Chris Mayer to step down as Globe publisher

Chris Mayer
Chris Mayer

Boston Globe publisher Chris Mayer was his usual affable self when we exchanged New Year’s greetings this morning at the Mandarin Oriental hotel. He knew something very few others knew — that he would be announcing his departure before the end of the day. But no doubt he’d come to terms with that as early as last August, when Red Sox principal owner John Henry agreed to buy the paper from the New York Times Co. for $70 million.

Mayer, like me and several hundred other people, had turned out for a breakfast speech by Henry before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. The soft-spoken Henry didn’t make much news. He talked about his soccer and baseball teams for so long that I wondered if he would ever get around to his newspaper. When he did, it was to say he planned to apply the same formula to turning around the Globe that he did to reviving the Red Sox — hard work and smarts, leavened, he hoped, with good fortune.

“No one has a magic bullet for newspapers,” Henry said. “We have to get it right at the Globe, and we’ll work as hard as we need to do to do that.” And though he talked about boosting the paper’s coverage in areas in which it excels — particularly in local coverage — he conceded that it meant cutting back in some other, unspecified areas as well.

If it’s smarts that Henry is looking for, Mayer has plenty. A longtime Globe veteran who got the top job in 2010 following a string of Times Co. executives, Mayer was a popular choice both inside and outside 135 Morrissey Blvd. Moreover, he deserves much of the credit for some key business-side decisions made in recent years, such as raising the price of the print edition and introducing the paper’s two-website strategy — the subscription-based BostonGlobe.com and the free Boston.com.

Still, it’s hardly a surprise that the new owner would want to pick his own publisher. Last week came word that the Globe was hiring Hill Holliday chairman Mike Sheehan as an advertising consultant, a move that seemed more Henry than Mayer. And this morning Henry announced that he was seeking a chief operating officer to run the Globe — a person who, one might assume, could be handed the title of publisher as well. (Craig Douglas of the Boston Business Journal covers Mayer’s departure here and Henry’s talk here.)

With Mayer leaving, it’s time to start wondering how committed Henry is to keeping Brian McGrory as the Globe’s editor. Owners hire publishers; publishers hire editors. And Mayer’s successor may want to put his or her mark on the paper by choosing the Globe’s top news executive. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have done a better job than McGrory, who oversaw the paper’s Pulitzer-caliber coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings as well as important enterprise projects. But it’s hard to imagine how Mayer could have done a better job, either.

The message today, in case anyone had missed it before, is that Henry didn’t inherit the Globe — he bought it. And though he seems sincere in talking about the paper as a public trust, he’s making it clear that he intends to run it as he sees fit.

Globe reportedly on verge of deal to print Herald

It looks like folks at the Boston Globe and the New York Times Co. have decided to get smart and take some of Boston Herald owner Pat Purcell’s money rather than try to put him out of business.

According to reports, the Globe is on the verge of a deal to print and distribute the Herald in the Boston area. It’s not the first time such an arrangement has been proposed, but it’s the first time the Globe has come this close to saying yes. A trusted Media Nation source credits Globe publisher Christopher Mayer for recognizing that the Herald isn’t going away and reversing the anti-Herald stance taken by previous publishers.

The unfortunate part of this is that the Herald would have to lay off its truck drivers. But on the trauma scale, that doesn’t approach Purcell’s decision a few years ago to shut down his presses and outsource much of the printing to a Wall Street Journal plant in Chicopee.

The Globe covers the story here, and the Herald here. The Associated Press quotes yours truly.

Thoughts on the N.Y. Times’ modified limited paywall

Earlier today, Lois Beckett of the Nieman Journalism Lab asked me and a number of other media observers to write brief commentaries on the New York Times’ modified limited paywall, which was announced this morning. She got some interesting responses, ranging from Steve Buttry (“ridiculous”) to Amy Webb (“a wise move”). Here’s what I wrote:

The New York Times is taking a smart and nuanced approach. Times executives have struck an interesting balance between charging heavy users for access while remaining part of the free online conversation that’s become such an important part of the media ecosystem. I have no idea whether a limit of 20 free articles a month is too little, too much or just right, but I assume they’ll adjust in response to what the market tells them.

