Will Patrick Soon-Shiong stand up to Alden — or sell his newspapers?

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Photo (cc) 2019 by the World Economic Forum.

It was quite a week for Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire surgeon who owns the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune.

On Tuesday came the news that the hedge fund Alden Global Capital was offering $630 million to boost its share of Tribune Publishing from 32% to 100%. Alden would take Tribune private and then, presumably, do what it does: slash the newsrooms of the Chicago Tribune, the Hartford Courant and others to ribbons. One unexpected benefit: The Baltimore Sun and several sister papers would be acquired by a nonprofit foundation.

The complicating factor was that Soon-Shiong, the second-largest Tribune shareholder at 24%, has the right to veto Alden’s acquisition. Would he? Probably not, guessed Poynter analyst Rick Edmonds. “I would bet that getting out with a good return on his investment will be Soon-Shiong’s main or sole objective,” Edmonds wrote.

Then, on Friday, came a bombshell. Lukas Alpert of The Wall Street Journal reported that Soon-Shiong was looking to get out of the newspaper business less than three years after he bought the Times and the Union-Tribune from Tribune’s absurdly named predecessor, tronc.

“The move,” Alpert wrote, “marks an abrupt about-face for Mr. Soon-Shiong, who had vowed to restore stability to the West Coast news institution and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the paper in an effort to turn it around.” Soon-Shiong denied it, tweeting, “WSJ article inaccurate. We are committed to the @LATimes.”

We are left wondering what’s correct — “people familiar with the matter,” as Alpert described his sources, or Soon-Shiong’s on-the-record denial. Alpert is a good reporter, and presumably his sources are aware of at least some frustration on Soon-Shiong’s part. What’s especially worrisome is that Alpert’s sources say Soon-Shiong has come to believe his papers would be better off “as part of a larger media group.” Other than Alden or Gannett, it’s hard to imagine any other options. If Soon-Shiong is really tired of the business, why not sell them to a nonprofit?

Nevertheless, it’s hard for me not to think about all the times that John and Linda Henry have been rumored to be selling The Boston Globe since they bought it in 2013. Every so often they deny it, such as in 2018 and 2020. And there certainly haven’t been any signs that they’re selling.

Still, the Henry rumors never made it into The Wall Street Journal. Let’s hope that, whatever else comes out of the Tribune meltdown, Southern California’s major newspapers remain within the relatively safe orbit of Soon-Shiong’s protection.

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Could the Globe do more to fill the local news gap?

The Globe’s YourTown site for Needham circa 2010

Last Thursday we had a terrific panel discussion at Northeastern’s School of Journalism about the local news crisis in Greater Boston. Our panelists were state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, the lead sponsor of a state commission on local news that was recently created; retired Boston Globe editorial page editor Ellen Clegg; Yawu Miller, senior editor of The Bay State Banner; Bill Forry, managing editor of The Dorchester Reporter; and Julie McCay Turner, co-founder and managing editor of The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit website that started as a volunteer project and that has gradually added paid journalism.

You can read Mihiro Shimano’s account at The Scope by clicking here. But I want to pick up on something that Ellen (my research partner on a book about local news) said about The Boston Globe’s role.

I was moderating and couldn’t take notes. But when I asked her about the Globe’s role in local news, she said the paper discovered about 20 years ago that it couldn’t make much of a dent at the hyperlocal level. Readers looked to their community weeklies and dailies for coverage of day-to-day life in their cities and towns. What the Globe could provide, she said, was regional coverage of issues that affected everyone — which is pretty much the mission statement for the paper in general.

As she also pointed out, the Globe now has a digital Rhode Island section, which is in keeping with the regional focus, and covers Newton through a partnership with Boston University. But could the paper do more?

Now that corporate-owned chains have decimated most of the once-strong community papers that circle Boston, I wonder if the Globe might be able to play more of a role. One idea would be to revive the YourTown websites that were unveiled during the last few years of New York Times Co. ownership. YourTown covered not just the Boston suburbs but neighborhoods within the city as well, which remains a crucial need. That was back in the days of the free web, and it proved impossible to sell ads for the sites. Now that everything is subscription-driven, though, would it be possible to try again?

There’s no substitute for independently owned community media, but a greater presence by the Globe — which itself is independently owned — might be the next best thing.

