Globe editor McGrory: It’s time to rethink everything we do

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Brian McGrory. Photo (cc) by the Newton Free Library.

A copy of Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory’s latest newsroom memo just wafted through an open window here at Media Nation. And it’s a doozy—an invitation to rethink how the Globe newsroom does just about everything, from the way beats are structured, to how many days the paper should appear in print, to how best to use technology.

“To help shape the discussion,” McGrory writes, “consider this question: If a wealthy individual was to give us funding to launch a news organization designed to take on The Boston Globe, what would it look like?” Needless to say, the Globe itself is already owned by a wealthy individual—John Henry, a financier who is the principal owner of the Red Sox.

Last fall I asked McGrory if the redesigned, thinner Saturday print edition was a prelude to cutting back on the number of print days. At that time he said no, but added, “We’re constantly thinking and rethinking this stuff.” Many newspaper industry observers believe it’s inevitable that daily papers will eventually move to a weekend print edition—where most of the advertising appears—supplemented by digital the rest of the week.

The conversation is being facilitated by three outside consultants, Tom Rosenstiel and Jeff Sonderman of the American Press Institute and Marty Kaiser, the former editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

So let’s get right to it:

Hey all,

It’s time to bring everyone up to date on a series of conversations I’ve initiated among senior editors over the past couple of months, conversations intended to lay the groundwork for a no-sacred-cows analysis of our newsroom and what the Globe should look like in the future. It’s also time to get the room fully involved in the process.

You know it as I know it: The Globe, like every other major legacy news organization, has faced what have proven to be irreversible revenue declines. The revenue funds our journalism. The declines have mandated significant cuts over the past dozen years.

There’s far too much good that goes on at this organization on a moment-by-moment basis to allow ourselves to be consumed by what’s wrong with the industry. But we can’t ignore hard realities, either, or simply wish them away. My own strong preference is to somehow shed the annual reduction exercise that seems increasingly inevitable here and everywhere. So I’ve asked senior editors to think about how we, at the very least, might get ahead of the declines, and in the best case, work to slow or even halt them. To help shape the discussion, consider this question: If a wealthy individual was to give us funding to launch a news organization designed to take on The Boston Globe, what would it look like?

There are important issues to raise and explore in what I’ll call a reinvention initiative: Do we have the right technology? Do we train staff in the right way? Should we remain in the current print format that we have now, same size, same sections? Do we have the right departments? Is our beat structure outdated? How can our work flows improve? Do we have too many of XX and not enough Ys? Should we publish seven days a week? Do print and digital relate in the right ways?

The questions could go on and on. They could become bolder still.

Easy answers, as you well know, are elusive. The good news is that we’ve got an absurdly smart, dedicated collection of journalists, many of the best in the nation, that has embraced profound and meaningful change over the years, always while maintaining our values. We’ve built two of the most successful websites in the industry, first boston.com, and now bostonglobe.com. The latter site is not only thriving, but growing rapidly, up more than 15 percent in uniques and page views this year over last, and leading the league in digital-only subscribers—the most important metric. We successfully overhauled key parts of the site last year. We’re about to launch a major sports redesign this spring, all while we confidently spread our wings with a broader array of stories and topics geared first to our web audience.

At the same time, we haven’t just maintained print, but enhanced it over the past few years, with a great new standalone business section through the week, a Sunday Arts section that showcases some of the best critics in the industry, Address, premium magazines, broadsheet feature sections. I’m missing things, I’m sure. We saw quite clearly in January just how much the physical paper means to an enormous swath of our readership.

The journalism, through it all, has been consistently exceptional. We drove the Olympics debate. We launched a national debate on concurrent surgery. We’ve been one of the smartest, freshest voices on the national political scene. We’ve chronicled poverty in rural Maine and economic segregation in greater Boston in deeply memorable ways. Day in, day out, we are one of the most thoughtful metropolitan news organizations in the land.

All of which is to say: We’re very good at change. We’re committed to high standards. We are well-positioned to go even further.

So I’ll frame the discussion one more way: Is it possible to build something bold rather than shrink what we have?

