There are no good guys in the battle between Gannett and Digital First Media

Ben Bagdikian had Gannett’s number (1976 photo via Wikipedia)

The Gannett newspaper chain, as bad as it has been for the communities it serves, is now being held up as an exemplar of local journalism that must be saved from the ravages of Digital First Media, which, admittedly, is much worse. Talk about defining deviancy down. What I observed in Burlington, Vermont, in late 2015 should give anyone pause before they praise Gannett — once labeled by the late media critic Ben Bagdikian as “the largest and most aggressive newspaper chain in the United States.”

The newspaper analyst Ken Doctor, writing at the Nieman Journalism Lab, reports that Gannett executives may seek to wriggle out of Digital First’s hostile takeover attempt by delivering themselves into the arms of Tribune Publishing, the company formerly known as tronc. Tribune, like Gannett, is known more for its cost-cutting than for its journalism. But anything is better than Digital First.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Advertisements

Digital First wants to buy Gannett, endangering local newspapers across the U.S.

It’s hard to imagine worse news for the beleaguered business of local journalism. The Wall Street Journal reported (sub. req.) on Sunday that Digital First Media, the hedge-fund-owned chain notorious for squeezing out the last drop of blood from its newspapers, is trying to buy Gannett. Brian Stelter has posted an update at CNN.com.

Gannett is best known for publishing USA Today — which, though it’s a perfectly fine paper, it’s mainly something to look at when you’re in a hotel. The real story is its vast chain of local newspapers, which are listed here. New England is a nearly Gannett-free zone, with the Burlington Free Press of Vermont being its only holding. By contrast, New Jersey, with eight Gannett local news properties, would be devastated. Digital First owns three papers in Massachusetts: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

According to USA Today, Gannett had not received an offer from Digital First as of Sunday night. But it’s for real, as Jeff Sonderman of the American Press Institute tweeted:

Not to praise Gannett too much. Back when the newspaper business was considerably healthier than it is today, media critics like the late Ben Badgikian reported that Gannett insisted on profit margins of 30 percent, 40 percent or more, cutting considerably into their public service mission. In recent years, Gannett has cut the Burlington Free Press to the bone. In “The Return of the Moguls,” I wrote about an alternative media ecosystem in Burlington that had grown in response to the decline of the Free Press. It’s only gotten worse at the Free Press since I did my reporting in late 2015.

But Gannett, a publicly traded company, and GateHouse Media, another hedge-fund-owned chain, at least seem to be in the business of trying to chart a path to the future. Digital First and its owner, Alden Global Capital, by contrast, appear to be in what economists refer to as “harvesting” mode, taking the last few dollars out of their shrinking newspapers before shutting them down or selling them off.

I’ve written about Digital First several times. Most recently, I wrote for WGBHNews.org about a report from the University of North Carolina called “The Expanding News Desert,” which was highly critical of Digital First and GateHouse. In 2014, I tracked the history of Digital First in New Haven for The Huffington Post — from bankruptcy to a fascinating experiment under the visionary leadership of John Paton and then back to bottom-line-oriented cost-cutting.

Let’s just hope the Gannett board decides to fight rather than give in.

Update: Ken Doctor writes at the Nieman Journalism Lab that Gannett may try to escape Digital First’s clutches by running into the arms of Tribune Publishing, known until recently as tronc.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Stephen King’s tweet saves local book reviews at the Maine Sunday Telegram

Stephen King is no longer singing the local-book-review blues. Photo (cc) 2013 by the USO.

This is a hoot. After the Portland Press Herald made it known that it would drop freelance-written reviews of local books as a cost-saving measure, Maine’s favorite author, Stephen King, lodged a protest on Twitter and urged his followers to do the same.

The Press Herald responded that if King could persuade at least 100 people to buy digital subscriptions, they would restore the reviews to the Sunday edition, known as the Maine Sunday Telegram:

It worked, and the book reviews will return next Sunday. “It’s a Stephen King story with a happy ending,” publisher Lisa DeSisto told The New York Times. (I worked with DeSisto at The Boston Phoenix many years ago, and she makes a cameo in “The Return of the Moguls.”)

