At the Globe, an innovative approach to funding public-interest journalism

In case you didn’t look closely at the provenance of today’s big Spotlight Team investigation in The Boston Globe, it was the result of an initiative that grew out of the movie “Spotlight.” You’ll find the full explanation here, but essentially three of the groups that funded the film created the Spotlight Investigative Journalism Fellowship to tell important stories that might otherwise go unreported.

The two-parter that debuted today is the first result of that effort. Reporters Kelly Carr and Jaimi Dowdell report on “lax oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration [that], over decades, has made it easy for drug dealers, corrupt politicians, and even people with links to terrorism to register private planes and conceal their identities.”

The story begins with a harrowing anecdote and features great photography, an excellent video, and a first-rate digital treatment. It’s an innovative approach to paying for public-interest journalism, and it will be interesting to see what else it yields.

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Questions remain as The Boston Globe tries to solve its epic printing woes

Photo by WGBH News

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The big unanswered question about The Boston Globe’s printing woes is whether they are merely serious — that is, they remain an agonizing pit of misery for months to come but are ultimately fixable — or if, instead, they are so catastrophic that they will require publisher John Henry to get rid of his new used presses and start over.

No one other than a few insiders knows for sure. But the Globe took a good first step toward providing its increasingly disenchanted customers with some answers by publishing an in-depth story by staff reporter Mark Arsenault over the weekend on what we know, what we don’t know, and what we still need to find out.

It was about time. Before Arsenault’s story was posted on Saturday night, the Globe’s only published acknowledgment of the problem came in the form of a front-page note from Henry on Aug. 18 in which he wrote that the presses at the paper’s new Taunton printing facility “are operating too slowly and breaking too often.” He added: “We are embarrassed. We are sincerely sorry to all those affected.” He also said it was unlikely those problems would be resolved by Labor Day — an observation that proved to be prescient.

Arsenault did not address every aspect of what can now fairly be called a crisis. I would have liked to see him do some reporting on what by all accounts has been a terrible experience for customers trying to cancel their subscriptions for papers that often never show up. And though Arsenault reported union official Stephen Sullivan’s response to Globe president Vinay Mehra’s claim that the problems were due in part to employees who are “resistant to change” (Arsenault’s phrase, not Mehra’s), it struck me that the accusation deserved further exploration. I don’t think Mehra helped the situation by insulting the very front-line people who’ve been stuck trying to fix a mess created by the paper’s top executives — two of whom lost their jobs as a result.

Still, there was important information in Arsenault’s story, especially regarding a company in Lubbock, Texas, called West Texas Printing Center. The company reportedly installed a set-up similar to, though smaller than, the Globe’s, which led to a world of hurt before matters were finally brought under control. “First year, year-and-a-half, we struggled,” West Texas official Kristi Holt told Arsenault. “Finding the demons and eliminating the demons is a long, tedious process. I feel for y’all. I’ve been where you are.”

A year. A year and a half. Does the Globe really have that long to get it right? Probably not. The paper solved its previous self-created fiasco over home-delivery vendors in a few months, but it’s not likely the Globe’s customers can wait until 2019 for the current mess to be cleaned up. And let’s not forget that those customers include not just readers but other newspapers that have entrusted their printing to the Globe, including the Boston Herald, The New York Times, and USA Today.

Then there’s the nightmare scenario. Last week a 38-year Globe pressman, Phil McColgan, sent me an email outlining what he thought needed to be done. With his permission, I forwarded his message to my colleagues at “Beat the Press,” and it was featured in our report last Friday. “In my opinion unless Mr. Henry is willing to dig deep into his pockets and install the correct presses such as the Goss presses that are sitting idle in Boston [at the former Morrissey Boulevard headquarters] we are going to continue to struggle to make deadlines,” he wrote.

When you take the long view, the idea that a newspaper could be laid low by printing problems in 2017 seems ludicrous. The Globe is doing well on the internet front, having signed up more than 80,000 digital-only subscribers, more than any other regional newspaper. The Globe’s website could use some updating, and it’s long past time for the paper to offer a usable mobile app. But, overall, the paper has made decent progress in its quest to become a digital-first news organization.

The challenge is that print remains vital to the business of publishing a daily newspaper. The value of digital ads has cratered in recent years, largely because of Google’s automated auction system for allocating advertising to websites. Revenues from print advertising are a fraction of what they used to be — but they remain far greater than online income. Then, too, newspaper readers tend to be older, and they still like print. According to the Globe’s most recent year-old figures, paid print circulation was 143,000 on weekdays and 243,000 on Sundays.