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Dueling takes on the state’s companion vaccine program

From today’s New York Times:
And today’s Boston Globe:

The Globe will partner with the Portland Press Herald on a Spotlight reporting project

The Boston Globe will partner with the Portland Press Herald on an unspecified investigative reporting project, according to the trade publication Editor & Publisher. The partnership will produce “a multi-part investigative report that will be published by both organizations this fall.”

The project will be funded by the Spotlight Investigative Journalism Fellowship, established by the Globe and Participant Media, the producers of the movie “Spotlight.” Grants of up to $100,000 are awarded to reporters or teams of reporters. This is the first time the Globe has partnered with another news organization. The series will be published by both papers.

Scott Allen, the Globe’s assistant managing editor for projects, declined in an email to say what the topic of the reporting would be — but when I noted that the Press Herald reporter who’ll be working on the project, Penelope Overton, covers the lobster industry, Allen said that “we expect to take full advantage of her considerable expertise.”

There are some interesting intersections between the Globe and the Press Herald. The E&P story points out that Press Herald managing editor Steve Greenlee worked at the Globe for 12 years. But it goes beyond that. Lisa DeSisto, who is chief executive officer of the Press Herald and its sister papers, was previously a high-ranking business-side executive at the Globe (and, before that, a colleague of mine at The Boston Phoenix).

The two papers also have the distinction of having been pursued by Boston-area businessman Aaron Kushner, who tried to buy the Globe in 2010 and nearly succeeded in buying the Press Herald in 2012. Kushner and a team of investors ended up purchasing the Orange County Register in Southern California later in 2012. They spent considerable resources in building up the Register and acquiring and launching other papers — only to tear it all down in short order when the hoped-for revenues failed to materialize. Today the Register is owned by the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital. (I tell the story of Kushner’s newspaper adventures in my book “The Return of the Moguls.”)

Today the Press Herald is owned by Reade Brower, a printer, who’s built a small chain of Maine newspapers and gets generally high marks for his stewardship. The Globe, of course, is owned by billionaires John and Linda Henry.

The Philly Inquirer will outsource its printing to Gannett

Philadelphia City Hall. Photo (cc) 2016 by Dan Kennedy.

It’s one thing for the chain-owned Hartford Courant to outsource its printing. It’s quite another for an independent major metro like The Philadelphia Inquirer to do so.

The Inquirer, recently shorn of its online comments, is owned by a well-funded nonprofit organization, the Lenfest Institute, and it continues to be reasonably well-staffed. Nevertheless, Kristen Hare of Poynter Online reports that the Inquirer will sell off its suburban printing plant and outsource its production to a Gannett-owned facility instead.

The print edition of many newspapers has become such a small part of their operations that printing simply isn’t cost-effective unless they’re able to take on outside customers. No doubt they’re celebrating at Gannett, since the Inquirer deal means less time that their presses will be idle. But when the Inquirer’s shutdown takes place later this year, 500 people will lose their jobs.

You can be sure that Boston Globe owners John and Linda Henry are looking at this move closely. The launch of the Globe’s printing plant in Taunton in mid-2017 was plagued with problems, and after they were fixed the Globe found itself with fewer outside printing jobs than it had expected. With digital far outpacing print, at some point it may make sense simply to sell the Taunton plant and print the Globe elsewhere.

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Philly Inquirer kills comments

The Philadelphia Inquirer is getting rid of most of its comments. Why?

Commenting on Inquirer.com was long ago hijacked by a small group of trolls who traffic in racism, misogyny, and homophobia. This group comprises a tiny fraction of the Inquirer.com audience. But its impact is disproportionate and enduring.

A few years ago, after a content-management system upgrade, GBH News killed its comment sections. If anyone complained, I’m not aware of it. Every news organization should consider emulating the Inquirer — including The Boston Globe.

The Washington Post’s top editor, Marty Baron, will retire next month

Marty Baron, right, in conversation with Alberto Ibarguen, president of the Knight Foundation. Photo (cc) 2017 by the Knight Foundation.

Republished at GBH News.

Not unexpected, but stunning nevertheless: Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron is retiring after eight years at the helm, according to Brian Stelter of CNN. Baron was widely regarded as the best newspaper editor of his generation, and his leadership — not just at the Post but as a voice for journalism and the First Amendment — will be hugely missed.