Let me pour just a small amount of lukewarm water on all this. First, cutting local book reviews without consulting readers makes as little sense as, oh, slashing the Sunday funnies. Second, I hope this doesn’t become a habit. Hey, let’s tell everyone we’re going to stop covering restaurants unless we can sell 1,000 more subscriptions.

Still, this is a great story. I’m glad King’s influence did the trick.

Clarification: There was no public announcement that the Press Herald was planning to drop local reviews, but freelance contributors were made aware of it. I’ve rewritten the top to reflect that.

Monday update: Publishers Weekly has an especially detailed account of what went down. Also, King’s gambit did not save jobs elsewhere at the Press Herald:

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Globe ad executive leaves over unspecified workplace issues

Big if vague news: The Boston Globe has cut ties with one of its top advertising executives, Michael Bentley, over issues related to “a safe, welcoming, and comfortable working environment for all employees.”

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Yes, the networks were right to give Trump airtime. No, it wasn’t worth watching.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Of course the networks made the right decision in giving President Trump airtime to deliver yet another pitch for his border wall. Yes, he lied, as we all knew he would. Yes, he engaged in fear-mongering, which is to say that he opened his mouth and spoke. But the notion that television executives should have said no to a president making his first request for a prime-time Oval Office address in the midst of the shutdown crisis (a crisis of his own making, but still) is hard to take seriously.

And yet that’s where we are.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Four dailies north of Boston sold to Alabama retirement fund

The CNHI newspapers have been sold to Retirement Systems of Alabama. CNHI’s holdings in Massachusetts include four daily newspapers — The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times — as well as several non-daily publications.

This is good news, with reservations. CNHI’s ownership has long been complicated; the Alabama buyer has been involved for years, so this doesn’t seem like much of a change. CNHI has run the papers on the cheap, but the quality remains good. I know that staff members were concerned that the papers might be sold to Digital First Media or GateHouse Media, hedge-fund-owned chains that slash their properties to the bone. So it could have been worse.

Earlier: “Eagle-Tribune and affiliated papers north of Boston put up for sale” (June 25, 2018).

Talk about this post on Facebook.

 

Five ways to de-Trumpify your life in 2019

Photo (cc) 2011 by Gage Skidmore

Previously published at WGBH News.

The dawn of a new year is yet another opportunity for President Trump to make news in all the wrong ways — and another invitation for the media to obsess over every tweet, insult, lie, and outburst of unpresidential behavior.

Aside from denigrating journalists as purveyors of #fakenews and as the “Enemy of the American People,” Trump has actually been good for the media. Digital subscriptions at newspapers are up, audiences for NPR and political podcasts are growing, and donations are on the rise at ProPublica and other nonprofits. At the same time, though, the relentless coverage of our dysfunctional, falsehood-spewing president has resulted in an overwhelming sense of fatigue.

I’m here to help. No, we can’t ignore Trump — not when his policies result in the deaths of children at the border, or when he refuses to take seriously the apparent murder of a journalist at the hands of the Saudi regime, or when one of his former aides implicates him in crimes. But we can retake control of our news diet, slowing the torrent of Trump news, semi-news, and alleged news to a more manageable flow. Not only will it help us stay sane, but it will allow is to react appropriately when something genuinely terrible takes place.

Here, then, are five ideas for de-Trumpifying your life in 2019.

1. Ignore nearly all stories about Trump’s tweets. The media can’t disregard the president’s sociopathic Twitter stream entirely. Someone has to pay attention. All too often, though, some awful thing Trump said on Twitter winds up overshadowing some even more awful thing he’s doing IRL. You might say Trump does that deliberately. I don’t think so; rather, I think Twitter is where he expresses his truest self. But we need to keep it in perspective.Granted, it can be difficult when he posts a beauty like this:

But, really, was that any worse than what he tweets out on a daily basis? It’s time for all of us to move Trump’s tweets off center stage and to regard them as the sort of low hum that’s given off by fluorescent lights — always there, but usually not noticed.

