How the Globe is leveraging social to cover #FITN

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A recent Pindell piece in Medium.

In his recent exhortation to accelerate the transition to digital, Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory singled out — among others — James Pindell, who’s covering the New Hampshire primary (or #FITN, as they say) as a digital-first reporter, “rapidly pushing webbier (sorry) stories that allow the site to look less like a digital reflection of that morning’s and the next morning’s print paper.”

Now Mashable has a close-up look at exactly how Pindell is accomplishing that. Jason Abbruzzese writes that Pindell has embraced a wide range of social media, including Twitter, Instagram, FacebookMedium and — shades of steam-powered presses from the 19th century — an email newsletter. (Not all of this is new. Pindell’s Twitter feed has been a must-read among political junkies for years.) Pindell’s work is gathered at a Globe site called Ground Game.

The approach has allowed Pindell to cover stories that are worth telling even if they’re not quite worthy of (or suitable for) print — such as his first-person account of covering Donald Trump and his hair during Trump’s recent foray into New Hampshire.

The idea, Abbruzzese reports, is to leverage Pindell’s coverage of across a variety of platforms in order to compete with national outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post:

“We’re putting him out there deliberately in a very focused way saying, ‘This is our guy. This is the face of our coverage,'” says David Skok, digital adviser at the Globe, who helped form their strategy of pushing content out on social platforms via a single, recognizable reporter.

The strategy also fits with the Globe’s embrace of digital verticals such as Crux, which covers “all things Catholic”; BetaBoston, which follows tech and innovation; and more that I’ve heard are in the works.

Alas, as smart a move as Ground Game may be journalistically, it’s unclear, as always, how it will make money. From the Mashable piece:

The main question dogging media organizations that want to embrace this strategy of social publishing is how it affects their bottom line. Reaching more people is great, but the benefits are quickly offset if it comes at the behest of revenue.

Skok said that Pindell’s work outside of the Globe did not have direct monetization opportunities yet, but that the broader impact would hopefully attract advertisers that want to be associated with the paper’s authoritative coverage.

The folks at the Globe deserve a lot of credit for understanding the value of pushing ahead anyway.

Globe to replace g section, Brian McGrory tells staff

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 11.59.30 AMThe Boston Globe is replacing its tabloid arts-and-feature section, g, with a standalone full-size Living section later this month, according to a year-end message to the staff from editor Brian McGrory.

Most of McGrory’s message, a copy of which was sent to Media Nation by a kind soul in the Globe newsroom, is a look back at what has been a year of accomplishment for the paper. (McGrory has also written a round-up of his picks for the Globe’s most important stories of 2014.)

McGrory’s superlatives aside, it’s hard to think of a news organization this side of Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post that is expanding its coverage the way the Globe has under the ownership of John Henry. The paper has also been consistently excellent journalistically under McGrory’s watch, and, as he notes, it seems to be paying off in terms of advertising, paid circulation and a growing digital audience.

The full memo is below. But before I get to that, some other Globe news: veteran New Hampshire political reporter James Pindell is returning to the Globe as “a digital-first political reporter and playing a key role in our effort to augment our coverage of the first-in-the-nation contest,” according to an email by Jennifer Peter, the Globe’s metro editor, which someone forwarded to me.

Pindell, whom I’ve known and respected for years, worked most recently for WMUR-TV in New Hampshire, a stint that ended in a minor controversy after he asked U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown an impertinent question that turned out to be based on a mistaken premise. Pindell apologized and briefly disappeared from the air, which suggested an overreaction on management’s part. WMUR’s loss is the Globe’s gain.

Also this week, the departures at the Globe continued. Among those announcing their retirements were columnist Larry Harmon, business reporter Chris Reidy, health writer Deborah Kotz and former Spotlight and higher-education reporter Marcella Bombardieri. Harmon has been an important voice in holding city politicians accountable. I hope interim editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg finds a suitable replacement.

As for g, which was launched under New York Times Co. ownership, I doubt many will miss it. Mrs. Media Nation was a fan, but since we’re digital subscribers except on Sundays we rarely got to see what it looked like in print.

And now (drum roll, please) Brian McGrory’s year-end message to the staff.

Hey all,

Same-old, same-old in 2014, so I’ll be brief.

Wrong again.

We, meaning you, had an extraordinary year by every possible measure, certainly in terms of consistently superb journalism, but also with a driving sense of innovation in the work we produce and the way we present it. This was a landmark year for the Globe, one that I hope gives you a deep sense of pride.

