Six takeaways from BoMag’s big John Henry profile

John Henry
John Henry

This article was posted earlier at WGBH News.

The local media community has been buzzing since Tuesday, when Jason Schwartz’s 5,000-word Boston magazine article on the state of The Boston Globe under John Henry went live. The piece is chock-full of goodies, and you should read the whole thing. As you do, here are six takeaways for you to ponder.

1. It could have been a lot worse. Although we knew that Douglas Manchester, the right-wing hotel magnate who bought the San Diego Union-Tribune and unforgivably renamed it U-T San Diego, was interested in buying the Globe (he even threatened legal action after it was sold to Henry instead of him), it is nevertheless chilling to read Schwartz’s account of Manchester’s coming in and kicking the tires after the New York Times Co. put the Globe up for sale.

As I wrote in my book about online community journalism, “The Wired City,” Manchester has been described as “a minor-league Donald Trump” who uses his newspaper to promote his business interests as well as conservative causes such as his opposition to same-sex marriage.

In the Boston magazine article, Globe editor Brian McGrory tells Schwartz that “some potential bidders” — and by “some,” it’s clear that he’s including Manchester — would have “cut the living bejesus out of the place.” And Schwartz includes this delicious anecdote: “During the U-T San Diego presentation, people who were in the room attest, Manchester at one point instructed McGrory to call him ‘Papa Doug.’ McGrory did not call him Papa Doug.”

2. It’s official: The Globe is moving. Even before Henry won the Globe sweepstakes, it was clear that the next owner was likely to sell the paper’s 1950s-era Dorchester headquarters for redevelopment — a move that would presumably recoup virtually all of the $70 million Henry paid to purchase the Globe, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester and related properties.

Henry has now made it official, telling Schwartz his goal is to move the paper to a smaller space with better access “in the heart of the city.”

Of course, the Globe still needs a printing press, not only for its own use but for other publications it prints under contract — including its tabloid rival, the Boston Herald. One likely possibility: the Telegram & Gazette’s printing facility in Millbury, which Henry said he was keeping when he announced recently that he was putting the T&G up for sale.

3. The two-website strategy needs an overhaul. Since the fall of 2011, the Globe has offered two websites: BostonGlobe.com, a paid-subscription site offering Globe content and a few extras; and Boston.com, a free site that’s been around since the mid-1990s.

The problem, Schwartz tells us, is that Boston.com, stripped of most Globe content, has been struggling, while BostonGlobe.com hasn’t produced as much revenue as Globe executives would like. The next step: a looser paywall for BostonGlobe.com to encourage more social sharing and a mobile-first Boston.com that’s still in development. (Joshua Benton has more at the Nieman Journalism Lab.)

4. Henry wants to reinvent the newspaper business. This week’s New Yorker includes a rather dispiriting account by George Packer of how Jeff Bezos and Amazon.com took over the book business. Anyone looking for signs that Bezos has a clear idea of what to do with The Washington Post, which he agreed to buy just days after Henry’s purchase of the Globe was announced, will come away disappointed — although he is, to his credit, spending money on the Post.

By contrast, Henry comes across as energized, bristling with ideas — peppering Brian McGrory with emails at all hours of the night — and getting ready to unveil new products, such as standalone websites that cover religion, innovation and other topics.

“I wanted to be a part of finding the solution for the Globe and newspapers in general,” Henry tells Schwartz. “I feel my mortality. I don’t want to waste any of the time I have left, and I felt this was a cause worth fighting for.”

5. Mike Barnicle is lurking off stage. If you were worried when you spotted Barnicle with Henry during the World Series, well, you were right to be. Barnicle, who left the Globe in 1998 after a career full of ethical missteps finally caught up with him, really does have Henry’s ear — and even supplied him with the email address of John Allen, the National Catholic Reporter journalist whom Henry successfully talked into coming to the Globe.

The old reprobate hasn’t changed, either, supplying Schwartz with a great quote that artfully combines religion with an F-bomb.

6. The executive team is now in place. By accepting publisher Christopher Mayer’s resignation, naming himself publisher and bringing in former Hill Holliday president Mike Sheehan as his chief executive officer, Henry has completed a series of moves that have remade the top layer of Globe leadership. McGrory is staying. Andrew Perlmutter, who made his bones at Atlantic Media and The Daily Beast, has replaced Jeff Moriarty, who left for a job in Britain, as the Globe’s chief digital strategist.

