Questions remain as The Boston Globe tries to solve its epic printing woes

Photo by WGBH News

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The big unanswered question about The Boston Globe’s printing woes is whether they are merely serious — that is, they remain an agonizing pit of misery for months to come but are ultimately fixable — or if, instead, they are so catastrophic that they will require publisher John Henry to get rid of his new used presses and start over.

No one other than a few insiders knows for sure. But the Globe took a good first step toward providing its increasingly disenchanted customers with some answers by publishing an in-depth story by staff reporter Mark Arsenault over the weekend on what we know, what we don’t know, and what we still need to find out.

It was about time. Before Arsenault’s story was posted on Saturday night, the Globe’s only published acknowledgment of the problem came in the form of a front-page note from Henry on Aug. 18 in which he wrote that the presses at the paper’s new Taunton printing facility “are operating too slowly and breaking too often.” He added: “We are embarrassed. We are sincerely sorry to all those affected.” He also said it was unlikely those problems would be resolved by Labor Day — an observation that proved to be prescient.

Arsenault did not address every aspect of what can now fairly be called a crisis. I would have liked to see him do some reporting on what by all accounts has been a terrible experience for customers trying to cancel their subscriptions for papers that often never show up. And though Arsenault reported union official Stephen Sullivan’s response to Globe president Vinay Mehra’s claim that the problems were due in part to employees who are “resistant to change” (Arsenault’s phrase, not Mehra’s), it struck me that the accusation deserved further exploration. I don’t think Mehra helped the situation by insulting the very front-line people who’ve been stuck trying to fix a mess created by the paper’s top executives — two of whom lost their jobs as a result.

Still, there was important information in Arsenault’s story, especially regarding a company in Lubbock, Texas, called West Texas Printing Center. The company reportedly installed a set-up similar to, though smaller than, the Globe’s, which led to a world of hurt before matters were finally brought under control. “First year, year-and-a-half, we struggled,” West Texas official Kristi Holt told Arsenault. “Finding the demons and eliminating the demons is a long, tedious process. I feel for y’all. I’ve been where you are.”

A year. A year and a half. Does the Globe really have that long to get it right? Probably not. The paper solved its previous self-created fiasco over home-delivery vendors in a few months, but it’s not likely the Globe’s customers can wait until 2019 for the current mess to be cleaned up. And let’s not forget that those customers include not just readers but other newspapers that have entrusted their printing to the Globe, including the Boston Herald, The New York Times, and USA Today.

Then there’s the nightmare scenario. Last week a 38-year Globe pressman, Phil McColgan, sent me an email outlining what he thought needed to be done. With his permission, I forwarded his message to my colleagues at “Beat the Press,” and it was featured in our report last Friday. “In my opinion unless Mr. Henry is willing to dig deep into his pockets and install the correct presses such as the Goss presses that are sitting idle in Boston [at the former Morrissey Boulevard headquarters] we are going to continue to struggle to make deadlines,” he wrote.

When you take the long view, the idea that a newspaper could be laid low by printing problems in 2017 seems ludicrous. The Globe is doing well on the internet front, having signed up more than 80,000 digital-only subscribers, more than any other regional newspaper. The Globe’s website could use some updating, and it’s long past time for the paper to offer a usable mobile app. But, overall, the paper has made decent progress in its quest to become a digital-first news organization.

The challenge is that print remains vital to the business of publishing a daily newspaper. The value of digital ads has cratered in recent years, largely because of Google’s automated auction system for allocating advertising to websites. Revenues from print advertising are a fraction of what they used to be — but they remain far greater than online income. Then, too, newspaper readers tend to be older, and they still like print. According to the Globe’s most recent year-old figures, paid print circulation was 143,000 on weekdays and 243,000 on Sundays.

Cynics sometimes observe that Henry got the Globe more or less for free: the value of the property underneath the paper’s former headquarters should offset the $70 million he paid in 2013. But Henry has invested significantly, even as he has made cuts in the newsroom in an effort to stay ahead of declining revenues. The Taunton plant cost Henry $75 million. It may cost him a lot more before this is over.

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