Fascinating stuff from the Boston Business Journal.
Contract negotiations between The Boston Globe and the Boston Newspaper Guild are becoming increasingly tense, with the Guild accusing management of union-busting and Globe publisher John Henry denying it.
Earlier this week the Guild posted an open letter to John Henry and his wife, Linda Pizzuti Henry, who is the paper’s managing director. The key takeaway:
Now, we are in the midst of negotiations led by a mercenary law firm that is trying to bully your employees into a contract that essentially asks them to give up their rights as union members. These tactics are threatening to destroy the long-standing, constructive and respectful relationship between the Guild and management. This approach to collective bargaining has also stoked feelings of deep anger and even betrayal among employees. It is doomed to fail.
That was followed by John Henry’s sending an email to the Boston Business Journal in response to the Guild’s letter. The highlight:
Globe management has set a very simple but very important goal of strengthening our newsroom for the challenges of a long-term future in local journalism. The Globe and the guild need to engage in a collaborative effort designed to ensure what both sides need in order to have a vibrant workplace and serve the needs of our community.
This has been ugly right from the start, and it doesn’t look like it’s getting any better.
Earlier: “Newspaper Guild blasts Boston Globe management over contract woes” (Dec. 14).
Do you find it more difficult to read a book these days? Or even a long article? Do you catch yourself pausing every so often (OK, make that every few minutes) to see what’s new on Facebook, scroll through Twitter, check email, or possibly all of the above? Has concentration given way to distraction?
You’re not alone. For years, writers like Nicholas Carr (“The Shallows”) and Virginia Heffernan (“Magic and Loss”) have worried that the internet is rewiring our brains and transforming us from deep readers into jittery skimmers. In “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,” Jaron Lanier writes that — well, you know.
The latest entry in what has grown into a burgeoning list of digital jeremiads is an essay that appeared in The New York Times over the weekend. The piece, by Kevin Roose, is headlined “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain.” Over the course of nearly 2,500 words, Roose describes in anguished detail how his smartphone had left him “incapable of reading books, watching full-length movies or having long uninterrupted conversations.” Social media, he adds, had made him “angry and anxious.”
Roose’s solution: A detox program overseen by Catherine Price, the author of “How to Break Up with Your Phone.” Without going into detail (after all, you can read about it yourself), by the end of the program our hero is happier, healthier, and less addicted to his phone.
Digital dependency is a real problem, and it’s hard to know what to do about it. I know that as well as anyone. Over the years, my writing has become symbiotically enmeshed with the internet — I look things up and fact-check as I go, and I can’t imagine returning to the days of writing first, checking later, even though the result would probably be more coherent. Social media and email are ever-present impediments to the task at hand.
But it’s a lot easier to describe what we ought to do than to actually do it. I recommend mindful reading either in print or on one of the more primitive Kindles. In reality, I read the news on an iPad while admonishing myself not to tweet any of it — usually without much success. I need to be on social media for professional purposes, which makes it all the harder to stay away from energy-draining non-professional uses.
We are not doing ourselves any favors. “You know the adage that you should choose a partner on the basis of who you become when you’re around the person?” writes Lanier. “That’s a good way to choose technologies, too.”
The problem is that we didn’t choose our technologies. They chose us, backed by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, whose billions grow every time his engineers figure out a way to keep us more addicted and less able to break ourselves of the habit. We need solutions. I’ll get back to you on that. Right after I check Facebook. Again.
Looking back at a deal gone bad
More than a quarter-century after the New York Times Co. bought The Boston Globe for the unheard-of price of $1.1 billion, the transaction remains a sore point in some circles. As I’m sure you know, Red Sox principal owner John Henry bought the paper for just $70 million in 2013, which turned out to be less than the value of the real estate.
In her new book, “Merchants of Truth,” former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson is blisteringly critical of the 1993 acquisition. Describing the Times Co.’s strategy of that era, she writes: “Some recent business blunders had made the structural damage inflicted by the internet even more painful. The worst was the purchase of The Boston Globe at precisely the moment the glory days of newspaper franchises were ending.” (My “Beat the Press” colleague Emily Rooney interviewed Abramson for our most recent broadcast, and she did not shy away from asking some tough questions about errors in Abramson’s book as well as credible accusations of plagiarism.)
