At Orange County Register, bad news keeps on coming

OC Register

A week after Aaron Kushner announced major cuts at the Orange County Register and its affiliated papers, it sounds like the wheels may be coming off. In an interview with Larry Mantle of Southern California Public Radio, Kushner kept insisting that the cuts were nothing but a temporary setback, saying:

To continue to invest and grow over the long term, we have to align our cost structure with what we now know we can achieve in revenue growth. Doing so will not be easy and will impact all of us, but it is necessary to ensure a strong and healthy future for our newspapers.

But Mantle was having none of it. He pressed Kushner on the all-but-closing of the start-up Long Beach Register and asked him if he expected his newest paper, the Los Angeles Register, to compete seriously with the Los Angeles Times. Kushner’s answers might best be described as on message to a fault, leading to this testy exchange near the end:

Mantle: I have to say, if I worked for you, hearing your description and the lack of specifics, I’d be very nervous about the future.

Kushner: Any other questions?

Meanwhile, Gustavo Arellano, editor of the OC Weekly, an alternative paper that has been so dubious of Kushner’s plans that it even has a blog category called “OC Register Death Watch,” posted a scorcher on Monday, reporting that the Register’s staff is all but fleeing toward the exits. Arellano quotes a “longtimer” as saying of Kushner, “He’s lost the newsroom. No one has any faith in him at all. People want to get the hell out while they can.”

(An aside: If everything is truly coming apart, why did the “longtimer” think it was necessary to remain anonymous? And why did Arellano go ahead and quote him anyway? Look, I’ve been there and done that. And there’s no reason to think the quote doesn’t reflect the genuine sentiment of the newsroom. But I’m more skeptical of anonymous quotes these days than I used to be, and I think readers are too.)

I continue to hope that Kushner and his business partner, Eric Spitz, can right their leaking ship. But the simplest explanation for what is happening is that Kushner never had a real plan — he simply thought that all he had to do was spend lavishly and readers and advertisers would flock to his side.

Newspaper analyst Ken Doctor, whom I would characterize as a sympathetic Kushner observer up until now, weighed in with a devastating piece last week. I linked to it then, and here it is again. I recommend it highly.

More: “Everyone says our strategy has failed. Perhaps they should be saying that our strategy has not succeeded?”

Photo (cc) by Denise Sonicberg and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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The Boston Globe doubles down on political coverage

Capital section front

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The message last night was straightforward: The Boston Globe was launching a new weekly political section, Capital, in print and online.

It was the messaging, though, that really mattered. About a hundred invited guests mingled in the lobby of the historic Paramount Theatre, elegantly restored by Emerson College, helping themselves to free food and an open bar. Owner/publisher John Henry joined the minglers, working the room like one of the politicians his reporters might write about.

And if you didn’t quite get the messaging, chief executive officer Michael Sheehan and editor Brian McGrory were there helpfully to explain.

“You can’t cut your way to success. You can only grow you way to success,” Sheehan said while introducing a panel discussion. Added McGrory in his closing remarks: “We are investing in our political coverage at a time when virtually every other paper is retreating.”

If you’re a news junkie, a political junkie or both, enjoy it. The newspaper implosion that has defined the past decade may have slowed, but it hasn’t stopped.

Some 16,200 full-time newspaper jobs disappeared between 2003 and 2012, according to the American Society of News Editors. Just this week, about 20 employees — one-fourth of editorial staff members — were let go by the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, recently sold by Henry to Halifax Media Group of Daytona Beach, Florida. Aaron Kushner, whose print-centric approach was hailed as the salvation of the newspaper business just a year ago, is now dismantling the Orange County Register and its affiliated Southern California properties as quickly as he built them up.

The only major papers bucking this trend are Henry’s Globe and Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post, both of which are adding staff and expanding their portfolios. (The New York Times remains relatively healthy, but in recent years the ruling Sulzberger family has tended to define success by keeping cuts to a minimum.)

So what is Capital? Simply put, it’s a Friday-only section comprising features, think pieces, polling, commentary and lots of graphics. The debut consists of 12 pages, including three full-page ads — two of them advocacy messages of the sort that might not have made their way into the paper otherwise — and a smaller bank ad on the front of the section.

The lead story, by Jim O’Sullivan and Matt Viser, looks at the implications of a presidential race that is not likely to have a Massachusetts candidate for the first time since 2000. A poll (and Capital is slated to have lots of polls) suggests that Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker is making some headway, trailing Democratic contender Martha Coakley by a few points and leading Coakley’s rival Steve Grossman by a similar margin.

Among the more intriguing pieces of content is a “social networks dashboard,” put together by SocialSphere of Cambridge, which tracks conversations and the “biggest influencers” on Twitter. The print version has the highlights; online, it goes into more depth. It could use some tweaking, though. For instance, it’s fine to know that Gov. Deval Patrick is +463, but I’d like to see an explanation of what that means.

