The Boston Globe makes an unconventional hire to run its opinion pages

Bina Venkataraman (via LinkedIn)

The Boston Globe’s next editorial-page editor, Bina Venkataraman, is an unconventional hire for some interesting reasons. She’s young (39), a person of color, an outsider (notwithstanding a brief stint at the Globe some years ago), an academic associated with MIT and Harvard, and a woman (as were her two predecessors, though it’s still unusual enough to be worth noting).

More than anything, though, her intellectual orientation is very different from the politics-and-powerbrokers style that is typical of editorial-page editors generally. She’s a science journalist who’s worked for The New York Times. She was also a senior adviser for climate-change innovation in the Obama administration and is the author of a new book, “The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age.”

This is an enormously important hire. The editorial-page editor, like editor Brian McGrory, reports directly to publisher John Henry and managing director Linda Henry. I’d be very surprised if Linda Henry, in particular, was not a driving force in bringing Venkataraman back to the Globe.

Opinion journalism is everywhere these days, though much of it can’t really be considered journalism. In an interview with the Globe, Venkataraman showed that she gets it, saying, “There are a lot of opinions in our media environment right now, and a lot of people are able to offer their opinions, so it raises the bar for what we produce.”

Venkataraman’s predecessor, Ellen Clegg, who retired a little more than a year ago (disclosure: we are research partners on a project we’re not ready to announce), oversaw a vibrant redesign of the print pages, innovative and controversial projects on gun violence and a fake front page about a possible Trump presidency, and the expansion of digital-only content. After Clegg left, business columnist Shirley Leung filled in for a few months as interim editorial-page editor but didn’t really have time to leave her mark.

I would expect to see Venkataraman lead the Globe opinion pages in a more science-based direction, especially with regard to solutions-oriented journalism about climate change. I’d also like to see further expansion of digital-only content — two print pages with lots of white space really isn’t enough.

One big question is the future of the Ideas section, which will be part of Venkataraman’s portfolio. Earlier this year a sharp-eyed observer found a job ad suggesting that the Globe was going to morph it into more of a traditional Sunday week-in-review section — perhaps similar to the old Focus section that Ideas replaced, though it would need considerable updating.

Whether Ideas stays or goes, I think it needs to be made more relevant and rooted in the news. As it stands, many of the pieces strike me as too obscure. That may be a reflection of my own pedestrian tastes, although I don’t think I’m alone in that assessment. We’ll see what Venkataraman does.

Venkataraman begins in November. You can find out more about her in this online bio.

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Shirley Leung to resume her column as Globe seeks editorial page editor

Shirley Leung (via LinkedIn)

Looks like some big changes are coming to The Boston Globe’s opinion pages. On Friday, a friend of Media Nation pointed me to this ad on Indeed.com for an editorial page editor. I made an inquiry and learned that, sure enough, interim editorial page editor Shirley Leung will be returning to the newsroom, where she’ll resume writing her column for the business section.

Leung was named interim after Ellen Clegg retired last summer. Leung emailed me a statement this morning:

It was announced internally to the staff on April 8 that I am returning to my column, which I miss dearly. I’ve learned a lot on the editorial page, and I’ve been grateful for the opportunity — and I got to see my name on the masthead! A national search is underway. We are currently working on a date for my return to the newsroom.

And there’s more interesting information in the listing: “The Editorial Page Editor role will provide leadership (and influence final design) for the Sunday Review, and the Op Ed sections, in addition to being a member of the Editorial Board.”

The Globe does not currently have a Sunday Review section. It does have an Ideas section, but there’s no mention of it in the ad. Lest you think I’m reading too much into that, I have heard anecdotally in recent weeks that the Globe’s owners, John and Linda Henry, have been contemplating a Sunday opinion section that would be more newsy and less esoteric than Ideas, which dates back to the early years of the Marty Baron era.

Ideas replaced Focus, which was, in fact, a Sunday week-in-review section.