In a recent interview with the newspaper analyst Ken Doctor, Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson described what he and his fellow executives were up against in late 2012: “The thinking at the top of the company when I arrived was that the Times should sell The Boston Globe, and that it was going to be fantastically difficult to manage the Globe in a way where it wasn’t going to become over time a net depleter of the total business, rather than something that was going to add to the success of the company.”
So was the Times Co.’s decision to pay all that money for the Globe really such a boneheaded move? When I was interviewing people for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” I got some pretty strong pushback to that proposition from former Globe editor Matt Storin and current editor Brian McGrory.
Storin told me that the Globe turned a profit of some $90 million in one of its first years under Times Co. ownership. “Imagine today if you made a $90 million profit,” he said. “I mean, those classified ads were just a gold mine. The Times knew that, and I think that’s one of the reasons why they bought us. They didn’t foresee that that was going to disappear, obviously.”
McGrory sounded a similar theme. “For 15 to 18 years there were Brinks trucks driving down I-95 with tens of millions of dollars every year, amounting to hundreds millions over that time, taking money from Boston to New York,” he said. “They made their investment just fine.”
The reality is most likely somewhere in the middle. From 1993 until about 2005, the Globe earned plenty of money for the Times Co. But then things went seriously south, with the Globe losing $85 million by 2009, a situation so dire that the Times threatened to shut down the paper unless the unions agreed to $20 million worth of givebacks. (They did.)
For the Times Co., the real mistake wasn’t in buying the Globe — it was in keeping it for too long.
Last stand for community access TV
This past November I wrote about an industry-supported effort by the FCC to allow the cable companies to save money by cutting what they spend to support local public-access operations.
Naturally, the FCC is pushing ahead with this anti-consumer proposal. So now advocates of local do-it-yourself media are asking supporters to sign an online petition to Congress asking that lawmakers stop the new rule from taking effect.
“PEG [public, educational, and governmental] access channels provide local content in communities that are not served by the broadcast industry and are increasingly under-served by newspapers,” says the petition. “They help prevent ‘media deserts’ in towns and cities across the U.S. and ensure diversity of opinion at the local level.”
Will it matter? I suspect that elected members of Congress from both parties will prove more amenable to public pressure than FCC chair Ajit Pai, who led the campaign to kill net neutrality. But we won’t know unless we try. So let’s try.
Very sad news tonight as The Boston Globe is reporting that one of its former editors, Jack Driscoll, has died. Among other things, Mr. Driscoll was among the most distinguished journalism graduates of Northeastern University — back before we had a formal journalism program.
Mr. Driscoll retired from the Globe in 1993 and had a long, productive retirement at the MIT Media Lab and as a pioneering citizen journalist. Kevin Cullen has the details.
It’s easy to imagine how Jill Abramson’s new book might have turned out differently. In “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts,” the veteran journalist follows the fortunes of four media organizations. BuzzFeed and Vice are young, energetic, willing to break rules and try new things. The New York Times and The Washington Post are stodgy, sclerotic giants trying to grope their way toward a digital future. We all know how that’s going to turn out. Right?
Well, something unexpected happened on the way to the old-media boneyard.
Last weekend I spent an hour or so with The Boston Globe’s amazing Valedictorians Project, which tracked more than 100 Boston valedictorians from about a dozen years ago to see how they are doing today. Like all great digital presentations, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would prefer the print version. The integration of videos and data, as well as the ability to access short bios of every valedictorian, really make the digital version stand out.
Of course, there’s a lot of important reporting here, too. There is much to contemplate, but what struck me more than anything was the cultural shock that many of these young people experienced when they made the transition from the Boston Public Schools to college. We all need to do better.
