Yikes! COVID hair! (Since cut.) I enjoyed having a chance to talk recently with Eileen MacDougall of “Book Stew” about “The Return of the Moguls” and the future of news.
The Boston Globe now has more than 200,000 digital subscribers, editor Brian McGrory said at a Zoom gathering of the Society of Professional Journalists’ New England chapter earlier this week.
Much of the recent growth, he said, has been driven by interest in the Globe’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a follow-up email, McGrory told me that the number of digital-only subscribers has risen from about 145,000 just before the pandemic to nearly 205,000 today.
“It took us 7 years to get our first 100,000 digital-only subscribers, and about 11 months to get to 200,000,” he said, adding: “The rise has been substantial, gratifying, and important in terms of supporting our journalism…. We’re the only metro paper that could support the current size of its newsroom through revenue from digital subscribers.”
That 200,000 mark has been a goal for a long time. When I interviewed McGrory in early 2016 for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” he told me, “If we got to 100,000 things would be feeling an awful lot better. And if we got to 200,000, I think we’d be well on our way to establishing a truly sustainable future.”
This week’s landmark comes with some caveats, though.
First, most of those new subscriptions were sold at a steep discount, generally in the range of $1 a month for the first six months. Given that the Globe’s profitability (pre-COVID, anyway) was built on an industry-high rate of $30 a month, the paper will presumably face a challenge in keeping those new subscribers.
Second, although we’ve been heading into the post-advertising era for quite a while, the pandemic has sent ad revenues across the newspaper business into a steep downward plunge. As the newspaper analyst Ken Doctor wrote for Nieman Lab in late March, “Advertising, which has been doing a slow disappearing act since 2008, has been cut in half in the space of two weeks. It’s unlikely to come back quickly — the parts that do come back at all.”
Nor has the Globe been immune from budget cuts. Co-op students, summer internships and freelance were cut right at the start of the shutdown. Don Seiffert recently reported in the Boston Business Journal that there have been an unspecified number of layoffs in advertising and other non-news operations, as well as reduced retirement contributions, in response to “significant” reductions in revenue.
Still, that’s minimal compared to what’s taking place across the newspaper business. The New York Times reported several weeks ago that some 36,000 news employees throughout the United States have been laid off, furloughed or had their pay cut. Many papers have cut back on the number of print days or eliminated print altogether. Some are closing. Poynter Online is keeping a list of cuts, and it is long and daunting.
The three leading national papers — The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal — have been exceptions to the death-of-newspapers narrative for several years. But among the big regional papers, the Globe is doing better than all but a handful. In late 2018, publisher John Henry said the paper had achieved profitability. A year ago, Joshua Benton reported in Nieman Lab that the Globe had become the first U.S. regional paper to sign up more digital subscribers than weekday print subscribers.
But print still accounts for a lot of revenue in the newspaper business. Last week the Times reported that its shrinking print edition still accounted for more than half of its revenues. The Globe charges about $1,300 for seven-day print delivery. That’s a lot of money, but its print subscriber base continues to shrink. According to the Globe’s most recent filing with the Alliance for Audited Media, weekday print circulation is under 85,000 and Sunday print is about 147,000.
During the SPJ session, McGrory was asked why the Globe has kept COVID-19 coverage behind a paywall given that some other news organizations have made it free. McGrory responded that pandemic coverage is already free at two other Globe-owned sites: Stat News, which covers health and life sciences, and Boston.com. He added that he didn’t see cost as an obstacle in light of the discounts.
Via email, I asked McGrory about what steps the Globe was taking to keep all of its new subscribers once they were asked to pay $30 a month. “We’ve significantly ratcheted up the rate at which we’re graduating people from the low introductory rate into the full rate,” he replied. “We were doing really well with that retention before the coronavirus hit, and far better since.”
He added: “To keep the new subscribers who are part of this surge, we’re doing a lot of outreach — letters from notable staff members and the like. We’re also doing gifts, a possible loyalty program, virtual events for new subscribers…. There’s more. These readers are so vital to our future, and we want to let them know that. Of course, the most important thing is to feed them consistently strong and relentlessly interesting journalism. We will be in a huge news cycle for many, many months, between the virus and the massive economic disruption that it’s caused, inequality laid devastatingly bare, an epic presidential race, a reordering of so many things core to so many of our lives, condensed sports seasons, and on and on.”