Leung recently got caught up in a controversy over a column by freelance contributor Luke O’Neil, which, she told WGBH News’ “Boston Public Radio,” was published online without sufficient oversight. O’Neil wrote that one of his “biggest regrets” was “not pissing in Bill Kristol’s salmon” during his days as a waiter. The column was revised twice before being taken down at what Leung said was the Henrys’ insistence. There have been no indications that there was any lasting fallout for Leung over that episode or that her stepping aside is related to it, but that hasn’t stopped her critics on Twitter from speculating to that effect.

As a business columnist, Leung was a provocateur, taking contrary stands on issues such as the Boston Olympics (she was for it, with reservations) and on the Demoulas family controversy (she was sympathetic to Arthur S. Demoulas in the battle over the future of Market Basket in the face of a public outcry on behalf of his cousin Arthur T. Demoulas).

I often disagreed with her, but I’ve missed her voice. This strikes me as a good move.

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Some thoughts on The Boston Globe’s Shirley Leung appointment

Shirley Leung via LinkedIn

The choice of Shirley Leung to run The Boston Globe’s editorial pages on an interim basis is an interesting one. The paper’s top two editors — the editorial-page editor and the editor of everything else — have traditionally held fairly low-profile positions before their appointment, at least in terms of their public profile. But Leung, a business columnist (and former business editor), is one of the Globe’s most high-profile personalities.

In that respect, the choice of Leung resembles the elevation of Brian McGrory to the top of the masthead in 2012. Unlike his predecessors, McGrory wrote a widely read metro column. At a time when newspapers can hardly afford to give up features that draw readers, that was a significant loss. Likewise, Leung’s column will be missed unless the Globe is able to find a suitable replacement. We can all hope that Leung finds the time to write under her own byline at least occasionally, but that’s going to be tough.

As a columnist, Leung is a provocateur who seems to enjoy taking controversial stands — most notably, advocating for the Olympics to come to town. There’s nothing wrong with an editorial-page editor who likes to think counterintuitively. But she’s now going to have to express her opinions as part of a team that includes the editorial board as well as owners John and Linda Henry.

Leung’s predecessor, Ellen Clegg, who retired last week, served a long time as the interim before finally being named to the job. Clegg led the pages through some significant accomplishments: a redesign of the print section that allowed her to cut the number of unsigned editorials from the traditional three per day to (usually) one; innovative editorial projects on gun violence and other topics; new voices such as Michael Cohen, Renée Graham, Niall Ferguson and Richard North Patterson; and an uptick in web-only content. Leung has large shoes to fill, but my guess is that she’s being groomed as the permanent replacement once her six-month interim stint is up. (Disclosure.)

It’s also interesting that Leung’s appointment comes just after deputy editorial-page editor Marjorie Pritchard led a nationwide campaign to persuade newspapers to editorialize against President Trump’s anti-press rhetoric. Ultimately more than 400 papers signed on. Which means that Leung will be even more closely watched than might have otherwise been the case.

Best wishes to Shirley. The full text of the Globe’s press release is below.

SHIRLEY LEUNG NAMED INTERIM EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR

August 20, 2018, The Boston Globe Boston, MA – The Boston Globe announced today that starting August 27th, Shirley Leung will assume leadership for the Editorial Board for the next six months and will be named the interim Editorial Page Editor.

Leung has been a bold voice in Boston. For the past five years, she wrote an impactful, must-read, often counterintuitive column in The Globe’s business section. Prior to that, Leung served as The Globe’s business editor overseeing coverage of the Great Recession. Her experience brings a deep understanding of the business community and connection to the newsroom that will help lead transformation across the organization. Leung will be the fifth woman in The Globe’s 142-year history to hold this position, and the first person of color to do so.

In naming Leung, Linda Henry, The Globe’s Managing Director, said “We need the strength of a courageous thinker, someone who knows both the newsroom and the world of opinion well, and who knows how to challenge assumptions, and while I am reluctant to lose her column, I could not be more excited about this new role for her. “ Henry added, “I am proud of the board’s progress and bold initiatives, and look forward to the board becoming an even more vibrant voice serving our community locally and nationally.  We want to make certain that we take our time to think strategically about the board, who the next permanent leader will be, and how it will be organized.”