I could go on and on, but I’ll close with this: Two of our students in the School of Journalism at Northeastern were among those providing research assistance: Zipporah Osei and Patrick Strohecker. A third Northeastern student, Alexander Lim, is with the newly renamed Khoury College of Computer and Information Sciences. Congratulations to all!
The ongoing struggles of Boston’s two daily newspapers. What Facebook should do about falsehood-spreading hatemongers like Alex Jones. The FCC’s latest assault on truth, justice, and the American way. And, of course, our 21st annual roundup of outrages against free speech.
With 2018 entering its final days, I thought I’d look back at what I wrote during the past 12 months. Unlike last year, I’m not going with my 10 most-read columns. Instead, I’ve chosen 10 columns that address a range of different issues, presented here in chronological order.
1. Standing up to presidential power — in 1971 (Jan. 17). With President Trump regularly attacking journalists as “enemies of the people” and purveyors of #fakenews, what could have been more welcome than a feel-good movie about the last time the press confronted an out-of-control president? “The Post,” directed by Steven Spielberg, told the tale of The Washington Post’s desperate struggle to catch up with The New York Times, which had beaten them in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. By agreeing with executive editor Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks) that the Post should go all in, publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) established the Post as a great national newspaper — and paved the way for its later coverage of the Watergate scandal, which ultimately destroyed Richard Nixon’s presidency.
2. The Boston Herald’s new budget-slashing owner (Feb. 14). When previous Herald publisher Pat Purcell took the tabloid into bankruptcy in late 2017, it was supposed to end in a prearranged sale to GateHouse Media, a hedge-fund-owned chain of newspapers known for its cost-cutting. Instead, another hedge-fund-owned chain with an even worse reputation, Digital First Media, swooped in late in the process and bought the Herald for a reported $11.9 million. The Herald has been decimated by Digital First, although the journalists who are still there continue to do good work. How bad did it get? Recently, Herald editor Joe Sciacca was made the editor of seven daily papers and several weeklies in Massachusetts and upstate New York. No doubt Sciacca will do the best he can. But it’s an absurd situation created by owners who clearly don’t care.
3. The 2018 New England Muzzle Awards (July 3). Since 1998, I’ve been writing a Fourth of July roundup of enemies of free speech, first for The Boston Phoenix, and since 2013 for WGBH News. (My friend Harvey Silverglate, a prominent civil-liberties lawyer, writes a separate story on censorship at New England’s colleges and universities.) This year’s Muzzles were especially eclectic, featuring not just bogeymen of the right like President Trump and former White House communications chief Anthony Scaramucci but also former president Barack Obama and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a progressive favorite. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. As the late, great defender of the First Amendment Nat Hentoff memorably put it (quoting a friend), “Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second.”
4. Boston Globe owner John Henry expresses his frustrations (July 25). Five years into his announcement that he would buy the Globe, I conducted an email Q&A with the billionaire financier, who is also the principal owner of the Red Sox. And though Henry insisted that he planned to hold onto the Globe “during my lifetime,” he said he was frustrated with the paper’s ongoing losses and failure “to meet budgets.” Cuts were made in the newsroom and elsewhere throughout the fall. The situation reached a public impasse just recently, when the Boston Newspaper Guild, which represents the Globe’s editorial employees as well as many on the business side, denounced management for bringing in the “union-busting” law firm Jones Day. The Columbia Journalism Review has described the firm as “notorious for aggressive anti-union tactics that journalists and union leaders say have helped downgrade media union contracts and carve employee benefits to the bone.” See more here, including a statement from Henry this week that the Globe is now “profitable.”
5. Remembering John McCain (Aug. 27). On the occasion of Sen. McCain’s death, I republished a story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix in February 2000, when I followed McCain and George W. Bush around South Carolina as they campaigned in that state’s Republican primary. Bush defeated McCain and went on to win the presidency. I think I had more fun reporting this story than just about any other I can remember. Regardless of what you thought of his politics, Sen. McCain was a great American and a raconteur who enjoyed sparring with the press. Unfortunately, he seems like an anachronism in the poisonous, hyper-polarized atmosphere of 2018.