It’s perfectly reasonable to ask whether this reinvention initiative is an excuse for more cutting. The glib answer is that we don’t really need an excuse to cut. The revenue declines require it. The more involved answer is that even without declining revenue, we should still be exploring reinvention, given the massive advances in technology and massive changes in reader habits. And even without a reinvention initiative, we’d still have to cut. So the honest answer is that a reinvention would naturally take into account the realities of declining revenues.

I’ve sought some outside counsel to help facilitate the process, people who have thought long and hard about these issues and are deeply knowledgeable about what’s been tried at other news organizations and how it’s worked. Tom Rosenstiel and Jeff Sonderman, the executive director and deputy director respectively of the American Press Institute, plan to be in the newsroom on Friday—tomorrow—to meet in small groups with some staff. They’ll be joined by Marty Kaiser, the highly respected former editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who has worked with Tom on these exact issues. After Tom, Jeff, and Marty get an initial sense of our newsroom, we’ll discuss a path forward and how they might help. The key is to create a process that involves as many people as possible, at all levels, tapping into the wealth of creativity that is this newsroom’s trademark.

This is a significant and important undertaking. It’s also an exciting one. We’re in a moment in this industry and at this organization that requires us to be bold (have I used that word enough yet?) and imaginative, always in our journalism, but also in determining how we best fulfill our civic responsibilities. There’s not the tiniest bit of doubt that we’re up to the challenge.

I’ll be reaching out to some of you about meeting with Tom, Jeff, and Marty tomorrow, and then I’ll report back soon in a series of Winship Room gatherings about the road ahead. We’re committed to a process in which everyone can effectively share their thoughts, ideas, and concerns. In the meantime, feel more than free to reach out to me directly.

Brian

14 thoughts on “Globe editor McGrory: It’s time to rethink everything we do

  1. Thomas Keating

    Its been a losing battle, Why don’t the legacy newspapers shut out the lights, and go digital full time? I don’t understand how they can continue as a brick and mortar business. Its hard, people will lose jobs, but it has to happen. I worked in high tech for big companies like DEC, WANG, LOTUS, and they all disappeared. It will happen with newspapers, too. Just end it, go digital.

  2. Telly Halkias

    Dear Mr Kennedy:

    Thank you for this most recent post. Just a few thoughts to share, sir, as a fellow journalist and college-level journalism, media, and writing instructor (although far, far less accomplished than you, sir).

    I have been a loyal reader of the Globe, Times, WSJ and USA Today for years. Mr. McGrory makes it sound like some of these things are revolutionary, and I suppose if he is talking about expansion as new media versus contraction of existing, he is standing on firmer ground.

    But really, it’s not terribly new outside his newsroom, just not common: For example, The Wall Street Journal (and for that matter, USA Today) has had a weekend versus a Saturday and Sunday edition for years. To be honest, I’m somewhat surprised The Globe and Times have not yet followed suit.

    Furthermore, the WSJ was the first major US outlet that installed a paywall–again, before anyone else–and ran with the belief that news, particularly its news, is worth more than just free clicks from the mouse, to the tune of subscribers providing tens of millions in vital revenues from that digital platform.

    To use a parallel from another industry, Apple keeps trying to tell the public how it is on the cutting edge of smartphone development, but every one of its “innovations” (like the move to small phones a decade ago and more recently to giant phablets with near 6 inch screens), was nothing more than copying what Samsung had already accomplishes globally 4-5 years earlier.

    As such, the same friends who laughed at my gigantic Note 2 phone in 2012 are all carrying around and worshiping their iPhone 6s like Kool-Aid drinking acolytes. Which is why Apple will never overtake Samsung globally. It’s always following, never leading. And I still have my original Note 2 because STILL it outperforms current iPhones in most every area.

    The same applies here. The Wall Street Journal has been “leaning forward in the foxhole” of the future media platform for years.

    Don’t get me wrong: Mr. McGrory is heading in the right direction, and every executive editor and publisher should be thinking along these lines, from the smallest to the largest organization. And yes, as presented here, I totally appreciate the need for promotion to attract your readers.