Under Baron, the Post was fearless, negotiating the bizarre media landscape dominated by Donald Trump with a sure-footedness that its larger competitor, The New York Times, never quite seemed to master. Before coming to the Post, Baron was the editor of The Boston Globe, where he led the paper’s reporting that showed Cardinal Bernard Law was deeply involved in the pedophile-priest crisis.

I interviewed Baron several times over the years, including in early 2016 for my book “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century.” Here is an excerpt about Baron’s reaction when he learned in August 2013 that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was buying the Post:

“I was completely shocked, obviously,” Baron said when I asked him about his reaction to the news that Bezos would buy the Post. “I told people when I came here that while the Times would probably like to sell the Globe, it was highly unlikely that Don Graham would be selling the Washington Post. So I was kind of stunned when I heard about it. But I thought that it could have some real advantages for us”—a reference to Bezos’s preference for growth over cutting and his deep understanding of technology and consumer behavior. “I did not know if it would be a good thing for me personally,” Baron added, “because obviously when a new owner comes in he has the absolute right to pick who he wants to run the organization that he has acquired. He said positive things at the beginning, but my sense was that it would be a year of figuring out the place and deciding what he wanted to do.”

Bezos, to his credit, realized what he had inherited, kept Baron in place and by all accounts left him alone to do his job. The Post has built its paid digital subscription base from around 100,000 to 200,000 in early 2016 to 3 million today, and the newsroom has grown from 580 to more than 1,000 since Bezos bought the paper. It’s also been profitable for five years.

And the Post’s main selling point has been the excellence of its journalism. Baron is going to be incredibly difficult to replace.

Globe employees union launches publicity campaign as negotiations drag on

The following is a press release from the Boston Newspaper Guild, which represents more than 300 Boston Globe employees. Publication does not equal endorsement, though I am sympathetic to the Globe staff, which has been working without a contract for a long time. I would, of course, welcome a response from Globe management.

Largest Newspaper in New England Faces Upheaval 

Journalists and Staff Launch Campaign to Alert Readers of Deepening Crisis at The Boston Globe

BOSTON, MA — Amid ongoing labor strife within the newsroom and questions about management’s ties to Donald Trump’s election campaigns, Boston Globe staff and journalists are saying through a new public information campaign that newspaper executives are at risk of letting down their employees and readers at a time when reliable news sources are needed more than ever.

Today, the paper’s employees, who have won Pulitzer Prizes, Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism, and other honors for distinguished news coverage, announced the launch of a new public information campaign: “Dear Globe Readers.” Hitting airwaves, mailboxes, social media, the “Dear Globe Readers” campaign will publicize the plight and concerns of Globe staff to a key audience — the newspaper’s readership.

Recently, Linda Pizzuti Henry was named Chief Executive Officer of Boston Globe Media Partners, on the same day that Globe employees criticized the company for its relationship with the Jones Day law firm. As a law firm of choice for Donald Trump’s election campaigns, Jones Day has been widely denounced for its role in a lawsuit that sought to challenge the electoral integrity of the November 2020 U.S. election.

“Ultimately, it is the readers who are hurt the most when Boston Globe executives and their Trump-affiliated law firm push policies that threaten to increase turnover among newsroom staff,” said Scott Steeves, President of the Boston Newspaper Guild and a 37-year employee of The Boston Globe. “In order for us to bring readers breaking news and the best coverage, we need The Boston Globe to take a new approach to how it treats its workforce, beginning by rescinding the proposals put forward by its Trump-affiliated law firm that would undermine journalistic freedom, quality, and independence in the newsroom.”

DearGlobeReaders.org provides readers with information about how the Henrys have empowered Jones Day, a law firm known for its aggressive tactics against media company unions, to push policies that journalists and union leaders say have hurt workers and harmed the quality of the news produced.

The campaign launch marks a coordinated and escalated response by journalists in response to ongoing attacks against the rights of newsroom staff that are being waged by Globe management and by Jones Day. Management and Jones Day continue to push policies to roll back workplace rights, even as members of the Boston Newspaper Guild have worked for more than two years without a new contract.

