Some perspective on the Globe’s digital landmark

Outside the Globe’s Taunton printing plant. Photo (cc) 2018 by Dan Kennedy.

I’m going to be talking with Barbara Howard on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) this afternoon about the news that The Boston Globe now has more paid digital than print subscribers — a significant landmark that has nevertheless led to some head-scratching among those who are wondering what it means.

The news was reported earlier this week by Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal. Joshua Benton took note of the moment at the Nieman Lab:

The Globe has been lucky to have an attractive market with higher-than-average education and income; it’s been smart to keep cuts to the newsroom smaller than what its peers have. And it’s also still a good newspaper — something that’s harder to say about other metros that have been cut to the marrow.

Here’s some perspective. A lot of us thought that the Globe was the first large regional daily cross this particular line. (Our national newspapers, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, have been selling more papers online than in print for quite some time.) That’s not quite true. As I was researching another story, I discovered that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette beat the Globe to it. But there are some unusual aspects to the case of the ADG, which I’ll be writing about next week.

I think it’s safe to say that the head-scratching comes about from a suspicion that the Globe’s supposed digital success is really more a sign of print failure. And there’s no question that the Globe’s print operation is on life support. But the digital accomplishment is real.

Take a look at Seiffert’s chart. In June 2016, the Globe had 67,429 digital-only subscribers and 135,231 print subscribers, for a total of 202,660. By March of this year, the numbers were 112,241 digital and 98,978 print for a total of 211,219. That’s an overall increase of 8,559 paid subscribers. And though digital doesn’t bring in as much as print, it’s still real money — especially with the Globe’s unusually high digital rate of $30 a month once initial discounts have worn off.

Not only has the Globe under John Henry’s ownership maintained its quality better than most major metros, but its user experience, if not great, is at least good enough. It’s also in the midst of transitioning to The Washington Post’s Arc content management system, and though there appear to be a few bugs to work out, we paying customers should expect to see an improving digital product in the months ahead.

But no, print is not doing well. If you want to go back to the Globe’s heyday in the 1980s early 1990s, the paper at one time sold more than 500,000 papers on weekdays and more than 800,000 on Sundays. As recently as the fourth quarter of 2015, weekday print circulation was still 143,348 and 255,735 on Sundays. Now, in addition to that 98,978 figure for weekdays, Sunday is just 172,067. (Figures from the Alliance for Audited Media.)

What happened is no different from what’s happening anywhere, except that there were some special circumstances with the Globe. First, in early 2016, the Globe changed home delivery vendors, with disastrous results. The paper was able to recover fairly quickly by switching back to the original vendor. But then came the opening of the new, not-ready-for-prime-time Taunton printing plant in mid-2017, and it was months before printing and distribution returned more or less to normal.

Unreliable delivery and the high cost of a print subscription ($1,000 a year) no doubt helped drive a lot of customers to digital-only. In the long run, that’s going to benefit the Globe, especially given how cheap it is to add digital subscribers. But since print readers remain more valuable than digital subscribers, moving toward an all-digital future more quickly than is absolutely necessary results in money left on the table.

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The Globe gets ready to sail its Arc into Rhode Island

Big changes are coming for Boston Globe digital subscribers, not to mention staff members. Over the next few weeks, visitors to BostonGlobe.com will be driven to Arc, the paper’s new content-management system, according to an email to the staff from senior product manager Eric Westby. The email was passed along by a trusted source who asked to remain anonymous.

The Globe is licensing Arc from The Washington Post, where the CMS was developed.  As a Globe subscriber, I’m hoping for a consistent user experience across all platforms, web, tablet and phone, as is the case with washingtonpost.com and its “classic” (black) apps. The Globe unveiled an Arc-based mobile app last fall, but it remains underdeveloped. Among other things, you still can’t swipe horizontally through articles on the iOS version. (I’m told that you can if you’re an Android user.)

The final steps toward adopting Arc come at the same time that the Globe is making a digital push into Rhode Island, hiring three veteran reporters (so far) at a time when The Providence Journal is being decimated by GateHouse Media, its corporate chain owner. Improved digital platforms should help with that push — but only if the Globe really commits to getting Arc right.

The full text of Westby’s email follows.

Dear Colleagues,

A quick update on the upcoming Arc CMS launch. We’re happy to report that our Arc beta test has been a success, and we’ll be ending the test and moving BostonGlobe.com visitors to an Arc-driven site beginning April 22. Our plan is to transition the bulk of our traffic from Méthode to Arc gradually over the course of that week. Visitors will be randomly assigned to the Arc group in stages, with all traffic driven to Arc by Friday, April 26. Two things to note:

    • The plan is for the redesigned Globe.com homepage and the sports section front to follow one week later, in order to mitigate any potential workflow or technical issues at launch. Our current plan is to move these two critical pages from Méthode to Arc on or about May 1.
    • With this launch, we will have effectively moved BostonGlobe.com to a sleeker, more modern, and more flexible design, one that’s built for our future and run with the best system in its class. You’ll still notice an odd page here and there in the old site layout: Today’s Paper, Crosswords, Author pages, etc. We will be transitioning these pages one at a time in the weeks ahead, both to account for variables with the coding and to ensure our readers don’t lose any functionality during this important transition.

Articles will continue to be written and edited in Méthode for now, with the move to Ellipsis (Arc’s article authoring tool) soon to follow. This rollout will be a phased approach that will require training and careful planning. You’ll be receiving more information on the Ellipsis rollout soon.

