I’ve been off Twitter since Feb. 12 — surely my longest sabbatical since joining in 2008. But it’s not by choice. First my account was attacked, apparently by Turkish hackers. Then I botched the process of resetting my password. Now I’m stuck in limbo, unable to revive my account on my own yet clueless about how to get an actual human being at Twitter to help.
If you think this is special pleading, you’re right. I confess to hoping that someone at Twitter (or someone who knows someone) sees this and contacts me. Yes, I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter. Yes, I’ve been known to refer to its troll-infested backwaters as a cesspool. But as long as it exists, I need it to keep up on conversations that are important to me and to promote my work.
Last Wednesday, the day after Digital First Media outbid two other prospective buyers for the right to purchase the Boston Herald, chief operating officer Guy Gilmore sent an email to Digital First employees, which a source forwarded to me. The sale was approved by a bankruptcy judge on Friday. No closing date has been set.
If you’re wondering what Gilmore’s message portends for the Herald, well, you won’t find much here. But it may be of some interest.
I am writing to announce that DFM has won the right to acquire the Boston Herald by submitting the highest bid in an auction held yesterday in Boston. The Herald is a significant newspaper — a local institution that is also widely recognized across the entire country.
This acquisition is important in a number of ways. Most obviously it expands our footprint in the New England region where we already own and operate two dailies nearby. It is a vote of confidence by our Board of Directors that our team has the skill to successfully operate this well known metro newspaper. And it is a clear indication that our leadership is interested in expanding its newspaper holdings when the right opportunity presents itself.
Not long ago, DFM acquired The Orange County Register and Riverside Press-Enterprise. The integration of those newspapers into DFM’s existing cluster of Southern California newspapers has been extraordinarily successful. Adding the Boston Herald to our existing group of papers in the Northeast is another such opportunity. Clearly, DFM is a buyer, and a buyer of strong brands.
Meanwhile, on a more general note, let me reassure you that your company continues to outperform its peers in virtually every category. To quote my predecessor, “our company is fortunate to have a deeply talented and dedicated team committed to building a strong and sustainable business that will allow us to continue fulfilling our mission and serving our communities for years to come. Your contributions are greatly appreciated.”
There was a time not too many years ago when Digital First Media — the all-but-certain next owner of the Boston Herald — was the toast of the newspaper business. The chain was led by a brash, profane chief executive named John Paton, who espoused an aggressive post-print strategy built around free, advertiser-supported websites, community engagement, and high-profile initiatives such as Project Thunderdome, a national news and innovation center.
It all fell apart quickly. Alden Capital, the hedge fund that controls Digital First, grew impatient with Paton’s grandiosity. Project Thunderdome was dismantled in 2014. Paton left in 2015. And the chain embarked on a relentless strategy of cutting costs to the bone. “If you work for a company owned by a hedge fund, it’s like walking through a minefield,” Jim Brady, Digital First’s former editor-in-chief, told me in 2016. “Any step can be the one where you hit the mine. Any day it could end, and you know that.”
Brady has since turned entrepreneur, founding mobile-friendly local news sites in Philadelphia (Billy Penn) and Pittsburgh (The Incline). And the post-Paton Digital First has earned a reputation for brutal cost-cutting — which raises serious concerns about what its executives have in mind for the Herald.
Of all the good technological innovations that were supposedly going to rescue the news business from the bad technological innovations that had laid it low, perhaps none was more highly touted than Apple’s iPad.
Unfortunately, the iPad has proved to be a huge disappointment for news publishers. The reason, according to Shira Ovide of Bloomberg Businessweek, is that though people like their iPads, they love their smartphones. Sales of the iPad peaked at 71 million in 2013 and slid to about 44 million last year. Meanwhile, about 1.5 billion smartphones were sold in 2017. Against that backdrop, iPad sales are barely a rounding error.
Until recently I had thought my digital news-consumption habits were as archaic as heading down to Newspaper Row to peruse the headlines pasted in the window. Now, with Facebook moving toward a break-up with the news business, it appears that I may have been ahead of my time.