And if the Globe is looking for suggestions, I’d like to see a more outward-looking orientation, at least in the online version. There are no few links to outside content. How about a curated reading list of the best political coverage appearing elsewhere? (Online, Capital does offer some outside links in an automated feature based on Twitter called “The Talk,” which combines mostly Globe content with a little bit of offsite stuff. I’m also told that a daily newsletter to be written by political reporter Joshua Miller will include non-Globe links.)

One challenge the Globe faces is to come up with compelling content that isn’t tied to the daily news cycle. Today, for instance, the paper’s two most important political stories appear not in Capital but, rather, on the front page: more questions about Scott Brown’s dubious dealings with a Florida firearms company and insider shenanigans involving Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration and the city’s largest construction company. Of necessity, Capital will have to focus on analysis and smart step-back pieces.

During the panel discussion, political editor Cynthia Needham said that a frequent topic of conversation in the newsroom is whether the Globe’s political coverage should appeal to “insiders” or to readers “who dip in every once in a while.” For Capital to work week after week, the answer needs to be both — and then some.

But seriously — how refreshing is it to be able to write about the Globe’s latest expansion instead of the cuts and layoffs that pervade the rest of the newspaper business? We’ll remember these times. Let’s hope they last.

Kushner’s latest cuts raise serious doubts about his strategy

Aaron Kushner
Aaron Kushner

Published earlier at The Huffington Post.

If you’re going to make an audacious bet on the future of newspapers, as Aaron Kushner did with the Orange County Register, then it stands to reason that you should have enough money in the bank to be able to wait and see how it plays out.

Kushner, unfortunately, is now slashing costs at his newspapers almost as quickly as he built them up. On Tuesday, Kushner announced that Register employees would be required to take unpaid two-week furloughs during June and July. Other cuts were announced as well. The most significant: buyouts for up to 100 employees; and one of Kushner’s startup dailies, the Long Beach Register, will more or less be folded into another, the Los Angeles Register.

Those cuts follow the elimination of some 70 jobs at the OC Register and the Press-Enterprise of Riverside in January — cuts that came not long after a year when Kushner’s papers, in a celebrated hiring spree, added 170 jobs.

Is it time to push the panic button? The estimable Ken Doctor, writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab, says yes, arguing that the latest round of cuts raise “new questions about its very viability in the year ahead.” Doctor may be right. But as I wrote at The Huffington Post earlier this year, I hope Doctor is wrong, given the promise of Kushner’s early moves.

In 2013 Kushner and his business partner, Eric Spitz, were the toast of the newspaper industry. In the Columbia Journalism Review, Ryan Chittum hailed their print-centric approach and hypothesized that being able to scoop up the Register debt-free might enable them to succeed where others — including Tribune Co. and the Journal Register Co. — had failed. “Kushner,” Chittum wrote, “had the benefit of buying Register parent Freedom Communications out of bankruptcy — after newspaper valuations had already fallen 90 percent in some cases.”

Spitz, in a cocksure interview last October with Lauren Indvik of Mashable, mocked his competitors for giving their journalism away online, insisting that he and Kushner had a better idea.

“The key decisions they made — and they were the worst decisions anyone has made in my memory — they made 20 years or so ago. They took their core product, the news, and priced it at free,” Spitz told Indvik, adding: “I think 20 years later the amount of revenue you can derive from advertising is less than they thought. But the bigger problem they created is telling your customer that your product has no value.”

Unfortunately for Spitz and Kushner, there are few signs that their strategy of pumping up their print editions (even improving the paper stock) while walling off their digital content behind relatively inflexible paywalls has paid off.

According to the Alliance for Audited Media, paid circulation at the Orange County Register for the six months ending Sept. 30, 2011, before Kushner and Spitz took charge, averaged 283,997 on Sundays and 172,942 Monday through Saturday. The sale took place in July 2012. That September, paid circulation actually rose, to 301,576 on Sundays and 175,851 the rest of the week. But in September 2013 it dropped below pre-Kushner levels, to 274,737 on Sundays and 162,894 the other six days. (I am excluding what AAM refers to as “branded editions” — mainly regional weeklies published by the Register. The numbers combine print and paid digital circulation, which, in the case of the Register, is negligible.)

Kushner is a Boston-area native who made his money in the greeting-card business. Before his move to Southern California, he tried to buy The Boston Globe and, later, nearly closed a deal to purchase the Portland Press Herald of Maine. So it’s interesting to note that Red Sox principal owner John Henry, who eventually won the sweepstakes for the Globe, has taken a very different approach from Kushner, sinking money into an online-only vertical covering innovation and technology as well as repositioning the paper’s venerable free Boston.com site as a “younger, voicier, edgier” complement to the Globe. Soon the Globe is expected to unveil an ambitious website covering the Catholic Church in the hopes of attracting a national and international audience.

