Dropping the paper in order to save it

Maybe I’m part of the solution after all.

Media Nation has learned that the Sunday-versus-weekday revenue split at the Boston Globe may be more dramatic than I had previously heard. In 2008, the Monday-through-Friday editions brought in $113 million. The Saturday and Sunday papers’ take was $259 million — just a shade under 70 percent of the total.

I don’t have separate numbers for the Sunday paper alone. But, traditionally, Saturday papers are the smallest and least lucrative of the week, which means that the Sunday Globe accounts for the overwhelming majority of those weekend revenues. Several days ago, I wrote that the Sunday Globe was thought to account for 60 percent of revenues; it now appears that figure might have been low.

Given that, it makes sense for the Globe to push electronic distribution for its weekday papers as long as it’s done with an eye toward preserving the Sunday print edition. If the Globe could save on printing and distribution costs and entice weekday advertisers into the Sunday edition, its revenues might drop, but its profit margin could rise. (Or, since this is a newspaper we’re talking about, rematerialize.)

Also this morning, a couple of tidbits on the New York Times Co.’s efforts to sell the Globe:

• A bid by former Globe executive Stephen Taylor, a member of the family who sold the paper to the Times Co. in 1993, may be facing some obstacles. Word is that the group is still trying to line up investors. Not that those investors won’t be found, but it doesn’t sound like Taylor is ready to write a check just yet.

I also hear that the San Diego-based Platinum Equity group may be losing its ardor for the deal — which puts Taylor in a strong position if he can come up with the money. People are buzzing about the addition of former Globe publisher Ben Taylor (a cousin of Stephen’s) and longtime Boston journalist Mary McGrath to the Taylor group. But they’ve got to find the dough.

Given that the Taylors sold the Globe for $1.1 billion, and that they are now trying to buy it back (along with the Worcester Telegram & Gazette) for a mere fraction of that, you’d think money wouldn’t be a problem.

But the $1.1 billion was split among many, many members of the Taylor family. And investors these days aren’t exactly clamoring to get into the newspaper business.

• On the other hand, Poynter Institute media-business analyst Rick Edmonds writes that recent statements from the Times Co. suggesting it might hold onto the Globe are, in all likelihood, so much malarkey (via Ralph Ranalli at BeatthePress.org).

The reason: the Times Co. needs to take a loss by the end of 2009 in order to offset capital gains it’s realized by selling off other properties. In addition, Edmonds says:

I don’t think taxes alone would impel a sale. The Times Co. may also fear getting stuck with another round of operating losses (or find itself forced to lay off more employees, with renewed labor upheaval). Also, the company may have worn out its welcome both inside the paper and with Bostonians, who would welcome a Taylor family restoration.

As Ranalli notes, Edmonds is the guy who cracked the code earlier this year in explaining the Times Co.’s claim that the Globe was on track to lose $85 million. According to Edmonds’ analysis, though that number was real, the paper’s actual cash operating loss for 2009 would probably be around $20 million. All of a sudden, the Times Co.’s demand for $20 million in union concessions made sense.

When Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. told Globe employees in August that the paper’s finances had improved and the company was in no hurry to sell, it struck me mainly as a ploy to drive up the price. Edmonds’ latest fits right in with that.

Photo (cc) by Tony the Misfit and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.


Thinking about the post-newspaper era

Paul Starr
Paul Starr

Princeton University scholar Paul Starr, author of “The Creation of the Media” (2004) as well as a provocative essay in The New Republic earlier this year titled “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption),” will speak at Suffolk Law School next Thursday, Oct. 1.

Delivering responses to Starr’s remarks will be Boston Globe editor Marty Baron and me.

Sponsored by the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service and the Ford Hall Forum, the event will take place from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in Suffolk University’s Moot Court Room, at 120 Tremont St.

Admission is free, but you do need to sign up in advance. You can simply e-mail an RSVP to Senka Huskic at shuskic {at} suffolk {dot} edu. (Change {at} and {dot} to create a normal-looking e-mail address.)

Hope to see you there.

More on the paperless Globe

In my latest for the Guardian, I flesh out my thoughts on cutting back home delivery of the Boston Globe to Sundays only and using GlobeReader on other days.

Clay Shirky’s bracing dystopianism

Clay Shirky (left) and Alex Jones. At far right is Peter Kadzis, executive editor of the Phoenix newspapers.
Clay Shirky (left) and Alex Jones at the Shorenstein Center. (Click for larger image.)

This past March, the author and media futurist Clay Shirky wrote a provocative blog post that encapsulated and defined the dilemma facing professional journalism, and especially the newspaper business: On the one hand, civil society as we know it would be much the poorer without newspapers. On the other hand, there’s probably nothing that can be done to save them.

