Jack Sullivan of CommonWealth Magazine has the latest on cutbacks at the Boston Herald. Digital First Media, which bought the Herald earlier this year, is centralizing the paper’s advertising design and news layout operations at its headquarters in Boulder, Colorado.
It’s a rare instance of Digital First making cuts that don’t directly affect news coverage, and it’s become standard operating procedure at newspaper chains. For instance, GateHouse Media, which owns more than 100 newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts, outsources much of its design work to a facility it owns in Austin, Texas. Still, it’s terrible for the people who are losing their jobs — estimated at 10 to 15 in news design alone.
Then again, there’s not much in the way of reporting resources at the Herald that Digital First can still cut. Sullivan writes writes that there are now fewer than a dozen reporters at the once-robust tabloid. Wow.
More details in this Twitter thread from Herald sports copy editor Jon Courture. Click here to read the whole thing.
Boston Herald employees were informed today that the paper's ad production and design will be outsourced later this year. Transitions will likely happen in August (for ads) and in mid-October (for design).
Politico media columnist Jack Shafer has written, if you can believe it, a semi-defense of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and its principal, Randall Smith, who are in the midst of running their newspapers into the ground. Alden owns the Digital First Media chain, whose Denver Post is the locus of an insurrection against hedge-fund ownership. The 100-paper chain also owns three Massachusetts properties: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.
Shafer’s argument is a simple one: the end is at hand for the newspaper business, no one has figured out how to reverse its shrinking fortunes, and so therefore Smith can’t be blamed for squeezing out the last few drops of profit before the industry collapses. “Smith may be a rapacious fellow,” Shafer writes, “but his primary crime is recognizing that print is approaching its expiration date and is acting on the fact that more value can be extracted by sucking the marrow than by investing deeper or selling.”
Now, it’s possible that Shafer is right. But I’m considerably more optimistic about the future of newspapers than he is. Let me offer a few countervailing examples.
1. I certainly don’t want to sound naive about GateHouse Media, a chain of several hundred papers controlled by yet another hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group. GateHouse, which dominates Eastern Massachusetts, runs its papers on the cheap, too, and I’ve got a lot of problems with its barebones coverage of the communities it serves.
But GateHouse, unlike Digital First, is committed to newspapers. That’s why both insiders and outsiders were hoping GateHouse would buy the Herald. I genuinely think the folks at GateHouse are trying to crack the code on how to do community journalism at a profit for some years to come — and yes, its journalists are underpaid, and yes, I don’t like the fact that some editing operations have been centralized in Austin, Texas. But it could be worse, as Digital First demonstrates. For some insight into the GateHouse strategy, see this NPR story.
2. Smaller independently owned daily papers without debt can do well. The Berkshire Eagle is in the midst of a revival following its sale by Digital First to local business interests several years ago. In Maine, a printer named Reade Brower has built an in-state chain centered around the Portland Press Herald that by all accounts is doing well.
3. Large regional papers like The Denver Post are the most endangered. Transforming The Washington Post into a profitable national news organization, as Jeff Bezos has done, was a piece of cake compared to saving metros. As I describe in “The Return of the Moguls,” billionaire owner John Henry of The Boston Globe is pursuing a strategy that could result in a return to profitability: charging as much as the market will bear for print delivery (now up to more than $1,000 a year) and digital subscriptions ($30 a month). Globe executives say the paper is on track to pass the 100,000 mark for digital subscriptions in the first half of this year, and that the business model will start to look sustainable if it can reach 200,000.
In other words, reinventing the newspaper business is not a hopeless task. Randall Smith and Alden Global Capital have taken the easy, cynical route — but not the only route. There are better ways.
It looked like a one-off last month when The Denver Post rebelled against its hedge-fund owner. In publishing an editorial and several commentaries denouncing Alden Global Capital as “vulture capitalists,” the Post’s journalists took what was seen by most observers as a courageous but futile stand.
