Working harder isn’t going to do it once the Boston Globe has finished with its current round of 50 reductions to the newsroom staff. Once that process has been completed, the news staff will have shrunk from about 550 full-time journalists (or their equivalent) in 2000 to roughly 330. That means the Globe will, of necessity, be a fundamentally different paper.
This Friday, I’m going to be talking about the future of local news on “Radio Boston,” on WBUR (90.9 FM), from 1 to 2 p.m., along with El Planeta managing editor Marcela García, Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub and Globe regional editor David Dahl. I’ve been thinking about these ideas for a while, and this seems like as good a time as any to put them out there. (The Globe cuts will also be discussed on “Beat the Press,” on WGBH-TV/Channel 2, on Friday at 7 p.m.)
As the newspaper business has shrunk over the past few years, Globe executives have made some tough decisions about priorities. There are no more international bureaus. There is little national coverage outside of Washington. The Washington bureau has stayed, in part because Boston remains a politically minded town, in part because the Globe’s Washington coverage is picked up by a lot of news Web sites around the country. Essentially, though, the Globe has become a local and regional paper.
Now, though, it would appear that the Globe won’t even be able to cover local news as thoroughly without fundamentally rethinking how it should go about its business.
Like just about every news junkie, I have some thoughts — nothing original, and nothing, I’m sure, that editor Marty Baron, Boston.com editor David Beard, Globe managing editor Caleb Solomon, publisher Steve Ainsley and company haven’t already considered. The crisis is ongoing, and it won’t be solved by cutting 50 positions.
The question of whether the Globe is worth $20 million or $200 million, and if it is among the 10 most likely papers to close or drop its print edition (see Douglas McIntyre’s latest), is irrelevant. The survival of every large regional paper in the country is at stake right now.
1. Re-define Boston.com as the Globe’s principal news vehicle. This is tricky. With 5.2 million unique visitors a month, Boston.com has more readers than any online regional newspaper, far outperforming its print edition in the national rankings. So, yes, first, do no harm. But Boston.com needs to be branded as the umbrella for all of the Globe’s readers — the only platform that reaches what we used to call a mass audience.
Nevertheless, there’s a visual dichotomy between Boston.com and the Globe’s own online presence that helps neither entity. It goes back to the earliest days of the Web, when Boston.com had a number of partners, including Boston magazine, Banker & Tradesman and New England Cable News. These days, Boston.com is like Yugoslavia — a former federation now consisting of just one country, the Globe.
The problem with Boston.com is that you enter it not quite knowing whether you are going to encounter all of the Globe’s content. Despite several redesigns over the years, it remains too easy to get lost, too. Because of efforts to establish Boston.com as being separate from the Globe, it has a feel that might charitably be described as lite. I would redo the site so that it is clearly stamped as the Globe’s 24/7 news operation, very much along the lines of the New York Times and Washington Post Web sites.
Next, I would take it a step further than most newspaper sites have been willing to do. Though I would include all (or most — see next item) of the Globe’s content on Boston.com, I would drop the “Today’s Paper” feature. It’s fine and probably necessary to post the Globe’s content on its free Web site. Recent proposals by the likes of Walter Isaacson, Steven Brill and Alan Mutter to charge for online content are well-intentioned but deeply flawed.
But that doesn’t mean Boston.com ought to offer the Globe in a form that’s organized exactly the same way as the print edition. Why should the Globe — or the Times or the Post or anyone else — offer a perfect substitute? The Boston Herald, by the way, is already doing this, running a 24/7 news site that is entirely unconnected to its print edition.
Last fall I had a chance to interview John Yemma, the editor of the Christian Science Monitor (and a former Globe staff member). As you no doubt know, next month the Monitor will end its daily print edition. [Update: In fact, it has already printed its final edition.] Instead, it will supplement its own 24/7 Web site with a weekly magazine. All of the magazine’s content will be posted on the Web site — but it will be distributed among different content and subject areas. The magazine itself will not be posted as a separate and distinct entity.
“We’re going to disaggregate the print edition and feed it to the appropriate places,” Yemma said.
Not a bad idea.
2. Charge a lot more for the print edition. The Globe still sells almost 325,000 papers on weekdays and 500,000 on Sundays. That’s a lot of papers, even though it’s a far cry from the more than 500,000 it used to sell on weekdays and the 800,000-plus it sold on Sundays.
If the advertising market hadn’t changed so completely, the picture wouldn’t be nearly so dire. But it’s simply a fact of life that Craigslist has devastated the classified market, formerly the most lucrative part of the Globe.
