Globe seeks buyouts as it extends digital push

The Boston Globe is once again seeking buyouts, even as it ramps up to launch its life-sciences vertical, Stat, later this year. Editor Brian McGrory lays out the rationale in a memo to the staff, and warns that layoffs may follow if the unspecified goal isn’t reached. (Romenesko beat me, as I was on the road most of Wednesday.)

There’s a lot to chew over here, but let me make one observation. McGrory writes:

We’re proposing a new job category of “multiplatform editor,” someone who can copy edit, post to the web, and design web pages, morning through night. Some editors and producers will roll into that category quickly, but we expect all copy editors and layout/makeup/slot editors to take on significant web responsibilities in the very near future.

No one without these skills should have been hired after, oh, let’s say 2003. Yet here we are in 2015, and the Globe — as well as the newspaper business in general — are still wrestling with these issues. Though the copy-editing is bound to deteriorate to some extent, as McGrory himself acknowledges (“most stories will get fewer reads”), I see this mainly as a sign of how difficult it is to turn around a battleship such as a major metropolitan newspaper.

Here’s the full memo.

Dear colleagues,

In the worst kept secrets category, the Globe is launching another buyout program next week, this one specific to the newsroom. Similar to last year’s, we’ll use it as an opportunity to direct more resources to digital, a vital undertaking. Different than last year, it will also help us cut costs as we continue our transformation into a predominantly digital, subscriber-based news operation that will thrive for many years to come. If we fail in our savings goal through buyouts, we’ll be faced with the difficult prospect of layoffs in September.

Everyone in the newsroom will receive a buyout letter as early as next week. There’ll be nothing terribly fancy about the math. It’s two weeks for every year of service – the same as severance. I think the following line is on the save/get key of every editor in America: This may be the last buyout we offer. At some point, good or bad, that statement will be true.

Over the coming weeks, the plan is to focus change, in part, on the production end of the newsroom, including our copy editing, page layout, and web production functions. We’re proposing a new job category of “multiplatform editor,” someone who can copy edit, post to the web, and design web pages, morning through night. Some editors and producers will roll into that category quickly, but we expect all copy editors and layout/makeup/slot editors to take on significant web responsibilities in the very near future.

Our copy and layout desks have served this organization exceptionally well over many, many years. Every reporter and line editor at the Globe can point at specific instances where eagle-eyed desk editors have spared us from unspeakable embarrassment. Night after night, the desk improves our copy and makes the paper gleam. The issue, though, is that we can’t afford the kind of print-centric copy editing operation that we have maintained for too long. We can’t afford it financially, and we can’t afford what it does to our larger enterprise, which is to implicitly put an undue focus on print when we’re otherwise making such significant strides emphasizing digital.

So what does it mean, practically? Details are being worked out, but it will mean a streamlined copy editing operation. It will mean that most stories will get fewer reads, placing more responsibility on reporters and line editors to make sure they’re in good shape. It means that rather than a copy desk, we will have a multiplatform production desk where stories are copy edited, posted on line, perhaps placed in the social stream, and later set on pages for print. The Sports desk is already doing this. Now we need to bring it to the Universal and Features desks.

Since we spoke about our digital ambitions in April [see this], progress has been steady. We’re up about 15 percent in page views from this time last year, when we had a record-breaking summer. We’re posting far more stories far earlier in the day, including hefty enterprise stories slated for the next day’s print front page. Our digital first reporters have made a deep and meaningful mark in terms of tone, speed, and quality. Our newsletters in sports and politics are uncommonly well done and popular. And in truth, ever more reporters and editors are seeing themselves as digital first, which is exactly as it should be. This talented newsroom needs to focus even more on the journalism, not the platform. Readers will consume us in whatever form they choose.

But we need to do more. We need to be crisper in our execution of stories. We need to continue to hire more reporters and graphic artists who are native to the web. We need to go department by department, looking to redirect our talent and focus to digital – meaning that jobs will likely change in the coming weeks and months. We need to further break the long-held rhythms of a print operation. We need to be more thoughtful and structured in how we roll out our enterprise, our most widely read work. On that last point, [BostonGlobe.com editor] Jason Tuohey has developed a release schedule that will help guide us every day, dictating when enterprise is put online and in the social stream to maximize readership. Jason and [managing editor for digital] David Skok will be meeting soon with department heads and web editors to elaborate.

Amid this transition, the realities of the industry dictate that more cuts be made, and we’re looking around the newsroom and across the company, always with an eye to protect our journalism. We’ve frozen most open positions, though not all, throughout the building. There have already been layoffs in other parts of the building, and those will continue. We’re looking at some modest page reductions in the newsroom. We’re cutting back on freelance spending, which the page reductions will make easier.

