Millionaires, billionaires, and the future of newspapers

tumblr_static_policycast_logoHard to believe, but my time as a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School will be ending soon. Recently I recorded an HKS PolicyCast podcast under the expert guidance of host Matt Cadwallader. We talked about my research regarding wealthy newspaper owners and whether the innovations they’ve introduced may show the way for others. I hope you’ll give it a listen.

As I’ve written before, I’m working on a book that will largely be about three such owners—Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who bought the Washington Post in 2013; Red Sox principal owner John Henry, who announced he would purchase the Boston Globe just three days before Bezos made his move; and greeting-card executive Aaron Kushner, whose time as publisher of the Orange County Register ended in 2015, but whose print-centric approach made him perhaps the most closely watched newspaper owner of 2012-’13.

Bezos and the Post will be the subject of the paper I’m writing for Shorenstein, so—in case any of you folks at the Globe were wondering—I’ve suspended my reporting on the Globe for the time being. I’ll be back.

Talking about Jeff Bezos’s ownership of the Washington Post

Joan Shorenstein Fellows (from left): Joanna Jolly of the BBC; me; Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M University; and Marilyn Thompson of Politico.
Joan Shorenstein Fellows (from left): Joanna Jolly of the BBC; me; Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M University; and Marilyn Thompson of Politico.

On Tuesday the Joan Shorenstein Fellows at Harvard’s Kennedy School spoke about our research projects; the audio is now online and here’s what you’ll find. More specifically, I talked about Jeff Bezos’s ownership of the Washington Post and what (if any) lessons that holds for the newspaper business.

Post to Times: We’re the new paper of record

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I caught this house ad earlier today while reading The Washington Post. It comes shortly after Post owner Jeff Bezos told Charlie Rose on “CBS This Morning” that the Post is “working on becoming the new paper of record.”

Bezos added: “We’ve always been a local paper, and just this month The Washington Post passed The New York Times in terms of number of viewers online. This is a gigantic accomplishment for the Post team. We’re just gonna keep after that.”

Bezos’ complete remarks about the Post have been transcribed by Laura Hazard Owen of the Nieman Journalism Lab. Just click here.

And speaking of the Post, Baxter Holmes has a piece at Esquire headlined “Is Martin Baron the Best News Editor of All Time?” Yes, it’s over the top in its praise of the Post’s executive editor and former Boston Globe editor. But Baron may well be the best American newspaper editor working today, and Holmes’ story is well worth your time.

Woodward: The Post is ‘more authoritative’ than the Times

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Woodward in 2010. Photo (cc) by Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Is The Washington Post “more authoritative” than The New York Times? You might expect investigative reporting legend Bob Woodward to say so. After all, Woodward has spent nearly his entire career at the Post, and institutional loyalty runs deep.

Still, Woodward’s remarks — delivered at a stop on his latest book tour Tuesday night in Harvard Square — come at a time when they’re likely to garner more attention than they otherwise might. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who bought the Post from the Graham family nearly two years ago, is sinking money and resources into the paper. And media analysts like Ken Doctor are saying that the Post is making its first serious run at the Times in many years.

Asked by a member of the audience about changes in the media business, Woodward responded with an unsolicited paean to Bezos. “I think he’s helping us as a business,” Woodward said. “It’s a better website. I find things much more authoritative, quite frankly, than The New York Times, to be honest.”

And when asked by his interlocutor, Washington insider-turned-Harvard academic David Gergen, whether newspapers remain committed to investigative reporting, Woodward replied: “I know The Washington Post is, because I asked Jeff Bezos. He has the money. We talked about this. He said I could quote him on this, and I will. He said, ‘Rest assured, Marty’ — Baron, the editor — ‘will have the resources he needs.’”

Woodward will forever be remembered as one-half of the twentysomething reporting duo (with Carl Bernstein) who broke open the Watergate story and brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. Now a no-longer-boyish 72, Woodward was on hand to promote his latest book, “The Last of the President’s Men.” In it, Woodward tells the story of Alexander Butterfield, the Nixon aide who revealed the existence of the White House taping system before a congressional committee, thus providing the evidence that Nixon really was a crook.

