Previously published at WGBHNews.org.
Boston Globe owner John Henry now has a full-blown crisis on his hands. Before Sunday night, the Globe’s inability to deliver newspapers to its paying customers looked like an annoying but manageable problem—provided it was solved within the next few days. But the stunning revelation by the paper’s new distributor that it could take four to six months for home delivery to return to normal changes everything.
Following Sunday night’s devastating story by Globe reporters Mark Arsenault and Dan Adams (it’s also on the front of today’s print edition if you can find one), it’s clear that there is going to be an ugly—and very public—standoff between the Globe and the new distributor, ACI Media Group of Long Beach, California.
Earlier claims that only 5 percent of customers were being affected have given way to reality. The Globe’s chief executive, Mike Sheehan, now says the number is 10 percent, citing ACI’s own figures. Anecdotally, that still seems low. As of this morning, people living in 112 zip codes are still experiencing delays. Or, as many customers have been complaining, no delivery at all.
Other than the four- to six-month timeframe, I thought the most mind-boggling part of the Globe story was a quote from Jack Klunder, the president and chief executive of ACI, who claims he told Globe executives exactly what to expect:
“I said ‘I cannot describe to you how painful it is,’ ” Klunder said, recounting his warning to Globe officials. “I used the expression ‘massive disruption.’ … You’re going to get thousands of calls, emails—social media is going to be blistering you. The news media is going to be blistering you. You’re going to like where you are at the end of this cycle but you’re going to go through this.”
Sheehan essentially denies being told that, saying the problems of the past week go “far beyond any reasonable definition of disruption.”
Incredibly, Arsenault and Adams also report that ACI can’t be held liable for any performance problems during the first three months of the contract.
Despite all this, I suspect there’s more than a little posturing going on. Both sides have to know that a months-long delivery crisis is unacceptable and will set off an avalanche of canceled subscriptions (I’ve already heard from people who want to cancel but can’t because the phones are jammed), refunds to advertisers, and severe damage to the Globe’s brand and reputation. (Klunder seems to think this isn’t going to hurt ACI’s reputation at all. “We’ll be fine,” he’s quoted as saying. And why not? The Globe hired him despite similar problems in 2014 at the Orange County Register.)
But what can be done? We can safely assume that Globe executives don’t want to give ACI more money. Although Sheehan is quoted as saying the switch was mainly made to improve service (oops), he adds that he was aiming to save money as well. Perhaps the Globe could cancel the contract and re-up with the previous vendor, Publishers Circulation Fulfillment. But the network of hardworking, underpaid delivery people has already been so thoroughly upended that there’s probably no sure way of restoring the status quo.
Among the many threads to this ongoing story, one emerging theme may be tension between the Globe’s newsroom and the business side. The era of good feelings engendered by John Henry’s ownership suffered a setback this fall, as the paper eliminated about 45 positions through buyouts and layoffs at the same time that Henry was launching Stat, a well-staffed website covering health and life sciences.
On Saturday night and into the early-morning hours on Sunday, many dozens of Globe journalists volunteered to deliver the Sunday paper. It was a feel-good story, to be sure, and it would have been seen as a nice gesture if the delivery woes were just a few days away from being solved. But there was an edge to it as well. I spent some time at the paper’s Newton distribution center, and unhappiness was clearly evident among newsroom staffers toward their colleagues whose job it is to manage the paper’s business operations.
“We’re fighting for our survival here, and I like doing what I’m doing,” technology columnist Hiawatha Bray told me as he assembled papers alongside reporter Todd Wallack. “Not just because I get paid, but because I love journalism.” When I asked him why he thought the switch in vendors had been so painful, Bray replied, “I’m sorry, I have no idea. We have nothing to do with whatever it was that happened, and we’re just mystified.”
Added Wallack: “People deserve their paper. I agree with all our readers. They have a right to expect the paper to be there every morning.”
For that matter, Sunday night’s bombshell story was something of a declaration by Globe editor Brian McGrory that the paper can best serve its readers by holding powerful institutions accountable—including the Globe itself.
A final point. If you feel tempted to snark about the Globe’s dependence on print circulation some 20 years into the digital age, you need to understand a few things about the newspaper business. Digital is both the present and the future, of course. But print is still where the money is, not just for the Globe but for nearly all newspapers. Online, advertising is ubiquitous and therefore cheap. In print, advertising remains a lucrative if declining source of revenue.
Moreover, if we’ve learned anything from the past week, it’s that a lot of people still like to read the newspaper in print. On one end of the scale are the Globe readers who took to Twitter and Facebook to complain about the delivery problems. On the other are the total digital holdouts. I’ve heard stories that Globe employees took calls from customers who don’t even have an email address.
One person who hasn’t been heard from throughout the chaos of the past week is John Henry himself. This is his first real crisis since he purchased the Globe in 2013. But if there’s anything we’ve learned throughout his long tenure as principal owner of the Red Sox, it’s that he has a tendency to let bad situations play out—sometimes too long—before he acts.
It would be nice to hear from him. But it would be even better if he commits to doing whatever it takes to fix this mess. The Globe doesn’t have four to six months to get it right.