Consider, for a moment, the new initiatives — Address, the absurdly readable Sunday real estate section; Capital, the Friday political section that is equal parts delightful and vital; the stand-alone Business section, which is off to a strong start and is set to improve even more; Crux, the company’s groundbreaking website dedicated to Catholicism around the world, done so well it will serve as a template for future initiatives; a restructured Spotlight Team that is set to produce signature investigative journalism with greater frequency; a stunning stand-alone Living broadsheet section to replace the current g tabloid, debuting the second week of January; the Cape Cod summer initiative; record-setting Business magazines, including the new “Game Changers;” the reintroduction of Score, as beautiful as it is insightful; artfully redesigned Sunday regional sections to the north, south, and west of Boston; and a revitalized Sunday Travel section that has become mandatory reading.

None of this came easy. All of it is vital. What made it possible is the high quality journalism upon which everything new and old is built.

Let’s be honest: 2013 was a tough year to follow in terms of accomplishment. And sitting at Columbia University in May, watching Chris Chinlund, Jen Peter, and Mike Bello accept the Pulitzer Prize on behalf of the entire staff, well, that’s a moment that I’ll forever cherish. I’m not sure Bello ever cradled any of his kids as lovingly as he did that plaque.

But you followed great work with still more great work, even amid the demands of so much new initiative. Mike Rezendes gave voice to those who wouldn’t otherwise have had one with his landmark stories on the inhumane and sometimes deadly treatment of inmates at Bridgewater State Hospital — work that led to immediate, meaningful reform. Likewise in the accountability category, Spotlight produced a searing, three-part series on dangerous student housing conditions in this, the college capital of America, a project that has launched vows for widespread change. Kay Lazar and Shelley Murphy kicked the marijuana dispensary licensing process on its side through their in-depth reporting, forcing the state to scrap its deeply flawed work and start from scratch.

I’d put our 2014 narrative work up against any news organization in the country, and in that regard, I’m specifically thinking of Jenna Russell’s breathtaking account of Michael Bourne and his mother, Peggy, as they battled not only his mental health issues, but a cruelly complicated system that seems to go out of its way not to help. Include there, too, Evan Allen’s heartbreaking story of a Newton father’s quest for justice after his son’s overdose death, Maria Sacchetti’s tense, poignant look at the deaths and recovery efforts along the Mexican border, and of course, Sarah Schweitzer’s extraordinary account of a Woods Hole biologist and his lifelong attempt to save the endangered right whale, a story that was accompanied by a groundbreaking online presentation. There are more, many more.

Day to day, Metro performed an extraordinary public service by driving the heroin epidemic into the public conscience. Business blanketed the single most readable storyline of the year — the Demoulas saga — with expert coverage that drove the plot for months. Photography continued to produce the kind of thoughtful, magnificent images that made readers linger on our pages in awe.

Sports did what our Sports staff always does: It offered the best coverage for the most sophisticated audience of any paper in the nation. Washington produced the deeply reported Power Lines series, along with its consistently probing coverage of two of the most interesting officials in the country — Elizabeth Warren and John Kerry. Living/Arts gave us a record number of colorful front page offerings and, as important, solidified Sunday Arts as one of the most popular and important sections of the Globe. Perhaps that last point is inevitable when you have the all-star roster of critics and writers that we have. The Sunday magazine remains among the most vital aspects of the paper, with consistently sophisticated stories that are devoured by readers.

Our design team was ever bolder in print and online, not only with new sections and sites, but with the front page as well. Our copy editing is ever more meticulous and consistently collaborative. Our graphics are often the envy of the industry, which explains why bigger organizations keep hiring away our directors.

And our digital team has quite literally been transformative, newcomers and veterans, all of whom have banded together to produce an evolving, ambitious namesake site that is a pitch perfect platform for our collective work.

Does any of this matter? Yeah, it does, very much so.

Advertising came in better than expected this year, by no means enough to declare success, but certainly a sign of improvement. In terms of readership, there were many, many weeks in the autumn that saw a net upside in print subscriptions. There are precious few papers that see anything like that. And Bostonglobe.com saw a 34 percent increase in visits and a 26 percent increase in pageviews. We also have more digital-only subscribers than any newspaper in the country outside of the NYT and WSJ, and we’ve begun adding to that number at a strong clip in the last quarter.

I’m way too late to say, “To make a long story short,” right? But please bear with me for one final point.