New York Times media columnist Ben Smith reports on efforts to compel Google and Facebook to turn over some of their advertising revenues to the news organizations whose content they repurpose without compensation.
The debate over what platform companies owe the news business goes back many years and has come to resemble a theological dispute in its passions and the certainty expressed by those on either side. Indeed, longtime digital-news pundit Jeff Jarvis immediately weighed in with a smoking hot Twitter thread responding to Smith.
I’m not going to resolve that debate here. Rather, I want to offer some context. First, something like 90% of all new spending on digital advertising goes to Google and Facebook. Second, Google’s auction system for brokering ads destroyed any hopes news publishers had of making actual money from online advertising. How bad is it? Here’s an except from my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls”:
Nicco Mele, the former senior vice president and deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times, who’s now the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School [he has since moved on], explained at a Shorenstein seminar why a digital advertising strategy based on clicks simply doesn’t work for news organizations that are built around original (which is to say expensive) journalism. “Google has fundamentally shaped the future of advertising by charging on a performance basis — cost per click,” he said. “And that has been a giant, unimaginable anchor weight dragging down all advertising pricing.”
For example, Mele said that a full-page weekday ad in the LA Times, which would reach 500,000 people, costs about $50,000. To reach the same 500,000 people on LATimes.com costs about $7,000. And if that ad appeared on LATimes.com via Google, it might bring in no more than $20. “Models built on scale make zero sense to me,” Mele said, “because I just don’t see any future there.” Yet it has led even our best newspapers to supplement their high-quality journalism with a pursuit of clicks for the sake of clicks.
From $50,000 to $7,000 to $20. This is why the advertising model for digital news is broken, and it’s why newspapers have gone all-in on paid subscriptions.
I’m excited to report that “The Return of the Moguls” is included in a round-up of books reviewed by Nicholas Lemann in the new issue of The New York Review of Books. Lemann’s essay, “Can Journalism Be Saved?,” is about the precarious state of the news business and efforts to find new business models. He writes:
What has happened in journalism in the twenty-first century is a version, perhaps an extreme one, of what has happened in many fields. A blind faith that market forces and new technologies would always produce a better society has resulted in more inequality, the heedless dismantling of existing arrangements that had real value, and a heightened gap in influence, prosperity, and happiness between the dominant cities and the provinces. The political implications of this are painfully obvious, in the United States and elsewhere.
Has there been a more disappointing newspaper owner than Warren Buffett? When Buffett bought 63 papers from the Media General chain in 2012 for $142 million, it looked like the billionaire investor might play a significant role in reinventing local journalism. A year earlier Buffett had bought his hometown paper, the Omaha World-Herald, along with six other papers for $200 million. He already owned The Buffalo News.
And Buffett liked newspapers — so much so that he even had a hand in winning a Pulitzer Prize: In 1973, when he was the owner of the Omaha Sun, he helped his reporters investigate a local charity by finding documents, providing financial analysis, and assisting with the writing, according to a 2014 account in The Wall Street Journal. He was also a trusted adviser to the Graham family back when they controlled The Washington Post and he was a shareholder. “By the spring of 1974,” Katharine Graham wrote in her memoir, “Personal Story,” “Warren was sending me a constant flow of helpful memos with advice, and occasionally alerting me to problems of which I was unaware.”
Yet Buffett has been talking down the newspaper business for years — and last week he was at it again. “They’re going to disappear,” he told Yahoo Finance editor-in-chief Andy Serwer, citing the ongoing decline of advertising. He did allow that three national papers, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, might survive. But everyone else was “toast.”
Certainly they’re going to be toast with owners like Buffett. As I wrote in my book “The Return of the Moguls,” Buffett has allowed his managers to cut hundreds of jobs from his newspapers in recent years, even as his fellow multibillionaire Jeff Bezos has overseen growth and profits at the Post.
Perhaps it would be too much to expect someone in his 80s to dedicate himself to figuring out the future of the newspapers he had acquired. But Buffett was ideally positioned to bring in the sorts of minds who might apply themselves to the task of saving smaller papers. Surely Buffett understands as much as anyone that readers and advertisers will put up with an ever-diminishing paper for only so long before an irreversible downward spiral sets in.
Buffett is by no means the worst owner a newspaper could have — not with hedge funds and corporate chains slashing and burning their way through the mediascape. But anyone who hoped he would establish himself as an innovative force in recalibrating the economics of journalism has to be disappointed.