Perhaps the most important difference between Henry and Kushner, though, is the depth of their pockets. There are limits to Kushner’s wealth, and those limits are becoming apparent as he attempts to make his newspaper mini-empire profitable. Henry, a billionaire investor, can afford to take the long view. In that respect, he is more like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who announced that he would buy the Washington Post just days after Henry said he would acquire the Globe.

Ryan Chittum, in his CJR piece, called Kushner’s approach “the most interesting — and important — experiment in journalism right now.” It would be easy and facile to make too much of Kushner’s woes. He may simply have gotten ahead of himself, and is now buying the time he needs to make sense of what he is building. Then again, if Ken Doctor is right, the end of this particular newspaper story may be in sight.

A New Haven-centric view of Digital First’s latest woes

The Register in June 2013, shortly after a redesign.
The Register in June 2013, shortly after a redesign.

This article was published earlier at The Huffington Post.

The end may be near for one of the most widely watched experiments in local journalism.

Early today, Ken Doctor reported at the Nieman Journalism Lab that Digital First Media was pulling the plug on Project Thunderdome, an initiative to provide national and international content to the company’s 75 daily newspapers and other publications and websites. Soon, Doctor added, Digital First’s papers are likely to be sold.

Judging from the reaction on Twitter, the news came as a shock, with many offering their condolences and best wishes to the top-notch digital news innovators who are leaving — including Jim Brady, Robyn Tomlin and Steve Buttry. But for someone who has been watching the Digital First story play out in New Haven for the past five years, what happened today was more a disappointment than a surprise.

I first visited the New Haven Register, a regional daily, in 2009. I was interviewing people for what would become “The Wired City,” a book centered on the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news site that represents an alternative to the broken advertising-based model that has traditionally supported local journalism. The Register’s corporate chain owner, the Journal Register Co., was in bankruptcy. The paper itself seemed listless and without direction.

Two years later, everything had changed. Journal Register had emerged from bankruptcy and hired a colorful, hard-driving chief executive, John Paton, whose oft-stated philosophy for turning around the newspaper business — “digital first” — became the name of his blog and, eventually, of his expanded empire, formed by the union of Journal Register and MediaNews, the latter best known for its ownership of the Denver Post.

Just before Labor Day in 2011, Matt DeRienzo — then a 35-year-old rising star who had just been put in charge of all of Journal Register’s Connecticut publications, including the New Haven Register — sat down with me and outlined his plans. His predecessor had refused my requests for an interview; DeRienzo, by contrast, had tracked me down because he’d heard I was writing a book. It seemed that a new era of openness and progress had begun.

The openness was for real. The progress, though, proved elusive. For a while, John Paton was the most celebrated newspaper executive in the country, the subject of flattering profiles in the The New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review and elsewhere. Media reporters were charmed by his blunt profanity, as when he described a presentation he gave to Journal Register managerial employees. “They were like, ‘Who’s the fat guy in the front telling us that we’re broken? Who the fuck is he?'” Paton told the CJR.

In 2012, though, Journal Register declared bankruptcy again — a necessary step, Paton said, as it was the only way he could get costs such as long-term building leases and pension obligations under control. After Journal Register emerged from bankruptcy in 2013, Paton’s moment in the national spotlight seemed to have passed, as media observers turned their attention to a new breed of media moguls like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos (who bought The Washington Post), Red Sox principal owner John Henry (who bought The Boston Globe), greeting-card executive Aaron Kushner (who acquired the Orange County Register) and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar (who launched a new venture called First Look Media).

Although Digital First’s deepening woes may have escaped national attention, there were signs in New Haven that not all was well. Some positive steps were taken. The print edition was redesigned. The Register website was the beneficiary of a chain-wide refurbishing. Nasty, racist online comments were brought under control, and the newsroom embraced social media. But larger improvements were harder to accomplish.

Among the goals Matt DeRienzo had talked about was moving the paper out of its headquarters, a hulking former shirt factory near Interstate 95, and opening a smaller office in the downtown. In 2012, the Register shut down its printing presses and outsourced the work to the Hartford Courant. The second part of that process never came, though. Just last week, the New Haven Independent reported that the Register had backed away from moving to a former downtown mall facing New Haven Green. Two months earlier, according to the Independent, the Register and Digital First’s other Connecticut publications laid off 10 people.

Neither development should be described as a death knell. The downtown move is reportedly still in the works. And the 10 layoffs were at least partly offset by the creation of six new digitally focused positions. But rather than boldly moving forward, the paper appears to be spinning its wheels. And now — or soon — it may be for sale.