We can’t let up. To sit still is to beckon defeat, what with the breakneck pace of technology advances and the irrefutable fact that competition continues to lurk all across the web. We need all your creativity, all your ambition, all your brains – all across the enterprise. We also need to take full advantage of an enviable moment. We have committed owners, the Henrys, who value quality over short-term profits, and who believe to their core that the way to make the Globe a self-sustaining enterprise is by thoughtful investment combined with unfailing discipline. We have a CEO, Mike Sheehan, who believes deeply that great journalism is good business. We have a thriving region. We have a robust staff of stellar reporters, editors, and visual journalists, many of the best in the nation. We have all the ingredients in place for profound, durable success.

I’ll set up some times in January to share plans and trade ideas for 2015. Meantime, please take more than a few moments of pride on this New Year’s Eve, for where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are poised to go.

My deepest respect and appreciation to you all.

Brian

Correction: An earlier version of this post described the departures of Larry Harmon, Chris Reidy, Deborah Kotz and Marcella Bombardieri as “buyouts.” That was based on an incorrect assumption on my part. Harmon told me he was not offered a buyout, and I do not know about the other three.

Another round in the paid-content debate

Having recently regaled us with the flawed tale of a community newspaper that refuses to publish its content online, New York Times media columnist David Carr is back — this time with a suggestion that what we need is “an iTunes for news.”

Carr’s thesis is that news organizations can no longer afford to give away their content. But, as he acknowledges in his lament about the arrested state of online advertising, they’re not giving it away — or, at least, they don’t mean to. Rather, they’re failing to sell enough advertising to pay for their journalism. That’s a problem, but it’s not the same problem.

Carr knows as well as anyone that a good deal of what you pay for when you buy a newspaper doesn’t contribute anything to the bottom line. You’re paying for paper, presses, maintenance to those presses, distribution and — yes — the salaries of some good, hard-working people who won’t be needed if and when we move into a Web-only environment.

Given that, news organizations should theoretically be able to come up with an online version that pays for itself, or even turns a profit, without charging for access. That’s what national and local television newscasts do, and the model worked even better some years ago, when those newscasts were deeper and meatier than they are today. That’s what National Public Radio and its affiliate stations do, raising money directly from listeners in the form of contributions and from corporations in the form of advertising — uh, sorry, “underwriting.”

The problem with online news today is threefold: (1) sites like Craigslist and Monster.com have taken away much of the advertising that news orgs might have been able to sell; (2) the recession has halted the growth of online (and print) advertising; and (3) newspaper companies are staggering under so much debt that they need a rate of return that would be unrealistic even in a more favorable economic environment.

I’ve learned a lot over the past few years from Lisa Williams, who founded H2otown to cover her community of Watertown and now heads up Placeblogger to track community Web sites around the world. One of the most important is this: the future belongs to the small and the swift, and journalists — especially young journalists — ought to think of their careers the way tech workers do. Today’s journalists will probably live a rather nomadic existence, moving from start-up to start-up as we all try to figure out where the news business is going and where there might actually be money to be made.

Two cases in point.

Last week Politicker.com, a promising project whose goal was to expand into a network of 50 state-based sites, more or less went out of business, cutting back to just New York and New Jersey. The Massachusetts site is gone (though still up). Its blogger-journalist, Jeremy Jacobs, has taken a job at The Hill.

Politicker’s national managing editor, James Pindell, who blogged the New Hampshire primary for the Boston Globe’s Boston.com site, and who is himself a pioneering online journalist, is out of a job, although I can’t imagine he won’t get scooped up by someone very soon.

I’m not sure what happened. It could be that Politicker’s business model — getting advocacy groups (i.e., lobbyists) to buy ads in order to reach the intended audience of inside players — was not realistic. It could be that the model was brilliant but the timing was bad. In any case, the cycle of destruction and creation continues.

Because, this week, the long-anticipated GlobalPost.com makes its debut. Headed by New England Cable News founder Phil Balboni and former Boston Globe foreign correspondent Charles Sennott, the site is aimed at covering international news at a time when most traditional news organizations are cutting back.

It’s hard to imagine a more heartening development in journalism. And, yes, David Carr would rightly point out that GlobalPost plans some subscription-based services.

In fact, there may be a place for some pay services in online journalism, although I suspect it will be rare. Carr cites the Wall Street Journal, but people will pay for the specialized financial information to which a Journal online subscription gives them access. Sorry, but the Times, good as it is, doesn’t offer that.

Likewise, some people will pay to have their favorite newspapers downloaded onto a device like the Amazon Kindle, a step up in convenience and readability in comparison to the typical laptop.

As we move rapidly into the post-newspaper era, we’re going to see all kinds of experiments — mostly free, some subscription-based, most of which will fail, a few of which will succeed and serve as models for the industry.