Prior to the Globe, Leung spent six years at the Wall Street Journal. A graduate of Princeton University, Leung started her career at her hometown paper, The Baltimore Sun.

“The Globe’s editorial board last week spoke loudly and with purpose with its #FreePress initiative driving a national conversation on the role of journalism,“ said Leung. “I am proud and humbled to take on this new post and have my voice join theirs.”

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A project that Ellen Clegg and I will be working on

Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal reports that Boston Globe editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg has announced her retirement, and he notes that sports editor Joe Sullivan recently said he would retire as well.

I suspect the sports section will be just fine. Clegg’s shoes, on the other hand, may prove to be difficult to fill. A longtime Globe employee, Clegg followed Peter Canellos, an exceptionally thoughtful editor who took a top job at Politico after leaving the Globe several years ago. Clegg proved to be an innovator both online and in print. More important, she has a close working relationship with owners John and Linda Henry, which has really mattered given the Henrys’ ongoing interest in the editorial pages. You’ll find a synopsis of those innovations in an interview I did with Clegg for the Nieman Journalism Lab earlier this year.

And now for some personal news. For the past several months Clegg and I have been talking about working together on a project, probably a textbook about opinion journalism. I’ve known for a while that she was retiring — the project is not something I could take on if she’d stayed at the Globe given the conflict of interest with my work at “Beat the Press” and WGBH News. So I’m glad Clegg’s departure is finally out in the open.

Although we’ve sketched out a few ideas, we are a long way from producing anything. She’s not leaving the Globe until mid-August. I just wanted to let you know that Ellen and I will be working together before you heard it from anyone else.

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At The Boston Globe, the editorial pages are looking for new ways to engage readers

Photo (cc) 2017 by Domenico Bettinelli.

For the past two years, The Boston Globe’s opinion pages have published new year’s resolutions in the first Sunday edition of January. This year’s, headlined “We Resolve: What Readers Can Expect from the Globe’s Editorial Pages in 2018,” outlines an eclectic agenda, from keeping a close eye on Google and Facebook, to pushing for transportation improvements, to addressing racism “in all its forms.”

The editorial struck me as of a piece with other innovative moves by the Globe’s opinion section — including an interactive editorial on gun violence, a parody front page of what a Donald Trump presidency would look like, and expanded digital content.  I asked the Globe’s editorial-page editor, Ellen Clegg, where the idea for editorial-page new year’s resolutions came from and what she hopes it will accomplish. Our lightly edited email exchange appears at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Read my interview with Clegg at the Nieman Lab. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Cartoon in Globe about police shootings sparks controversy

Mike Luckovich's cartoon as it appeared in Monday's Boston Globe. Photo by WGBH News.
Mike Luckovich’s cartoon as it appeared in Monday’s Boston Globe. Photo by WGBH News.

Update: The Globe has published a collection of letters in opposition to the cartoon.

Officials with the Boston Police Department are upset over a tough cartoon about police shootings of black men that appeared on the opinion pages of Monday’s Boston Globe. But the Globe’s editorial-page editor is standing by it. And the president of the local NAACP defends the cartoon as a satirical comment on a tragic reality.

The cartoon, by Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose work is nationally syndicated, depicts a white police officer. In one frame, labeled “For White People,” he is seen holding a piece of paper that says “Miranda Rights.” In the other, “For Black People,” a piece of paper says “Last Rites.”

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org.

The Globe’s editorial page goes multimedia and interactive

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 9.16.31 AMThe Boston Globe has published an unusual multimedia, interactive editorial calling for a ban on assault weapons that includes data, animated graphics, and thumbnail bios of six recalcitrant senators—including information on how much money they’ve received from the gun lobby as well as tools to email or tweet at them.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 9.15.20 AM
Front of the print edition.

