Despite ongoing losses, John Henry insists that The Boston Globe is not for sale

Photo (cc) 2018 by Dan Kennedy.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

John Henry isn’t selling.

Nearly five years after the billionaire financier announced that he would buy The Boston Globe, there’s a low but persistent buzz within the city’s media and political circles that Henry is tired of losing money and looking to get out. But Henry, who is also the principal owner of the Red Sox, insists there’s nothing to it.

“I don’t think of selling any local assets during my lifetime,” Henry said in an email interview. “Linda and I love and are committed to this city.”

Henry holds the title of Globe publisher. His wife, Linda Pizzuti Henry, is the managing director and, even more than her husband, is a regular presence at the Globe’s offices.

Henry responded to a range of questions I recently emailed to him. He declined to offer answers on two issues: whether he thought columnist Kevin Cullen could regain the trust of his readers after he returns from a three-month suspension for ethics violations; and how he plans to handle former Boston.com editor and reporter Hilary Sargent’s claims that she was sexually harassed by Globe editor Brian McGrory — claims that she has continued to assert even after the Globe’s recent announcement that investigators had interviewed Sargent and cleared McGrory. Henry did offer praise for McGrory’s performance as editor, saying, “Brian has done a terrific job of early on moving us primarily into local reporting and over the past year or so has really moved us to more and more relevant, interesting and compelling stories across New England. Every day there are ‘can’t miss’ stories.”

As is the case with many daily newspapers, the Globe has staked its future on its ability to sell digital subscriptions. The Globe missed its target of signing up 100,000 digital-only subscribers by the end of June — a crucial benchmark on the way to 200,000, which McGrory and other Globe executives have identified as one of the keys to long-term financial sustainability. Those efforts are about to get a significant boost. Earlier this year, it was announced that the paper would adopt The Washington Post’s highly regarded content-management system, Arc, both for internal operations and for re-energizing the Globe’s web and mobile platforms.

Globe spokeswoman Jane Bowman said the rollout would begin in August, with updates throughout the fall and full adoption by the end of the year. “The move to Arc will relaunch globe.com with a focus on site speed and driving user engagement,” Bowman said via email. “We will extend our mobile offerings, with Arc powering new iOS and Android apps for digital subscribers. The newsroom will have access to Arc’s advanced testing and analytics tools, giving us deeper insight into how readers engage with our content.”

Henry also had some provocative things to say about objectivity, telling me, “A news journalist (as opposed to a columnist) has an obligation to sift through whatever evidence he or she can find and give the reader what actually has happened or is happening to the best of his or her ability much like a juror in a courtroom is asked to do. Today we get the news interpreted far too often rather than reported.”

The financier-turned-publisher’s efforts to reinvent the Globe as a business have been mixed. Expanded print sections, for the most part, have not worked out, as advertising to support those sections failed to materialize. Crux, a free website devoted to covering the Catholic Church, was given away to its star columnist, John Allen. A new $75 million printing plant in Taunton got off to a slow start, resulting in poor quality, late and missed deliveries, and the loss of client publications such as the Boston Herald and USA Today. A revamped version of Boston.com, stripped of Globe content, never really achieved liftoff.

On the other hand, the standalone website Stat, which covers health and life sciences, keeps chugging along. The newsroom and business operations were moved from the paper’s hulking, outmoded plant in Dorchester (sold for about $80 million) to downtown Boston. The Globe’s journalism remains excellent, and the newsroom, with about 220 full-timers, is far larger than it would have been if the paper had fallen into the hands of a corporate chain — as we saw this week with New York’s Daily News, whose staff was cut in half by tronc, its bizarrely named owner.

According to The Washington Post, the Daily News had as many as 400 full-time editorial employees in the late 1980s. After this week’s cuts, that number is now about 45 — an indication not only of how fortunate the Globe has been to have Henry at the helm, but of how bad it might get if he can’t turn things around.