My morning ritual begins with the iPad and coffee. I read The Boston Globe or The Washington Post — I switch back and forth — and then read the other on my iPhone while taking the train and subway to work. I’m not just scanning headlines; I read both papers pretty thoroughly, the way we used to engage with print. Sometime during the day I’ll check in with The New York Times as well.
Now consider the strategy pursued until recently by many publishers. They would post many if not most of their stories to their Facebook page, with headlines aimed at enticing users to click and share. More clicks and more shares meant that more stories from that publisher would show up in your news feed. Finally, more clicks meant that more users visited the publisher’s website or app, where they would encounter advertising — and, as is the case with many quality news outlets these days, be asked to become paid digital subscribers.
Flimsy though that strategy may have been, publishers didn’t believe they had much choice. With more than 2 billion active users, Facebook has, for many people, essentially become the internet. Recently, though, Facebook upended everything by announcing that news posted directly by publishers would be all but eliminatedfrom the algorithmically determined news feed in favor of more social sharing by family and friends. If one of your family members shares a story from the Globe — or from Alex Jones, or from a fake-news content farm run by Macedonian teenagers— then you will still see it. But if you want to read a story posted directly by the Globe, you’ll have to visit the paper’s Facebook page. (You can change that by fiddling around with the settings, but my purpose is not to write a tutorial.)
“For publishers who have come to rely on traffic from Facebook — which for some still drives the majority of their traffic; for many others, 30 or 40 percent — this is awful news,” wrote Joshua Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Mother Jones senior editor Ben Dreyfuss told the Columbia Journalism Review’s Mathew Ingram that it could be “an extinction-level event” for some publishers.
What drove the change? In a message to users, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said he wanted to “encourage meaningful social interactions with family and friends over passive consumption.” No doubt Facebook’s tortured relationship with news, fake news and Russian propaganda had something to do with it. On Monday the Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin reviewed the “tumultuous 18-month struggle by Facebook to come to grips with its dark side.” Roger McNamee, described as an investor and mentor of Zuckerberg’s, told her: “The problem with Facebook’s whole position is that the algorithm exists to maximize attention, and the best way to do that is to make people angry and afraid.”
As news executives contemplate what it will be like to live in a post-Facebook world, they should be thinking about what it would take to revive the media habits that prevailed before Facebook became our most important news distributor. It won’t be easy. But consider the path that the Post has taken since Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos bought the paper in 2013.
The Post has relied on Facebook as heavily as any newspaper, but always with an eye toward restoring the primacy of what Bezos called the “bundle” — that is, a digital version of the local, national and international news, sports, culture, business, entertainment, the crossword puzzle and everything else that made up the traditional print newspaper. It has worked spectacularly. Today the Post has more than a million paid digital subscribers and has been profitable in each of the past two years, according to publisher Frederick Ryan.
It could be that the effect of Facebook’s latest changes will not be as dire as the most apocalyptic predictions would have it, or that it could even be good news for some. In his message to users, Zuckerberg said that news would fall from 5 percent of the news feed to 4 percent. That’s a 20 percent drop, but it’s not a zeroing-out. Moreover, Zuckerberg said the company is taking steps to ensure that “the news you see, while less overall, is high quality.” That caused investors to boost the price of New York Times Co. stock by nearly 9 percent, according to Rani Molla of Recode. It also led Rupert Murdoch to demand that Facebook start paying for that quality content through “a carriage fee similar to the model adopted by cable companies.” I assume Murdoch is self-aware enough to have been suggesting his Wall Street Journal as a candidate for such quality-based payments rather than the Fox News Channel or the New York Post.
Facebook has always been a lousy partner for journalism. That’s not because Zuckerberg is especially evil. It’s because he’s in one business and news organizations are in another. News is good for Zuckerberg if it results in more users spending more time on Facebook and seeing more ads. It’s bad if it causes unneeded controversy and raises the specter of government regulation.
We’re not going back to the days when newspapers would paste headlines in the window or even when flipping through the pages of a print newspaper was mainstream behavior rather than a niche activity. What we can do is to come up with strategies aimed at encouraging readers to engage with journalism directly instead of through Facebook and other third-party distributors. Sharing on social media should be dessert, not the main course. Because, in the end, Zuckerberg is going to take all the ice cream for himself.
