Maybe now they’ll revive the slogan ‘The Globe’s here’

$_35If only the delivery folks at The Boston Globe could turn the clock back to December 27, 2015. That’s the last day that Publishers Circulation Fulfillment delivered the print edition. It’s also the last day that Globe customers could be reasonably sure the paper would show up on their doorstep as promised.

Well, the Globe is going to try to do just that. After a disastrous debut by a new vendor, ACI Media, followed by an emergency move to bring back PCF to handle many of the routes, the Globe is ditching ACI and going back to PCF exclusively, according to this report by Mark Arsenault.

In the early weeks, the region was in an uproar. Improvement appeared to be around the corner on the weekend of January 2 and 3, when hundreds of Globe staffers helped assemble and deliver the Sunday paper. But then the Globe itself ran a devastating story by Arsenault and Dan Adams reporting that delivery would not return to normal for four to six months. That, in turn, led to the partial restoration of PCF and an apology by publisher and owner John Henry.

Even though the delivery situation had partly recovered from the initial disaster, I’ve continued to hear complaints from readers right up through last week. It is mind-boggling that ACI was never able to get it right. You have to wonder what kind of promises they made that convinced Globe executives they could handle the job, and why those executives believed them.

No word on how much pain was inflicted on the Globe in terms of lost circulation or financial setbacks.

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Your Saturday media round-up

No, not the debut of a new feature. But there’s a lot going on today. So let’s get to it.

• Jason Rezaian is coming home. Rezaian, who’s a Washington Post reporter, is being released by Iran along with three other prisoners as part of a swap. Meanwhile, Iran is moving closer to compliance with the nuclear deal, and, as we know, it returned without incident a group of American sailors who had drifted into its territorial waters even as the Republican presidential candidates were calling for war or something.

What President Obama’s critics refuse to acknowledge is that Iran is complicated, factionalized, and slowly lurching toward better (not good) behavior. Obama has invested a considerable amount of his moral authority into trying to nudge along a less dangerous Iran, and his efforts are paying off.

And kudos to Post executive editor Marty Baron, who has kept the spotlight on Rezaian’s unjust imprisonment for the past year and a half.

• The routes are at the root. Boston Globe reporter Mark Arsenault today has the most thorough examination yet of what went wrong with the Globe‘s home-delivery system when it switched vendors at the end of December. Arsenault takes a tough look at the decisions made by the paper’s business executives, who clearly did not do enough vetting of the plans put together by the new vendor, ACI Media Group. And he opens with Globe publisher John Henry amid thousands of undelivered papers at the Newton distribution center, sending a message that, yes, the owner is engaged.

As has been reported previously, but not in as much detail as Arsenault offers, ACI’s routes just didn’t make sense. And what looked like a mere glitch at the end of day one turned into a catastrophe as drivers walked off the job once they realized there was no way they could make their appointed rounds.

It’s the Globe itself that has to take primary responsibility, of course. But based on Arsenault’s report, ACI officials—who did not speak to him—clearly sold the Globe a bill of goods. If ACI has a different perspective on what happened, we’d like to hear it soon.

• Digital First workers revolt. Employees at Digital First Media are fighting for their first raise in seven to 10 years, according to an announcement by workers represented by the Newspaper Guild. These folks have been abused for years by bad ownership as hedge funds have sought to cash in.

The effort covers some 1,000 Guild members. It’s unclear whether employees at non-Guild papers—including the Lowell Sun and the New Haven Register—would be helped.

The Globe now says delivery woes will persist for six weeks

Today is the first day that The Boston Globe‘s previous home-delivery vendor, Publishers Circulation Fulfillment (PCF), is supposed to be fully back on the job. I figured things would be more or less back to normal this week.

Instead, the Globe‘s Dan Adams, in the midst of reporting on the weekend’s chaos and labor strife, drops this gem: “Although Globe executives expect rapid improvement beginning Monday, they cautioned it could take as long as six weeks for service to return to normal everywhere.”

Six weeks.

Is there any way that the Globe could return to the pre-December 28 status quo? Decide that the new vendor, ACI Media Group, didn’t live up to the contract and simply re-engage with PCF? I mean, you have to wonder if it’s ever going to work having one company deliver the Globe and another the Boston HeraldThe New York Times, etc. Competition is great except when it isn’t.

Six weeks is obviously better than the four- to six-month prediction that prompted Globe executives to bring back PCF in the first place. But you have to figure there are going to be a whole lot of cancellations if the situation can’t be resolved sooner than that.