The Globe is using the hashtag #makeitstop via its main Twitter account and its @GlobeOpinion account. Among other things, it’s been tweeting out the names of the Orlando mass-shooting victims.

The print edition comes with a four-page wraparound comprising the editorial and accompanying material.

Overall, it’s a well-executed effort, and I applaud editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg and her staff. I like it more than the fake front page the Globe devoted to Donald Trump earlier this year, which some people confused with the paper’s actual page one.

Unfortunately, the problem with such campaigns is that even when they’re effective at making their case, they’re ineffective in changing anyone’s minds. Still, we have to try. So kudos.

The Globe’s Saturday shrinkage and its digital future

saturday-globe

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

If you’d asked me 10 years ago if I thought The Boston Globe and other metropolitan dailies would still be printing news on dead trees in 2015, I’d have replied, “Probably not.” Even five years ago, by which time it was clear that print had more resilience than many of us previously assumed, I still believed we were on the verge of drastic change — say, a mostly digital news operation supplemented by a weekend print edition.

Seen in that light, the Globe’s redesigned Saturday edition should be regarded as a cautious, incremental step. Unveiled this past weekend, the paper is thinner (42 pages compared to 52 the previous Saturday) and more magazine-like, with the Metro section starting on A2 rather than coming after the national, international and opinion pages. That’s followed by a lifestyle section called Good Life.

The larger context for these changes is that the existential crisis threatening the newspaper business hasn’t gone away. Revenue from print advertising — still the economic engine that powers virtually all daily newspapers — continues to fall, even as digital ads have proved to be a disappointment. Fewer ads mean fewer pages. This isn’t the first time the Globe has dropped pages, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. (The paper is also cutting staff in some areas, even as it continues to hire for new digital initiatives.)

How bad is it? According to the Pew Research Center’s “State of the Media 2015” report, revenue from print advertising at U.S. newspapers fell from $17.3 billion in 2013 to $16.4 billion in 2014. Digital advertising, meanwhile, rose from just $3.4 billion to $3.5 billion. And for some horrifying perspective on how steep the decline has been, print advertising revenue was $47.4 billion just 10 years ago.

The Globe’s response to this ugly drop has been two-fold. First, it’s asked its print and digital readers to pick up more of the cost through higher subscription fees. Second, even as the print edition shrinks, it has expanded what’s offered online — not just at BostonGlobe.com, but via its free verticals covering the local innovation economy (BetaBoston), the Catholic Church (Crux) and, soon, life sciences and health (Stat). Stories from those sites find their way into the Globe, while readers who are interested in going deeper can visit the sites themselves. (An exception to this strategy is Boston.com, the former online home of the Globe, which has been run as a separate operation since its relaunch in 2014.)

“I don’t quite think of it as the demise of print,” says Globe editor Brian McGrory of the Saturday redesign. He notes that over the past year-plus the print paper has added the weekly political section Capital as well as expanded business and Sunday arts coverage and daily full-size feature sections in place of the former tabloid “g” section.

“There are areas where we do well where we’re enhancing in print and there are areas where we’re looking to cut in print,” McGrory adds. “It’s a very fine and delicate balancing act.”

Some of those cuts in print are offset by more digital content. Consider the opinion pages, which underwent a redesign this past spring. (I should point out that McGrory does not run the opinion pages. Editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg, like McGrory, reports directly to publisher John Henry.) The online opinion section is simply more robust than what’s in print, offering some content a day or two earlier as well as online exclusives. This past Saturday, the print section was cut from two pages to one. Yet last week also marked the debut of a significant online-only feature: Opinion Reel, nine short videos submitted by members of the public on a wide variety of topics.

