By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Are the wheels coming off?

Mark Jurkowitz reports that the Boston Globe might actually have lost money during January and February of this year. Granted, the Globe and its sister paper, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, created some unusual one-time grief for themselves thanks to that credit-card mess-up. But this is a long way from the Knight Ridder-style laments that newspapers, though profitable, just aren’t profitable enough for Wall Street.

It’s important to remember that the Globe and other daily newspapers are not, for the most part, losing readers — at least not in any great numbers. Rather, readers are migrating to those papers’ Web sites. I freely confess that this item, which I wrote last October, oversimplifies matters. The point, though, is that newspapers are losing advertising to bank and department-store consolidation and to free-classified sites like Craigslist and Monster.com, even as readership is holding up pretty well.

But can papers keep those readers when they continue to hack away at the journalism? Not forever. That’s the dilemma.


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29 Comments

  1. neil

    Dan I don’t think you ever sufficiently supported your assertion that newspapers are not, for the most part, losing readers. Globe print readership did decline by 8% in those six months last year, and the numbers tossed around in your item from last October trying to show that the loss was made up for by online readers are a mishmosh. As Vin Crosbie said online readers aren’t worth as much as print readers. So even if the numbers remained steady it only shows migration from paying readers to free or at least cheap readers, which is effectively the same as readership loss from the paper’s point of view. If they had to pay as much as print readers they’d disappear.Fewer people pay for my soup with each passing month, but I keep the same number of customers as before, by giving more soup away. That’s a tautology, not a business model. Mark doesn’t make the claim you make that the loss is coming more from decline in advertising revenue than readership loss. How do you know.I think cutting the stock tables from the print version is a good idea. The web is the perfect medium for tabular data. Cutting back still further on the journalism itself is a depressing prospect.

  2. Anonymous

    But Neil, what if the soup is also an effective advertising medium? Cover price, subscription, discounted, or free, it’s still a money maker, if enough people will eat it off a spoon.

  3. Anonymous

    All the reasons thrown around for the Globe’s freefall have degrees of truth, from Craigslist to migration to the web and so forth.But can we please stop pussyfooting around the big issue and state the obvious about the Globe:THE PRODUCT SUCKS.The Globe has just devolved into a bland, dreary read that rarely tells me anything I need to know, seems completely unwilling to challenge the power structure, has lost its pulse on the city (ad campaigns to the contrary notwithstanding), has too much fluff, too many forced trend stories about crap I don’t care about, and the sports page has taken the most spectacular tumble of them all.I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I just know that I was a lifelong reader who used to read it cover to cover and all day Sunday and the amount of time I’ve spent reading it has steadily decreased to the point I wouldn’t even think of paying for the product now. Yes, the Internet is part of the reason, but if they actually put out a quality product I would make the time to buy the print edition. But they insist on shoving drivel down our throats at the exact point in time newspapers have lost their monopoly on the printed word.

  4. Dan Kennedy

    Online circulation doesn’t count as much as print for a variety of reasons: each paper sold means two or three readers, whereas each visitor to the website is one person; online readers don’t spend as much time with the paper as print readers (this is an assumption; but if your morning Globe goes unopened on any particular day, who’s to know?); and, of course, there’s not nearly as much ad revenue associated with online as there is with print.I’ll gladly concede all these points, because none of them does any damage at all to my main argument: as of last year, an average of 136,000 “unique visitors” were spending some time with the Globe’s Web site every day. You can’t possibly look at the Globe’s declining print circulation without taking that into account somehow.Thus to Anon. 5:10’s comment that the Globe’s biggest problem is that “the product sucks.” If I’m trying to figure out how to fix the Globe, it doesn’t matter whether I agree with that value judgment or not. What matters is whether the Globe really is driving away vast numbers of readers. The answer to that is no — or, at worst, not nearly as much as one might think by simply looking at the print circulation figures.I fear that Globe executives themselves are so obsessed with the print numbers that they end up making the “sucks” pronouncement a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus we have fairly worthless innovations like Sidekick and the Thursday Style section. Now, according to Mark, the brain trust (hah!) is going to degrade the product still further in an attempt to make expenses match up with revenues. Understandable in the short term, but what if more downsizing really does drive away readers? I worry that the executives themselves are looking at the wrong problem — trying to figure out how to attract or at least retain readers, rather than how to turn the Web site into a more profitable enterprise.And now for something completely different. Take a look at what the Globe Web people did with “Rakan’s War,” the series by Kevin Cullen and Michele McDonald on the Iraqi boy who was treated in Boston for the injuries he received at a U.S. checkpoint. No, it doesn’t solve the revenue problem, but consider: you can read it all in one place; the photos are sharper than they are in print; there are more photos; there are three audio slide shows narrated by Cullen and McDonald. This is where we’re headed, folks. The challenge isn’t attracting readers so much as it is finding a way to make it pay.