Several hundred people crowded into the First Parish Church for Woodward’s reading, sponsored by the Harvard Book Store. The book is based on some 40 hours’ worth of interviews Woodward conducted with Butterfield, as well as a trove of documents. Butterfield, Woodward said, provided invaluable insights into the inner workings of the Nixon White House, especially of the early years. “For two years, there was no taping system,” he said. “In a sense Butterfield became the tape recorder.”

The event began on a light-hearted note, with Gergen — who served four presidents, including Nixon — asking, “When did you all sense that you were on to something much bigger than you’d thought?” Woodward’s response: “When Nixon resigned.”

The conversation, though, took a darker turn as Woodward described Nixon’s prosecution of the Vietnam War. Perhaps the most disturbing revelation in “The Last of the President’s Men” is that Nixon ordered more and more bombs to be dropped during 1972 — the year he was up for re-election — even though he secretly acknowledged it had accomplished “zilch.” The reason, Woodward said, was that polling showed the bombing campaign was popular with the American public.

“It’s close to a war crime,” Woodward said.

Equally nauseating was Nixon’s response to journalist Seymour Hersh’s revelation in 1969 that American troops had massacred civilians in the village of My Lai. Nixon ordered Butterfield to go after everyone involved in exposing it, including the soldier who blew the whistle, Life and Time magazines and a perceived enemy who Woodward said was described by Nixon as “a liberal Jew.”

The mood brightened considerably when Gergen asked Woodward how he would go about investigating the leading 2016 presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Woodward said he would talk about Trump first, and then brought down the house with this: “Can we ask the audience a question? How many people want the next president to be somebody who has no touch with reality?”

As for Clinton, Woodward turned the tables and questioned Gergen.

Woodward: “You worked with her.”

Gergen: “I did.”

Woodward: “Do you trust her?”

Gergen paused before answering: “I have found — I don’t think she — I don’t think she tells lies. I think she’s careful with the truth.”

Woodward, after the laughs had faded away: “You didn’t get to work for all these presidents for no reason.”

Notwithstanding Woodward’s enthusiasm for Jeff Bezos’ ownership of the Post, his talk was, in some respects, an elegy for the kind of journalism Woodward represents. Whether you prefer the Post or the Times, at their best they stand for a rigor that often seems to be on the wane.

For all the faults of the 1970s-era press, there was something approaching a national consensus that made it possible for a story like Watergate to keep building. These days, the media are too fragmented, with too many so-called news outlets aligned with partisan interests. Fox News chief Roger Ailes would release his flying monkeys to go after the liberal media and it would all end in a standoff.

Though Woodward’s establishment-oriented journalism is sometimes criticized, including by none other than the aforementioned Hersh, he nevertheless represents something important: the power of the press to do good through thorough, indefatigable reporting aimed at rooting out the truth rather than serving some ideological cause.

Thanks for the assist from Kylie Ayal, a third-year journalism student at Boston University, who supplied me with a copy of her audio file of the event after I managed to erase mine by mistake.

What I’ll be doing in the coming year

I thought I should say a few words about what I’m up to.

For the next year, I’ll be on sabbatical from Northeastern as I work on a book about how three business people who are passionate about newspapers are using their wealth to reinvent their papers and possibly to show the way for others. They are John Henry of The Boston Globe, Jeff Bezos of The Washington Post and Aaron Kushner of the Orange County Register. Kushner is no longer running the Register, but the print-centric orientation he took during his time at the helm has much to tell us.

My project actually became public two years ago when the Globe somehow got word. That item has proved useful in helping me to line up interviews. But only now am I embarking on the bulk of my reporting. I lost a year when I agreed to serve as interim director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism following the death of my friend and mentor Steve Burgard. Steve’s death was a difficult blow. In terms of the book, though, the delay may prove to be a good thing, as it seems to me that Henry’s and Bezos’ visions are still coming into focus.

I have a contract with University Press of New England and a year that should be (I hope) free of distractions. I’m excited to push ahead.