One of the biggest problems Digital First faces is its corporate structure. Can for-profit local journalism truly be reinvented by a national chain whose majority owner — Alden Global Capital — is a hedge fund? People who invest in hedge funds are not generally known for their deep and abiding affection for the idea that quality journalism is essential to democratic self-goverance. Rather, they want their money back — and then some. Preferably as quickly as possible.

No matter how smart, hard-working and well-intentioned John Paton, Jim Brady, Matt DeRienzo et al. may be, the Digital First experiment was probably destined to end this way, as chain ownership generally does. I wish for a good outcome, especially in New Haven. Maybe some civic-minded business leaders will buy the paper and keep DeRienzo as editor. And maybe we’ll all come to understand that the best way to reinvent local journalism is at the local level, by people who are rooted in and care about their community.

Can Aaron Kushner go the distance?

Aaron Kushner speaking in April 2013 at California State University, Fullerton.
Aaron Kushner speaking in April 2013 at California State University, Fullerton.

This commentary was published earlier at The Huffington Post.

Has Orange County Register owner Aaron Kushner run into nothing more than a bit of turbulence from which he can recover? Or do the layoffs he announced last week show that his plan to resuscitate the newspaper business by hiring more journalists and doubling down on print is fundamentally flawed?

I hope it’s the former — not just because I’d like to see him prove everybody wrong (including me) about the future of news, but because I’m planning to include him in a book about a new breed of media moguls who are using their personal wealth and smarts to innovate their way toward a brighter future. (News of the layoffs was broken by Gustavo Arellano of OC Weekly, which has taken a jaundiced view of Kushner’s ownership.)

Trouble is, there have been hints previously that Kushner, 40, lacked the sheer financial firepower of Boston Globe owner John Henry or Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, a little background on what’s unfolding in Southern California.

Kushner, who bought the Register in 2012 for $50 million, was the most celebrated new newspaper owner in the country before he was eclipsed in August of last year by Bezos and Henry. “Can Aaron Kushner save the Orange County Register — and the newspaper industry?” asked the Columbia Journalism Review last May. As CJR’s Ryan Chittum explained it, Kushner’s vision was based on:

  • Lavish attention to the print product, including more pages and an upgrade in the quality of paper.
  • A move away from free or even reduced-price content online, with Internet users paying exactly the same fees as print subscribers.
  • An increase in the size of the newsroom staff, as he added 140 journalists to the 180 who were there when he bought the paper.

Nor was Kushner content with pumping up the Orange County Register. Last August he started a new daily, the Long Beach Register. He bought The Press-Enterprise of Riverside. And in his most audacious move yet, he announced plans to start a Los Angeles Register to compete with the Los Angeles Times, once among the best newspapers in the country and still formidable. (LA is also home to a second paper, the Los Angeles Daily News.)

Then, last week, came a significant setback. Not everyone agrees on the figures, but Ken Bensinger of the LA Times reported that Kushner laid off about 35 people at the Orange County Register and 39 at The Press-Enterprise. Register editor Ken Brusic and other top editors left. Rob Curley, who had overseen digital initiatives at papers at the Washington Post and the Las Vegas Sun, was promoted to the top position.

“We are evaluating our cost structure for the next leg of our journey in terms of covering Orange County and LA County,” Kushner told New York Times media columnist David Carr, who noted that Kushner plans to plunge ahead with his idea for a Los Angeles paper without adding any staff. Carr wrote:

By amortizing the costs of all the journalists he hired over a bigger market, he can achieve savings in terms of production while adding marginal readers and advertising.

He clearly sees himself as a smart entrepreneur making bold bets. I see a man on a wire, with millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs at stake.

As for past hints that Kushner may not be well-heeled enough to play the long game, you may recall that, several years ago, he tried to buy The Boston Globe. (The Globe’s then-owner, the New York Times Co., apparently showed no interest, and Kushner later struck out on a bid to purchase Maine’s Portland Press Herald.)

Before Kushner gave up on his Globe dream, though, Katherine Ozment wrote an in-depth profile of him for Boston magazine. Among other things, Ozment attempted to show precisely how Kushner had made a fortune in the greeting-card business, his major claim to fame up to that time. What she found was a haze of acquisitions, layoffs and charges (which Kushner denied) that he was late in paying artists, sales reps and the like.

Eventually Kushner left his company after some sort of falling-out with the investors, though he told Ozment he remained part of ownership. “I had a vision for the business, and they had a very different vision, and they controlled the working capital, so we decided to move on,” he said.