  5. Aaron Read

    Well, what about taking a page from college radio? Almost all of the college radio stations in Boston, and by that I mean the ones we think of as “college radio”…WZBC, WMFO, WBRS, WRBB, WZLY, WUML, WDJM, WYAJ, WHRB, WMBR and arguably WAVM, WMLN and maybe even WERS…these stations all exist today primarily because of subsidies from their parent colleges.Primarily in the form of free rent & utilities (not to be undervalued in today’s hot real estate market…as Allston-Brighton Free Radio found out the hard way). But also just in raw cash for an annual budget, usually around $40-50000/yr, not including staff costs.However, what’s happened at many of these stations is that the college has decided that the station provides an important service to the student community, and also to local community at large. So it’s worth it for them to subsidize it. In some cases, it’s worth it to subsidize it substantially and also hire professional staff to help manage things and – more importantly – serve as mentors to the student volunteers.Well, why not have something like that for a newspaper? Probably not on the scale of the Globe – that’s a little too rich for most colleges – but you could do something a little more scaled back. Can you imagine the prestige BU would garner for its (already pretty darn good) journalism school if they could say they put out the Boston Globe every day? It’s a helluva lot less questionable investment than Seragen, anyways. 🙂

  6. Aaron Read

    Whoops – forgot to make this clear – I’m not suggesting we replace all the professional journalists with students. I’m suggesting we have these journalists also be professors and mentors to students, who also help write articles and whatnot. Maybe even hire some extra ones to spread the added workload around a bit.There’s a much smaller concept not unlike this at WBUR, where there’s a handful of student workers at the station, and some of them do pretty critical jobs (like running the mix board or helping write the news) if they’ve demonstrated that they’ve got the skills to reliably do a good job.

  7. Anonymous

    The Globe was very lucky to keep our business after the credit card gaffe — nearly cancelled instead of converting delivery TWICE now, and they’re still on probation.assumption; but if your morning Globe goes unopened on any particular day, who’s to know?); Our morning Globe stays un-opened until the night before recycling day several days a week. Does reading the funnies a week later count as eyeballs to the advertiser? I doubt it.I stopped reading the Globe daily funnies even when they put them in a tabloid ghetto. And now that theyare squeezing the aspect ratio of the sunday color funnies … I’m ready to to ditch it … but that would require getting TV Guide home delivery or Tivo for TV listings. I was going to defer buying into Tivo until the VCR died anyway but if I apply what we’re spending on the Globe to the electronics budget … hmm … this could work … – Bill R

  8. Anonymous

    Aaron Booke’s idea sounds crazy. That’s because it is essentially good.

  9. Anonymous

    After reading the NY Times article on the Knight Ridder sale (specifically the impact on the San Jose Mercury News) I was struck by the fact that the newspaper business had been run all these years on a faulty model. The papers were dependent on the income from the classified section which had little to do with the rest of the paper. While the Globe is in freefall in terms of quality (as noted by someone above), that has little to do with its declining revenue. And, as for Dan’s point regarding the increase in online readership making up for traditional readership, it is all irrelevant if classified revenue has jumped to Craig’s List. Even if you couldn’t read any news online and had to buy the print version (and, thus, readership held steady), Craig’s List would have the same impact.