New York Times: We got it right on ‘culling’ the staff

As I wrote Monday, I thought the most significant part of Nick Ciubotariu’s post in defense of Amazon was his flat-out denial that the company fires a certain number of employees every year as a way of “culling” the staff. So I want to note that The New York Times is now asserting that its reporting is correct and that Ciubotariu is simply wrong:

His points contradicted the accounts of many former and current colleagues, and some of his assertions were incorrect, including a statement that the company does not cull employees on an annual basis. An Amazon spokesman previously confirmed that the company sought to manage out a certain percentage of its work force annually. The number varies from year to year.

The responses to the Times’ megastory on Amazon’s workplace environment, reported and written by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, continue to roll in. Here are a few — none of them long — that I think are worth your time.

At Fortune, Mathew Ingram argues that though the Times’ reporting may be accurate, it lacks context. “For some, it is probably a cruel place where they [employees] feel unwelcome, and their performance is judged more harshly than they would like,” Ingram writes, “but for others I expect it is a challenging environment that makes them do things they might not have even thought they were capable of.”

Ingram also makes an important point that I couldn’t help but notice as I was reading the Times opus: an underlying dismissiveness of Amazon because it’s a mere retailer (not actually true, but whatever). Ingram puts it this way:

I think part of the reason that Amazon gets singled out is that it is seen as just a retailer, not a company like Apple that is making magical products to improve people’s lives or fill them with joy. This tone runs throughout the New York Times piece, which talks about how employees are subjected to inhuman treatment “with words like ‘mission’ used to describe lightning-quick delivery of Cocoa Krispies or selfie sticks.” The implication is that selling things somehow isn’t a worthwhile goal.

Buzz Machine blogger Jeff Jarvis thinks the Times article lacks balance, and says that though it did manage to take note of the fact that Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post, more emphasis should have been placed on the Times’ rivalry with the Post.

“The Times did not say until halfway down its very long piece that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, which some say is closing in on The Times,” Jarvis writes. “The problem at a moment like this is that once one starts to believe The Times might have an agenda, one is left trying to suss out what it might be.”

Former Poynter faculty member Bill Mitchell, a colleague of mine at Northeastern, praises the Times article for its use of on-the-record sources rather than relying on anonymous whispers. “I don’t recall an anonymous source amid the 6,700 words,” he writes. Actually, there are a few, but he’s right that the story is better documented than many such stories.

Mitchell also hails the Times for its “even-handed tone,” which I find interesting mainly because of how different readers interpret the same material in different ways. I thought the Times article was overwhelmingly negative, and that the Amazon employees and officials who spoke favorably about the company were cast in the role of corporate stooges.

Anyway, much to chew over — as there should be given Amazon’s role as a paradigm of the new economy.

Making sense of The New York Times’ Amazon exposé

2789374419_035708cbfd_oBecause I’m working on a book that deals in part with how Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos is transforming The Washington Post, I read The New York Times’ account of Amazon’s brutal workplace environment with great interest.

Reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld portray a company in which high-ranking employees are regularly reduced to tears, in which everyone is encouraged to drop anonymous dimes on one another, and in which a culture of 80-hour-plus work weeks is so ingrained that nothing — not even serious health problems — must be allowed to interfere.

This story is still playing out, but I have a few preliminary observations.

First, very little in the Times story will surprise anyone who read Brad Stone’s 2013 book “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.” Stone goes into great detail about what a difficult place Amazon is to work. A key difference is that Stone, unlike Kantor and Streitfeld, is at least somewhat sympathetic to Bezos and understands that he and his team have built something truly remarkable.

Second, the Times article did not convince me that the culture of Amazon is uniquely awful. If you’ve read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, you know that the upper reaches of Apple could be pretty hellish back when Jobs was ranting and raving. Occasionally you hear stories along similar lines about other tech companies. Would you want to run afoul of Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison or Steve Ballmer?  We’re also talking here about a special kind of white-collar, highly educated hell among people who could easily leave and work elsewhere. How about working as a clerk at Wal-Mart? Or as a farm laborer in California?