The one thing that won’t work — and I think Carr would acknowledge this if it were put to him directly — is the notion that newspapers as we have come to know them will somehow be able to charge for their everyday content. That horse left the barn 10 years ago, and it’s not coming back.

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

A new source of Mass. political coverage

Did you know that Republican congressional candidate Nathan Bech wants U.S. Rep. John Olver to save the planet by not sending mail to constituents who don’t want it? Or that Watertown councilor Jonathan Hecht is running hard for a state rep’s seat? Or that former Ted Kennedy aide Melody Barnes has signed on with Barack Obama’s presidential campaign?

These are just a few of the tidbits you can glean at PolitickerMA.com, which slipped quietly into view in mid-June. The goal of the Politicker project is to provide intensive coverage of state and local politics, combining original reporting with blogging on what other media outlets are saying.

I mentioned Politicker earlier this year when James Pindell, who blogged the New Hampshire primary for Boston.com, left to become the national managing editor. So far, Politicker has set up shop in about 15 states, according to the list under “PolitickerMA Partners.” The goal is to launch a Politicker site in all 50 states.

In an instant-message conversation with my Reinventing the News students this past spring, Pindell said Politicker’s revenue base will likely be issue-oriented ads aimed at the political and public-policy community in Massachusetts. Smart move. It doesn’t strike me that anyone is going to read Politicker other than serious political junkies. The mass media are giving way to many little niches, and Politicker aims to occupy one of those niches.

Politicker reminds me of a slicker PoliticsNH.com, which Pindell ran during the 2004 primary season, and which no longer exists. (Politicker appears to have acquired the name, as it now forwards to PolitickerNH.com.) Pindell’s earlier project became briefly famous for sponsoring a contest to find a wife for Dennis Kucinich, who was then single. It was great fun, though Elizabeth Harper, the woman whom the congressman later married, was not one of the contestants.

Another similarity to PoliticsNH is the presence of an anonymous columnist. At PolitickerMA, the nom de opinion is “Wally Edge.” In a story in the New York Times back in February, Politicker founder Robert Sommer (who’s also publisher of the New York Observer) described the undercover columnists who are being turned loose in each state as “the secret sauce,” and could include lobbyists, political consultants and former officeholders. Edge’s views seem benign enough so far, but I’m skeptical about this innovation. I’d rather such insiders be identified so we know their associations and potential conflicts.

PolitickerMA’s staff reporter is Jeremy Jacobs, a recent graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism who has worked for The Hill, among other places.

An early fan of PolitickerMA is Bay Windows editor Laura Kiritsy, who writes that the site “has already provided me with hours of late-night, on-deadline procrastinating thrills.” Kiritsy especially likes the lists of best and worst Massachusetts campaigns, which are pretty amusing.

Oddly enough, there are no RSS feeds [correction below] at PolitickerMA, though you can sign up for a daily e-mail.

As the news-media landscape morphs into something totally new, PolitickerMA is the sort of project that’s worth keeping a close eye on.

Neither the Boston Globe nor the Boston Herald provides the kind of small-bore coverage that is Politicker’s purview, especially as they shrink their staffs.

State House News Service does a good job of covering the Legislature, but it charges high subscription fees and is aimed mostly at media and political professionals.

Blue Mass Group rounds a lot of political news, but it’s partisan and almost wholly dependent on what its members can find in other media.

Politicker is exciting because it suggests a possible way out of the morass in which journalism finds itself these days. If it succeeds, it will occupy a sweet spot between full-service news organizations, which are shrinking, and citizen journalism, which is important but which does not meet the need for a reliable, edited news report.

And it gives young journalists who wish to cover politics some reason to hope that they’ll be able to make a living at it.

Correction: Robert David Sullivan has found an RSS feed. I was deceived by the lack of an RSS symbol in Firefox.

Politicker’s “secret sauce”

The New York Times explains what Politicker.com is all about. The idea is to provide each of the 50 states with its own political-news site combining blogging with more traditional forms of journalism. New Jersey’s site, more fully developed than the rest at this point, will be the model.

Politicker is the project that recently snared Boston.com political blogger James Pindell to be its national managing editor. Sounds interesting, but I’m not sure what to make of this:

Most states will be covered by one or two reporters, one editor working on contract from inside the state, and an undetermined number of bloggers. The editors — who will remain anonymous, and will include lawyers, lobbyists and former officeholders — are the “secret sauce,” Mr. Sommer said.

Sommer is Robert Sommer, president of the Observer Media Group, which owns Politicker.

“Secret sauce” is the reason I don’t order Big Macs, and I’m not so sure I’m going to like it in my political news, either. Anonymous lobbyists? How is that a good idea?