All of this is an effort not only to live within our means, but to create a sustainable news organization, one that depends far more on digital subscriptions, where revenue is rising, than on print advertising, where our industry faces inexorable declines. In this effort, we are well positioned for success. The company has no debt. We have no pension obligations, which were left with the New York Times. We don’t have an owner looking to ratchet up margins. We have an innovative spirit. We have a deep, deep reservoir of talent and ambition. We’re simply looking to turn a modest profit, which the ownership will then invest in the enterprise.

On so many fronts here, we’ve already seen significant progress. Print circulation has been largely stable, with nominal declines. In terms of digital circulation, we have more subscribers than any other news organization outside of New York – and those readers are paying more money for a subscription than any other place besides the Times or Wall Street Journal. The site reads and looks terrific, with an increasing emphasis on web-only graphics and stories, work that thrives in the moment and is geared to our online readership.

For that matter, your work in the paper has been equally compelling. In fact, many of our investments have paid off, not in jackpot fashion, but in upward movement. The standalone Business section has been a major hit with readers and advertisers. The premium Sunday magazines are leading to a major revenue increase from last year. Some big-ticket advertisers are pushing to bring Capital back to a freestanding section in September, which we’ll likely do. Sunday Travel and Address are two absurdly readable sections that have succeeded in stemming declines or are seeing category increases. Sunday Arts is a source of weekly pride and reader enjoyment. For the first time, regional and national brands are partnering with us in novel, cross-platform advertising campaigns that include event sponsorships.

And then there’s the daily journalism – accountability reporting, narrative writing, elaborate beat reporting, stories that inform and entertain. We have set the agenda with our even-handed yet penetrating coverage of the Olympics bid, from birth to this week’s death. Nobody’s been better at chronicling the downfall of the Red Sox and the meaning of Deflategate. Nobody has more accessible and insightful critics. Our DC bureau has reported and written like a dream, from Vienna to Iowa. Our Tsarnaev trial coverage caught the attention of the world. Exceptional online presentations and graphics, from Pedro Martinez to the impact of global warming on the Arctic Ocean, are becoming wonderfully commonplace. The list could go on. Which is to say, again, the business model for journalism may be broken, but the journalism, specifically your journalism, is not.

Change is exciting, but the nasty sibling of change is uncertainty, and that can be scary as hell. Please remember that this newsroom has accomplished extraordinary journalism in the face of enormous uncertainty for many years running. We’ve been threatened with closure. We’ve been twice put up for sale – before fortunately landing with a deeply committed owner. We, like everyone else, have seen significant staff reductions. And through it all, you’ve created cutting edge and thriving websites. You’ve won Pulitzer Prizes and every other award under the sun. You produce one of the most thoughtful and provocative daily reports in the nation. The next couple of months will carry another dose of pain, again in the departure of prized colleagues. But please don’t doubt that we’ll emerge as a healthy and forward-looking enterprise, primed for continued excellence.

I’ll be in the Winship Room next Tuesday at 11, 2, and 6 to hear your thoughts and take your questions. I’m of course available any time before then; just reach out. Meantime, thanks as always for all you do.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

7 thoughts on “Globe seeks buyouts as it extends digital push

  1. Robert Knilands

    This memo is a microcosm of the tragedy newspapers have become. So now we need to make catching mistakes sound like a bad thing?

    Also, I would be curious to know how the paper defines the “design (of) Web pages.” Will the paper provide specs, standards, and training as necessary? Or will it simply wait until the pages go live and then point out things that “should have been done”? I guess that would make a little more sense than when the same strategy was employed for print because you could actually go in and update the pages, but if saving time is the goal, that would seem to be as wasteful as page critiques were.

    But I guess the AMEs who provide nothing in the way of journalism need something to do, so the critiques must go on.

  2. tobe berkovitz

    This is the newspaper algorithm. Cut back on editing (and pretty much everything else) and charge more for digital subscriptions.

  3. Roberta Hirshson

    Roberta Star Hirshson
    Dan, do you know if the site is still going to look like a real newspaper? I just forked over $500 for a 2 year subscription. Today I noticed that Alex Beam’s column was nothing but a cartoon. Talk about dumbing down!

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      I’m not sure what you mean, @Roberta. The website doesn’t look anything like a print newspaper, and never has. There is a section of the website, the ePaper, where you can look at a replica of the print edition. And the iOS app, which I wrote about recently, looks like the print edition. But that’s not the website.

      1. roberta Hirshson

        Roberta Star Hirshson
        My misnomer, Dan. What I called a website is the print edition replica. Do you think they will continue to have a print edition at all?

      2. Dan Kennedy Post author

        Got it, @Roberta. I suspect most newspapers will have print editions for a long time to come, since they can charge a premium and attract a shrinking but still-lucrative audience. Another possibility is that they’ll get rid of weekday print but continue with the Sunday paper, since that’s where all the ads are.

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