    Still, Messers Henry and McGrory are not innovating, but playing catch up, and they deserve praise for getting on the bus. And here’s a newsflash from the ramparts of small-town regional journalism where I write: we’ve been getting beat up badly here since the 2008 crash.

    Perhaps not surprisingly—and please correct me if I have the dates wrong—the WSJ rethought it’s online free versus pay model a decade earlier (!!!), in the late 1990s, and was widely panned for it by Internet cognoscenti who are now all defunct, many who predicted it would be DOA by the early 2000s. So this “expansion into the new versus contraction of the existing” has been an initiative there from BEFORE the crash of the bubble.

    Finally, in full disclosure, this is not an ad for the WSJ! I did switch my family’s digital subscription (which includes all print) from the Times to the Journal recently, as I felt it had a better deal for me as a consumer. In the end, this is what the Globe is now grasping: how can we position ourselves to get more readers? That’s really what survival comes down to.

    And right now the Journal is in better position to do this at a better price while maintaining journalistic excellence for the simple reason that it has been addressing the “futures” issue more aggressively and longer than the rest of the big boys.

    Thank you for all the good work you do out here, Mr Kennedy. I’m not the expert you are, but have to keep my fingers in this pulse, so this is a humble observation from the trenches. I have referred both readers and students of mine to your blog on many occasions. I will key my students into this post of yours, as it is most valuable inside industry news.

    Very respectfully,

    Telly Halkias

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      Thank you for your very insightful comment, Telly, even if you do give me way too much credit. One thing I would point out: The Wall Street Journal added a weekend edition, while you’re proposing that the Times and the Globe eliminate one of their two weekend editions. That involves some very different calculations.

      1. Telly Halkias

        Thank you Mr. Kennedy, for distinguishing that detail–you are correct that the Journal’s Weekend was indeed an addition.

        In that same vein, Mr. McGrory is talking about finding new ways, if possible, to add. We shall see. This whole matter is fascinating to me, especially the price wars for grabbing digital subscribers – where the Journal seems to always be a step ahead, and thus finally snagged me
        Of course, this is a boon in the pocketbook for a longtime Times digits reader, as I was.

        My students, to this day, are amazed that Gordon Crovitz’s “Information wants to be expensive” op-ed from early 2009 talked about efforts which were already a decade old.

        Sort of like their insistence that I am crazy when I tell them I was an AOL subscriber from the early 90s, and they insist AOL only existed from the time they were in middle school, less than a decade ago.

        Imagine that, sir!

        Very Respectfully,

        Telly Halkias

  3. Mark Zanger

    I heard as a rumor two weeks ago, that one proposal was to have no print at all in two years, to cut all ties to great rolls of pulp paper and barrels of ink and distribution by human beings. I hate this, but have usually read most of my morning Globe on my phone in bed the night before. The way he sets it up leads in this direction, since you wouldn’t buy all the equipment to beat a leading newspaper on the ground, you would defeat it by chipping at revenue sources or coming at it from a more rapid, more modernized news/information/opinion product. I suppose one angle would be to say — everyone else is peddling opinion and information, let’s really do news, non-partisan as Wikipedia, and give up the expense of campaigning for Charles B. Baker for three years and then needing new ink and salary to expose ourselves, ditto for charter schools, Medicaid cuts, and so on. One could run a much more efficient operation by rebuilding the wall between opinion and news, and then defunding the opinion side, and it would compete powerfully with the existing Globe and other media. Not so much fun for the owners, as having a big soapbox has convinced many owners to cover many budget deficits in journalism for many centuries.

  4. Pat Washburn

    I wonder if the team working on this stuff could possibly include one or more women? Just an idea.

  5. Deborah Nam-Krane

    I think the first question the Globe needs to answer is who they want to serve. If that answer includes “the people of Boston”, then they need to maintain a print operation of some kind because not everyone in Boston has a smart phone, much less a computer, and city-sponsored WiFi is famously unreliable.

    Having said that, I could live with fewer print editions throughout the week, although I’m not sure how helpful that would be to their bottom line.