But now the rebellion is starting to spread. And there is hope, however slight, that Digital First Media — the newspaper chain controlled by Alden — can somehow be pushed into doing the right thing. As CNN media reporter Brian Stelter writes, there were protests scheduled for today in Denver and New York City, the latter to take place outside Alden’s headquarters.
A key part of The Boston Globe’s strategy to reposition itself as a sustainable business has been to establish its printing operation as a regional hub for a variety of publications, including The New York Times and USA Today. That strategy has come under question since last summer, when its new Taunton printing plant got off to an exceedingly rocky start.
Now the Globe has suffered a significant blow, as Digital First Media, the incoming owner of the Boston Herald, will take the tabloid’s printing business to the Providence Journal, owned by GateHouse Media — ironically, one of the losers in the recent bidding to buy the Herald out of bankruptcy. Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal has the details.
The Globe’s business relationship with the Herald has been strained last September, when then-Herald owner Pat Purcell published a hotly worded statement in his paper blaming the Globe for the Herald’s printing woes. “We talk with the Globe on a regular basis but unfortunately the remedies they put forth to solve the production problems have failed miserably,” the Herald said at that time.
Although the Globe’s printing woes have by most accounts eased considerably (even if they have not been entirely solved), Digital First clearly wasn’t going to stick around. The Providence facility is well-regarded, and it was widely believed that GateHouse would move the Herald’s printing there if it won the bidding. Ironically, GateHouse will end up making money from the Herald even though its bid fell short. In a statement to the BBJ, Globe president Vinay Mehra said:
At present, we are unable to offer a competitive bid for that business. What this move affords us is the opportunity to continue to bring our production costs and efficiencies in line, take advantage of added capabilities for The Globe product, and deliver to our readers the best quality news product in the market.
I’m hearing reports from inside the Herald that the switch will require deadlines so early that evening sports stories may not make the print edition. Mehra, meanwhile, sounds like he’s just as happy to be rid of the Herald — something that would surely not be the case if everything was running smoothly.
There was a time not too many years ago when Digital First Media — the all-but-certain next owner of the Boston Herald — was the toast of the newspaper business. The chain was led by a brash, profane chief executive named John Paton, who espoused an aggressive post-print strategy built around free, advertiser-supported websites, community engagement, and high-profile initiatives such as Project Thunderdome, a national news and innovation center.
It all fell apart quickly. Alden Capital, the hedge fund that controls Digital First, grew impatient with Paton’s grandiosity. Project Thunderdome was dismantled in 2014. Paton left in 2015. And the chain embarked on a relentless strategy of cutting costs to the bone. “If you work for a company owned by a hedge fund, it’s like walking through a minefield,” Jim Brady, Digital First’s former editor-in-chief, told me in 2016. “Any step can be the one where you hit the mine. Any day it could end, and you know that.”
Brady has since turned entrepreneur, founding mobile-friendly local news sites in Philadelphia (Billy Penn) and Pittsburgh (The Incline). And the post-Paton Digital First has earned a reputation for brutal cost-cutting — which raises serious concerns about what its executives have in mind for the Herald.
Digital First, based in Denver, won the Herald sweepstakes on Tuesday by outbidding two rivals. When the Herald’s soon-to-be-former owner, Pat Purcell, took the Herald into bankruptcy in December, he said the paper would be acquired by GateHouse Media, another chain controlled by a hedge fund. But Digital First, a late entry, bid a reported $11.9 million, outdistancing GateHouse’s $4.5 million and a lesser-known contender, Revolution Capital Group.
In the short term, there might not be that much difference between GateHouse and Digital First. GateHouse would have cut the number of people employed by the Herald from 240 — about half of them editorial staff members — to 175. Digital First reportedly reached an agreement with the Newspaper Guild recently to offer jobs to about 175 people. Long-term, though, there is reason to believe the Herald might have been better off under GateHouse, despite the company’s own well-deserved reputation for obsessing over the bottom line.