Movies about historical events are often meant to tell us more about the present than the past, especially in the hands of an overly earnest director like Steven Spielberg. His 2012 film “Lincoln,” for instance, depicted a president who didn’t let his high principles get in the way of some down-and-dirty dealmaking with recalcitrant members of Congress. You know, just like Obama should have been doing.
Spielberg’s latest, “The Post,” is more deft and subtle than “Lincoln.” Still, it serves as much as a commentary on current-day events as it does as a drama about the press and the Pentagon Papers. Then as now, The New York Times and The Washington Post were competing to expose high-level government wrongdoing. Then as now, their nemesis was a vindictive president who hated the press. The message, at least for the anti-Trump audience that is most likely to be enthralled by “The Post,” is that journalism will save us. Help is on the way.
The Pentagon Papers were the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. The documents showed that President Lyndon Johnson and other administration officials were aware that the war was going badly even as they publicly professed optimism — and thus allowed American soldiers to be killed for what they knew was a lost cause. This was especially galling to Richard Nixon, who was president in 1971, when the documents were leaked, and who was prosecuting the war with cruel gusto. The Times got and published the papers first, and Times partisans are grousing that Spielberg should have made a movie about that instead. For instance, Roy Harris wrote for Poynter that “the overall story of the Pentagon Papers as journalism seems somehow twisted by the Post-centric focus of the movie.”
Critics are missing the point. The Times gets its full due in “The Post” for breaking the story. But Post executive editor Ben Bradlee’s fierce attempt to play catch-up, and publisher Katharine Graham’s courageous decision to publish the documents against the advice of her lawyers and advisers, was a signal moment in American journalism, establishing the Post as the near-equal of the mighty Times.
The script for “The Post” reads like it was ripped from the pages of Graham’s autobiography, “Personal History,” and from David Halberstam’s magnum opus about The Washington Post and several other media institutions, “The Powers That Be.” The Post of 1971 was a financially marginal regional paper with more in common with The Boston Globe or The Philadelphia Inquirer than with the Times. Graham decided to raise much-needed cash by reorganizing the paper as a publicly traded company. The crisis over the Pentagon Papers blew up at exactly the same moment, putting the Post in real danger: if it published the documents and was found to have broken the law, its initial public offering could go down the tubes and the company could go out of business.
Graham made her decision after being called away from a social event, a sequence that is depicted faithfully in the movie. “Frightened and tense, I took a big gulp and said, ‘Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish,’” Graham wrote in “Personal History.” And she quotes Bradlee as saying later:
That was a key moment in the life of this paper. It was just sort of the graduation of the Post into the highest ranks. One of our unspoken goals was to get the world to refer to the Post and The New York Times in the same breath, which they previously hadn’t done. After the Pentagon Papers, they did.
The U.S. Supreme Court ended up vindicating both the Times and the Post by ruling, 6-3, that the Nixon administration’s attempts to prevent publication were an unconstitutional abridgement of the First Amendment. As my WGBH News fellow contributor Harvey Silverglate wrote in The Boston Phoenix some years ago, that didn’t stop Nixon from attempting to prosecute the newspapers under the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I that is still with us. But Nixon’s efforts went nowhere.
“The Post” is not an eat-your-broccoli movie. It’s highly entertaining. Tom Hanks is terrific as Bradlee, and Meryl Streep turns in an accurate Graham, though it sometimes feels more like an elaborate impersonation than a fully realized role.
Streep’s Graham is the center of a subplot that, again, has as much to do with 2018 as it does with 1971. Although Graham had been leading the Post since 1963, when her husband, Phil Graham, shot himself in an apparent suicide, in “The Post” we see her grow and, finally, embrace her leadership role in a way that she hadn’t before. It’s a tale of female empowerment that is especially relevant right now. As my Northeastern colleague Meg Heckman wrote for USA Today:
In a refreshing departure from the shallow, oversexualized way Hollywood typically depicts women in journalism, Meryl Streep portrays Graham as a serious newspaperwoman navigating complex social and political challenges. Her role should be a blueprint for a new kind of popular culture, one that helps repair a climate where, as the #MeToo movement has revealed, media companies routinely get away with allowing sexual harassment and assault to fester.