There will no doubt be bugs to squash, but this launch will mark a major milestone in our Arc rollout.

All the best,

Eric Westby
Senior Product Manager, BostonGlobe.com

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The Globe hits a digital benchmark — and finds a new art critic in Toronto

Murray Whyte (via LinkedIn)

A couple of good-news items from The Boston Globe.

First, the paper is reporting that it has passed the 100,000 level for digital-only subscriptions, a benchmark the paper’s executives had originally hoped to reach by the end of June. Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal has the details.

When I interviewed Globe editor Brian McGrory for “The Return of the Moguls” nearly two years ago, he said the paper would start to look like a sustainable business if it could hit 200,000. My mother always told me that the first 100,000 is the hardest. But the Globe’s digital presence is in the midst of getting an upgrade as it adopts The Washington Post’s Arc content-management system this fall. If the Arc transition goes smoothly, then perhaps another circulation boost will follow.

Second, the Globe is announcing today that it has finally replaced Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Sebastian Smee, who left for the Post nearly a year ago. The Globe’s new critic is Murray Whyte, currently at The Star of Toronto, whose arrival in Boston, I’m told, was delayed because of immigration issues.

In an email to the Globe’s staff, deputy managing editor for arts and newsroom innovation Janice Page and arts editor Rebecca Ostriker call Whyte “a truly extraordinary writer” who “brings a unique combination of keen insight, wide-ranging expertise, superb judgment, and an ability to recognize and write about what really matters.” The full text of their message follows.

We are delighted to announce that Murray Whyte is joining the Globe as art critic, starting next month.

Murray was born in Winnipeg and grew up partly in Calgary, and he will completely understand if you have no idea where those places are (directly north — way north — of Minnesota and Montana, respectively). He’s spent the better part of two decades in Toronto, and the last 10 of those as the art critic at the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest daily newspaper, where he is a recent winner of Canada’s National Newspaper Award, the country’s highest journalistic honor.

As Globe readers will soon learn, Murray is a truly extraordinary writer. He brings a unique combination of keen insight, wide-ranging expertise, superb judgment, and an ability to recognize and write about what really matters. He does not focus on art for art’s sake, but rather connects art to what can make a difference to people living in the world — to society, to ideas, to our culture as a whole.

Murray’s eclectic background also extends beyond arts journalism, including a stint as a producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In fact, he may be the only journalist in North America who has reported from the oil sands in northern Alberta and Uranium City in Saskatchewan as well as the Venice Biennale.

But the visual arts have always been in his bones. As a journalism graduate student at New York University, his refuge was the Museum of Modern Art, where he could exult in the stillness of Mark Rothko or the luminescence of Claude Monet. Art museums, he says, are his version of a walk in the woods — a rejuvenating, almost transcendent communion with the sublime.

He’s also a huge hockey fan — another kind of sublime — and would appreciate any spare tickets when the Calgary Flames come to town, because surely, he says, there can’t be anyone else here as interested in the progress of Dillon Dube on left wing this year. Can there?

Murray will be making his home in the Boston area with his wife, photographer Sian Richards, and their two children. He’ll arrive at the Globe in mid-November. Please join us in giving him a very warm welcome.

Janice and Rebecca

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A few preliminary thoughts on The Boston Globe’s new Arc-powered app

Following a soft launch, The Boston Globe today is going public with its new app for tablets and phones, powered by Arc, The Washington Post’s content-management system. I’ve been playing with it since Tuesday, and I have a few very preliminary observations.

— It’s fast and attractive in a Post kind of way. The icon for the app is a white “B” on a black background, and the look and feel are similar to the Post’s black app. Stories load quickly, pictures are big and the type size can be easily adjusted.

— The organizational scheme is intuitive and makes sense. Across the top is a navigation bar that lets you choose from among Top Stories, Sports, Metro and the like. One of the choices is Marijuana, a hint of the paper’s expanded coverage of all things pot that is said to be in the works. Click on “Sections” at the bottom and you can drill down to more specific coverage. Again, this will be familiar to Post readers.

— Unlike virtually any news app I’ve ever used, you can’t swipe from one story to the next. Instead, you have to click the back arrow to return to whatever section you’re browsing. Stories load quickly enough that this amounts to a minor annoyance, not a major one. But it needs to be fixed.

— Stories appear in seemingly random order, even in the Top Stories section. As I scroll through the section right now, I see a few news stories followed by some sports, then back to news, then some more sports. The Top Stories sections of the best newspaper apps — those offered by the Post and The New York Times — are divided into sections and have a curated feel to them. The Globe needs to do better.

— As with the Post, there is no Today’s Paper listing of stories. That’s actually one of my favorite features of the Times’ app, since I might read a few stories on my way to work and then pick it up later during the day. A newspaper as a fixed record of the day’s most important events may seem old-school, but stories you might want to read tend to disappear from continuously updated apps. There’s a Today’s Paper listing at the Globe’s website, which works fine on a phone, even if it’s slow. I’d like to see that migrate to the app as well.

Based on first impressions, I’d give the Globe’s app a “B.” Given that the Globe’s owners, John and Linda Henry, have bet the farm on selling pricey digital subscriptions (currently just shy of 100,000), the tech side ought to keep working and get it into the “A” range. There’s a lot to like, a few things that need to be improved and one shortcoming — the inability to swipe from story to story — that is just plain unacceptable.

Update: A Facebook commenter says that you can swipe with the Android version. I’m an iOS user. But that suggests the problem won’t be too difficult to fix.

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