Why? Consider the gap between the two bids. GateHouse’s much lower offer suggests that it would not have had to cut as much to earn back its investment. GateHouse also has a substantial infrastructure in Greater Boston, with more than 100 community newspapers, including dailies such as The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, and the Providence Journal. The Herald is currently printed by The Boston Globe, but GateHouse has considerable press capacity of its own. Finally, GateHouse officials appeared to have a plan, and had been talking with people both inside and outside the Herald for weeks. (Disclosure: including me.)
By contrast, Digital First’s intentions are a mystery. But recent news about the company has not been good. The company recently eliminated the editor’s job at the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg, one of its two dailies in Massachusetts, and is now running the paper out of its other daily, The Sun of Lowell. Even more ominous, the Sentinel is getting rid of its newsroom, with journalists being told to work out of their homes. As a friend put it upon hearing the news that Digital First will soon own the Herald: “How long before the newsroom is relocated to a nearby Starbucks with free WiFi?”
In California, Digital First has gone on a rampage that rivals Sherman’s march through Georgia. According to the Los Angeles Times, the company’s Southern California News Group will soon eliminate at least 65 of the 315 newsroom positions at its 11 papers, which include such well-known titles as the Orange County Register and The Press-Enterprise of Riverside. That comes on the heels of 65 cuts last summer. Farther north, the once-great Mercury News of San Jose, which at its peak employed about 440 journalists, is down to just 39 union positions in the newsroom, with some non-union staff as well.
The newspaper business has been in trouble for more than two decades as technological and cultural changes have hollowed out its financial underpinnings. But greed should not be overlooked as a major contributing factor. Last fall I wrote about an investigation by The Nation into the hedge funds that own newspapers. Among other things, we learned from reporter Julie Reynolds that Randall Smith, the tycoon who controls Digital First, had purchased 16 mansions in Palm Beach, Florida, for $57 million, which he had amassed by “purchasing and then destroying newspapers.”
The one good-news story about Digital First involves the Berkshire Eagle — and that’s only because the chain sold the paper to local business leaders a couple of years ago. According to Shan Wang of the Nieman Journalism Lab, the Eagle and its affiliated newspapers in Vermont have been rebuilding their staff and their reputation since Digital First got out of town. Wang wrote:
Newly rid of Digital First Media and its cost-cutting ways, and now owned by people with real ties to the county, the Eagle newsroom was reinvigorated. The new owners laid out a guiding strategy — if you build it up, they will come back — and promised to stay in the business of local news for the long haul. Producing better, local-focused news, and more of it, they surmised, would be the straightest path to bringing back subscribers, raising more revenue — more to invest in digital products and, finally, sustainability.
What a concept. Of course, it’s a lot easier to go the independent route with small papers that enjoy local monopolies than with a large, money-losing number-two daily like the Herald, which has long labored in the shadow of the dominant Globe. If Purcell could have stayed in business, he would have.
Still, the optimist in me hopes that once Digital First has wrung whatever profits it can out of the Herald and is ready to move on, local investors will step forward who are willing to take a chance and return the paper to independent ownership. Unfortunately, the next few years are likely to be rocky — not just for Herald employees, but for their readers as well.
Whoa. Former Boston Herald (and Boston Phoenix) columnist Peter Lucas absolutely torches Herald owner Pat Purcell, who has taken the tabloid into bankruptcy with the intention of selling it to GateHouse Media. Lucas, now a columnist for the Lowell Sun and the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise, begins:
Not everybody is leaving the Boston Herald broke, just the workers.
The owner, Pat Purcell, will make out just fine.
In fact, after announcing bankruptcy and the sale of his paper, he will walk away from the business a rich man.
“He built a real estate empire on the backs of Herald workers, and now the workers are being thrown out on the street,” said one veteran Herald reporter, who fears for his pension.
On Saturday I received an email from Christine Hochkeppel, a photographer who had just resigned from the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, part of the GateHouse Media chain. I asked her if it was all right if I sought comment from a T&G executive and then ran her letter of resignation along with the newspaper’s response. She granted permission.