Despite that possible warning sign, it has to be noted that the Orange County Register remains a much more richly staffed paper today than when Kushner bought it. In a memo to his staff published by the blog LA Observed after the layoffs were announced, Kushner wrote that he now has 370 journalists — uh, make that “content team members” — covering Orange County and Los Angeles County, up from 198 a year and a half ago.

An optimistic take would be that Kushner got ahead of himself and is now retrenching, but not retreating. No doubt we’ll know a lot more as 2014 unfolds.

Photo (cc) by CSUF Photos and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Conflicts of interest and the new media moguls

5790408612_8952178d3f_mWashington Post executive editor Martin Baron has rejected a demand by a group of left-leaning activists that the Post more fully disclose Amazon.com’s business dealings with the CIA.

Nearly 33,000 people have signed an online petition put together by RootsAction, headed by longtime media critic Norman Solomon, to call attention to Amazon’s $600 million contract to provide cloud services to the CIA. The Post’s owner is Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon. Here is the text of the petition:

A basic principle of journalism is to acknowledge when the owner of a media outlet has a major financial relationship with the subject of coverage. We strongly urge the Washington Post to be fully candid with its readers about the fact that the newspaper’s new owner, Jeff Bezos, is the founder and CEO of Amazon which recently landed a $600 million contract with the CIA. The Washington Post’s coverage of the CIA should include full disclosure that the sole owner of the Post is also the main owner of Amazon — and Amazon is now gaining huge profits directly from the CIA.

Baron, in his response, argues that the Post “has among the strictest ethics policies in the field of journalism, and we vigorously enforce it. We have routinely disclosed corporate conflicts when they were directly relevant to our coverage. We reported on Amazon’s pursuit of CIA contracts in our coverage of plans by Jeff Bezos to purchase The Washington Post.” Baron goes on to point out that the Post has been a leader in reporting on the National Security Agency and on the CIA’s involvement in the Colombian government’s fight against an insurgency, writing:

You can be sure neither the NSA nor the CIA has been pleased with publication of their secrets.

Neither Amazon nor Jeff Bezos was involved, nor ever will be involved, in our coverage of the intelligence community.

(Note: I first learned about the petition from Greg Mitchell’s blog, Pressing Issues.)

The exchange between RootsAction and Baron highlights the conflicts of interest that can arise when wealthy individuals such as Bezos buy in to the newspaper business. It’s a situation that affects The Boston Globe as well, as its editors juggle the lower-stakes conflict between John Henry’s ownership of the Globe and his majority interest in the Red Sox.

Baron himself is not unfamiliar with the Red Sox conflict, as the New York Times Co., from whom Henry bought the Globe, owned a minority stake in the team and in New England Sports Network, which carries Red Sox games, during most of Baron’s years as Globe editor.

The way the Globe handled it during those years was just about right: don’t disclose in sports stories, but disclose whenever the paper covers the Red Sox as a business. Current Globe editor Brian McGrory has insisted that Henry will not interfere. Henry, in a speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last week, said he would not breech the wall of separation between the Globe’s news operations and its business interests.

Of course, it’s not as though the era in which news organizations were typically owned by publicly traded corporations was free of such conflicts. (The Times Co., after all, is a publicly traded corporation, though the Sulzberger family calls the shots.) Media critic Danny Schechter noted in his book “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception” that MSNBC — then in its pre-liberal phase — was a cheerleader for the war in Iraq even as its then-corporate parent, General Electric Co., was a leading military contractor.

But the rise of a new breed of media moguls such as Bezos, Henry and Aaron Kushner of the Orange County Register, who buy their way into the news business with their own personal wealth, seems likely to bring the issue of conflicts to the fore. The same is true of a media entrepreneur of a different sort — eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who is launching an online venture called First Look Media with (among others) the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.

It is the very fact that these individuals have been successful that makes them such intriguing players in the quest to reinvent the news business. But disclosure and non-interference need to be at the forefront of their ethical codes.

Four takeaways from new owner John Henry’s message to readers of The Boston Globe

John Henry at celebration of the Red Sox' 2007 World Series victory.
John Henry in October 2007

This article was published earlier in the Nieman Journalism Lab and The Huffington Post.

John Henry’s nearly 2,900-word message to readers of The Boston Globe could have been little more than an exercise in public relations, standing up for what is good and deploring what is bad.

There’s a lot of that, of course. We’re only into the second paragraph before he dutifully informs us that the Globe “is the eyes and ears of the region in some ways, the heartbeat in many others.” But Henry, a billionaire financier who is the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, is also unexpectedly revealing about himself and how he intends to run the Globe. (Henry purchased the Globe, its BostonGlobe.com and Boston.com websites, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester and several smaller properties from the New York Times Co. for $70 million. The sale, announced in August, closed last week following a brief delay over a labor dispute at the T&G. Henry also made a bit of news when folks at the T&G noticed that his message omitted Worcester entirely.)