The “Dear Globe Readers” multimedia campaign will air ads during primetime television on top-rated cable networks such as CNN, MSNBC, ESPN, TNT, and more. Postcards promoting the “Dear Globe Readers” campaign will land in the mailboxes of thousands of Globe readers.

Under the Henrys’ direction, Jones Day has been brought in to create policies that Guild members say will continue to drain the newsroom of some of its most talented and seasoned frontline contributors. DearGlobeReaders.org claims that such practices will endanger The Boston Globe’s ability to provide its readers prompt, accurate and objective information.

Guild members have said that they feel subscriber money is being squandered on Jones Day and the protracted negotiations, and that the Henrys have turned their backs on journalists who report and produce the news each day, even as the pursuit of a story has led many Globe journalists to put their own health and safety at risk amidst a pandemic.

The “Dear Globe Readers” campaign informs the public about the challenges at the paper and urges readers to demand that the Henrys preserve The Boston Globe’s commitment to delivering New England the highest quality daily journalism.

“We’re proud of The Globe’s reputation and the work we do,” said Steeves. “We hope the Henrys will choose to change course and that they will take action to show they value those who bring the news to Globe readers.”

# # #

About The Boston Newspaper Guild:

The Boston Newspaper Guild is the employee union for The Boston Globe. We proudly represent more than 300 employees including reporters, editors, page designers, web producers, advertising salespeople and advertising sales support persons, ad-designers, circulation managers, accountants, marketers and information technology specialists, security guards, shippers/receivers, secretaries, and more. Our members produce Pulitzer Prize-winning, nationally-acclaimed work for The Boston Globe.

Kathleen Kingsbury named opinion editor at The New York Times

Some pretty big news from The New York Times: Kathleen Kingsbury will become the new opinion editor, a position she’d been filling on an interim basis ever since James Bennet was pushed out for running a terrible op-ed that he later admitted he hadn’t read. From publisher A.G. Sulzberger’s announcement:

For those who have worked alongside Kathleen, this announcement will come as little surprise. She’s a natural leader, fearless journalist and creative innovator. She has a wide-ranging intellect, with a passion for exploring the ideas and arguments shaping the world today. A former foreign correspondent, business reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer herself, Kathleen is known in the department for championing her colleagues and elevating their work.

Kingsbury is smart and accomplished, having won a 2015 Pulitzer for editorial writing when she was with The Boston Globe.

You can now ask the Globe to remove an embarrassing story about you from Google search

There’s a difference between rewriting history and making some of it more difficult to find. Which is why I think The Boston Globe is doing the right thing with its “Fresh Start” initiative, more commonly known as the right to be forgotten. The proposal was announced by Globe editor Brian McGrory last July, and is being formally put into effect today. In a Globe story, McGrory says:

It was never our intent to have a short and relatively inconsequential Globe story affect the futures of the ordinary people who might be the subjects. Our sense, given the criminal justice system, is that this has had a disproportionate impact on people of color. The idea behind the program is to start addressing it.

The idea is that the Globe might have reported on some past embarrassment about you — a minor arrest, or an arrest that led to a conviction that was not reported. You can appeal to the Globe to have the story updated or removed from Google search. The story would still exist. It couldn’t be removed from the print edition, obviously, and many libraries still carry newspaper microfilm archives. It wouldn’t even be removed from the Globe’s servers. But no longer would one of your less stellar moments rise to the top of a Google search about you, interfering with employment prospects and other aspects of your life.

In some ways, Fresh Start is similar to Gannett’s move in 2018 to take down mugshot galleries from its newspaper websites, which it extended to the former GateHouse Media sites in 2020 after that chain was merged with Gannett. “Mugshot galleries presented without context may feed into negative stereotypes and, in our editorial judgment, are of limited news value,” the company said in explaining its reasoning.

The Globe’s Fresh Start is a good step because it solves a problem without going too far. It merely restores the situation that prevailed before the internet, when you had to put some work into finding information that had been published about someone. That tended to separate those with a legitimate interest from the voyeurs.

It’s also a better solution than the mandatory right-to-be-forgotten laws in effect in Western Europe, where Google under some circumstances can be ordered to remove information about certain people. The First Amendment would make that impossible in the United States.

Thus it’s up to the media to take voluntary steps. As the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics puts it, “Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”

More: Arun Rath of GBH Radio (89.7 FM) and I kicked it around on Friday.