  6. Mike Ball (@whirred)

    Every ink-stained wretch could write from imagined or real expertise on this. If they paid me consulting fees I would not just milk writers and editors, and then parrot their favorite suggestions as my own. Having been through magazine and paper company reorgs, I see that as standard consultants’ M.O.

    However, I would start with what the omphaloskepsis memo does not ask — what do owners and big shots there really want. I liken this to the MBTA handwringing by their management and the likes of Gov. Baker. They never ask the big questions, like, Is the aim of mass transit less vehicle congestion, noise, death, pollution? Is the aim safe, frequent, inexpensive people movement? If these and other goal are important, what shall they do and pay to provide them? My response there is that subway, trolley, bus and commuter-rail should be fare free or so inexpensive that all but profligate, time-wasting fools will use it all the time, leaving their SUVs in the garage. This means heavy subsidies but no greater than motor-vehicle drivers get. We would get our payback from those goals met.

    Instead, political and Transportation HQ types and their consultants assume the goals are clean, safe and barely affordable T that will rise incrementally and steadily in price. They do not go beyond the obvious and thus fail commuters and visitors.

    So for the Globe, the memo reflects The Great Henry’s attitude. As with his baseball team, the biz side assumes it can push on price and cost until the writers and readers bleed and go away. That’s what John Henry has done with the Sox, creating the most expensive baseball experience in the nation, under the archaic and inaccurate supply-and-demand fantasy. How much can they get away with, how high a profit margin can they set before they reach choke point?

    They have done this with the Globe. The online subs are the highest around. The site and replica reading experiences are exasperating. The memo states repeatedly that they have no shame in culling writers/editors in the name of profit margin. They fantasize that the occasional blockbuster Pulitzer-seeking series makes they the best paper around. They clearly intend to continue so soak the readers until they first drop the hard copy paper and they get worn out by the online version.

    Instead, they should look to foreign and domestic papers that have reinvented properly and thrived in the online world. On one end are the FT and WSJ. They both have high, strict, pricey paywalls. Yet readers throw money at them because their model is giving investors insights and tips they can’t get elsewhere, a market edge. They offer greater return than cost. The memo does not ask whether the Globe can offer material too good not to pay for.

    They can also look to a few European rags that thrive, like El Confidencial in Spain. It is possible in the digital age and world to thrive and do good journalism…but only for those who look up from the obvious, from the balance sheet.

  7. bweber888

    Maybe the nuance is lost in the memo, but the “newsroom” cannot lead this discussion. The paper–any media org–is a business first, like it or not. Market wants and opportunities must drive the conversation if the company hopes to thrive. Short of going nonprofit (and fundraising), the pursuit of Pulutzers and the public watchdog role of a news org can only be funded if the company understands its audiences, their behavior, any growth potential, and delivers the goods (pun intended). Print, online, any combo… all of that will sort itself out in a thorough, clear-eyed market analysis of who wants what content/product, in what form, at what frequency or availability, etc… But having newsroom guys lead the discussion… that is like handing out paddles but no boat and no sight of land.

  8. Brian Beaulieu

    The Globe should go digital except for Sunday (a friend who works there says the goal has been to be paperless when they hit 100,000 digital subscribers, which seems awfully low). The Sunday/weekend paper could be delivered Saturday pm via U.S. mail, UPS or FedEx, eliminating the distributors and trucks. For those who need a daily print version, design a new printer for home use or design the digital version to be attractively printed on current models. Traditional newspaper writing, reporting and editing should be maintained, but various platforms could have their own identity and presentation. The Globe could buy WBZ (capital expenditures appeal to owners) and offer audio and visual outlets, perhaps using a digital channel for newspaper content. The TV ad revenue could sustain the news operation. This would cover all the bases and subscribers could choose content and platforms that suit them.

