How three newspaper moguls responded to the end of free digital content

New Haven at night. Photo (cc) 2007 by Matt Krause.

Author Dan Kennedy will talk about the future of the news — and his new book “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century” — with Independent Editor Paul Bass at an event at the Book Trader Cafe, 1140 Chapel St., Wednesday, May 23, at 6:30 p.m. An excerpt from Dan’s book follows.

Communities can’t thrive without strong, independent journalism.

When the business model that pays for news fails, we need alternatives. That was the idea behind my 2013 book, The Wired City, which explored new forms of online local journalism, with a focus on the New Haven Independent.

But traditional newspapers still matter, whether in print, online, or both. A good daily paper can reach an audience and command attention more effectively than most other types of media. Newspapers are often seen as dinosaurs lumbering toward extinction, laid low by technological advances, the collapse of advertising revenues, and greedy hedge-fund owners seeking to squeeze out every last drop of profit before discarding them like yesterday’s news. In such an environment, can newspapers be saved?

Read the rest at the New Haven Independent. And talk about this post on Facebook.

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Talking about ‘Moguls’ with Emily Rooney at the BPL

My WGBH News colleague (and “Beat the Press” host) Emily Rooney and I talked about “The Return of the Moguls” Tuesday in a Facebook Live event at WGBH’s Boston Public Library studio. You can watch by clicking here.

Book excerpt: How John Henry overcame his doubts about buying The Boston Globe

John Henry

WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy’s new book, “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century,” examines whether a new generation of wealthy owners can help solve the financial crisis that threatens the beleaguered newspaper business. In this excerpt, Kennedy, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University, tells the story of how Red Sox Principal Owner John Henry decided to buy The Boston Globe from the New York Times Co.

Please join us either in person or via Facebook Live Tuesday May 15 at 4:30 p.m., when Kennedy will be interviewed by Beat the Press Host Emily Rooney at the WGBH studio at the Boston Public Library.

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Rumors that The Boston Globe might be for sale began circulating as far back as 2006, when a group headed by retired General Electric chief executive Jack Welch, who was a Boston-area native, and local advertising executive Jack Connors was reported to be nosing around. At the time, the Globe was said to be valued at somewhere between $550 million and $600 million, vastly more than the price John Henry paid seven years later. But the New York Times Co. wasn’t selling — at least not yet.

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

No, the Digital First approach to newspaper ownership is not defensible

Politico media columnist Jack Shafer has written, if you can believe it, a semi-defense of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and its principal, Randall Smith, who are in the midst of running their newspapers into the ground. Alden owns the Digital First Media chain, whose Denver Post is the locus of an insurrection against hedge-fund ownership. The 100-paper chain also owns three Massachusetts properties: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

Shafer’s argument is a simple one: the end is at hand for the newspaper business, no one has figured out how to reverse its shrinking fortunes, and so therefore Smith can’t be blamed for squeezing out the last few drops of profit before the industry collapses. “Smith may be a rapacious fellow,” Shafer writes, “but his primary crime is recognizing that print is approaching its expiration date and is acting on the fact that more value can be extracted by sucking the marrow than by investing deeper or selling.”

Now, it’s possible that Shafer is right. But I’m considerably more optimistic about the future of newspapers than he is. Let me offer a few countervailing examples.

1. I certainly don’t want to sound naive about GateHouse Media, a chain of several hundred papers controlled by yet another hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group. GateHouse, which dominates Eastern Massachusetts, runs its papers on the cheap, too, and I’ve got a lot of problems with its barebones coverage of the communities it serves.

But GateHouse, unlike Digital First, is committed to newspapers. That’s why both insiders and outsiders were hoping GateHouse would buy the Herald. I genuinely think the folks at GateHouse are trying to crack the code on how to do community journalism at a profit for some years to come — and yes, its journalists are underpaid, and yes, I don’t like the fact that some editing operations have been centralized in Austin, Texas. But it could be worse, as Digital First demonstrates. For some insight into the GateHouse strategy, see this NPR story.

2. Smaller independently owned daily papers without debt can do well. The Berkshire Eagle is in the midst of a revival following its sale by Digital First to local business interests several years ago. In Maine, a printer named Reade Brower has built an in-state chain centered around the Portland Press Herald that by all accounts is doing well.

3. Large regional papers like The Denver Post are the most endangered. Transforming The Washington Post into a profitable national news organization, as Jeff Bezos has done, was a piece of cake compared to saving metros. As I describe in “The Return of the Moguls,” billionaire owner John Henry of The Boston Globe is pursuing a strategy that could result in a return to profitability: charging as much as the market will bear for print delivery (now up to more than $1,000 a year) and digital subscriptions ($30 a month). Globe executives say the paper is on track to pass the 100,000 mark for digital subscriptions in the first half of this year, and that the business model will start to look sustainable if it can reach 200,000.

In other words, reinventing the newspaper business is not a hopeless task. Randall Smith and Alden Global Capital have taken the easy, cynical route — but not the only route. There are better ways.

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‘Moguls’ world tour coming to New York and Cape Ann

I’m very excited to let you know that I’ll be the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the American Association of Newspaper Distributors, or AAIND, in New York at noon this coming Thursday, May 3.

On Sunday, May 6, I’ll be part of a free panel discussion called “Journalism in the Age of Fake News and Truth Telling,” to be held at 3 p.m. at the Rockport Public Library, 17 School St. The event is being sponsored by Literary Cape Ann. A book signing will follow.

A complete list of events is online here.

Editor & Publisher says ‘Moguls’ explores the highs and lows of billionaire newspaper ownership

Longtime newspaper executive Matt DeRienzo has an insightful review of “The Return of the Moguls” in the trade publication Editor & Publisher. He begins:

Hoping a random billionaire buys your local newspaper and makes everything great again is probably not a solid plan for saving journalism in most of America. But examples of just that in Boston and Washington, D.C., are providing room for experimentation that could help the rest of the industry figure out new business models.

That’s partly the conclusion of a new book by Northeastern University journalism professor and Boston media critic Dan Kennedy. “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry are Remaking Newspapers for the 21st Century” explores turnarounds at the Washington Post and Boston Globe, failed attempts elsewhere, and the overall limits and pitfalls of the “billionaire savior” model.

Read the whole thing.

Book talk with the old Phoenix crew

I had a lot of fun talking with my old Boston Phoenix colleagues (and current WGBH News compadres) Peter Kadzis and Adam Reilly for their podcast, “The Scrum.” You can listen here.

‘Moguls’ on ‘Beat the Press’


Thanks to “Beat the Press” host Emily Rooney for giving me a little time at the end of last Friday’s show to talk about “The Return of the Moguls.”

‘Chronicle’ takes a look at the future of Boston’s newspapers

Anthony Everett of “Chronicle”

Last Wednesday I had a chance to talk about “The Return of the Moguls” with Jesse Grossi, a producer for “Chronicle” on WCVB-TV (Channel 5), for a report on the fate of The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. You can watch “Breaking News” by clicking here or on the image above. Stay tuned for our cat, Dexter, who makes a prolonged if diffident appearance.

Do newspapers still matter? A conversation about ‘Moguls’ with WBZ-TV’s Jon Keller

Thanks to Jon Keller for having me on “Keller @ Large” Sunday morning to talk about “The Return of the Moguls.” We’re having a launch party at Northeastern today at 5 p.m. Hope to see you there!