Globe editor McGrory talks numbers at First Amendment gathering

Because I get memos, this blog is perhaps more dedicated to the words and thoughts of Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory than is strictly necessary. But he does lead New England’s largest news organization, and we all care about the fate of the Globe at a time of economic uncertainty. So I thought I’d pass along a bit of what McGrory had to say at last week’s New England First Amendment Institute.

First, some numbers. McGrory said the newsroom currently employs about 225 full-time journalists, down considerably from its heyday of about 540 at the turn of the century. Last spring, when I was wrapping up reporting for “The Return of the Moguls,” my not-yet-published book on Globe owner John Henry, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos and other wealthy newspaper publishers, the number I heard was 240. Counting bodies is more difficult than you might imagine. I don’t think there has been any significant change since last spring — just different ways of measuring the size of the staff.

McGrory also said that classified-ad revenue has dropped from $180 million a year when the newspaper business was at its peak to about $10 million today. Again, nothing that will surprise people who watch the newspaper business, but a reminder of why newspapers are not what they used to be.

On a more positive note, the Globe has signed up 92,000 digital-only subscribers, continuing its momentum from the spring, when it was around 80,000. Despite the Globe’s progress, McGrory acknowledged that it no longer has the largest number of digital-only subscribers among regional dailies. That distinction now belongs to the Los Angeles Times. But of course the LA area is far larger than Greater Boston, and digital subscriptions to the LA Times are much cheaper than they are to the Globe, which charges $30 a month.

McGrory attributed this rise to the Trump effect, which has driven paid subscriptions to The New York Times over the 2 million mark and another 1 million at The Washington Post. Though the Globe has focused mainly on local and regional news in response to the changing economics of journalism, it maintains a robust Washington bureau. In fact, McGrory said the bureau is actually adding a person, bringing it to six.

Finally, and perhaps of the greatest significance, he said that 87 people have different jobs in the Globe newsroom since the staff-led reinvention that went into effect earlier this year. The two ideas behind the reinvention: (1) to report the news online throughout the day and move away from the habits formed by the daily cycle of the print edition; and (2) to focus on being a “paper of interest” rather than a “paper of record” that dutifully cranks out stories that few people read.

Nothing about the Globe’s ongoing print problems, but McGrory had addressed that just a few days earlier in a memo to the staff. McGrory essentially described the problem as having eased. That comports with what I’ve heard, though there are still plenty of complaints from longtime customers about missed papers, early editions without scores from the previous night’s game, missing sections and the like.

Despite the difficulties facing daily papers, McGrory told the NEFAI crowd, “We have more readers of Boston Globe journalism than we have ever had in the history of the Globe,” an assertion that takes into account the paper’s print and digital readers, Boston.com and Stat, a health- and life-sciences vertical that’s part of Boston Globe Media.

As John Henry ponders the huge expenses he has no doubt incurred from the print fiasco, I hope he’ll keep in mind that people will not pay for a diminishing product. It could be disastrous if he offsets those expenses with another big cut in the newsroom. The upward momentum in digital subscriptions is the key to the Globe’s future. But that momentum will stall quickly if people start to believe that they’re not getting their money’s worth.

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