That’s not to rule out further change, especially if Henry’s goals aren’t met. But the sense you get is that Henry — to use a Red Sox analogy — now has his Larry Lucchino/Ben Cherington/John Farrell triumvirate in place. No doubt they all realize that winning a world championship is a lot easier than finding a profitable way forward for the beleaguered newspaper business.

Marty Baron on the rise of specialized communities

Marty Baron at The Washington Post. Click on image to watch interview.
Marty Baron at The Washington Post. Click on image to watch interview.

Based on recent statements they’ve made, I’m wondering if Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron may have a more sophisticated view of what the Internet has done to newspapers than the Post’s incoming owner, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

Bezos, who visited the Post’s newsroom earlier this month, seemed to endorse a classic paywall model, arguing that he was convinced people were willing to pay for the “daily ritual bundle” that The Washington Post represents. That brought a retort from Post blogger Timothy B. Lee, who wrote:

That daily ritual got blown up for good reason. Trying to recreate the “bundle” experience in Web or tablet form means working against the grain of how readers, especially younger readers, consume the news today. In the long run, it’s a recipe for an aging readership and slow growth.

Indeed, many news observers have been arguing for years that one of the Internet’s most profound effects on journalism is “disaggregation” — that in a post-industrial environment, with news no longer tied to the enormous costs of printing and distribution, it makes no sense for international and local news, obituaries and comics, grocery store coupons and the crossword puzzle all to appear in the same place.

Baron, the editor of The Boston Globe until late last year, comes up with another metaphor, not original to him but nevertheless key to understanding what has happened — the decline of geographic communities and the rise of communities built around shared interests. In an interview with fellows from the Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Baron talks about the difficulty of putting together (to cite one example) a newspaper sports section for Red Sox fans when there are speciality media devoted to nothing but sports.

This development, Baron says, was furthered by the rise of Twitter and other social media, which bring readers in to a news site to read just one article. How can news organizations make money from that? Baron puts it this way:

My sense is that people are going to their passions. Their passions aren’t always based on geography. Newspapers have traditionally been based on geography. We have a community here. We have a community in Miami, a community in Boston, a community in Los Angeles. The assumption was that people were members of that community actually would want to have a product that covered the full range of things in that community. What I observed over time was that, in fact, the sense of community wasn’t nearly as strong as the other passions that people had. In fact, community wasn’t necessarily such a strong passion. It was much more important to them that they were an aficionado of a particular type of music, or that they were a member of a particular religious denomination or that they were obsessed with a particular sports team, than the fact that they lived in Los Angeles.

Unlike some journalists, Baron thinks it was perfectly logical to give away news for free in the early years of the Internet, both because of the need to get big online in a hurry and because there was every reason to believe that advertising would pay the bills. It was only after ad revenues failed to materialize (and even began to drop because of the ubiquity of online ads), he says, that news organizations reluctantly moved to paywalls.

The transcript of Baron’s full interview is here, and it is well worth reading — or watching, as there is a video version of the interview as well.

Baron was one of 61 people interviewed for “Riptide,” a project carried out by Shorenstein fellows John Huey, Martin Nisenholtz and Paul Sagan. (The site was designed by the Nieman Journalism Lab, which also hosts it — but which played no role in the editorial content, as Lab director Joshua Benton explains.) “Riptide” is a comprehensive, valuable resource — but it has proved to be controversial since its release because it’s not comprehensive enough.

As Kira Goldenberg writes for the Columbia Journalism Review, all but five of the 61 interview subjects are men, and only two of the subjects are non-white. Goldenberg says that efforts have begun to produce a counter-report that will be more diverse. In offering a few nominations of her own, Northeastern University graduate student Meg Heckman adds:

It’s unfortunate that, in telling the latest chapter of journalism history in a fresh, narrative format, the authors of Riptide make an old mistake by continuing to devalue the contributions of women.

My own view is that “Riptide” represents a good start — but that there’s no reason for Huey, Nisenholtz and Sagan not to keep going so that it eventually grows into a truly comprehensive, diverse history of how the Internet disrupted journalism.