One of my favorite characters in “The Post” is Nixon himself, whom we see back-to through a White House window, talking on the phone and threatening his enemies in the press. (We hear actual tapes of the Trickster.) And that brings me back to what “The Post” is really about.
In Donald Trump we have a president who hates the media and threatens his enemies like none since Nixon. Like Nixon, Trump is being investigated on multiple fronts — by House and Senate committees, by a special counsel, and by The New York Times and The Washington Post. Spielberg, in effect, is offering us a soothing message: Our institutions work. Look at what happened the last time.
But the past is not always prologue. The world of the 1970s was one without Fox, without alternative facts, and without a president who denounced press coverage he didn’t like as “fake news.” This time around, not only is it unclear whether the truth will be revealed — it’s even more unclear whether it will even matter.
For the past two years, The Boston Globe’s opinion pages have published new year’s resolutions in the first Sunday edition of January. This year’s, headlined “We Resolve: What Readers Can Expect from the Globe’s Editorial Pages in 2018,” outlines an eclectic agenda, from keeping a close eye on Google and Facebook, to pushing for transportation improvements, to addressing racism “in all its forms.”
The editorial struck me as of a piece with other innovative moves by the Globe’s opinion section — including an interactive editorial on gun violence, a parody front page of what a Donald Trump presidency would look like, and expanded digital content. I asked the Globe’s editorial-page editor, Ellen Clegg, where the idea for editorial-page new year’s resolutions came from and what she hopes it will accomplish. Our lightly edited email exchange appears at the Nieman Journalism Lab.
News publishers have been railing against Facebook ever since the gigantic platform began scooping up — along with Google — the lion’s share of digital advertising. But though people in the media business have long feared that they can’t live with Facebook, many of them have also concluded that they can’t live without it.
That second proposition is now being put to a serious test. Last week Facebook announced that it was changing its news feed to give priority to content posted by family and friends, thus downgrading journalism. As The New York Times put it, “Prioritizing what your friends and family share is part of an effort by Facebook to help people spend time on the site in what it thinks is a more meaningful way.”
Like many journalists, I have long relied on Facebook (and Twitter) to promote my work and to engage with my audience. It’s not exactly clear — at least not yet — what this will mean to individuals who post links to news content as opposed to, say, pictures of their cat. But the implications for publishers are clear enough. And at a time when the news business is besieged on multiple fronts, Mark Zuckerberg’s latest brainstorm is one more thing to worry about.
“For publishers who have come to rely on traffic from Facebook — which for some still drives the majority of their traffic; for many others, 30 or 40 percent — this is awful news,” wrote Joshua Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Benton added that digital-only news sites that rely on free content, massive audiences and online advertising will be hurt the most. Newspapers that have had some success in getting readers to sign up for digital subscriptions won’t be hurt as badly, he added, although they will suffer from a loss of traffic, too.
At the Columbia Journalism Review, Mathew Ingram predicted that some publishers may go out of business as the result of the change:
Moving from an advertising-focused model to one that relies on reader subscriptions may be the prudent move, but getting from point A to point B could be difficult, and some companies may not be able to make the transition. For them, Facebook’s latest algorithm could be what Mother Jones Senior Editor Ben Dreyfuss called “an extinction-level event.”
There’s no question that a decreased emphasis on news may make life easier for Zuckerberg and company. Facebook’s fecklessness in the “fake news” wars has damaged the company’s reputation, and eschewing journalism, fake or otherwise, in favor of heartwarming family updates is, as Benton noted, more in keeping with Zuckerberg’s original vision.
Yet I can’t help but be concerned that this is one more blow that the news business doesn’t need. Maybe the solution is to develop a news product for legitimate publishers that would be separate from the news feed. That would require Facebook to hire journalists and make editorial judgments. But it could also be a contribution to democracy — an idea that Zuckerberg often pays lip service to with very little in the way of action to back it up.
Eight top executives out at The Boston Globe since last summer. Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell paying himself nearly $1 million in the past year as his paper was sliding into bankruptcy. It has been a significant week for the city’s two daily newspapers, and there’s some important context to both stories. So let’s try to tease out what’s really going on.