  9. George Bentham

    Declining revenues…cuts…reinvention….’the process”…props to the great website…outside consultants…a meeting and a report back to staff..and the search for an answer…sounds bites from management to staff in every newspaper in the country. Nowhere in this discussion will you see editors-in-chief ask the question how their political bias has affected circulation and market share of their publications vs. media alternatives. We live in a democratic society with a free and open press guaranteed by the Constitution. Yet, editorial boards at formerly leading newspapers like the Globe have been allowed by their ownership to practice a form of censorship and become propaganda organs for one political point of view for decades. In a nation divided nearly 50/50 along political boundaries, the Globe and other newspapers have made a conscious decision to abandon 50% of their market. Witness today’s stunt at the Globe with the false front page and accompanying Op-Ed attacking candidate Trump. If this was the Boston Onion or the Boston National Enquirer it might have been an effective marketing tactic, but this is the Boston Globe, a supposedly reputable local and national newspaper with an “absurdly smart, dedicated collection of journalists.” If the Globe is looking for answers, I’d like to see Mr. McGrory circulate a memo comparing the rise of conservative talk radio and websites like Drudge to the decline in the Globe’s audience and revenues over the same time and announce that he’s opening up the newspaper and editorial pages to strong alternative political points of view, but this will never happen. I’d like to see Mr. McGrory and his staff be just as vigorous in shining the light on the those in power on the left as they are on those in power-or seeking it -on the right, but that will never happen either. They’d have to start by withdrawing every endorsement and every favorable story on Elizabeth Warren- the senator who lied about her Native American roots to advance her career, got away with it and got elected in Massachusetts with the full support of the Boston Globe editorial board. Where were the real headlines and on the real front page then? The Founders envisioned a society where the people were protected from government abuse of power by a free citizen press to create what John Milton called an “open marketplace of ideas”. It’s ironic that here in the city that gave birth to the Revolution, the owners of the Globe and other news organizations decided to try to close that market a long time ago and, partially in reaction, the free citizen press arose around them on the radio waves, the Web, and social media. That trend is irreversible now and no matter how many consultants Mr. McGrory brings in or how many meetings he convenes, he can’t stop it. In the era of citizen journalism, Mr. McGrory and his counterparts need to stop trying to control what readers read or public opinion and think about how they can become a truly open platform for the aggregation and exposition of citizen journalism and the multi-faceted points of view of all Bostonians. Instead of just bringing us content from their absurdly smart, dedicated, but small collection of journalists, they should aim to provide a venue for the free expression of ideas of the people of Greater Boston- the rich neighborhood, village and town cultures, the unique voice of her citizens from all walks of life and the power and richness of the ideas and daily debate that Bostonians engage in every day on social media, drive time radio, on the Common, the campuses, the Financial District, the school committee and town meetings, the coffee shops and bars or down at Fenway. An open local media platform like this would be truly revolutionary and there could be no better place to start than Boston.

    1. Brian Beaulieu

      You fail to consider that newspapers were founded as organs of specific points of view. Sixty or 70 years ago, if you were a Republican you read the Herald or Traveler, a Democrat the Globe or Post, blue collar the Record/American/Advertiser, blue blood the Transcript or Christian Scientist, the Monitor. The steep decline began when newspapers tried to be all things to all people. Change always came slowly, or by accident. So as shortsighted as it was that no one had a formula to combat the internet invasion, it is understandable. The Globe is in its position of power by circumstance. During World War II the other papers tied up all the national ad contracts, and the Globe was left to make do with classifieds. It turned out to be a bonanza as TV took the national ads away. Ernie Roberts, the late Globe sports editor, told me that he left in 1963 because he was sure the Herald would emerge the dominate paper. He returned five years later as the Herald was on the ropes battling to retain the lucrative license to Channel 5, which it finally lost in 1973. Had the Herald won, there would have been no stopping it. Equal time, in print or on the airwaves, is crap. If you don’t like what one paper is doing or saying, find another. It was good enough for our forefathers.

  10. arthur king

    They still don’t get it. The Globe is going the way of AirAmerica and the liberal radio talk shows while conservative talk shows are thriving. The Globe has gone so far out on the knee-jerk left that it has lost much credibility. The N.Y. Post and the WSJ are doing fine..not the N.Y. Daily News. I’m not a Trump fan, but the message he is sending from “the silent majority” can’t be ignored by the Globe, except at their peril.

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