2. Pay more attention to the world around you. I don’t mean you should take a walk in the woods, although of course you should. I mean you should immerse yourself more deeply in non-Trump news that’s unfolding both internationally and nationally — stories about climate change, war, rising fascism, space exploration, religion, sports, culture, and yes, stories about kindness and compassion and hope.

Politics is just one part of the human experience, which is something that political junkies like me have to remind ourselves of from time to time. And Trump is just one part of politics. Yes, Trump has been good for the business of journalism, but the downside is that news organizations load up their home pages and social media feeds with all things Trump in order to drive clicks and digital subscriptions and to drive us over the edge. We don’t have to take part.

3. Become a news locavore. If you’re not paying attention to what’s going on in your community, make changing that one of your New Year’s resolutions. It’s not just that it’s important. It’s that people who might have wildly divergent views about national politics usually have less trouble finding common ground at the local level.

There’s an old saying that there isn’t a liberal or conservative way to pick up the garbage, and there’s something to it. More important, though, is that when we get to know each other as individuals, what separates us tends to fade away and what we have in common moves to the forefront. As the journalist James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic shortly after the 2016 election, “at the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear, Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.” (Fallows and his wife, Deborah Fallows, expanded that idea into a book called “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.”)

Part of making a commitment to localism means supporting local media. National and regional news organizations need your support, of course, but so does the startup community website you might be lucky enough to have — or even the corporate-owned weekly newspaper that employs your town’s only watchdog journalist. What she reports on is at least as important to your life as anything you’ll find in The New York Times or The Washington Post.

4. Stop watching cable news talk shows. If there’s a big breaking news story, you’re going to tune in CNN, and so am I. But the social value of the talk shows that CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News broadcast during prime time every evening is close to zero.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I recently watched Rachel Maddow’s and Sean Hannity’s top-rated talk shows on MSNBC and Fox, respectively. And though Maddow’s liberal program was more fact-based than the right-wing conspiracy theories that Hannity offers these days, both shows earn their money by exploiting the political polarization that defines life in 21st-century America. CNN’s idea of an alternative is to have liberal and conservative guests argue with each other.

There is quality news on television. At the national level, the network nightly newscasts are still respectable, and the “PBS NewsHour” offers substance, even if it’s too heavy on eat-your-peas seriousness. Surveys show that local TV newscasts are more trusted than other forms of news, and Boston’s choices are many and varied.

5. Change your relationship with social media. This is a tough one, which is why I’ve saved it for last. For most of us over a certain age, when I talk about social media I’m talking mainly about Facebook, with its 2.2 billion active monthly users. We all know the existential crisis Facebook is dealing with over the exposure of its repeated privacy violations, its manipulation of users via a Russian disinformation campaign, and its mysterious but highly effective algorithm, which keeps users engaged by feeding them content that plays into their fears and anger.

And yet Facebook is just so damn useful, connecting us with family and friends in some pretty powerful ways. For those of us who communicate for a living, Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms allow us to expand our reach beyond what was previously possible.

What should we do? Some people are quitting Facebook, and I respect that. Most of us, though, aren’t going to go that far. I’m not, at least not yet. Instead, I think we all ought to resolve to try to use Facebook responsibly in 2019. I can’t define what that means. But I imagine it involves some combination of using it mainly to stay in touch with people who are important to us, interacting on local and special-interest groups, and ignoring politically charged content even when we agree with it. It’s just not healthy.

None of these steps is aimed at eliminating President Trump from your life. That wouldn’t make any more sense than running around with your hair on fire every time he lies. There is going to be plenty of Trump news in 2019. Special counsel Robert Mueller will presumably submit his report at some point. The Democratic House may take up impeachment. The president will continue to act unpredictably, rashly, and, in many instances, horribly. We can hardly ignore it all.