First the Globe. Last March, as I was finishing up my book on wealthy newspaper publishers, “The Return of the Moguls,” the Globe seemed to be well-positioned to make a legitimate run at financial sustainability. The strategy was a sound one: move the newsroom and business operations to the downtown and open a new printing facility in Taunton dedicated to producing the Globe as well as publications such as the Herald, The New York Times and USA Today.
As we know, the execution turned out to be disastrous. The Taunton plant simply couldn’t handle the work. All kinds of stories were floating around. Among the ones I heard was that management had failed to negotiate an agreement with the unions in a timely manner and that the presses lacked the needed capacity. Whatever it was, the situation quickly devolved into a rerun of the home-distribution fiasco of a year and a half earlier, except with fewer obvious options for fixing it. The story went public in a big way in September, when the Herald published an apology to its readers, putting the blame squarely on the Globe. From a personal point of view, I found myself frantically inserting material into my book about the printing problems during copy-editing and on page proofs.
What I’ve heard in the months since then is that the printing problems have eased but have not been entirely solved. It’s in that light that the eight departures ought to be evaluated, even if not all of them were related to the printing disaster and even if some of the blame was unfairly assigned. Globe publisher and owner John Henry told Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal this week that the changes were made in an attempt to change the culture of the Globe’s business operations.
“The culture of the Globe on the business side … needed to be reset,” Henry told Seiffert via email, adding: “The challenge and disappointment has been squarely with senior leadership. We’ve finally dealt with those issues. I am squarely responsible for not dealing with these issues in the first year.”
Fortunately, the Globe’s long-term strategy of selling expensive digital subscriptions is on track, with editor Brian McGrory recently writing that he expects the paper will cross the 100,000 mark during the first half of this year.
If I had one piece of advice for Henry, it would be this: No doubt the Taunton mess blew up whatever financial projections that had been made, delaying any visions of returning to profitability. But this would be the worst possible time to cut. At a moment when the digital strategy is working, it would make no sense to try to get readers to pay $30 a month for a shrinking product.
The signs are good: the Globe recently added a sixth journalist to its Washington bureau, and it is planning to hire replacements for Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Sebastian Smee, who’s left for The Washington Post, and Statehouse reporter Jim O’Sullivan, who resigned amid accusations of sexual harassment. Slashing the newsroom because of Taunton’s problems would be the worst possible move.
The Herald today published some unsettling news about Pat Purcell, who has owned the paper since 1994 after previously running it for his mentor Rupert Murdoch. According to bankruptcy records obtained by reporter Brian Dowling, Purcell paid himself $970,000 in the year before he declared Chapter 11 on Dec. 8. Finance and operations executive Jeff Magram, a part-owner, was paid another $653,000. Four of Purcell’s children received more than $200,000 among them.
“I continued to pay myself what I was earning previously at News Corp.,” Purcell told Dowling, referring to the name of Murdoch’s company. “I took some raises, same as everyone else. When there were no raises, I took no raises.”
Globe columist Jeff Jacoby, a Herald alumnus, put it this way:
Pat Purcell wasn't expected to take a vow of poverty, but could he really not have made do with, say, $500,000?
On the other hand, kudos to the @BostonHerald for publishing this story. And to Purcell for not spiking it.
And no, of course Purcell didn’t take a vow of poverty when he bought the Herald. But as former Herald columnist Peter Lucas pointed out last Friday in his column for the Lowell Sun and the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise, Murdoch practically gave Purcell the Herald and the South End property it was located on. Several years ago Purcell sold the property, which was redeveloped as the Ink Block high-end combination of condos, apartments, a hotel and a massive Whole Foods.
Now the money-losing Herald owes $31 million and the fate of employee pensions is up in the air. GateHouse Media, Purcell’s preferred buyer, proposes to shrink the number of employees from 240 to 175, although another possible buyer has emerged.
The Herald has gotten smaller and smaller over the years, and it seems reasonable that it was time for the Purcell era to end. But given how well he has done as a direct result of Murdoch’s largesse, I hope his employees’ worst fears aren’t realized when the bankruptcy proceedings are over and the paper is sold. He owes them much.