6. Alex Jones and the privatization of free speech (Sept. 27). Two cheers for Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms for deleting Jones’ accounts. He’s not just a right-wing conspiracy theorist; he spouts falsehoods that put actual people in real danger, including the Sandy Hook families and the parents of murder victim Seth Rich. But what have we given up when we’ve turned over our First Amendment rights to giant corporations with their own interests and agendas? Social media has become the new public square. And the public has no say in how it’s governed. These days we are all rethinking our relationship with Facebook. We need some sort of public alternative.
7. Our undemocratic system of government (Oct. 10). When the founders wrote the Constitution, they gave us a republic, believing that the will of the majority should be reflected by and tempered through the wisdom of men of their own social and intellectual class. What they did not believe was that the minority should govern the majority — but that’s what we have today. Thanks to a system that favors smaller states, Republicans control the presidency, the Senate, and the Supreme Court despite being supported by far fewer voters than their Democratic opponents. Reform is long overdue.
8. What ails local journalism? (Nov. 12). Probably my favorite topic, and one I’ve turned to on several occasions during the past few years. I decided to highlight this particular column because I used it to concentrate not on the familiar supply side of the crisis (greedy corporate newspaper owners, a diminishing ad market, and technological changes) but on the demand side. In other words, do people really care enough about what is going on in their local communities? And if they don’t, how can local news organizations survive? We need a crash course in civic literacy. After all, you can’t get people interested in news about what’s taking place in city hall unless they understand why it matters.
9. The FCC targets community access TV (Nov. 28). Having already destroyed net neutrality despite an outpouring of public protest, the FCC is now going after a vital source of information at the local level: community access television, the folks who bring you city council meetings, school concerts, and DIY news reports. Under a rule change proposed by the telecommunications industry, local cable providers would be able to deduct the cost of funding public access from the fees they pay to cities and towns. As Susan Fleischmann, executive director of Cambridge Community Television, told me, “This is like a taxpayer saying to the city, ‘I am clearing my sidewalk of snow and keeping the leaves out of the storm drains, and I have also decided to take care of the trees in front of my house. So, I am counting this against the real estate taxes that I owe.’” U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, among others, is trying to protect funding for local access, but FCC chair Ajit Pai has shown little inclination to act in the public interest.
10. My evening with Rachel and Sean (Dec. 6). With news about the Mueller investigation reaching one of its periodic crescendos, I decided to spend an evening watching the two top-rated cable news programs: Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC and Sean Hannity’s on Fox News. And though I found the liberal Maddow to be considerably more respectful of actual facts than Hannity, a conspiracy-minded Trump sycophant, I came away thinking that both are contributing to the polarization that is tearing us apart. In nearly 40 years we’ve gone from “And that’s the way it is” to “And here’s the way we will reinforce your pre-existing prejudices.” What a loss.
Finally, my thanks to WGBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2019.
A source just sent along this end-of-the-year message from Vinay Mehra, the president and chief financial officer of Boston Globe Media Partners. It follows publisher John Henry’s statement earlier this week that the Globe is now profitable and is likely to remain in the black next year as well.
The main takeaways here are that the Globe, having passed the crucial 100,000 mark for paid digital subscriptions several months ago, is now closing in on 110,000. Globe executives have said that if they can hit 200,000 then the paper may be able to achieve long-term sustainability. Also of interest: The Globe is taking part in a three-month exercise with Harvard Business School “to define our business strategy.”
What’s missing: Any mention of the Globe’s contentious negotiations with the Boston Newspaper Guild, including management’s decision to bring in what the Guild has described as a “union-busting” law firm. One hopes that Mehra and the Henrys understand that the people who produce what he describes as “the many successes our journalism racked up this year” should be treated fairly.
The full text of Mehra’s message follows.
As we head into the holiday season, on behalf of [managing partner] Linda [Henry] and myself, I want to take a moment to share with you a few highlights of what we have achieved this year as well as an outline what we hope to achieve in 2019.