But we can pay attention to what really matters — while at the same time downgrading Trump from a constant crisis to more of a dull, aching pain that never quite goes away.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Putting 2018 in the rear-view mirror: A look back at a tough year in media

Photo illustration by Emily Judem/WGBH News

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The ongoing struggles of Boston’s two daily newspapers. What Facebook should do about falsehood-spreading hatemongers like Alex Jones. The FCC’s latest assault on truth, justice, and the American way. And, of course, our 21st annual roundup of outrages against free speech.

With 2018 entering its final days, I thought I’d look back at what I wrote during the past 12 months. Unlike last year, I’m not going with my 10 most-read columns. Instead, I’ve chosen 10 columns that address a range of different issues, presented here in chronological order.

1. Standing up to presidential power — in 1971 (Jan. 17). With President Trump regularly attacking journalists as “enemies of the people” and purveyors of #fakenews, what could have been more welcome than a feel-good movie about the last time the press confronted an out-of-control president? “The Post,” directed by Steven Spielberg, told the tale of The Washington Post’s desperate struggle to catch up with The New York Times, which had beaten them in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. By agreeing with executive editor Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks) that the Post should go all in, publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) established the Post as a great national newspaper — and paved the way for its later coverage of the Watergate scandal, which ultimately destroyed Richard Nixon’s presidency.

2. The Boston Herald’s new budget-slashing owner (Feb. 14). When previous Herald publisher Pat Purcell took the tabloid into bankruptcy in late 2017, it was supposed to end in a prearranged sale to GateHouse Media, a hedge-fund-owned chain of newspapers known for its cost-cutting. Instead, another hedge-fund-owned chain with an even worse reputation, Digital First Media, swooped in late in the process and bought the Herald for a reported $11.9 million. The Herald has been decimated by Digital First, although the journalists who are still there continue to do good work. How bad did it get? Recently, Herald editor Joe Sciacca was made the editor of seven daily papers and several weeklies in Massachusetts and upstate New York. No doubt Sciacca will do the best he can. But it’s an absurd situation created by owners who clearly don’t care.

3. The 2018 New England Muzzle Awards (July 3). Since 1998, I’ve been writing a Fourth of July roundup of enemies of free speech, first for The Boston Phoenix, and since 2013 for WGBH News. (My friend Harvey Silverglate, a prominent civil-liberties lawyer, writes a separate story on censorship at New England’s colleges and universities.) This year’s Muzzles were especially eclectic, featuring not just bogeymen of the right like President Trump and former White House communications chief Anthony Scaramucci but also former president Barack Obama and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a progressive favorite. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. As the late, great defender of the First Amendment Nat Hentoff memorably put it (quoting a friend), “Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second.”

4. Boston Globe owner John Henry expresses his frustrations (July 25). Five years into his announcement that he would buy the Globe, I conducted an email Q&A with the billionaire financier, who is also the principal owner of the Red Sox. And though Henry insisted that he planned to hold onto the Globe “during my lifetime,” he said he was frustrated with the paper’s ongoing losses and failure “to meet budgets.” Cuts were made in the newsroom and elsewhere throughout the fall. The situation reached a public impasse just recently, when the Boston Newspaper Guild, which represents the Globe’s editorial employees as well as many on the business side, denounced management for bringing in the “union-busting” law firm Jones Day. The Columbia Journalism Review has described the firm as “notorious for aggressive anti-union tactics that journalists and union leaders say have helped downgrade media union contracts and carve employee benefits to the bone.” See more here, including a statement from Henry this week that the Globe is now “profitable.”

5. Remembering John McCain (Aug. 27). On the occasion of Sen. McCain’s death, I republished a story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix in February 2000, when I followed McCain and George W. Bush around South Carolina as they campaigned in that state’s Republican primary. Bush defeated McCain and went on to win the presidency. I think I had more fun reporting this story than just about any other I can remember. Regardless of what you thought of his politics, Sen. McCain was a great American and a raconteur who enjoyed sparring with the press. Unfortunately, he seems like an anachronism in the poisonous, hyper-polarized atmosphere of 2018.