  10. Samuel J. Scott

    Aaron Booke:The Globe has begun to do what you suggested. Look at the City Weekly section, for example. Nearly every article is written by a “Globe Correspondent.” That means an intern, editorial assistant or freelance contributor — and many of those people are college students who will work for cheap because they want clips from a reputable newspaper.This is another direction newspapers are headed. There is so much competition out there for reporting jobs that newspapers can pay people less and less for the same position. It’s much cheaper to hire a freelancer or contributor than to have a staff reporter with a good salary and benefits. Imagine if someone — Dan? Mark? — did some study comparing the number of staff-written articles versus freelance-written ones from now and, say, five years ago. That’d be an interesting story.

  11. Copy Editor

    I know several “correspondents” who write for one of the Globe regional sections. They’re all experienced reporters, not college students or interns. From my observation, they’re typical of the sort who write for those sections.

  12. Anonymous

    Ah yes, the Globe’s regional sections … where promising careers go to die slow, brutal deaths.

  13. Mark

    Dan, The wheels aren’t coming off. They’re already off. I live in the hinterlands and the Metro just plopped a box down at my local commuter rail station in Westborough. I’ve noticed at least 10-15 people who used to buy the Globe every morning now opting for the free rag instead. I actually find the Metro almost as satisfying as the now-wan Globe, which once felt substantial.

  14. Anonymous

    Most wan of all is the City/Region section. Geez. The whole Globe takes me very little time to peruse each day, and I’m less and less inclined to worry if don’t get around to it.

  15. anon 5:10

    Dan, again, I’m not trying downplay online circ vs. print or the advent of Craigslist, but I still think the quality of the product is a very big reason things are getting so bad, or at the very least, the product’s lack of quality is coming at the worst possible time.Even if they somehow found a way to make people pay for content online (and as an aside, who exactly first thought “let’s take a product that people have paid for for two centuries and give at away for free online! What a great idea!”? That’s going to go down as one of the worst business decisions in the history of capitalism), I still wouldn’t bother paying for it. You can devise new formulas for selling a widget, but if you’re selling a lousy widget, people aren’t going to buy it no matter how it is presented.The Globe is just stunningly out of touch with the pulse of the city of Boston. I finally gave up over the holidays when they ran a big “everyone is so happy the price of gas is down!” fluff feature, at a time when everyone I know was grumbling that gas was still twice as much as it was a few years ago. And they have absolutely done every single thing wrong possible editorially with the NYT’s ownership stake in the Red Sox, to the point I don’t believe anything printed on their sports page anymore.On the other hand, I still pay for a subscription to my suburban daily, which isn’t what it used to be but still gives me the basics on my local community and doesn’t seem to have an institutional compulsion to insult my intelligence at every conceivable turn.

  16. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 5:10 — I’m not saying that you’re wrong. I’m saying the numbers show that weakness in the editorial product is not the Globe’s #1 problem.

  17. anon 5:10

    fair enough Dan. I don’t think it is their biggest problem either, but I do think it is a bigger part of the problem than is generally acknowledged.

  18. Anonymous

    Sucking certainly can’t be helping. On any given day, if running to catch a train, for instance, no time to visit the ATM, and only enough money in my pocket to buy one newspaper, it’d be the NY Times or the Washington Post, every single time. Even if there’s a major story in Boston – NYT and WashPo will generally have the story, only better reported.

  19. neil

    As long as everybody’s saying what they’re saying, I’ll say what I’m saying too. Those numbers that supposedly show…is just one number, which is your 136K/day which is the 4.1M (the media kit says “4MM+” whatever the hell that means but say it means 4.1M) visitors to Boston.com/30. In fact the media kit says Boston.com reachs 500,000 unique users a day! (The media kit also claims that of the registered Boston.com users, “30% have incomes of $100K or more”. If the registered users are 600K that’s 180K of readers making >$100K! Must be Tommy Flanagan country–hmm, >$100K yeah, that’s the ticket. And I won the Pulitzer prize that year…)For all we know 135,999 of those daily Boston.com visitors (or is it 499,999) are checking the weather, which you can do without the hassle of registering. Or they may only be logging in to check the latest updates to the Ombudsman’s blog.Without a better breakdown about what they’re looking at on the site, the daily number is piffle so doesn’t show anything about the weakness or strength of the editorial product. That’s what I’m saying. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

