Some perspective on the Globe’s digital landmark

Outside the Globe’s Taunton printing plant. Photo (cc) 2018 by Dan Kennedy.

I’m going to be talking with Barbara Howard on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) this afternoon about the news that The Boston Globe now has more paid digital than print subscribers — a significant landmark that has nevertheless led to some head-scratching among those who are wondering what it means.

The news was reported earlier this week by Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal. Joshua Benton took note of the moment at the Nieman Lab:

The Globe has been lucky to have an attractive market with higher-than-average education and income; it’s been smart to keep cuts to the newsroom smaller than what its peers have. And it’s also still a good newspaper — something that’s harder to say about other metros that have been cut to the marrow.

Here’s some perspective. A lot of us thought that the Globe was the first large regional daily cross this particular line. (Our national newspapers, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, have been selling more papers online than in print for quite some time.) That’s not quite true. As I was researching another story, I discovered that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette beat the Globe to it. But there are some unusual aspects to the case of the ADG, which I’ll be writing about next week.

I think it’s safe to say that the head-scratching comes about from a suspicion that the Globe’s supposed digital success is really more a sign of print failure. And there’s no question that the Globe’s print operation is on life support. But the digital accomplishment is real.

Take a look at Seiffert’s chart. In June 2016, the Globe had 67,429 digital-only subscribers and 135,231 print subscribers, for a total of 202,660. By March of this year, the numbers were 112,241 digital and 98,978 print for a total of 211,219. That’s an overall increase of 8,559 paid subscribers. And though digital doesn’t bring in as much as print, it’s still real money — especially with the Globe’s unusually high digital rate of $30 a month once initial discounts have worn off.

Not only has the Globe under John Henry’s ownership maintained its quality better than most major metros, but its user experience, if not great, is at least good enough. It’s also in the midst of transitioning to The Washington Post’s Arc content management system, and though there appear to be a few bugs to work out, we paying customers should expect to see an improving digital product in the months ahead.

But no, print is not doing well. If you want to go back to the Globe’s heyday in the 1980s early 1990s, the paper at one time sold more than 500,000 papers on weekdays and more than 800,000 on Sundays. As recently as the fourth quarter of 2015, weekday print circulation was still 143,348 and 255,735 on Sundays. Now, in addition to that 98,978 figure for weekdays, Sunday is just 172,067. (Figures from the Alliance for Audited Media.)

What happened is no different from what’s happening anywhere, except that there were some special circumstances with the Globe. First, in early 2016, the Globe changed home delivery vendors, with disastrous results. The paper was able to recover fairly quickly by switching back to the original vendor. But then came the opening of the new, not-ready-for-prime-time Taunton printing plant in mid-2017, and it was months before printing and distribution returned more or less to normal.

Unreliable delivery and the high cost of a print subscription ($1,000 a year) no doubt helped drive a lot of customers to digital-only. In the long run, that’s going to benefit the Globe, especially given how cheap it is to add digital subscribers. But since print readers remain more valuable than digital subscribers, moving toward an all-digital future more quickly than is absolutely necessary results in money left on the table.

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