6. Alex Jones and the privatization of free speech (Sept. 27). Two cheers for Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms for deleting Jones’ accounts. He’s not just a right-wing conspiracy theorist; he spouts falsehoods that put actual people in real danger, including the Sandy Hook families and the parents of murder victim Seth Rich. But what have we given up when we’ve turned over our First Amendment rights to giant corporations with their own interests and agendas? Social media has become the new public square. And the public has no say in how it’s governed. These days we are all rethinking our relationship with Facebook. We need some sort of public alternative.

7. Our undemocratic system of government (Oct. 10). When the founders wrote the Constitution, they gave us a republic, believing that the will of the majority should be reflected by and tempered through the wisdom of men of their own social and intellectual class. What they did not believe was that the minority should govern the majority — but that’s what we have today. Thanks to a system that favors smaller states, Republicans control the presidency, the Senate, and the Supreme Court despite being supported by far fewer voters than their Democratic opponents. Reform is long overdue.

8. What ails local journalism? (Nov. 12). Probably my favorite topic, and one I’ve turned to on several occasions during the past few years. I decided to highlight this particular column because I used it to concentrate not on the familiar supply side of the crisis (greedy corporate newspaper owners, a diminishing ad market, and technological changes) but on the demand side. In other words, do people really care enough about what is going on in their local communities? And if they don’t, how can local news organizations survive? We need a crash course in civic literacy. After all, you can’t get people interested in news about what’s taking place in city hall unless they understand why it matters.

9. The FCC targets community access TV (Nov. 28). Having already destroyed net neutrality despite an outpouring of public protest, the FCC is now going after a vital source of information at the local level: community access television, the folks who bring you city council meetings, school concerts, and DIY news reports. Under a rule change proposed by the telecommunications industry, local cable providers would be able to deduct the cost of funding public access from the fees they pay to cities and towns. As Susan Fleischmann, executive director of Cambridge Community Television, told me, “This is like a taxpayer saying to the city, ‘I am clearing my sidewalk of snow and keeping the leaves out of the storm drains, and I have also decided to take care of the trees in front of my house. So, I am counting this against the real estate taxes that I owe.’” U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, among others, is trying to protect funding for local access, but FCC chair Ajit Pai has shown little inclination to act in the public interest.

10. My evening with Rachel and Sean (Dec. 6). With news about the Mueller investigation reaching one of its periodic crescendos, I decided to spend an evening watching the two top-rated cable news programs: Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC and Sean Hannity’s on Fox News. And though I found the liberal Maddow to be considerably more respectful of actual facts than Hannity, a conspiracy-minded Trump sycophant, I came away thinking that both are contributing to the polarization that is tearing us apart. In nearly 40 years we’ve gone from “And that’s the way it is” to “And here’s the way we will reinforce your pre-existing prejudices.” What a loss.

Finally, my thanks to WGBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2019.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Globe president, in year-end message, says digital subs are approaching 110,000

A source just sent along this end-of-the-year message from Vinay Mehra, the president and chief financial officer of Boston Globe Media Partners. It follows publisher John Henry’s statement earlier this week that the Globe is now profitable and is likely to remain in the black next year as well.

The main takeaways here are that the Globe, having passed the crucial 100,000 mark for paid digital subscriptions several months ago, is now closing in on 110,000. Globe executives have said that if they can hit 200,000 then the paper may be able to achieve long-term sustainability. Also of interest: The Globe is taking part in a three-month exercise with Harvard Business School “to define our business strategy.”

What’s missing: Any mention of the Globe’s contentious negotiations with the Boston Newspaper Guild, including management’s decision to bring in what the Guild has described as a “union-busting” law firm. One hopes that Mehra and the Henrys understand that the people who produce what he describes as “the many successes our journalism racked up this year” should be treated fairly.

The full text of Mehra’s message follows.

Dear Colleagues,

As we head into the holiday season, on behalf of [managing partner] Linda [Henry] and myself, I want to take a moment to share with you a few highlights of what we have achieved this year as well as an outline what we hope to achieve in 2019.