Henry’s piece, headlined “Why I bought the Globe,” takes up a full page in the Opinion section of Sunday’s paper. It’s teased on the front page as well. He writes about his life, the Red Sox, the financially struggling news business and what he thinks needs to be done to set it on a sustainable path. Here are what I think are the most important takeaways.

1. He plans to be an activist owner. Just the atmospherics of the essay itself are a pretty strong indication that Henry does not see this as a passive investment. He wants to be the face of the Globe.

To counter his image as a reserved, slightly eccentric rich guy who dabbles in sports, Henry goes into some detail about his involvement in the civil-rights movement and his subsequent retreat “into what most of my friends thought was my primary talent at the time — writing and performing rock music.”

Somewhere along the way he made a lot of money, but he writes about that only briefly. Instead, he describes his stewardship of the Red Sox as a possible model for what he intends to do with the Globe:

When we acquired the Red Sox, profit was literally at the bottom of our list of goals. We were determined to do whatever it took to win.

Now I see The Boston Globe and all that it represents as another great Boston institution that is worth fighting for.

Here’s another intriguing example of what sort of profile Henry intends for himself as the Globe’s owner: Recently the Boston Business Journal reported that toxic waste at the Globe’s Dorchester property could complicate any plans Henry might have to develop the site and move the paper to a cheaper location. Henry used his Twitter feed to dispute the BBJ’s story and slam an earlier piece about the Globe’s break-up with a classified-ad site called Cars.com:

A feisty newspaper owner who fights back in public? Bring it on. That’s certainly an improvement over the gray management style of the Times Co.

2. He’s looking for advice in all the right places. If the Globe and other large regional dailies are going to survive and prosper, they need to develop new ways of doing business. So it’s encouraging that Henry mentions alliances the paper already has with Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, the MIT Media Lab and the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Henry also gives a shout-out to Clay Shirky, which I take as a signal that Henry is reading and talking to the right people. It doesn’t sound like he intends to take the approach adopted by Aaron Kushner, a one-time Globe suitor who’s winning plaudits for trying to revive the Orange County Register by focusing on the print edition. The Globe has been a leader in digital journalism. So it’s good news that Henry sounds like he’s going to double down on innovation.

3. He has some retro ideas about paid content. Near the top of his commentary, Henry repeats an old trope, writing that newspapers have been losing money because “Readers were flocking from the papers to the Internet, consuming expensive journalism for free.”

Now, I’ve got nothing against charging for digital subscriptions, and the Globe has had some success with that — 39,000 at last count. But it’s important to keep in mind what newspaper owners are up against in asking readers to pay for online access.

As has often been said, newspaper readers never paid for the news — they paid for the expense of printing and delivering the paper, with advertisers picking up the rest. These days, readers are paying — a lot — for their own printing presses (computers, tablets and smartphones) and their own delivery (broadband and cellular access). It’s perfectly understandable that they don’t want to pay more.

What went wrong was not that newspapers started giving away their content but, rather, that the advertising model collapsed, especially from classifieds. Henry understands this, writing, “I feel strongly that newspapers and their news sites are going to rely upon the support of subscribers to a large extent in order to provide what readers want.”

I wish any newspaper owner well in persuading readers to pay for journalism. But we have to understand that we are asking them to do something they’ve never done before: pay for news in addition to paying for printing and delivery. We need to be humble about how much we’re asking of our audience.

4. He wants the Globe to act as a guide to the larger conversation. One of the most important roles professional journalism can play is to aggregate and curate the torrent of information — not just when big news breaks, but on a daily basis.

The New York Times does this with The Lede; the Globe does it from time to time, as it did following the Boston Marathon bombing. The idea is to become the go-to place for trustworthy links to other news sources, blogs and citizen media. Henry clearly gets that, writing:

We will provide what we will call the Globe Standard when it comes to curated links that will ensure our readers do not waste their time when they click on news, reviews, writers, columnists, ecommerce, events, opportunities, and social engagement from any of our platforms.

One thing Henry gets absolutely right is that the newspaper business is not now and never was compatible with ownership by publicly traded corporations and the quarterly demands of Wall Street. For more than a generation, corporate chains slashed newsrooms, first to drive up profit margins, later to stave off mounting losses. The debt they took on to build their chains is one of the prime reasons for their inability to set themselves on a new path. Henry understands that.

“I soon realized that one of the key things the paper needed in order to prosper was private, local ownership, passionate about its mission,” Henry writes. Farther down, he adds: “But this investment isn’t about profit at all. It’s about sustainability. Any great paper, the Globe included, must generate enough revenue to support its vital mission.”

Leaving aside the obvious fact that profit is a key to sustainability, Henry articulates a vision in which journalism comes first — which is another way of saying the customer comes first. Too many newspaper owners have forgotten that.