(Disclosures, of which there are several: I am an unpaid contributing writer for the Nieman Journalism Lab. I have long had a friendly relationship with folks at the Nieman Foundation and at the Shorenstein Center. Heckman is a student of mine, and I am a student of hers.)

A moment of optimism for the future of journalism

In just four days, a major metropolitan newspaper (The Boston Globe) and, now, a national newspaper (The Washington Post) have been sold to wealthy new owners with good-guy reputations who’ll be able to operate debt-free while they try to figure out how to turn around the fortunes of their beleaguered acquisitions.

John Henry’s buying the Globe is one thing. Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Post is quite another. Post-Steve Jobs, is there a more visionary tech entrepreneur than the founder of Amazon? This is great and hopeful news for anyone concerned about the future not just of the newspaper business but of journalism.

 

Kindle edition of “The Wired City” now available

I got some great news on Thursday: The Kindle edition of “The Wired City” is now available at Amazon.com. I do virtually all my book-reading on my iPad using Kindle software, even if I have a hard copy — so I know how important it is to make “The Wired City” available electronically. Thank you for your patience.

E-books and the privatization of the village square

This commentary has also been published at the Huffington Post.

Tomorrow I’ll be part of a panel on e-books being organized in Boston by the Association of College and Research Libraries. We’re supposed to talk about what we like and don’t like about them, and I can do that. But what I really hope to discuss is the place of e-books in a world in which what we used to think of as public space is increasingly being turned over to private, profit-making entities.

Let me explain what I mean with a couple of non-book examples.

In 2003 I bestowed a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award on Crossgates Mall, in the Albany, N.Y., suburb of Colonie, for calling police and having a man arrested because he was wearing a mildly worded T-shirt in protest of the war in Iraq. The protester — actually, he was just having a bite to eat in the food court after picking up his purchase from the mall’s T-shirt store — was quickly released.

But there’s almost no chance he would have been arrested if he’d been hanging out in the village square rather than a mall. The trouble is that in too many cities and towns, we no longer have a village square except in the form of enclosed spaces owned by profit-seeking corporations. What happened to that protester said a lot more about our privatized idea of community than it does about that one particular incident.

In 2008 the Beverly Citizen, a weekly newspaper on Boston’s North Shore owned by GateHouse Media, discovered what can happen when you turn over some of your publishing operations to Google. The Citizen had posted a video of the annual Fourth of July “Horribles” parade, which included an offensive float that featured a giant, water-squirting penis. The float mocked an alleged “pregnancy pact” involving girls at Gloucester High School, a much-hyped story that turned out to be not quite true.

Although the Citizen’s judgment in posting the video could be questioned, there was no doubt that the float was newsworthy, as it had been seen by hundreds of people attending the parade. Yet Google-owned YouTube, which GateHouse was using as a video-publishing platform, took it down without any explanation. It would be as though a printing company refused to publish a particular edition of newspaper on the grounds that it didn’t like the content. YouTube is an incredibly flexible tool for video journalism. But Google has its own agenda, and hosting content that might offend someone is bad for business.

What’s that got to do with e-books? A physical book, once printed, enters a public sphere of a sort, especially if it’s purchased by a library. But an e-book remains largely under the control of the corporation that distributed it — most likely Amazon, Apple or Barnes & Noble.

We all remember those horror stories from a few years ago when some books people had purchased suddenly disappeared from their Kindles because Amazon was involved in a rights dispute. (Ironically, the books included George Orwell’s “1984.”) In some cases, students lost books they needed for school, along with their notes.

More recently, Apple refused to carry in its iTunes store an e-book by Seth Godin called “Stop Stealing Dreams.” The reason: Godin included favorable mentions of — and links to — other e-books that were available only through Amazon. “We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores … and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing,” Godin wrote.

And I’m not even getting into the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation of alleged price-fixing by Apple and several leading book publishers.

Another concern I have involves the rights of authors. Several years ago Rodale, the publisher of my first book, “Little People,” reassigned all rights to me after the book had reached the end of its natural life. I published the full text on the Web, which led to my hometown high school’s adopting it as its summer read — which in turn pushed me to create a self-published paperback edition with the help of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. “Little People” has had a pretty nice second life for an out-of-print book. (I wrote about the experience recently for Nieman Reports.)