Our success in 2018 was no accident. It was a tough year that required a lot of work and I am pleased to say our efforts began to pay off. We started, of course, with powerful journalism across all our brands — The Boston Globe, STAT and Boston.com. On top of that, we found areas of real growth, while we aggressively targeted savings across all facets of our business and carefully managed expenses to stay ahead of the structural declines we are all seeing in our industry.  For the first time in a long time, we are ending the year in black, and to remain there we must continue our vigilance in looking for efficiencies.

But financial results are just one measure of the many successes our journalism racked up this year. There are way too many to list here, so I’ll mention just a few:

  • Spotlight was a Pulitzer finalist for its groundbreaking series in December [2017]  on race issues in Boston that inspired a region-wide discussion that has no precedent
  • Our coverage of the State Police overtime fraud investigations, the Columbia gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley, the investigative pieces on Massachusetts secret courts and the TSA’s Quiet Skies program drove accountability and change
  • The stories in STAT about IBM-Watson’s troubled health business led to a major leadership change at the company

We also extended the reach of our journalism by expanding into new platforms:

  • The Aaron Hernandez Spotlight series in the Globe resulted in a podcast with over 4 million downloads, a trip to number 1 on the Apple charts, and considerable interest from Hollywood
  • Last Seen, a true crime podcast examining the most valuable and confounding art heist in history from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, hit over 3.4 million downloads and was in the top 10 on iTunes
  • Season one of the Love Letters podcast launched earlier this year when Meredith took on the hardest question she gets: How do I get over it?  Leveraging its success, season two will launch in early 2019

As incomparably talented as our journalists are, they don’t do it alone. Peel back the curtain, and what’s revealed is you … our employees across all departments of BGMP [Boston Globe Media Partners]. Day in and day out, your coordinated efforts — leveraging your relationships, expertise, passion and creativity are what have made this institution a leader in an industry that is starting to find its footing.

For growth on the digital side to be sustainable, we must remain focused, bold, and daring, and in 2018, we had no shortages of examples:

  • We continued our digital growth, ending the year with close to 110,000 digital-only subscribers for the Boston Globe — more digital subscribers than almost any other major metropolitan news organization
  • We invested in a new digital content management system, Arc, and launched a new mobile app for the Boston Globe, another step in our digital transformation
  • STAT doubled down on coverage of life sciences, pharma and biotech, resulting in record revenue and subscriber growth
  • We launched a new section on cannabis dedicated to covering and facilitating conversations around the politics, business, use and impact of cannabis in the Northeast
  • Our events brought the community together to talk about important issues such as race, the future of work, the future of democracy, and the midterm elections

Impressive commercial results and remarkable engagement of our readers to our stories are not the only things that drive us. Being a leader in the news industry comes with responsibility. We take that role seriously and demonstrated it in August, when our editorial board led a coordinated effort that resulted in 450 newsrooms across the country joining us to defend the freedom of the press against harmful rhetoric labeling the press as “the enemy of the people.”

As important as it is to drive these conversations in the community, it’s important for us as an organization to reflect on how we can live up to what we shed a light on. One example was the Race Series, which prompted a degree of self-reflection.  Leadership on diversity and inclusion starts at the top, so we have made an intentional effort to ensure our executive team represents a broad range of backgrounds. We will continue to move through our practices in recruiting, talent assessment, and measuring the leadership of this organization against a few core guiding principles, one of which is related to creating an environment that nurtures inclusion, and compensation goals will be tied to this important measure.

It’s not lost on me that there are many questions about the future of our business and our strategy. This past month, a cross-functional team of more than 30 leaders across all disciplines of our organization met with me and a team from Harvard Business School to begin a 3-month exercise to define our business strategy. We all left very encouraged and I will have more to share as we move forward.

As we reflect on a transformative and eventful year, the reality is this: when the business had been experiencing double-digit declines we didn’t dig a hole and hide, we invested — in new business models, new technologies, new talent. We didn’t lose faith. We continued to produce quality journalism, launch new products, and provide opportunities to convene our community around important issues.