The idea that Donald Trump is too mentally unstable to serve as president is not new. Just a few weeks after the 2016 election, the liberal commentator Keith Olbermann thundered that Trump should be removed from office under the 25th Amendment — and never mind that Trump wouldn’t actually be sworn in for two more months.
“For my money, he’s nuts — couldn’t pass a sanity test, open book,” Olbermann said in a GQ video viewed more than 840,000 times.
Olbermann was hardly alone. During the past year President Trump’s psychological fitness has been regular fodder for the media. Stat, the Boston Globe-owned health and life-sciences news service, tracked the deterioration of the president’s verbal abilities and gave a platform to a physician who speculated that Trump has an “organic brain disorder.” CNN media reporter Brian Stelter has asked repeatedly if Trump is “fit for office.” Last Wednesday, Politico revealed that a Yale psychiatrist, Bandy X. Lee, the editor of a book titled “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” had met with members of Congress and told them, “He’s going to unravel, and we are seeing the signs.”
All of which is to say that when Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” was released late last week, the ground was already plowed and well-fertilized. So it’s no surprise that it became an immediate sensation. If Wolff were providing us with new information, we would need time to process it, to assess the truthfulness of his reporting (something that’s happening anyway), to weigh it against other accounts of the president’s behavior. Instead, it confirms and adds detail to the story of the childish, impetuous, cruel, and supremely self-centered bully who has dominated our public discourse from the moment that he rode down that escalator some two and a half years ago.
Note, by the way, that I did not write that Trump has “narcissistic personality disorder” or “organic brain disease” or any of the other psychological and medical conditions that have been ascribed to him. I’m not qualified, of course. But neither is a highly credentialed psychiatrist unless he or she has actually peered inside the presidential skull. Whether Trump is suffering from a diagnosable psychological disorder is beside the point — we can observe his horrendous and frightening behavior on a daily basis. This is, after all, a man who took to Twitter just last week to assert that his nuclear button is bigger than Kim Jong Un’s. (Sometimes a cigar really isn’t just a cigar.) Is the why really that important? As Josh Marshall put it at Talking Points Memo:
All the diagnosis of a mental illness could tell us is that Trump might be prone to act in ways that we literally see him acting in every day: impulsive, erratic, driven by petty aggressions and paranoia, showing poor impulsive control, an inability to moderate self-destructive behavior. He is frequently either frighteningly out of touch with reality or sufficiently pathological in his lying that it is impossible to tell. Both are very bad.
You may have heard that there are errors in “Fire and Fury.” That Wolff must have been wrong when he claimed that Trump didn’t know who John Boehner was. That a few names and facts are mixed up and that some Trump officials claim they were misquoted. At such a fraught moment, it’s too bad that Wolff wasn’t more careful given that Trump and his supporters (and, sadly, New York Times reporter Ken Vogel) will seize upon anything to discredit him. But having read the book over the weekend, I was struck by how much of it was already publicly known, and how much of what wasn’t known came from the exceedingly careless lips of Trump’s thuggish former mastermind, Stephen Bannon, who hasn’t denied anything — including his description of a meeting between a Russian contact and Trump campaign officials Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner as “treasonous.”
Moreover, the president’s attempts to discredit the book have only bolstered Wolff’s standing — especially Trump’s threat to sue Bannon for violating a nondisclosure agreement, a tacit acknowledgment that what Bannon told Wolff was true. Nor did it help that the president bizarrely tweeted that he is a “very stable genius” in response to Wolff’s evidence that he is, well, unstable and is thought by some of his associates to be borderline illiterate.
Last Friday, on NBC’s “Today” show, Wolff said that “100 percent of the people around” Trump, “senior advisers, family members, every single one of them, questions his intelligence and fitness for office.” Do you doubt that? Recall that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the president a “fucking moron.” Consider that former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg concedes he probably told Wolff that Trump is an “idiot.” Remember how mortified the president’s staff was when Trump defendedthe “many good people” in the white nationalist movement.
The media need not offer a clinical diagnosis of the president in order to tell us about his state of mind. What news organizations have been doing, and should be doing more of, is reporting on whether Trump is fit for office. Michael Wolff has done all of us a service by moving that subject from chatter on the periphery to the center of the public conversation.