Two high-profile startups misfire
The meltdown of two high-profile digital startups raises questions about not just what went wrong, but whether there were any warning signs we should have paid more attention to.
The more disheartening of the two is The Correspondent, a Dutch website that recently concluded a successful fundraising campaign to launch what we all thought was going to be a U.S. edition. The project, funded through a membership model, is free of advertising and is based on the idea of journalists and readers engaging in an ongoing conversation. Among the early enthusiasts was Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. And me: I wrote about the project two years ago, made a donation to the site last fall, and urged others to do the same.
Recently, though, we learned that there wasn’t going to be a separate U.S. edition after all. Instead, there would be an English-language edition, based in Amsterdam, and the New York office would be closed now that the fundraising campaign had concluded. The founders took to Twitter to explain that we had misunderstood them. Had we somehow gotten it wrong?
No, according to Zainab Shah, a former BuzzFeed journalist who was The Correspondent’s first U.S. hire. In a devastating piece last Friday by Laura Hazard Owen at Nieman Lab, Shah said she took the job after being told she would head up what would in fact be a U.S. edition headquartered in New York, and that she recently quit after the founders made clear that it wasn’t going to happen.
“They’re really good at the PR thing, and it really feels like gaslighting,” Shah said. “They were like, ‘Well, we never promised a U.S. newsroom.’ I was like: Wait, did I just imagine all this?”
I should note that the founders continue to defend themselves and that Shah’s experience is just one data point. Still, this is bad news for those of us who hoped that The Correspondent represented a new way of doing journalism — “optimized for trust,” to use Rosen’s phrase.
Also running off the rails last week was The Markup, intended as a source of data-driven journalism about the largest technology companies. Months before its scheduled launch, co-founder and editor-in-chief Julia Angwin, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, was fired by chief executive Sue Gardner, whom Angwin had helped recruit, and replaced by another co-founder, Jeff Larson. Five of the seven editorial employees quit in support of Angwin, and Craig Newmark, the Craigslist billionaire who provided much of the funding, is said to be involved in getting the project back on track.
What exactly went wrong is too convoluted to get into here. For that, I recommend Mathew Ingram’s detailed overview at the Columbia Journalism Review. (Although I salute Angwin if it proves true that her sins included refusing to take a Myers-Briggs personality test.)
The larger issue with both The Correspondent and The Markup is whether there are any lessons in these two very different situations. I wish I could say there was — but at least in the case of The Correspondent we could see trouble brewing from some distance. Last fall, for instance, the site was involved in a nasty public dispute with Sarah Kendzior, a contributor to the Dutch-language site. The facts remain murky, though it was clear that something was amiss.
And then, as I’ve noted, The Correspondent’s founders not only reneged on their promise to launch a U.S. edition in the United States, but they claimed they had never said any such thing. That was gently disputed by none other than Rosen himself at his blog, Press Think, back in March.
“Through 2017 and much of 2018 we shared a default assumption that The Correspondent would be based in New York,” he wrote. “I call it a ‘default’ because we never sat down to decide it, and there was no real cost study or strategic analysis behind it. Rather, we had opened a campaign office in New York (with borrowed office space) and it seemed like that would evolve into The Correspondent’s newsroom.”
My only takeaway is that startups can be problematic. I’ll be watching The Correspondent closely and hoping its English-language edition proves to be worthwhile — although it will be a long time before I make another donation.
As for The Markup, I can only trust that Newmark, having already stepped in, will do the right thing. I assume that means bringing back Angwin in some top role, even if Gardner is not completely wrong about her alleged shortcomings as a manager.
The end of the road
New England lost two venerable publications in recent weeks.
Last week The Improper Bostonian, a free glossy magazine covering lifestyles, entertainment, and the arts, announced that its current issue would be its last after 28 years. “It was ultimately a family decision, that was really the bottom line,” owner and publisher Wendy Semonian Eppich told Folio, which covers the magazine business. “It was heavily based on finances, but it goes bigger than finances and that is critical and that is the truth.”
Several weeks earlier The Portland Phoenix, the last of the Phoenix newspapers, was shut down by its current owner, according to the Bangor Daily News. The Phoenix traces its roots to the Boston After Dark, founded by the late Stephen Mindich in 1966. At one time the papers included editions in Boston, Providence, Worcester, and Portland. I was on staff at The Boston Phoenix for many years, and I wrote the cover story for the Portland paper’s debut in 1999 — a profile of Maine’s then-senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both moderate Republican women.