OK, now take a deep breath. I would charge $2 for the daily edition (up from 75 cents) and $5 on Sunday (up from $2.50). What effect would such an increase have on circulation? A rather large one, I suspect. But given that the print edition of any newspaper is a break-even proposition (at best) because of the cost of paper, ink, distribution and the like, it makes sense to extract some serious revenue out of readers who really want a print edition in the morning.
Customers willing to pay such a price would be an elite audience especially attractive to advertisers. (The danger that editors would have to avoid is the temptation to tailor their coverage accordingly.) And the Globe would actually be making money from its print edition.
The problem with such an idea, of course, is that you’d be asking people to pay a lot more money at a time when the paper is thinner than it’s ever been. The challenge is to offer extra value. I don’t have any good answers to that. Perhaps there is some content that would be reserved exclusively for print readers.
The metro columnists? Probably not. How about a really well-edited, analytical daily briefing on world, national and local news that would take up all of an ad-free pages two and three? It would have to be sufficiently meaty that it would take 10 or 15 minutes to get through it, and leave readers feeling as though they didn’t absolutely have to read the rest of the paper. That would be a real service to time-starved folks who are serious about news.
The extra value doesn’t have to be only related to content. Subscribers would receive a Globe card, just like a public television contributor card. Cooperating businesses could offer discounts to cardholders. Free admission could be offered to certain Globe-sponsored events. This would represent an expansion of current efforts rather than something entirely new.
3. Blog what you can’t cover. As Jeff Jarvis likes to say, “Cover what you do best. Link to the rest.” Given that there are going to be fewer local reporters on the Globe’s staff, I would hire about a half-dozen bloggers to offer intelligent aggregation of local blogs covering politics, food, sports, city life — what have you. You could then take the highlights and reverse-publish them in the print edition.
I want to draw a distinction between the bloggers you’d hire, who would be paid, and the bloggers whose work would be aggregated, who wouldn’t be paid. Some of the aggregatees wouldn’t want to be included, which is fine. Most would be thrilled. I’m always happy to see Media Nation featured on Boston.com or in the VoxOp column on the op-ed page.
And by the way, I’m talking about paid bloggers who would offer judgment, commentary and context — not the automated aggregation of local content that got the Globe into trouble earlier this year. It wouldn’t be as cheap, but it would be a crucial investment in the future.
4. Do something about the Metro dilemma. Why on earth did the Globe’s corporate parent, the New York Times Co., buy 49 percent of Metro Boston a few years ago? It was just enough deny it the control that it needs.
I would do everything I could to capture a controlling interest in Metro — or, failing that, start a competitor. I’d keep it as a freebie tabloid and continue aiming it at younger readers and subway and bus riders. Then I would fill it exclusively with shorter versions of Globe stories and use it relentlessly to promote Boston.com and the full-scale print edition.
There’s money to be made in free newspapers. In fact, let’s keep going with that idea.
5. Develop a variety of free, advertiser-supported publications. Last year the Globe repackaged all of its arts, entertainment and lifestyle coverage in a daily tabloid called g. Whether you like g or not (departing literary-beat reporter David Mehegan gives it a thumbs-down), it does present the Globe with an opportunity to do something different — give it away in places where people who are looking for something to do would be likely to pick it up.
The Globe folded its paid sports magazine, OT, in a matter of months. It should have tried free distribution at sporting events. As with g, I think advertisers would have been attracted to such a publication if the Globe had found a way to get it into the hands of sports fans.
I have no idea whether it’s considered a success, but the Globe is already doing something like this with Lola, a giveaway aimed at women. Snicker if you like. But in an era when there is no longer any such thing as a mass audience, a newspaper must target many different audiences.
Would these ideas save the Globe? I don’t know, but I think they’re worth trying. The other ideas that are floating around — going online-only, or putting out a print edition just three or four days a week — are a lot more drastic, and would represent a continuing downward spiral rather than a new beginning.
Not to sound old-fashioned, but I believe that a healthy Globe is vital to the civic life of the community. You often hear people ask whether Boston will remain “a two-newspaper town,” a reference to the Globe and the Herald. I think that’s looking at it the wrong way.
The fact is that the Globe, even in its shrunken state, remains the dominant regional media organization. There are a number of other important news outlets — not just the Herald, but the Boston Phoenix, WBUR, New England Cable News, local television stations and community papers. In other words, there’s the Globe, and there’s everyone else.
The Globe and other large metropolitan dailies will never be restored. They can, I hope, be reconceived.
As always, I invite your comments.