bobcat Goldthwait’s 2015 documentary “Call Me Lucky” would relaunch his career. Unfortunately, it never really happened. Barry announced in January that he had terminal cancer. His wife, Helen Crimmins, is also ill.
Jim Sullivan writes about Barry’s legacy for The Artery at WBUR.org. At the time of its release I wrote about “Call Me Lucky” for WGBH News. Barry will be hugely missed. Wherever he is today, I hope he is given what he publicly asked for so many times: excommunication from the Catholic Church, whose leadership he detested for its role in covering up the crimes of pedophile priests.
Hey, hey whaddya say, excommunicate me today! @Pontifex
Is it possible to be more politically irrelevant than #NeverTrump conservatives? From the moment that Donald Trump began his presidential campaign, the conservative establishment has been in a perpetual state of horrified gobsmackery. But that hasn’t stopped the Trumpist base from taking over the Republican Party.
And so it was that on Saturday the starboard-leaning pundit Mona Charen was booed at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) for the apostasy of suggesting that, no, it’s not OK for conservatives to make excuses for the sexual predator in the White House. And no, it’s not OK for CPAC to invite a member of the neo-fascist, Holocaust-denying Le Pen family to address the gathering.
Nor was Charen merely booed. She actually had to be escorted out of the building by security guards lest some overly enthusiastic #MAGA types decided to place themselves between her and the door.
“I spoke to a hostile audience for the sake of every person who has watched this spectacle of mendacity in disbelief and misery for the past two years,” Charen wrote in an op-ed piece for The New York Times. “Just hearing the words you know are true can serve as ballast, steadying your mind when so much seems unreal.”
Charen was followed by her fellow anti-Trumper Max Boot, who recently joined The Washington Post’s opinion section — and who, on Sunday, went so far as to say that he could no longer call himself a conservative. “I prefer to think of myself as a classical liberal,” Boot wrote, “because ‘conservative’ has become practically synonymous with ‘Trump lackey.’”
Charen, Boot, and other anti-Trump conservatives find themselves in an unusual position. On the one hand, they get plenty of attention, especially on the editorial pages of the Times and the Post, where they provide satisfying entertainment for the papers’ mostly liberal readers. On the other hand, they have been virtually cast out of the Republican Party, which these days is in thrall to the racism, nationalism, and demagoguery that have been the hallmarks of the Trump era. At least Democrats can look forward to the next election.
The marginalization of traditional conservatives has been a long time coming. Back in January 2016, National Review — founded by William F. Buckley Jr. — published a special issue titled “Against Trump.” The list of conservative pundits who oppose Trump is impressive, and includes former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum (whose year-old Atlantic piece on how Trump could build an autocracy remains must reading), Weekly Standard founding editor Bill Kristol, Commentary’s John Podhoretz, the Post’s Jennifer Rubin, Michael Gerson, and George Will, and the Times’ David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and Bret Stephens. Even farther-right pundits who share some sympathies with Trump’s positions, like Rod Dreher of The American Conservative and Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire, always are careful to make it clear that they do not support the president himself.
In many ways, members of the non-Trumpist right have no one but themselves to blame. This moment did not come out of nowhere. Richard Nixon had his “Silent Majority.” Ronald Reagan exploited racial tensions and helped create the notion of the undeserving poor. Indeed, those members of the white working class who voted for Trump are direct descendants of the so-called Reagan Democrats. The conservative intelligentsia was only too happy to exploit these voters over issues of race, guns, and abortion so that they could pursue their real agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy, free trade, and endless war.
For traditional conservatism to be relevant again, it must first move beyond its current media platforms of liberal op-ed pages and tiny magazines. The Trumpists have their own media in the form of Fox News, Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, and out-and-out conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones — and they reach tens of millions of people who believe their propaganda and falsehoods.
Still, nothing is forever. Although it is impossible to imagine the sequence of events that would result in the conservative establishment’s gaining ascendance over Trumpism, it was just as impossible several years ago to imagine that Trump would take over the Republican Party — and, of course, be elected president. If conservatives are going to make a comeback, though, they need to address their own rot from within.
In an essential Post article on the marginalized conservative press, National Review editor Rich Lowry sounded like he gets it. “One of the giant ironies of this whole phenomenon for us is that Trump represents a cartoonish, often exaggerated, version of the direction we wanted to see the party go in,” he was quoted as saying. “Trump was in a very different place on regulation and trade, but we had been widening the lens of mainstream conservatism and arguing that the party needed to be more populist.”
In other words, something like Trumpism — only without Trump, racism, or xenophobia. It would be a start.
Last week I wrote about my frustrations with Twitter after I locked myself out through a series of mishaps and couldn’t get back in. Thanks to some human intervention, I’m back. But Twitter and other internet services need to do a much better job of helping customers who lack the connections to get beyond automated customer service.