Our success in 2018 was no accident. It was a tough year that required a lot of work and I am pleased to say our efforts began to pay off. We started, of course, with powerful journalism across all our brands — The Boston Globe, STAT and Boston.com. On top of that, we found areas of real growth, while we aggressively targeted savings across all facets of our business and carefully managed expenses to stay ahead of the structural declines we are all seeing in our industry. For the first time in a long time, we are ending the year in black, and to remain there we must continue our vigilance in looking for efficiencies.
But financial results are just one measure of the many successes our journalism racked up this year. There are way too many to list here, so I’ll mention just a few:
- Spotlight was a Pulitzer finalist for its groundbreaking series in December  on race issues in Boston that inspired a region-wide discussion that has no precedent
- Our coverage of the State Police overtime fraud investigations, the Columbia gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley, the investigative pieces on Massachusetts secret courts and the TSA’s Quiet Skies program drove accountability and change
- The stories in STAT about IBM-Watson’s troubled health business led to a major leadership change at the company
We also extended the reach of our journalism by expanding into new platforms:
- The Aaron Hernandez Spotlight series in the Globe resulted in a podcast with over 4 million downloads, a trip to number 1 on the Apple charts, and considerable interest from Hollywood
- Last Seen, a true crime podcast examining the most valuable and confounding art heist in history from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, hit over 3.4 million downloads and was in the top 10 on iTunes
- Season one of the Love Letters podcast launched earlier this year when Meredith took on the hardest question she gets: How do I get over it? Leveraging its success, season two will launch in early 2019
As incomparably talented as our journalists are, they don’t do it alone. Peel back the curtain, and what’s revealed is you … our employees across all departments of BGMP [Boston Globe Media Partners]. Day in and day out, your coordinated efforts — leveraging your relationships, expertise, passion and creativity are what have made this institution a leader in an industry that is starting to find its footing.
For growth on the digital side to be sustainable, we must remain focused, bold, and daring, and in 2018, we had no shortages of examples:
- We continued our digital growth, ending the year with close to 110,000 digital-only subscribers for the Boston Globe — more digital subscribers than almost any other major metropolitan news organization
- We invested in a new digital content management system, Arc, and launched a new mobile app for the Boston Globe, another step in our digital transformation
- STAT doubled down on coverage of life sciences, pharma and biotech, resulting in record revenue and subscriber growth
- We launched a new section on cannabis dedicated to covering and facilitating conversations around the politics, business, use and impact of cannabis in the Northeast
- Our events brought the community together to talk about important issues such as race, the future of work, the future of democracy, and the midterm elections
Impressive commercial results and remarkable engagement of our readers to our stories are not the only things that drive us. Being a leader in the news industry comes with responsibility. We take that role seriously and demonstrated it in August, when our editorial board led a coordinated effort that resulted in 450 newsrooms across the country joining us to defend the freedom of the press against harmful rhetoric labeling the press as “the enemy of the people.”
As important as it is to drive these conversations in the community, it’s important for us as an organization to reflect on how we can live up to what we shed a light on. One example was the Race Series, which prompted a degree of self-reflection. Leadership on diversity and inclusion starts at the top, so we have made an intentional effort to ensure our executive team represents a broad range of backgrounds. We will continue to move through our practices in recruiting, talent assessment, and measuring the leadership of this organization against a few core guiding principles, one of which is related to creating an environment that nurtures inclusion, and compensation goals will be tied to this important measure.
It’s not lost on me that there are many questions about the future of our business and our strategy. This past month, a cross-functional team of more than 30 leaders across all disciplines of our organization met with me and a team from Harvard Business School to begin a 3-month exercise to define our business strategy. We all left very encouraged and I will have more to share as we move forward.
As we reflect on a transformative and eventful year, the reality is this: when the business had been experiencing double-digit declines we didn’t dig a hole and hide, we invested — in new business models, new technologies, new talent. We didn’t lose faith. We continued to produce quality journalism, launch new products, and provide opportunities to convene our community around important issues.