I was also pleased to see that print subscribers, including Sunday-only customers (like our family), will have free access to most of the Times’ online platforms. The Sunday paper remains a vital source of revenue for the Times, and it makes sense for Arthur Sulzberger, Janet Robinson and company to do whatever they can to preserve that money machine.

That said, the Times will no longer be able to make excuses for glitchy software and access problems. I’m reasonably happy with the Times iPhone app, but my wife reads the Times on her iPad, and it’s buggy. You can get away with that when it’s free. But once you put a price tag on your product, you’ve got to guarantee that it works — and be responsive to consumer complaints when it doesn’t. That’s especially true given that the Times is charging more for electronic access than many had predicted.

The news business may be watching this very closely to see what lessons can be drawn, but I’m not sure that there will be many, because the Times is such a unique product. For many people, the Times may be the one “newspaper” for which they’re willing to pay to read online. Rather than paving the way for other newspapers, the Times’ paywall may instead lead to a further stratification of the news business, as executives at other papers find themselves unable to emulate the Times’ success in persuading customers to pay for electronic access.

The announcement was pretty much along the lines of what the Times said was coming months ago, though the fees for non-print subscribers ($15 to $35 every four weeks depending on your platforms) are higher than some had expected. There are also all kinds of exceptions regarding Twitter and Facebook access, top news on smartphones and the like.

The plan is very different from one that will be unveiled later this year by a sister Times Co. property, the Boston Globe, which announced last fall that it would divide its Web offerings into a free Boston.com (filled mostly with content that doesn’t appear in the Globe) and a paid BostonGlobe.com.

Last October, I interviewed Globe publisher Chris Mayer about his paywall plans.

For the Globe, a hybrid paid-content model

As you may have heard, the Boston Globe today finally made its long-anticipated announcement on placing some of its online content behind a paywall. I think publisher Chris Mayer’s decision to offer a free Boston.com site and a paid BostonGlobe.com is interesting. I’ve got some questions. I’ve got concerns.

I’ll have more to say tomorrow. Meanwhile, Ralph Ranalli at Beatthepress.org and Boston Phoenix editor Carly Carioli have some worthwhile thoughts.

After tumult, status quo for the Times Co.

Downtown Worcester
Union Station, Worcester

With 2009 drawing to a close, it’s now possible to say something that would have been inconceivable six months ago: the New York Times Co. is still the owner of the Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Was it all a dream? Starting last spring, and stretching well into the summer, there was nothing but tumult. First the Times Co. demanded — and ultimately got — $20 million in concessions from the Globe’s unions. The drama was high, as management threatened to shut down the paper if the unions refused to meet its demands, while the Boston Newspaper Guild — by far the largest union at the Globe — rejected one set of concessions before finally bowing to the inevitable.

Then the Times Co. put both papers on the market. And, for a while, it looked like a significant restoration was in the works. A group headed by former Globe executive Steve Taylor emerged as a leading would-be possible buyer for the Globe, and former T&G editor Harry Whitin looked like he might be moving into the publisher’s office at his old paper.

But Times Co. executives decided to hold on to the Globe. Then, yesterday, they announced that the T&G was no longer for sale, either.

No doubt the papers were pulled off the market for a variety of reasons, both good and bad. Costs are down, circulation revenue is up thanks to a hefty price increase and, overall, the financial picture at both papers appears to be brighter than it was a year ago. On the other hand, is there any doubt that both papers would have been sold if Arthur Sulzberger and company had been able to get what they considered to be a fair price?

With things more or less the same as they ever were, members of the community have a right to feel as though they’ve been jerked around. It would be a good idea if the Times Co. devoted 2010 to rebuilding the Globe’s and the T&G’s ties to the community.

Naming Chris Mayer to be the Globe’s next publisher (he’ll have responsibilities for the Telegram & Gazette as well) was a smart first step. He’s energetic, he’s rooted in Greater Boston and he seems far more likely to be a presence on the local scene than his recent predecessors have been.

But both papers have a long way to go if they are to recover from the wounds they’ve suffered — wounds that are largely characteristic of what the entire industry is going through, but some of which were self-inflicted. The best thing the Times Co. can do next year in these parts is to make itself invisible.

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