All of us know that people who choose to spend their lives in the news business are special, they’re unique, and they are undeniably passionate about their work.  This isn’t simply a job, it’s a mission — a mission motivated by our love of informing people. And that’s precisely what makes me so proud to work alongside each and every one of you.

We wish you and your loved ones a happy, restful and safe holiday and I look forward to seeing you in 2019.

Vinay

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Amid union strife, John Henry now says The Boston Globe is profitable

Republished at WGBHNews.org.

Here’s an unexpected development: The Boston Globe, which has been losing money more often than not for years, is now turning a profit, according to publisher and owner John Henry.

“The Globe may have turned the corner finally due to management, increasingly relevant journalism, continuing strategic investment and by becoming much more efficient in all areas,” Henry said Tuesday night in response to an email query. He added: “I don’t know how long it has been … since the Globe had a profitable year but we will this year and probably next as well. As our digital growth continues the sustainability of a vibrant Boston Globe is coming into view. It’s been a long time coming.”

What prompted my email was buzz coming out of the Globe newsroom that management had claimed the paper was running in the black. It struck me as unlikely, but Henry has now confirmed it, although he did not respond to my request for some actual numbers.

The good news comes at a moment when Henry and his management team have taken an aggressive stance in contract negotiations with the Boston Newspaper Guild, the union that represents the Globe’s editorial employees and many on the business side as well. The Guild recently issued a statement denouncing management for hiring the “union-busting” law firm Jones Day, described by the Columbia Journalism Review as “notorious for aggressive anti-union tactics that journalists and union leaders say have helped downgrade media union contracts and carve employee benefits to the bone.”

I asked Henry if he was concerned that hardball tactics with the union could result in a loss of goodwill with his employees and the public. As you’ll see below, he did not answer directly. But it doesn’t seem like a good look to crack down on the union at a time when its members’ sacrifices have helped Henry balance the books. That said, negotiations often get ugly. That doesn’t mean the talks can’t be resolved on terms both sides can live with.

Henry, a billionaire financier who is also the principal owner of the Red Sox, has long lamented the Globe’s declining fortunes and the dismal state of the newspaper industry in the five years since he bought the paper from the New York Times Co. When I interviewed Henry in early 2016 for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” he said he expected to lose money both that year and the following year. “You look at the Globe — we have about $300 million a year in income and we can’t make money,” he said. “The cost of making money is high.” (Earlier this year the Boston Business Journal estimated that revenues for 2018 would range from $225 million to $250 million.)

This past July, Henry told me in an email interview for WGBH News that the losses were continuing. “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,” he said. “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.”

Since that time, management, headed by president and chief financial officer Vinay Mehra, has cut spending on both the news and business sides. It seems to have worked, although news coverage and customer service have taken a hit. Throughout the news business, of course, revenues continue to decline. But there is reason for some optimism with the Globe. Several months ago it passed the 100,000 mark for digital subscribers, an important milestone. Globe officials have said the paper could approach financial viability if they can reach 200,000. Needless to say, that’s a lofty goal.

The full text of Henry’s email follows.

The Globe may have turned the corner finally due to management, increasingly relevant journalism, continuing strategic investment and by becoming much more efficient in all areas.

There has also been a focus on getting costs and practices closer to industry standards of major newspapers. This is something the Globe was never able to do. And this is what I believe management is continuing to do in its negotiations with the guild presently.

We want the strongest possible newsroom in the future. Much as sports teams are dependent on the talent of those who take the field every day, the Globe depends on a talented newsroom and editorial page that hopefully has the tools they need to be successful. So ultimately I believe management and the guild will find common ground in a very challenging environment for newspapers where your very survival is dependent on doing the right things day-to-day.

Both have the same overriding objectives — to provide our community with vital, serious journalism.

I don’t know how long it has been, Dan, since the Globe had a profitable year but we will this year and probably next as well. As our digital growth continues the sustainability of a vibrant Boston Globe is coming into view. It’s been a long time coming.

Talk about this post on Facebook.