Cynics sometimes observe that Henry got the Globe more or less for free: the value of the property underneath the paper’s former headquarters should offset the $70 million he paid in 2013. But Henry has invested significantly, even as he has made cuts in the newsroom in an effort to stay ahead of declining revenues. The Taunton plant cost Henry $75 million. It may cost him a lot more before this is over.

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Trumping his measured rhetoric, president goes off at the United Nations

The morning print headlines:

  • “Muted Trump Embraces U.N. Before Speech” (New York Times)
  • “Trump plans pragmatic U.N. speech” (Washington Post)
  • “Trump shifts global tone, engagement” (Boston Globe)

The afternoon web headlines:

  • “At U.N., Trump Threatens to ‘Totally Destroy North Korea’” (New York Times)

  • “Trump threatens to ‘destroy North Korea,’ calls Kim ‘Rocket Man’” (Washington Post)
  • “Trump threatens to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea in UN speech” (Boston Globe)

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Print is the Globe’s albatross — and lifeblood

The shame about The Boston Globe’s printing problems (and it will be a tragedy, not a shame, if they’re not fixed soon) is that, online, the paper is doing just fine. Earlier this year the paper reported that it had signed up more than 80,000 digital-only subscribers, the highest number of any regional paper in the country. The website looks good and is regularly updated, although a real mobile app would be welcome. The fall arts preview, which did not arrive with many people’s papers last Sunday, has been posted online; just bookmark it.

Unfortunately, for the second time in a year and a half the dead hand of print has reached out from the grave and grabbed the Globe by the ankle as it attempts to escape the past. It’s not like John Henry and company can walk away from print — print ads still pay most of the bills, and printing other newspapers is an important part of the Globe’s business strategy. That’s why it’s so important that the current meltdown be reversed as soon as possible

Of course we’ll be talking about this on “Beat the Press” tonight.

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Globe editor McGrory addresses printing woes

The WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) program “Boston Public Radio” just aired an interview with Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory that was recorded earlier today. McGrory is a regular Wednesday guest on the show, hosted by Jim Braude and Margery Eagan. At the end of their half-hour conversation, McGrory briefly addressed the Globe’s problems at its Taunton printing facility.

“Look we’ve been on a difficult run over here,” McGrory said, adding that there have been good and bad nights. “It’s proven more difficult than we had anticipated,” he said, and the result was that the paper’s top executives had decided to make some changes in leadership. “Some very, very good high-quality people are no longer here at the Globe,” he said. McGrory was clearly referring to the departure of chief operating officer Sean Keohan and (so I hear) at least one other top executive as well. In addition, the Globe’s chief executive officer, Doug Franklin, left in July, although that was reportedly not related to the printing problems.

“We think we’re making progress,” McGrory said. “We’ve had some very good stretches, a week, two weeks at a time,” followed by “some significant setbacks.” One of those setbacks, he noted, affected this past Sunday’s Globe.

“Amid the progress there are setbacks, and it is really, really frustrating,” he said. “The overall trendlines are showing improvement,” he added, although those improvements need to be “faster and more consistent.”

Earlier

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Ta-Nehisi Coates’ eloquent, angry polemic on racism in the age of Trump

Ta-Nehisi Coates. Photo (cc) 2015 by Sean Carter Photography.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

For liberals and progressives trying to make sense of President Trump’s victory last November, the role of race has posed something of a dilemma. On the one hand, Trump’s racist rhetoric clearly played into pre-existing resentments on the populist right, thus boosting turnout among his more deplorable (to coin a phrase) supporters. On the other hand, if an African-American could be elected president twice, how could a white woman have lost because of racial animosity?

The answer, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates, is that Trump — unlike all previous presidential candidates — campaigned specifically as the candidate of white identity politics. Unlike Barack Obama’s opponents, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, Trump rallied supporters who believed that white people comprised an oppressed group under siege. Thus it was Hillary Clinton rather than Obama who reaped the whirlwind of white backlash. As Coates puts it: “It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true — his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.”

Coates carefully builds his case in an 8,200-word essay in The Atlantic titled “The First White President.” It is, in some respects, a companion piece to his 2012 article “Fear of a Black President,” in which he argued that Obama was not as effective on issues of race as he could have been because he dared not show any real emotion lest he frighten White America. Even so, Coates wrote, simply having a black president served to racialize virtually everything that Obama touched, including his embrace of a health-care plan that had previously been associated with Republicans. Glenn Beck went so far as to castigate Obamacare as “reparations” for slavery.