All of us know that people who choose to spend their lives in the news business are special, they’re unique, and they are undeniably passionate about their work. This isn’t simply a job, it’s a mission — a mission motivated by our love of informing people. And that’s precisely what makes me so proud to work alongside each and every one of you.
We wish you and your loved ones a happy, restful and safe holiday and I look forward to seeing you in 2019.
Here’s an unexpected development: The Boston Globe, which has been losing money more often than not for years, is now turning a profit, according to publisher and owner John Henry.
“The Globe may have turned the corner finally due to management, increasingly relevant journalism, continuing strategic investment and by becoming much more efficient in all areas,” Henry said Tuesday night in response to an email query. He added: “I don’t know how long it has been … since the Globe had a profitable year but we will this year and probably next as well. As our digital growth continues the sustainability of a vibrant Boston Globe is coming into view. It’s been a long time coming.”
What prompted my email was buzz coming out of the Globe newsroom that management had claimed the paper was running in the black. It struck me as unlikely, but Henry has now confirmed it, although he did not respond to my request for some actual numbers.
The good news comes at a moment when Henry and his management team have taken an aggressive stance in contract negotiations with the Boston Newspaper Guild, the union that represents the Globe’s editorial employees and many on the business side as well. The Guild recently issued a statement denouncing management for hiring the “union-busting” law firm Jones Day, described by the Columbia Journalism Review as “notorious for aggressive anti-union tactics that journalists and union leaders say have helped downgrade media union contracts and carve employee benefits to the bone.”
I asked Henry if he was concerned that hardball tactics with the union could result in a loss of goodwill with his employees and the public. As you’ll see below, he did not answer directly. But it doesn’t seem like a good look to crack down on the union at a time when its members’ sacrifices have helped Henry balance the books. That said, negotiations often get ugly. That doesn’t mean the talks can’t be resolved on terms both sides can live with.
Henry, a billionaire financier who is also the principal owner of the Red Sox, has long lamented the Globe’s declining fortunes and the dismal state of the newspaper industry in the five years since he bought the paper from the New York Times Co. When I interviewed Henry in early 2016 for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” he said he expected to lose money both that year and the following year. “You look at the Globe — we have about $300 million a year in income and we can’t make money,” he said. “The cost of making money is high.” (Earlier this year the Boston Business Journal estimated that revenues for 2018 would range from $225 million to $250 million.)
This past July, Henry told me in an email interview for WGBH News that the losses were continuing. “The Globe cannot ever seem to meet budgets — on either the revenue side or the expense side and I am not going to continue that,” he said. “This has always been about sustainability rather than sizable, endless, annual losses. That is frustrating and due to a combination of mismanagement and a tough industry.”
Since that time, management, headed by president and chief financial officer Vinay Mehra, has cut spending on both the news and business sides. It seems to have worked, although news coverage and customer service have taken a hit. Throughout the news business, of course, revenues continue to decline. But there is reason for some optimism with the Globe. Several months ago it passed the 100,000 mark for digital subscribers, an important milestone. Globe officials have said the paper could approach financial viability if they can reach 200,000. Needless to say, that’s a lofty goal.
The full text of Henry’s email follows.
The Globe may have turned the corner finally due to management, increasingly relevant journalism, continuing strategic investment and by becoming much more efficient in all areas.
There has also been a focus on getting costs and practices closer to industry standards of major newspapers. This is something the Globe was never able to do. And this is what I believe management is continuing to do in its negotiations with the guild presently.
We want the strongest possible newsroom in the future. Much as sports teams are dependent on the talent of those who take the field every day, the Globe depends on a talented newsroom and editorial page that hopefully has the tools they need to be successful. So ultimately I believe management and the guild will find common ground in a very challenging environment for newspapers where your very survival is dependent on doing the right things day-to-day.
Both have the same overriding objectives — to provide our community with vital, serious journalism.
I don’t know how long it has been, Dan, since the Globe had a profitable year but we will this year and probably next as well. As our digital growth continues the sustainability of a vibrant Boston Globe is coming into view. It’s been a long time coming.