  20. Anonymous

    The Globe really is out of touch with Boston city news. We have been trying to get the Globe and the Herald to cover our issue. See: http://www.nationaltrust.org/magazine/911/index.htm.They won’t even print our letters-to-the-editor…Yes, world affairs are important as are the inumerable beltway doings…but so are our lives and communities.EmperorNortonII@myway.com

  21. Aaron Read

    You know, our FBD (Fearless Blogger Dan) is being mighty quiet considering he jumped from an established newspaper to a college job, too. I’d love to hear more about it, Mr. Kennedy…but I understand if it’s too close to home. 🙂 Still, you ought to give Sandra a ring at NEU Student Activities and tell her the idea for the Northeastern student newspaper. ;-)FWIW, I know several of the “Globe Correspondents” and they really run the gamut. Some are professionals with 15-20 years experience, some are professionals with 5 years experience, some are practically (or literally) college students. The quality of their work varies wildly and, as you might expect, it’s loosely tied to how much experience they have…but only loosely.Most of them that I know would much rather have full time jobs working for the Globe…they are very not happy scrambling and fighting for every story they write only to get zero benefits and declining pay. That’s why I know so many of them; they’ve all jumped to public radio like me! 🙂

  22. Dan Kennedy

    Aaron –You wrote: You know, our FBD (Fearless Blogger Dan) is being mighty quiet considering he jumped from an established newspaper to a college job, too. I’d love to hear more about it, Mr. Kennedy…but I understand if it’s too close to home.Sorry to answer a question with a question, but — what are you talking about? I have absolutely not a clue as to what you’re trying to get at.

  23. Aaron Read

    Sorry, I was being somewhat tongue-in-cheek. :-)Okay…my original idea was that perhaps a major university (BU, Harvard, NEU, whoever) should essentially buy a fairly major paper (the Herald, perhaps?) and assign several dozen (or hundreds) students to work at the paper under the mentoring of the existing staff. So you have people who work at a paper now working for a college and, in addition to their regular job, are doing some teaching of college students.I don’t know all the details around your move from the Phoenix to Northeastern, and they don’t really matter…but on the face of it, you essentially moved from working for a paper to working for a college and now teaching college students while still doing some writing/reporting/blogging (right?).Hence the parallels, and why I thought you of all of us might be better-positioned to comment on my idea. I should point out that I didn’t exactly put a ton of thought into this idea; it was a pretty light-hearted, spur-of-the-moment comment. But I must confess the more I think about it, the more I’d be curious to see if an idea like that could actually work.

  24. Samuel J. Scott

    Copy Editor:Yes, you’re right. Correspondents and freelancers run the gamut from college students to experienced journalists.But my point was that major mainstream newspapers will likely use more freelancers than staffers because freelancers are cheaper. Freelancers are paid less, and you don’t have to give them benefits. Et cetera.In this era of cost-cutting, it makes practical sense. But it doesn’t bode well for people currently in journalism school, nor for journalism in general.

  25. Dan Kennedy

    Aaron –I misinterpreted your original inquiry. Let me attempt a response.First, I’m teaching at Northeastern, which has a unique mission: cooperative education. The idea is to hook students up with paid internships. Lo these many years ago, I was a Northeastern co-op student at the Woonsocket (R.I.) Call — for a total of 15 months, in fact. It was an absolutely terrific experience. And I think it’s far better to leave the warmth of the university for a job in the real world than it is to intern in what would essentially be another academic environment.Still, given the perilous state in which newspapers find themselves, the idea of some sort of nonprofit entity stepping up is intriguing. Consider the Christian Science Monitor. If the Mother Church were not itself in dire straits, that kind of subsidization could be an ideal model. Newspapers are very expensive propositions, however; and having a non-profit entity such as a college or university buying a for-profit entity is always problematic.Consider, too, that in Boston, both dailies are union shops. Union officials, understandably, are wary about the prospect of unpaid or low-paid students doing work that could be done by Guild reporters and editors. The union does not go away just because a university has bought the paper.Nevertheless, this is worth thinking about, if only because the for-profit model may not be able to sustain newspapers as we have come to know them. The way public radio operates is something we all ought to be thinking about. (The amount of government money public radio receives is trivial, so that’s not an issue, either.) And, of course, public radio could not survive without the support of colleges and universities.So there you go.