For a white liberal like myself who wants to believe that racism, though ever-present, is in long-term decline, Coates’ new essay makes for painful reading. Littered with the N-word and informed by historical fears about white slavery (too complex to get into here), the article makes a thorough and devastating case that Trump won because he was supported by an overwhelming majority of white people — and not just the white working class, but whites across the educational and economic spectrum. “Trump,” Coates writes, “assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker.” Citing the magazine Mother Jones, Coates points out that if only white voters had been allowed to cast ballots, Trump would have won the Electoral College by a margin of 389 to 81.

Although Coates reserves his real outrage for Trump, he is not especially kind to Clinton or her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders. Coates criticizes Sanders for his naive view that economics are more important than race, answering Sanders’ assertion that not all Trump supporters are racist or homophobic with this: “Certainly not every Trump voter is a white supremacist, just as not every white person in the Jim Crow South was a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.” As for Clinton, Coates credits her for acknowledging “the existence of systemic racism more explicitly than any of her modern Democratic predecessors.” But he attributes that mainly to her need to atone for her own and her husband’s rhetoric and policies, which, among other things, led to an increase in the incarceration rate.

With his long, deeply researched essays on race, politics, and history, as well as a well-regarded series of books (his Trump article is excerpted from his forthcoming “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy”), Coates has established himself as a leading intellectual on American social culture. He is not admired in all circles, of course. Ben Shapiro, an anti-Trump conservative, wrote several years agoin Breitbart News (then in its pre-Trumpist phase) that Coates espouses a “nihilistic and counterfactual viewpoint” that “demonstrates the media’s obsession with racism as a point of American conflict — a conflict that must be kept fresh, an open wound, so as to maximize the power of the government.”

Far more sympathetic is the liberal journalist Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo. But even he has reservations. Though Marshall agrees with the thrust of Coates’ argument regarding the continued centrality of race in politics and culture, he finds something tonally off about “The First White President” — namely, the conceit that Coates, and Coates alone, has identified race as the true reason that Trump prevailed in the 2016 election. “Coates’ piece is a great essay that brings together a wealth of data and characteristically penetrating analysis. I recommend it highly,” Marshall writes. “But I could not read it without thinking there are a lot of voices — hardly little heard or without megaphones — he’s simply not hearing.”

“The First White President” is an important piece of work that Democrats should examine carefully as they look ahead. White resentment is a powerful force. It’s been present in Republican politics for a long time, from Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority” to Ronald Reagan’s denunciation of “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” to George H.W. Bush’s infamous exploitation of a black criminal named Willie Horton. Now Trump has upped the ante considerably. How effectively Democrats will respond remains to be seen. But as Coates shows, anyone who thinks that the problem can be solved merely through efforts to win over the white working class is sadly mistaken.

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It’s time for some answers on the Globe’s printing woes

In trying to think through what’s behind the crisis at The Boston Globe’s new Taunton printing facility, it seems logical that one of two things is going on. The first possibility is that the problems are fixable but that they have taken longer to resolve than anyone expected. The second is much worse: that the presses the Globe bought are not up to the task, will never be up to the task, and shouldn’t have been purchased in the first place. I certainly hope it’s the former and not the latter.

The Boston Business Journal’s Don Seiffert, citing “multiple sources,” reports that Boston Globe Media’s chief operating officer, Sean Keohan, has left the company — a departure that, Seiffert hastens to add, may or may not be related to the printing problems.

This comes within days of a tough statement from the Boston Herald — which is printed by the Globe — apologizing to its readers for the poor job the Globe is doing of printing its tabloid rival. “We talk with the Globe on a regular basis but unfortunately the remedies they put forth to solve the production problems have failed miserably,” the Herald said. (My WGBH News colleague Emily Rooney praised the Herald on “Beat the Press” for speaking out.)

A number of sources have told me that printing woes have required the Globe to set deadlines so early that the print edition is often missing sport scores — even when the Red Sox play at home. Papers are going undelivered. In addition to the Herald, the Globe also prints The New York Times, and, needless to say, that is not a relationship that Globe owner John Henry wants to endanger.

The problem right now is that few people know for sure what’s going on. When the Globe endured its home-delivery fiasco about a year and a half ago, the paper itself published the definitive story about what had gone wrong. It was thorough and unsparing. This time, we haven’t heard much since Globe Media chief executive Doug Franklin left in mid-July. We need to see the Globe once again rise to the occasion and report on what has gone wrong and how it is going to be fixed.

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