A transcript of my email conversation with Henry follows.

Q: From time to time people tell me that you are considering selling the Globe. Lately that kind of talk has been more persistent — I’ve heard people say that you’re tired of losing money and perhaps tired of the recent controversies. So: Are you planning to sell the Globe?

A: We have had no discussions about selling nor is anything contemplated. I don’t think of selling any local assets during my lifetime. Linda and I love and are committed to this city.

The Globe cannot ever seem to meet budgets — on either the revenue side or the expense side and I am not going to continue that. This has always been about sustainability rather than sizable, endless, annual losses. That is frustrating and due to a combination of mismanagement and a tough industry.

Q: If you are not planning to sell the Globe, are you committed to keeping it for the foreseeable future, which I’ll define as the next three to five years?

A: There is no time frame, honestly. We want to do our part and will, but ultimately the community’s support and the excellence of the paper will determine the long-term future.

I believe this community will support a news organization of this caliber. Brian has done a terrific job of early on moving us primarily into local reporting and over the past year or so has really moved us to more and more relevant, interesting and compelling stories across New England. Every day there are “can’t miss” stories.

Journalism is under attack in this country. We all know facts are under attack. Facts. What should be under attack in journalism these days are not facts but the lack of objective reporting. Personally I reject the notion that you can’t have highly objective reporting although the media seems to believe it isn’t possible. To me that is a long-held myth that has no place in a democracy. A news journalist (as opposed to a columnist) has an obligation to sift through whatever evidence he or she can find and give the reader what actually has happened or is happening to the best of his or her ability much like a juror in a courtroom is asked to do. Today we get the news interpreted far too often rather than reported.

Q: When I was doing my reporting for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” you and others told me that the Globe’s revenues were about $300 million a year. Could you tell me what they are today? What is the gap between revenues and expenses — in other words, how much are you losing?

A: The annual losses are just not sustainable but even if I personally felt that it was acceptable to continue losing significant sums, it does not put the news organization on the road to sustainability. Sooner or later it must sustain itself and it will — again though it will require the Globe convincing the community that it is worthwhile to support.

Q: Do you have concrete plans to fill the gap and move to break-even? You’ve had some success in charging for digital subscriptions, but what can you point to beyond that? How many digital-only subscribers do you now have — did you meet the 100,000 target that had been announced for the end of June?

A: Bridging the gap will not be easy but we have been working on it all year. Last week [early July] we were at 94,797 digital-only subscribers. While the numbers continue to grow, advertising revenues across the country are being gobbled up by Google and Facebook. Bloomberg today reported, “Omnicom Group suffered its biggest decline in nine years after posting sluggish results, renewing concerns that the ad giant can weather media disruption spurred by the likes of Google and Facebook.”

Q: Do you believe the Taunton printing problems have been straightened out or are at least under control? Contracted work was supposed to be a big part of your strategy, but you have lost customers, including the Boston Herald and USA Today. Do you have a strategy to sign up new customers or to lure back old ones (or both)?

A: Yes, and everyone there has been doing everything they can to reduce costs while at the same time getting used to new equipment that initially was extremely challenging.

Whether or not we print other publications comes down to cost primarily. Our cost structure was such that the Herald could be printed more cheaply out of the area. Our costs also led to minimal profit from printing other papers. If we can get our costs in line and be efficient enough we will have almost certainly have more commercial clients than The New York Times.

Q: When will you name a successor to editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg, who recently announced her retirement? [Clegg and I plan to work on a project together. See this disclosure.] Have you chosen anyone? Can you say who that is?

A: This is an extremely important position so we will take our time. Ellen has done a superb job for us and we will miss her.

Q: What do you expect the Globe’s adoption of The Washington Post’s Arc platform is going to accomplish for you? When will that be implemented?

A: I’m not the best person to talk with about this, but it is exciting. Our number one issue is reader experience and having an app experience across platforms as well as a new site will be great for readers.

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