  26. neil

    Slate and Salon are worth a mention too. Like the Monitor, Slate is subsidized. Microsoft is healthier than the Mother Church of course. Or anybody else for that matter. I think Microsoft only cares that Slate doesn’t lose too much money. They do have ads but the site isn’t smothered in them. Slate has a great crew of writers though they do more analysis and commentary than grunt-level journalism. As for a union, ha. As I think DK said Slate has the influence that TNR once had and in fact has some of TNR’s ex-writers like Wright and Kaus and even Kinsley’s back. And no obnoxious Peretz. This model can only sustain as long as the company is so massive and profitable that the cost of such a site is trivial to them. How many corporations can do that?Salon may be closer to what the papers are considering. It has a pay-or-watch-ads model to see its content. I am loathe to pay so click on the ad every day, then park the ad window in a corner of my right-hand monitor and consciously avoid it till it’s done. They know people do this so make the ad interactive forcing you to look at it to click your way through it. I don’t look at Salon much anymore because that’s too obnoxious. As long as there’s quality content such as at Slate a click away there is little reason to put up with pay sites. The Harvard Sq news kiosk is on your desktop and you can read most of its content for free. There’s no point any more in relying on the Globe for world or national coverage. And it’s weak on regional and metro due to its own layoffs! I’m still working up the gumption to cancel my Globe subscription. It’s not easy. My God, I remember reading Mutt and Jeff in the Globe in 1960. That ten minutes at the breakfast table with the paper and my coffee still has its hold, though it’s weakening.

  27. Dan Kennedy

    Neil –Slate was purchased by the Washington Post Co. about 15 months ago. When I reported on this, Slate was said to be a break-even proposition — no subsidy, but no real profits, either.

  28. Aaron Read

    Thanks very much for your thoughts, Dan. I was hoping you’d give a nod to my bread-n-butter: public radio. :-)I had forgotten about the unions, though…that’s a good point. Can’t say exactly how that’d all play out, although I can speculate that if Boston University bought the Globe lock-stock-and-barrel, the first thing they’d do is break the union’s backs and flush ’em out the door. Well, I suppose if there’s enough Silber loyalists at BU they would. In doing so, they’d make the paper far more cost-efficient, but they’d probably destroy the entire base of talent in the process.Speaking of public radio, there’s a lot of rumblings in that world as well…mostly due to the issue that NPR survives off huge carriage fees charged to the affiliate stations. But for NPR to position itself to survive in the long term, it must also provide content in a manner that is anathema to those affiliate stations, such to to Sirius/XM satellite radio and to free podcasts. They’ve been talking about it at Current and John Sutton has been blogging about it lately, too.

  29. Neil

    Dan I was going to say that I couldn’t detect any pro-Microsoft bias at Slate–no wonder. 🙂 So even the most successful sites of this ilk only break even. And not only do they not have unions, but they don’t have many employees at all because they don’t have to generate a physical product. Though you’d think free of that burden there’d be some money available to invest in the actual scribblage.I wonder how many people Salon and Slate employ, with benefits and the like, compared to the Globe or Herald. Maybe say, 5% ?Before the web the redundancy of most of the content in the different papers wasn’t obvious. Now, why should you pay for a local paper that’s only printing AP news anyway. If Salon and Slate which are about the best there are can only break even, then the papers are screwed. I don’t need print anymore to keep up with the news. On the other hand if I can’t hold it in my hand and use it to line the bottom of the birdcage, I don’t feel like paying for it. The content, minus the physical medium, feels…too intangible 🙂 to pay for. Sorry to be restating the obvious conundrum at such length. I’m…processing the revolution…And about NPR and what Aaron was saying–the ‘BUR fundraiser is going on. Phooey on their hard sell. ‘BUR already has so many interruptions by the “brottya bys” it’s nearly commercial radio as it is. Their motto should be Tom “very briefly please, our time is short” Ashbrook’s. I have the same problem paying for that content too. Sounds like they already have enough goddam sponsors, I hear about them every three minutes.These info businesses needs some sugardaddy, because the world won’t pay for what they’re selling, anymore.

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