This is, of course, a data point of one. But I think it’s worth sharing because it speaks to the frustrations of working in community journalism in general and for GateHouse in particular. GateHouse, as I’m sure you know, is a national chain based in the suburbs of Rochester, New York, that owns more than 100 daily and weekly papers in Eastern Massachusetts, Southern New Hampshire and Rhode Island. The company is also likely to become the next owner of the Boston Herald.
In a business known for penny-pinching, GateHouse stands out. “It has been incredibly frustrating to have worked the majority of my career for a company that has never given me a raise, despite my excellent work ethic and accolades,” Hochkeppel wrote in her letter of resignation to executive editor Karen Webber. “I cannot dedicate anymore of my professional time to a company that will not invest in my future success or any of my talented colleagues.”
I emailed Webber seeking comment and received the following reply from Paul Provost, the T&G’s publisher:
Thank you for the opportunity to comment however we do not comment on individual personnel matters. It has been reported publicly that we have struck an agreement with the national Guild. That agreement has been ratified in Worcester and is in the process of being ratified in several other newsrooms across the company.
Provost is referring to a recent agreement GateHouse reached with the Newspaper Guild that, according to Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal, “would ensure a 2.75 percent raise over two years for 750 employees at newspapers across the country, including five in New England.” The T&G is among those papers.
I am writing to notify you of my intention to resign as staff photographer at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. My last day of employment will be Saturday, December 30, 2017.
I appreciate the opportunities I have received during my 3 years here. I have grown and improved as a photojournalist. I appreciate your support and guidance. However, I continue to have deep concerns about the direction GateHouse Media is taking the T&G. It has been incredibly frustrating to have worked the majority of my career for a company that has never given me a raise, despite my excellent work ethic and accolades. I cannot dedicate anymore of my professional time to a company that will not invest in my future success or any of my talented colleagues. After all of the hard work I have done for this company, I am forced to give up a career that I am passionate about so that I can make a better future for myself. GateHouse has been taking advantage of passionate journalists and dismantling quality community journalism with continued staff reductions and lackluster outsourced design. Their solution continues to befuddle us all with its hypocrisy: cut expenses and jobs but acquire more properties and continue to award handsome bonuses to the top executives. These reckless practices underscore the apparent indifference GateHouse feels toward the hard-working people they already employ. It’s disheartening that when our political and economic climate needs journalists so desperately, that this company has turned so many excellent people away from the industry.
Thank you again for the opportunity to share visual stories with the Worcester County community. It has been a gratifying experience sharing pictures and stories with our readers, despite the morale challenges. I am grateful for all the positive interactions and earned experience.
If I had a nickel for every time someone predicted the death of the Boston Herald over the past 25 years, I would have — well, many nickels. So I see last week’s announcement by Herald owner Pat Purcell that he plans to sell his paper to GateHouse Media as just one more bump in what has been an exceedingly bumpy road.
GateHouse, a national chain that owns more than 100 community weeklies and dailies in Eastern Massachusetts and environs, has given little indication of what it intends to do with the city’s number two paper. First the Herald has to go through bankruptcy, and though it’s likely GateHouse will end up with the tabloid, there is no guarantee.
What we do know is that a GateHouse-owned Herald will be smaller. Preliminary reports suggest that the staff will be cut from 240 to 175 across all departments. That is going to have a huge impact on the Herald’s newsgathering capacity, as the newsroom accounts for about half of that 240. On the other hand, a daily newspaper with 175 employees should still be able to do good work and provide at least some competition to The Boston Globe.
Twelve years ago, as The Boston Phoenix’s media columnist, I offered five suggestions for how the Herald could improve and build a more sustainable business. With the Herald changing ownership for the first time since 1994, when Purcell bought it from his mentor Rupert Murdoch, I thought I’d take a look at what I had to say in 2005 and see whether any of it is relevant today.