McGrory to staff: Please come to Newton (and Peabody)

The Boston Globe‘s previous home-delivery vendor, Publishers Circulation Fulfillment, was not supposed to be back on the job until today or Monday. So there was not much reason to expect a dramatic improvement—and there wasn’t. I received a copy of this email from editor Brian McGrory to the staff earlier this evening. It was sent out a few minutes after 5 a.m.

Subject: Help needed ASAP

Just got a call that there are thousands of undelivered papers sitting in the Newton distribution center. We need help. Anyone who wants to show up between now and, say, 9 — the earlier the better for obvious reasons — will be very welcomed.

It’s 15 Riverdale Avenue in Newton.

Am told there’s help also needed in Peabody, but not as much. Probably about 8 routes.

That’s 200 Corporate Place, Peabody.

If you’re going, hit reply all. Partners can be found and paired up on site. Sorry and thanks.

Brian

I’m guessing that things will be a lot better around mid-week. That’s when PCF is supposed to be fully geared up, splitting the delivery territory with the new vendor, ACI Media Group.

Meanwhile, the Globe ran an excellent front-page story today on the hard lot of delivery drivers..

Did the Globe just solve its home-delivery problems?

This is huge. The Boston Globe just reported that its previous vendor, Publishers Circulation Fulfillment, is going to handle half the deliveries starting Monday—and possibly as soon as Sunday.

Problem solved? I don’t know. Remember, drivers have been switching from PCF to the new one, ACI Media Group, and it may not be possible to reconstitute the network that previously existed. Still, it’s fair to call this a major step toward solving the home-delivery crisis.

Globe chief executive Mike Sheehan Sheehan predicts “an extremely rapid return to 100 percent deliveries and improved customer service.”

Update: And now Globe publisher John Henry has issued a statement and an apology. As long as the distribution problems are mostly solved in the next few days, this story is winding down.

Your daily update on the Globe’s home-delivery woes

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Photo (cc) 2007 by Steve Johnson

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There’s a risk that updates on The Boston Globe‘s home-delivery woes are going to become repetitive. But the story is still unfolding, and there is news to pass along. I’ll try to keep this terse.

As you no doubt know, Globe chief executive Mike Sheehan has been making the rounds. He told Jim Braude on Greater Boston Monday that he does not expect the worst-case scenario—a four- to six-month delay before service is returned to normal—will come to pass. Instead, he put it at 30 to 45 days. That’s four to six weeks, still a significant lag. I’d say the Globe has four to six days before this really starts to hurt the bottom line.

Then again, it depends. Sheehan also told Barbara Howard on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) Tuesday that the new distributor, ACI Media Group, would be using updated software today and that he expects significant improvements almost immediately. If the Globe can solve most of the problem in the next few days (and based on Twitter reaction this morning, things have definitely not changed for the better yet), then getting the rest of it right over the next few weeks might be acceptable. On the other hand, several more weeks of utter chaos will be devastating.

Another aspect of the Braude interview worth noting: Sheehan vigorously disagreed with an assertion by columnist/paper boy Kevin Cullen that the switch will result in lower pay for carriers. “Whatever they pay the delivery people, it’s not enough,” Cullen wrote, “and it’s more than a little depressing to think this debacle has been brought about by a desire to pay them even less.”

Sheehan responded that the savings he anticipates would not come from paying the carriers less, pointing out that ACI is competing for workers with the Globe‘s previous carrier, Publishers Circulation Fulfillment, or PCF. And he repeated his claim that the switch was driven primarily for better service. Lower costs, better service? Seems to me that we generally get to choose one or the other, not both.

In other developments:

  • The Globe itself today reports that the paper may add a second vendor—possibly its previous vendor, PCF. The Globe also checks in with two other ACI Clients, The Dallas Morning News and the Palm Beach Post, and it sounds like both papers did a lot more advance planning than took place at the Globe. Executives at both papers say they are pleased with ACI’s performance, one of the few good signs in all this.
  • WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) has more on the new software. It includes some good quotes from friend of WGBH News Sue O’Connell, co-publisher of Bay Windows and the South End News.
  • The Boston Business Journal publishes an overview, including some interesting numbers on the Globe‘s reliance on print revenue.
  • The screw-up is affecting delivery of other papers as well, since ACI is now competing with PCF and forcing delivery people to decide which company to work with. Among the papers that are been harmed are The Daily Item of Lynn and The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham. Larger papers such as The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and the Boston Herald—all of which continue to be delivered by PCF—have been affected as well.
  • As for the Herald‘s non-coverage of a story that it would have been all over a few years go, I can’t top what my friend John Carroll has been doing. (Yes, the Herald is printed by the Globe these days.) Here is John’s latest update, which includes a tip of the hat to Beat the Press host Emily Rooney.

How the Globe’s home-delivery woes became a crisis

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.