Third, some of the details in the Times article are being disputed. Nick Ciubotariu, a high-ranking engineer at Amazon, has written a long response to the Times article defending his company. It’s a mixed bag that will provide fodder for Amazon’s critics and defenders alike. Some of it is mind-bending, such as this: “No one is ‘quizzed’ — the quiz is totally, 100% voluntary.” Huh?

Some of it, though, is worth pondering. Ciubotariu, a newish employee (he’s been there 18 months), writes that he has heard the Amazon culture has improved in recent years, and he accuses the Times of relying on old stories from former employees. That has some resonance, as Stone in “The Everything Store” describes Bezos’ halting efforts to curb some of his excesses.

But Ciubotariu also offers specific denials of some of the Times’ assertions, including the most toxic one of all — that a certain number of employees are fired every year as a deliberate management practice. Here’s how the Times puts it: “Losers leave or are fired in annual cullings of the staff — ‘purposeful Darwinism,’ one former Amazon human resources director said.”

Here’s Ciubotariu: “There is no ‘culling of the staff’ annually. That’s just not true. No one would be here if that actually took place and it was a thing.”

At Re/code, Peter Kafka reports that Bezos himself has responded in a memo to his employees, urging them to read both the Times story and Ciubotariu’s response. Bezos writes in part:

The [Times] article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either.

I am sure that we haven’t heard the last word.

Photo (cc) by Luke Dorny and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Why newspaper apps still matter

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The Washington Post’s new iOS app.

Remember when the iPad was going to save the news business? How did that work out? But if the redemptive qualities of tablets turned out to be overblown, they are nevertheless a compelling platform for consuming all kinds of text and multimedia material, including news.

This morning I spent way too much time with The Washington Post’s new iOS app, which is detailed at the Nieman Journalism lab by Shan Wang. It is beautiful, with large pictures and highly readable type. I was already a fan of what the Post is now calling “Washington Post Classic.” But this is better.

So do I have a complaint? Of course. The Classic app is more complete; it includes local news (no, I have no connection to the Washington area, but it’s nice to be able to look in on occasion), whereas the new app is aimed at “national, international audiences.”

And both apps rely more on viral content than the print edition, a sluggish version of which is included in Classic.

Quibbles aside, this is a great step forward, and evidence of the breakthroughs that are possible with technology billionaire Jeff Bezos in charge. In fact, the new app is a version of one that was released last fall for the Amazon Fire. So it’s also heartening to see that Bezos isn’t leveraging his ownership of the Post entirely to Amazon’s advantage.

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The Boston Globe’s new app.

Another paper with a billionaire owner has taken a different approach. Several months ago John Henry’s Boston Globe mothballed its iOS replica edition — that is, an edition based on images of the print paper — and replaced it with an app that is still print-centric but faster and easier to use. It was developed by miLibris, a French company.

The first few iterations were buggy, but it’s gotten better. In general, I’m not a fan of looking at the print edition on a screen. But I find that the Globe’s website is slow enough on my aging iPad that I often turn to the app just so I can zoom through the paper more quickly, even if I’m missing out on video and other Web extras.

One big bug that still needs to be squashed: When you try to tweet a story, the app generates a link that goes not to the story but, rather, to the Apple Store so that you can download the app. Which, of course, you already have.

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The Boston Herald’s app.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Boston Herald has a pretty nice iOS app, developed by DoApp of Minneapolis. It’s based on tiles, so it’s fast and simple to use. It’s so superior to the Herald’s creaky website that I wish there were a Web version.

Do apps for individual news organizations even matter? We are, after all, entering the age of Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles.

My provisional answer is that the news organizations should both experiment with and push back against the drive toward distributed content. It’s fine for news executives to cut deals with the likes of Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg. But it would be a huge mistake if, in the process, they let their own platforms wither.

Also published at WGBH News.

Der Spiegel weighs in on Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post

The German news magazine Der Spiegel, of all places, has a long, intriguing story on the growth of The Washington Post under Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. More than a year after the sale, the magazine reports, “Bezos’s motives remain a mystery to those at the Post.” But he’s spending money, morale seems to be soaring and a once-shrinking institution is on the rebound.

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.