Earlier today Shirky, intense, bald and bespectacled, turned up at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center to expound on his views. And though he made it clear that he is no utopian (or even much of an optimist), he nevertheless laid out some directions that ought to be pursued in order to preserve “accountability journalism” — a phrase that encompasses investigative reporting, public-interest journalism and other expensive undertakings that require long, hard labor with no guarantee of the result.

From the rise of the penny press in the 1830s until just a few years ago, Shirky said, accountability journalism was financed by commercial interests whose advertising options were both limited and expensive. The insurmountable challenge facing newspapers today, he added, is that the Internet has freed advertisers from having to subsidize such public goods as, say, a Baghdad bureau, or an investigation into local corruption.

“It may be that we’re seeing advertising priced at its real value for the first time in history,” Shirky said — and that value, he added, is a “tiny fraction” of what newspapers traditionally charged.

With newspapers supplying about 85 percent of accountability journalism, Shirky said that what we need are a large number of small experiments to try to make up some of the gap. He divided those experiments into three parts:

  • Commercial: The traditional advertising model for newspapers, magazines and broadcasters.
  • Public: News organizations funded by money unconnected to commerce, the prime examples being public radio and non-profit news sites.
  • Social: Journalism produced mainly through donated time, including certain pro/am crowdsourcing initiatives such as Off the Bus, a citizen-journalism project that covered the 2008 presidential campaign for the Huffington Post.

“No one is smart enough to get it right, which is why we need a lot of experimentation,” Shirky said.

Even with that experimentation, he added, the ongoing shrinkage of newspapers is likely to create a “giant hole” that will not be filled for some time. He said he has a vision of communities of 10,000 people or fewer becoming rife with “casual endemic corruption,” as newspapers are no longer able to fulfill their traditional watchdog roles.

Nor does Shirky see any good coming out of proposals to charge for online content, thus making it more difficult for readers to share important journalism. Shirky noted that the reason the Boston Globe’s reporting on sexual abuse within the Catholic Church several years ago had so much more resonance than did similar reporting a decade earlier was that the Internet enabled readers to forward stories and turn a regional scandal into a matter of national and international concern.

Indeed, Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones pointed out the Boston Phoenix had already broken parts of the story before the Globe began its work. The difference, Jones said, was that the Globe had a superior platform that enabled it to become part of the Internet conversation.

So what does Shirky have to offer for those of us trying to make sense of the newspaper crisis? Certainly not much in the way of new information. His now-famous blog post is essentially a summary of what many people have been saying for the past decade.

But Shirky has a way of synthesizing that information into a coherent whole that is at once bleak and bracing. He’s right to say that newspapers will continue to shrink, though surely the best of them will continue in some form, with a limited mission and published mostly or entirely online.

And he’s also right to say that, no, newspapers really can’t be replaced. When you think through the dilemma on his terms, it’s clear why that can’t happen — never again will commercial enterprises be compelled through scarcity to subsidize journalism at a high cost and at little benefit to them.

More than anything, though, he’s right that we have to try. It won’t be one big thing; it will be many little things. We’ll fall short. But it’s better than doing nothing. And the challenge couldn’t be more exciting or important.

More: Ethan Zuckerman covers Shirky’s talk here.

WGBH gets radio active

wgbhlogo_20090921Now that the dust is beginning to settle, it’s clear that something very interesting is afoot with WGBH’s acquisition of WCRB Radio (99.5 FM): WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) is going to be repositioned as primarily a news and public-affairs station, with its classical-music programming shifting to WCRB.

The move puts WGBH in direct competition with WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), long the city’s public radio powerhouse when it comes to news. And it’s not like ‘BUR has showed any signs of weakness recently. By all appearances, the station is doing well, both on air and on the Web.

But WGBH has a more powerful signal than WBUR, which means that many listeners in Boston’s exurbs have always been stuck with ‘GBH’s limited news line-up rather than ‘BUR. That gives ‘GBH an opportunity to make a real impact. (Disclosure: I am a paid contributor to WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press.”)

I do have one piece of advice for WGBH: add a daily, two-hour local interview and talk show to the mix — something WBUR, good as it is, lacks. Yes, “Radio Boston” is excellent, but one hour a week? Local talk shows are a staple of public radio, from small stations all the way up to WNYC in New York. Boston should have one, too.

Over at WGBH’s “Beat the Press” blog, Ralph Ranalli has more, including a quote from WBUR general manager Paul La Camera. “In terms of competing on the news front, I have every confidence WBUR is going to maintain its position as the dominant NPR news station in the market,” La Camera says.

On WGBH’s “Greater Boston” this evening, WGBH Educational Foundation executive vice president Ben Godley, veteran radio and advertising executive Bruce Mittman and I talked about the acquisition with host Emily Rooney.

The Boston Globe covers the story here, and the Boston Herald here.

WGBH acquires WCRB Radio

This press release literally just came in. I’ll be talking about it tonight at 7 p.m. on “Greater Boston” (WGBH-TV, Channel 2). The full text of the release follows.