Photo (cc) by Patrick Mannion and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

A new book, and an event for “The Wired City”

9490777466_2e1d1a3abe

wasn’t ready to announce this, but Mark Shanahan of The Boston Globe beat me to it. My next book will be about a new era of newspaper owners and how they are going about remaking their struggling businesses.

The book will focus on Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who is in the process of buying The Washington Post; Red Sox principal owner John Henry, who’ll soon add the Globe to his holdings; and Aaron Kushner, a businessman who tried to buy the Globe and then Maine’s Portland Press Herald before reeling in the Orange County Register. It’s a logical next step in my research into new ways of paying for journalism.

The idea grew out of conversations with Steve Hull, an acquisitions editor at University Press of New England. We’d been trying to do business together for a couple of years, pitching possible projects back and forth. There’s no contract at the moment, but I expect to write the book for a yet-to-be-named new trade division of UPNE. No, I won’t tell you the working title, and I expect it will change long before the publication date — probably sometime in 2016.

Meanwhile, I still have a current book to flog. I’ve got a few events coming up for “The Wired City” in the next month, including one at the Boston law firm of Prince Lobel this Thursday at 5:30 p.m. It’s free, and you can RSVP here. Cosponsors are the New England First Amendment Coalition and the New England chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

“The Wired City” was published by University of Massachusetts Press, an academic publisher I would recommend to anyone. I’ve had a great relationship with acquisitions editor Brian Halley, publicist Karen Fisk and company, and I can’t say enough good things about them.

Photo (cc) by Esther Vargas and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Some pressing questions for John Henry

Boston Globe InstagramThis commentary was published earlier at The Huffington Post and at WGBH News .

The speculation had been building since Wednesday, when The Boston Globe reported that Red Sox principal owner John Henry had restructured his bid to buy the paper.

It reached a peak on Friday afternoon, when legendary baseball reporter Peter Gammons — himself a Globe alumnus — posted a one-line item on his new website, Gammons Daily: “A source says the New York Times Corporation has chosen John Henry as the new owner of the Boston Globe.”

Confirmation came early today, as the Globe and The New York Times each reported that Henry had purchased the Globe and its associated properties — most prominently Boston.com and the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester — for $70 million. The Globe’s story led page one, whereas the Times’ version apparently didn’t even make it into today’s print edition.

The sale price represents a huge comedown from 1993, when the Times Co. purchased the Globe for $1.1 billion, half the company’s stock-market valuation at that time. As if by way of justification, the Times’ report on the Henry deal runs through several other pennies-on-the-dollar sales of major metropolitan newspapers in recent years, including those of Philadelphia’s daily papers, the Inquirer and the Daily News, as well as The Tampa Tribune.

Henry’s winning bid also thwarts an attempted comeback by members of the Taylor family, who owned the Globe almost from its founding in 1872 until the 1993 sale.

Among the would-be buyers was a group that included Stephen Taylor, a former executive vice president of the Globe, and Benjamin Taylor, a former publisher. A lot of people in Boston were rooting for the Taylors. But the money they got for selling the paper 20 years ago was split among dozens of family members, and their bid to repurchase the Globe was widely viewed as undercapitalized. You have to assume that if they had the money, the Times Co. would have sold it to them already — or in 2009, when the Globe was first put up for sale.

The ascension of a wealthy local owner may represent the best possible outcome for the Globe. Nevertheless there are questions Henry will have to answer soon — starting with the fate of publisher Christopher Mayer and editor Brian McGrory, well-liked Globe veterans who generally get high marks for the way they’re running the paper. Will they stay? Or will Henry bring in his own people?

Here are a few other questions for Henry.

1. Will he seek to improve the Globe’s bottom line by investing — or by cutting? Unlike newspaper owners who’ve financed their acquisition by taking on debt that they then have to pay off by slashing the newsroom, Henry has the luxury of being able to do anything he wants.

Although paid print circulation and advertising revenue have been dropping, the Globe is believed to be marginally profitable — a considerable improvement over 2009, when the Times Co. actually threatened to close the paper over mounting losses. The Globe today also has about 360 full-time editorial employees. That’s quite a drop from the 550 or so the Globe employed a dozen years ago, as my WGBH colleague Adam Reilly recently reported in Boston magazine, but it’s still enough to make the paper by far the largest news organization in Eastern Massachusetts. The Globe may no longer be the 800-pound gorilla, but a 600-pound gorilla can still accomplish a lot.

My guess (and hope) is that Henry will pursue a growth strategy, and that he has a healthy enough ego to believe he can succeed where others have failed. Perhaps he’ll emulate Aaron Kushner, the young greeting-card executive (and onetime Globe bidder) who’s attracted attention with his attempts to turn around the Orange County Register by hiring journalists and expanding coverage.