1. Get smart. This is probably the single most important step that GateHouse could take in trying to appeal to new readers. More than 20 years ago, a journalist who had left the paper told me something he’d once said to Purcell. It went approximately like this: You’ve already got all the stupid readers, Pat. You need to find a few smart ones as well.
Unfortunately, Purcell never really took that advice. From the mid-1990s until the early 2000s, the Herald thrived on the strength of strong local news coverage, an aggressive business section, an excellent sports section, and good photography. But as the economics of newspapering began to crater, the Herald embraced a flash-and-trash approach while continuing to get smaller.
In recent years, under editor Joe Sciacca, the sensationalism has been toned down considerably, and the daily report is solid if shrunken. But the goal seemed to be to hang onto the paper’s shrinking pool of existing readers rather than try to cultivate, say, the young workers in Boston’s growing innovation economy — many of whom may not be as liberal on economic issues as the Globe thinks they are and who would thus be open to an alternative.
2. Upgrade the look. Twelve years ago I wrote: “Newcomers to Boston no doubt are perplexed when they hear old-timers refer to the Herald as ‘the Record.’ That’s a reference to the Record American, a Hearst-owned tabloid from a bygone era that, along with several other papers, eventually morphed into the modern Herald. Trouble is, the Herald really does look like the Record, if the Record could be exhumed, updated a bit, and printed in color.”
Unfortunately, nothing has changed. Today, as I did then, I would recommend a makeover along the lines of (for instance) the Boston Business Journal, an attractive tabloid that takes a more restrained approach. The old urban tab look is perfect if you’re looking for something to fold up and take with you to Suffolk Downs — provided you’re going to the horse races. Now the city hopes the Suffolk Downs property will become Amazon’s second headquarters. GateHouse ought to be thinking about how to design a Herald that will appeal to the sort of young, highly educated folks who would work there — a sizable group even if Amazon ultimately picks another city.
3. Turn right. Despite the Herald’s reputation as a bastion of right-wing Trumpery, the paper’s editorial pages have long been rather staid and moderate. The right-wing reputation comes from a few of its news columnists, especially Howie Carr, who’s long since slid into self-parody; Joe Fitzgerald, a former sportswriter who traffics in snoozy social conservatism; and Adriana Cohen, who recycles seemingly every talking point from Fox News, including the network’s outrageous attacks on the FBI.
The opinion pages, on the other hand, carry respectable syndicated conservatives like Jonah Goldberg, George Will, and Michael Gerson, as well as local voices like freelancer Jim Sullivan, who rarely writes about politics. What would help is if editorial-page editor Shelly Cohen recruited some young, smart, conservative local columnists. Surely there’s some recent college graduate out there who wants to be the next Ben Shapiro or Tomi Lahren who’d be willing to work for a low salary and a shot at Twitter immortality. Unfortunately for the Herald, now as then, the best conservative columnist in Boston is Jeff Jacoby — a Herald alumnus who left the paper for the Globe many years ago.
4. Dump the website. I first made this recommendation on the grounds that the Herald simply didn’t translate well online — it was a quick read that people flip through on the subway or at Dunkin’ Donuts just before they go to work. Today’s smaller Herald is an even quicker read. Besides, the Herald’s website is not exactly a joy to navigate, though its mobile app is decent.
What I hadn’t anticipated 12 years ago was that the Herald would launch an internet radio station that has become an integral part of the paper’s identity. The problem is that it is essentially an old-fashioned conservative talk station, and people listen to talk radio in their cars, most of which are not especially well suited to streaming audio. But it has been a worthwhile experiment, and GateHouse should continue with it.
5. Live free or die? Purcell never wanted to take this step, though there was some buzz that he might when the free commuter tab Metro first came to Boston. I thought a free Herald could make sense; certainly it’s a better read than the Metro. Moreover, the Herald relies on point-of-purchase sales, and there are simply fewer places to buy newspapers than there used to be.