Public service broadcaster WGBH today announced plans to acquire New England’s leading all-classical music station WCRB 99.5fm from Nassau Broadcasting Partners of New Jersey. The terms of the agreement have not been disclosed pending filing with the FCC.

WCRB is a 27,000-watt station, deeply rooted in the Boston region, serving audiences for more than 60 years with a broad reach in New England, drawing some 340,000 loyal listeners each week. WGBH is uniquely poised to operate WCRB, with its extensive classical music programming experience, its state-of-the-art Fraser Performance Studio, and its strong alliance with Boston’s premier classical performing organizations, artists and audiences. With WCRB added to WGBH’s radio services — 89.7FM in Boston, and WCAI and WNCK on the Cape and Islands — WGBH will serve listeners from Cape Cod to New Hampshire, adding renewed vigor to the cultural economy of the region.

“An opportunity like this comes along once in a lifetime. The acquisition of WCRB by WGBH signals a new era for the Boston broadcast landscape, and for our city’s renowned classical music tradition,” said WGBH Board Chair Amos Hostetter. “WGBH’s depth of experience, demonstrated leadership in radio, and commitment to excellence will bring a new level of service to this market.”

“From its very first broadcast, WGBH radio has provided audiences with the best in classical music and performance. Today we are excited to reinvest in this tradition for a new generation of listeners,” said WGBH President and CEO Jonathan Abbott. “The acquisition of WCRB will allow WGBH to sustain the vibrant classical music tradition of the Boston area.”

WGBH will finance the purchase with a special capital campaign, Keep Classical Alive, inviting both major donors and grassroots supporters to participate and become founding members of its all-classical service. Although WCRB is licensed as a commercial frequency, WGBH plans to operate the station as a non-commercial service in keeping with its mission to provide public media service for audiences in the greater Boston area. Over the coming months WGBH will fine-tune the formats of both WGBH 89.7 and WCRB 99.5 to create lineups that are complementary.

“Preserving WCRB’s heritage as one of the country’s premiere classical radio stations was an important objective for Nassau. We are extremely pleased that WGBH will be continuing this heritage and are confident in their future stewardship of such an important Boston tradition,” said Lou Mercatanti, Chairman and President of Nassau. “This is a win for everyone — most especially our loyal listeners.”

Since the 1950s WGBH has taken advantage of Boston’s vital classical music tradition. From its debut broadcast from Symphony Hall in 1951, classical music and performance have been a hallmark of WGBH’s service, featuring the region’s world-class orchestras, artists and conservatories. It has partnered with music organizations both large and small, from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Handel & Haydn Society, to the New England String Ensemble and the Boston Children’s Chorus. It has nurtured young musicians with school enrichment programs, and helped launch emerging artists.

“This is a truly exciting development. Classical music is part of our common world heritage, and as such it is in the public interest for an institution like WGBH to make sure our voices are sustained and celebrated,” said cellist Yo-Yo Ma. “As both a performer and a listener I applaud WGBH for making this significant investment in our community to ensure that the classical music genre will remain alive and well on Boston radio.”

“This is great news for music and arts education,” said Linda Nathan, co-headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy. “Keeping classical music vibrant is an extremely important resource to enhance learning. WGBH’s new service will further enrich the educational experience for students of all ages.”

“For more than 50 years WGBH and the Boston Symphony Orchestra have partnered to further the cause of classical music in Boston and beyond,” said BSO managing director Mark Volpe. “With facilities that provide unmatched technical excellence for recording and broadcasting live performance, WGBH is uniquely positioned to bring heightened awareness of the beauty and power of classical music. All of us at the BSO are excited by the possibilities resulting from WGBH’s acquisition of WCRB.”

In addition to live radio broadcasts, WGBH has been a pioneer in moving classical music onto new platforms, with live streaming, an all-classical HD channel, podcasts and mobile applications. The acquisition of WCRB will greatly enhance these efforts to serve new audiences on a broad array of distribution platforms in New England and beyond.

WGBH was represented in the transaction by Public Radio Capital.

The Taylor group gets two boosts

The Stephen Taylor-led group that’s seeking to buy the Boston Globe from the New York Times Co. is getting more interesting by the day.

Last week the Globe reported that the group includes Mary McGrath, who’s best-known for producing two Christopher Lydon-hosted shows on public radio, “The Connection” and “Open Source,” and who is a formidable journalist in her own right.

She also hails from a legendary family of journalists that includes her brother Charles “Chip” McGrath, a staff writer for the New York Times; her brother Jim McGrath, an editorial writer for the Albany Times Union; and her nephew Ben McGrath, a staff writer for the New Yorker.

On Saturday the Globe revealed that Stephen Taylor, a former high-level executive at the Globe, has been joined by his cousin Ben Taylor, a former Globe publisher who was removed by the Times Co. in 1999. (The Taylors sold the Globe to the Times Co. in 1993.)

Is it OK to start feeling optimistic?