The fortunes of free publications with free websites have diminished to the vanishing point as advertising revenues continue to crater. We’re lucky that we still have DigBoston, a for-profit alternative weekly allied with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
This seems rather prescient given the events of the past few days. Here’s what Jeff Bezos told Washington Post staffers in 2013, shortly after it was announced he’d buy the paper. From “The Return of the Moguls”:
In his message to Washington Post staff members the day that the purchase was announced, Bezos alluded to an infamous moment during Watergate when Nixon henchman John Mitchell barked at Bernstein that “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer” if a particularly damaging story were published. Bezos wrote, “While I hope no one ever threatens to put one of my body parts through a wringer, if they do, thanks to Mrs. Graham’s example, I’ll be ready.” As we shall see, it was not long before Bezos would be put to the test.
The first quote is from Katharine Graham’s autobiography, “Personal History”; the second is from a Post account of the sale.
I’ll be back in Washington on Friday for the National Press Club’s annual book fair, which will be held from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. “The Return of the Moguls” will be among the titles featured, and sales will be handled by Politics and Prose. If you’re in the capital and would like to drop by, I’d love to see you. More information here.
I had a great time today speaking at Northeastern with Latin American journalists about “The Return of the Moguls.” Their trip to the Boston area was sponsored by WorldBoston, which collaborates with the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. A great group with lots of smart questions.
H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest didn’t want to run a newspaper. In 2014 the Philadelphia billionaire, who died last week at the age of 88, unexpectedly won an auction to buy the city’s paper of record, the Inquirer, and its sister properties, the Daily News and Philly.com, media outlets that he already owned in part and was hoping to unload. “He did not expect to have to write a check that day,” Joel Mathis, a former reporter for Philadelphia magazine, told me. “He thought he was going to be getting a check that day.”
Just a few weeks later, Lenfest’s business partner, Lewis Katz, was killed in a plane crash along with six others, leaving Lenfest as the sole, unhappy proprietor. Lenfest’s solution to his dilemma was an act of generosity that continues to reverberate, and that could serve as a possible blueprint for saving the shrinking newspaper business. In early 2016 he donated the properties to a nonprofit organization, the Philadelphia Foundation. And he endowed the institute that the foundation set up to run the properties — now known as the Lenfest Institute for Journalism — with an initial $20 million from his fortune.
“Of all the things I’ve done, this is the most important. Because of the journalism,” Lenfest said when the complicated transaction was announced.
As it happened, I had already scheduled interviews with a number of Philadelphia journalists for a book project. I arrived on the Amtrak in the aftermath of a monumental snowstorm. What I encountered was a warm sense of (to invoke a cliché) cautious optimism.
Bill Marimow, the respected editor who had been fired or demoted twice through years of musical-chairs ownership, was particularly enthusiastic about the structure Lenfest had set up. Though the three properties would be owned by a nonprofit, they would be run as a for-profit “public-benefit corporation,” which meant that they would not be legally required to serve the financial interests of shareholders or investors.
“There’s parity between the mandate to do great journalism and the mandate to have an economically viable business,” Marimow said. “But the priority is no longer maximizing profits. It’s having sufficient profits to keep producing good journalism.”
These days, of course, there’s no guarantee that newspapers will have the resources to cover the communities they serve even without the pressure to turn a profit. Newspaper advertising, both in print and online, plunged from a high of $49.4 billion in 2005 to an estimated $16.5 billion in 2017, according to the Pew Research Center. Full-time newsroom employment fell by nearly half during roughly the same period.
Here and there a few wealthy newspaper owners are trying to figure out ways to revive their struggling businesses. Jeff Bezos’s efforts at The Washington Post are the best-known, but he runs what he has repositioned as a national digital news organization. The economics of large regional papers like the Inquirer are very different — and much more difficult. For every paper like The Boston Globe, where billionaire owner John Henry has attempted to minimize newsroom cuts while figuring out a path to sustainability, there are dozens owned by hedge funds and corporate chains that have plundered their newspapers in order to squeeze out their last remaining profits.
The nonprofit/for-profit hybrid model that Lenfest set up in Philadelphia is not a panacea. Ultimately, the papers still have to break even, an enormous challenge in the current environment. Still, the Philadelphia experiment has brought stable ownership, community-minded oversight and a journalism-first mindset to the Inquirer and its sister properties after years of chaos. That is a commendable legacy — and one worth emulating elsewhere.