But now that e-books and e-readers have become ubiquitous, I’m worried that publishers will simply have no incentive to let authors benefit from the full rights to their own work. If a publisher can make a little bit of money by selling a few e-copies each year, then it might just decide to keep those rights to itself. This is long-tail economics for the benefit of corporations, not authors.

And have you ever tried to lend an e-book to someone?

There is a lot to like about e-books. As someone with terrible eyesight, I like being able to adjust the type to my own preference and use my laptop’s or iPhone’s backlighting rather than depend on iffy room lighting. And my iPhone, unlike whatever book I might be reading, is always with me.

But when unaccountable corporate interests maintain control over what shall take place in the village square, what content shall be deemed suitable for public consumption and what rights the authors and even the purchasers of books shall have, we have put our culture at risk in ways we couldn’t have imagined a generation ago.

Thanks to Twitter followers @jcstearns, @JimandMargery and @BostonGuyinNC, who responded quickly to my pleas for help with research.

Amazon’s move is a boon for digital newspapers

The future of digital newspapers just got a lot more interesting.

The New York Times reports that Amazon has decided to let newspaper and magazine publishers have a 70 percent cut of Kindle revenues, a substantial increase over the current 30 percent. In order to qualify, though, those publishers will have to agree to let Amazon sell subscriptions to anyone who has a device with Kindle software installed on it. (Unlike books, you had to have Amazon’s Kindle hardware device in order to download newspapers and magazines.)

When that happens, you’ll be able to read the Kindle editions of your favorite newspapers and magazines on an iPad, a smartphone or the forthcoming Google tablets.

Given the halting nature of newspaper and magazine rollouts for the iPad (stemming in large measure from a dispute between Apple and publishers over who gets to see customer data), this is a boon on two levels. It gives non-Kindle tablet owners a viable workaround until Apple and the publishers can get their act together — and it provides Apple with a huge incentive to make that happen, along with some rare leverage for the publishers.

Meanwhile, John Ellis points to an analysis showing that paid online distribution may have a future: at Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London, online readership is down but revenues are way up since the Times erected a pay wall earlier this year.

Earlier: “The resurrection will be slightly delayed.”

The resurrection will be (slightly) delayed

The idea that Apple’s iPad would save newspapers and magazines, always dubious, is so far not even getting a decent tryout. Evangelists for the iPad put forth a vision of users switching from free websites to paid apps.

Since a very good Web browser is built in to the iPad, it was never clear why any more than a handful would pay. And, so far, there are few apps. Among the better-known is the New York Times’ “Editor’s Choice,” a free, experimental app that doesn’t include the full content of the paper. (The Globe is reportedly working on an iPad app, but I have no details.)

PressReader offers some 1,500 papers around the world (neither the Times nor the Boston Globe is available, though the Boston Herald is). But it’s based on a PDF-like representation of the actual pages in the paper, which is no way to read online.

Meanwhile, because Apple has been slow in implementing subscriptions, we have absurdities like Time magazine’s paid app, which costs approximately 650 percent more than a print subscription.

If I had an iPad, here’s what I would want: a simple way to subscribe to the papers I read every day at a much-lower-than-print price. Since I wouldn’t pay $30 a month for an always-on 3G connection, I’d want to download the entire paper via WiFi, and then be able to read it whether I was in a hot spot or not.

It’s not as though what I’m looking for is particularly exotic. In fact, two very good alternatives already exist — yet neither one of them will work with the iPad.

First, the Times and the Globe are both available in low-cost “Reader” editions, built on top of the Adobe Air platform. The Reader, based on flipping pages, is seemingly made for the iPad. But because of Apple’s ongoing battle with Adobe, you can’t run Air on an iPad. (The forthcoming Google tablet, running Air, would be a great way to access Reader content.)

Second, many papers are available on the Amazon Kindle. But though Kindle software runs on a variety of devices, including the iPad, Amazon has restricted newspapers and magazines to its proprietary Kindle devices. If you’re running Kindle software on your laptop or smartphone, you can only use it to download and read books.

So far, it seems, the iPad has been very good for Apple, but not so good for newspaper and magazine publishers. That’s not surprising. What is surprising is that there are no good options even for people who are willing to pay.

Photo (cc) by Steve Garfield and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.