All are well-produced, ranging from an evocative look at a family raising a son with autism (told from his sister’s point of view) to a video op-ed on dangerous bicycle crossings along the Charles River. There’s even a claymation-like look at a man living with blindness. But perhaps the most gripping piece is about a man who was seriously beaten outside a bar in South Boston. It begins with a photo of him in his hospital bed, two middle fingers defiantly outstretched. It ends with him matter-of-factly explaining what led to the beating. “It was because I stepped on the guy’s shoe and he didn’t think I was from Southie,” he says before adding: “It was my godmother’s brother.”

Globe columnist and editorial board member Joanna Weiss, who is curating the project, says the paper received more than 50 submissions for this first round. “It has very much been a group effort,” Weiss told me by email. “The development team built the websites and Nicole Hernandez, digital producer for the editorial page, shepherded that process through; Linda Henry, who is very interested in promoting the local documentary filmmaking community, gave us feedback and advice in the early rounds; David Skok and Jason Tuohey from BostonGlobe.com gave indispensable advice in the final rounds, and of course the entire editorial board helped to screen and select the films.”

But all of this is far afield from the changes to the Saturday paper and what those might portend. McGrory told me he’s received several hundred emails about the redesign, some from readers who liked it, some who hated it and some who suggested tweaks — a few of which will be implemented.

Traditionally, a newspaper’s Saturday edition is its weakest both in terms of circulation and advertising. In the Globe’s case, though, the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday papers sell a few thousand fewer copies than Saturday’s 160,377, according to a 2014 report from the Alliance for Audited Media. No doubt that’s a reflection of a Thursday-through-Sunday subscription deal the Globe offers — though it does raise the question of whether other days might get the Saturday treatment.

“We have no plans right now to change the design or the general format of those papers,” McGrory responds. “But look, everything is always under discussion.” (The Globe’s Sunday print circulation is 282,440, according to the same AAM report. Its paid digital circulation is about 95,000 a day, the highest of any regional newspaper.)

One question many papers are dealing with is whether to continue offering print seven days a week. Advance Newspapers has experimented with cutting back on print at some of its titles, including the storied Times-Picayune of New Orleans. My Northeastern colleague Bill Mitchell’s reaction to the Globe’s Saturday changes was to predict that, eventually, American dailies would emulate European and Canadian papers by shifting their Sunday papers to Saturdays to create a big weekend paper — and eliminating the Sunday paper altogether.

The Globe and Mail of Toronto is one paper that has taken that route, and McGrory says it’s the sort of idea that he and others are keeping an eye on. But he stresses that the Globeisn’t going to follow in that path any time soon.

“Right now we have no plans to touch our Sunday paper,” he says. “It’s a really strong paper journalistically, it’s a strong paper circulation-wise, it’s a strong paper advertising-wise. We’re constantly thinking and rethinking this stuff. But as of this conversation, Sunday is Sunday and we don’t plan to change that at all.”

He adds: “We’re trying to mesh the new world with the printing press, and I think we’re coming out in an OK place. Better than an OK place. A good place.”

Globe to address columnist Sununu’s outside interests

Last week the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America published its latest post on the many conflicts of Boston Globe columnist John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator and the son of former New Hampshire governor John Sununu.

Now the Globe’s editorial-page editor, Ellen Clegg, says she’s dealing with Sununu in several ways:

  • By posting in the near future biographies of Sununu and other freelance columnists that disclose their outside interests.
  • By reaching an understanding with Sununu that he will not write about cable and Internet access.
  • By requiring a specific disclosure within his column whenever he writes about the presidential campaign. (Sununu is a prominent supporter of Ohio Gov. John Kasich.)

“It’s safe to say that few freelance columnists make their living solely from writing for newspapers these days, so most have other jobs or consultancies,” Clegg told me by email. “We want to be more transparent with our readers about the nature of columnists’ work and affiliations.”

Sununu’s outside interests, which I have written about previously, was the subject of an Aug. 17 analysis by Eric Hananoki of Media Matters. Hananoki observed that Sununu’s column of that same date criticized President Obama’s environmental policies as well as his regulatory decisions regarding cable and the Internet without mentioning his ties to businesses that oppose administration policies.