The trend in newspapers these days is to charge as much as the market will bear, either in print or online. Persuading readers to pay for journalism is essential given the collapse of digital advertising (for anyone other than Facebook and Google) and the ongoing decline of print advertising. But what little advertising value remains in newspapers is all on the print side. And if GateHouse can cut expenses enough (probably the one thing the compay is really, really good at), it might be able to turn a profit with a free Herald.
Last week’s announcement that the Herald would be sold was good news in the sense that Boston will continue to have two daily papers. But it’s sad, too, because a lot of people will be losing their jobs, and the likelihood is that the Herald is going to offer less. “More newspapers mean more coverage,” wrote Herald sports columnist Steve Buckley over the weekend. “More newspapers mean more opinions. And listen up, Globe: More newspapers mean more hustle. If we lose the Herald, the Globe will lose something as well.”
There is so much local media news breaking today that it’s hard to keep it all straight. Late this afternoon came the huge announcement that Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell, who bought the tabloid from his mentor Rupert Murdoch in 1994, was taking the paper into bankruptcy with the intention of selling it to GateHouse Media.
At this point, we all have far more questions than answers. A friend suggested something to me a little while ago that is worth pondering: Can we be sure that GateHouse will end up with the Herald? Once a business goes into bankruptcy, it’s up for grabs. As I note in my forthcoming book, “The Return of the Moguls,” the executives who were running California’s Orange County Register took that paper into bankruptcy several years ago with the goal of buying it themselves. They lost out, and today the Register is part of the Digital First Media empire.
Other questions: Although cuts have already been announced, will the diminished Herald be its old recognizable blend of local news, good photography and sports coverage, and feisty tabloidism? Or will it be something else entirely? Will GateHouse keep Herald Radio up and running? Will it honor its printing contract with the Globe, or will it move operations to a GateHouse facility? We’ll learn the answers to all these questions in the weeks and months to come.
Interestingly, for a few years Purcell owned around 100 community papers in Eastern Massachusetts in addition to the Herald, selling all but the Herald to GateHouse about 15 years ago. Now things have come full circle.
No one wants to see hard-working journalists lose their jobs. We all hope GateHouse will keep the pain to a minimum, and that the Herald will be with us for many years to come.
New England’s second-largest city is about to get a new print newspaper. A little more than two years ago, the Worcester Sun debuted as a for-profit, online-only news organization. Founded by two GateHouse Media refugees, the site has been behind a hard paywall from the beginning, with subscribers paying $2 a week.
Now Mark Henderson and his business partner (and cousin), Fred Hurlbrink Jr., are ready to take the next step: repurposing their journalism in a Saturday print edition that will be mailed free to paid digital subscribers who live in the Worcester area. If you’re not a subscriber, you’ll be able to buy a copy for $2 at various locations in Central Massachusetts.
Print has been part of Henderson and Hurlbrink’s thinking right from the start. Just after the Sun went live, I wrote about the project for the Nieman Journalism Lab. Though the Sun is clearly a digital-first operation, its founders wanted to capture the value that still exists in print advertising as a way of developing a second revenue stream.
“If you’re going to start something new, monetizing digital is tough,” Henderson told me at the time. “And you can’t look at print as a medium without understanding that there is a ton of money still to be made there.”
Worcester’s daily paper, the Telegram & Gazette, has shrunk dramatically in recent years. Sold by Boston Globe owner John Henry to a Florida-based chain under disputed circumstances, it later ended up in the hands of GateHouse, of Pittsford, New York, which owns more than 100 daily and weekly papers in Eastern Massachusetts. Henderson is the T&G’s former online director; Hurlbrink worked as a copy editor and in production for GateHouse’s MetroWest Daily News of Framingham and for a design facility in Framingham that later closed, with the jobs being outsourced to Austin, Texas.
Henderson and Hurlbrink have a tough road ahead of them. But they’re still here after two years, and they have the advantage of being local owners who are part of their community. The best-case scenario is that the Sun will be a success and that GateHouse will respond by bolstering the ranks of the T&G. Best of luck to Mark and Fred.