One aspect of Kushner’s stewardship I hope Henry doesn’t emulate is Kushner’s emphasis on print. The Globe has taken an innovative approach to the Internet with its two-website strategy (Boston.com, which is free, exists alongside the paid BostonGlobe.com site), a streaming music station, RadioBDC, and online coverage of Boston’s suburbs, neighborhoods and colleges through its Your Town and Your Campus sites. (Disclosure: Our students at Northeastern University contribute to Your Town and Your Campus as well as to other parts of the Globe.)

Henry could be a hero to the newspaper business if he can figure out new digital strategies. A print-first orientation would be a major step backwards.

2. What happens to the Globe’s Boston headquarters? The Globe occupies prime Dorchester real estate near the University of Massachusetts and the JFK Library, leading to considerable speculation that the next owner might want to sell the property and move the paper. Indeed, the Globe’s land and physical assets might be worth the $70 million purchase price all by themselves.

The challenge is that the Globe’s massive printing presses would have to be moved. And the paper has been able to build a nice business for itself by printing a number of other papers, including the city’s second daily, the Boston Herald, as well as some suburban papers.

Still, it would make all kinds of sense to move the presses to a low-cost exurban location and transfer the newsroom and business operations to a smaller space closer to the downtown.

3. How will the Globe cover the Red Sox? The jokes have already started (yes, I’ve done my best to help) about Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy, a notoriously negative presence who wrote former Red Sox manager Terry Francona’s trash-and-burn memoir Francona: The Red Sox Years, which is highly critical of the Red Sox’ ownership.

In fact, the Globe and the Red Sox have been down this road before. Until a few years ago, the Times Co. was a part-owner of New England Sports Network (NESN), which broadcasts Red Sox and Bruins games and whose majority owner is the Red Sox. Henry’s sole ownership of the Globe, though, would represent full immersion in a way that the NESN deal did not.

The real issue is not how the Globe covers the Red Sox as a baseball team but rather how it manages the tricky task of reporting on a major business and civic organization that’s run by the paper’s new owner.

Earlier this year the Globe published a tough report on a sweetheart licensing deal the Red Sox have with the city to use the streets around Fenway Park before games — making “tens of millions of dollars” while “paying a tiny fraction in licensing fees.” (Further disclosure: Some of the Globe’s reporting was done in partnership with Northeastern’s Initiative for Investigative Reporting.)

I’d expect to see tough scrutiny of how the Globe covers the Red Sox in the months and years ahead. No doubt the Herald and other rival news organizations will pay close attention to the relationship. The problem isn’t so much that the Globe is likely to go into the tank for the Red Sox (it isn’t), but that it’s really in a no-win situation.

The answers to those and other questions will emerge in the weeks and months ahead. What matters today is that our largest and most important news organization has been purchased by a local businessman with deep pockets and a track record as a good corporate citizen. That’s good news not just for the Globe, but for all of us.

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy.

The appeal of Kushner’s print-centric approach

Aaron Kushner
Aaron Kushner

The media’s fascination with Aaron Kushner’s print-centric approach to reviving the newspaper business continues.

Kushner, a former Boston greeting-card executive who bought the Orange County Register a year ago, is the subject this week of flattering pieces by Rory Carroll in The Guardian and Rem Rieder in USA Today. Rieder’s piece, significantly, focuses on Kushner’s plans to launch a paper in Long Beach, Calif., that would compete with one run by John Paton, whose “Digital First” orientation puts him at the opposite end of the spectrum from Kushner in any discussion about the future of news.

Kushner, who once wanted to buy The Boston Globe, has a big idea: that newspapers have a lot of life left in them, and that the way to save them is to bolster shrunken news staffs and ask readers to pay. Print and online readers of the Register are charged the same price — $1 a day.

There’s a lot to like about the Kushner approach. It’s hard to argue with more journalism and an end to a generation’s worth of endless newsroom cuts. Even more enticing is that he holds out the hope that the last 15 years have all been a mirage — that we never should have responded to the disruptive changes brought by the Internet, and that, even at this late date, we can somehow click our heels three times and it will all go away.

It’s too early to rule out the possibility that Kushner might succeed. But classified ads, which comprised about 40 percent of a typical daily newspaper’s revenues as recently as a dozen years ago, are gone and are not coming back. The Kushner approach is an open invitation for an enterprising television or radio station to bolster its website and offer a free, comprehensive source of local news. It’s also a little disconcerting to see a large, important paper like the Register cut itself off from the sharing culture of the Internet.

Still, it’s hard not to wish Kushner well. Even if you’re not a print nostalgist (I’m certainly not), his experience may offer some lessons from which we could all learn.