In particular, Hanonoki wrote, Sununu was paid more than $750,000 by the industry-funded lobbying organization Broadband for America and by Time Warner Cable, on whose board he sits.

Sununu’s ties to the energy industry stem from his status as a policy adviser to the Washington lobbying firm Akin Gump.

The online disclosures Clegg envisions for freelance columnists seem like a reasonable solution in most cases, although, as she notes, there are times when the disclosure should be included in the column — or when the conflict of interest is so blatant that the columnist should simply choose another topic.

The online disclosures are also of no help to those who only read the print edition. Clegg told Joe Strupp of Media Matters that she’d “take a look at” what to do about print and added that “we do require that [disclosure] when we think it’s warranted.”

What follows is the full text of Clegg’s email to Media Nation.

In the interest of more transparency, we’re posting bios for our regular freelance op-ed columnists online and linking those bios to their bylines. John Sununu has told me he will avoid writing about issues pertaining to cable and internet access because of his seat on the Time Warner Cable board. He has also assured me that he will disclose his support of GOP presidential candidate John Kasich in the text of any columns he writes about presidential politics (he is chair of his campaign in New Hampshire.)

It’s safe to say that few freelance columnists make their living solely from writing for newspapers these days, so most have other jobs or consultancies. We want to be more transparent with our readers about the nature of columnists’ work and affiliations. When appropriate, we’ll include relevant details in the text of the print edition of the column, as well as the link for our digital readers.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

The Globe’s Clegg gets a vote of confidence from John Henry

Ellen Clegg
Ellen Clegg

Ellen Clegg has been named editorial-page editor of The Boston Globe, less than a year after she was brought in to serve on an interim basis following the departure of Peter Canellos, now a top editor at Politico.

The move, announced by publisher and owner John Henry, strikes me as overdue. You don’t let an interim editor completely remake the pages, as Clegg was recently allowed to do. In an email to the staff obtained by Media Nation, Henry wrote:

When Ellen Clegg graciously accepted the challenge to take on the role of Editor, Editorial Page on an interim basis, she did so with enthusiasm, resolve, and a commitment to bring a fresh perspective and new voices to the section. I truly believe her leadership has brought vitality and relevance to the section, reflective of the improvements I’m seeing throughout the organization. From Day One, Ellen has acted as if the term “interim” was just a word, not her destiny. So it is my great pleasure to announce that as of Monday, Ellen Clegg is Editor, Editorial Page of The Boston Globe. No ifs, ands, buts, nor interims about it.

Thanks, Ellen. Keep up the great work.

JWH

Clegg has a closer relationship with Henry than Canellos did, having previously served as the top spokeswoman for the Globe — and, thus, for Henry. Before that she was a longtime Globe journalist, serving in a variety of editing positions. Among other things, she is the author of the award-winning book “ChemoBrain: How Cancer Therapies Can Affect Your Mind” (Prometheus Books, 2009). You can read more about her background here.

Today’s editorial pages — simply labeled “Opinion” since the redesign — are characteristic of Clegg’s graphics-intensive vision.

To my eye, the most interesting piece today is a short commentary by editorial writer Marcela García on a dangerous proposal to make it easier for Massachusetts families to opt out of mandatory vaccines. It’s accompanied by a large, data-heavy map. Online, you can find a chart showing the opt-out rate at every public school in the state. It should fuel follow-ups by community news organizations across Massachusetts.

Clegg is also soliciting short opinionated videos that will run in a new section to be called “Opinion Reel.”

I’ve heard laments from several Globe readers — older, but smart and engaged — who think the redesign represents a dumbing-down of the paper’s traditional editorial and op-ed pages. For Clegg, it’s going to prove to be a balancing act in trying to attract new readers while not alienating her most dedicated audience. One thing that would help: doing a better job of alerting print readers that there’s additional content online.

As editorial-page editor, Clegg is a masthead equal with editor Brian McGrory. Both report directly to Henry. It’s taken a couple of years, but it looks Henry’s team is finally in place.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.