Globe editor McGrory: It’s time to rethink everything we do

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Brian McGrory. Photo (cc) by the Newton Free Library.

A copy of Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory’s latest newsroom memo just wafted through an open window here at Media Nation. And it’s a doozy—an invitation to rethink how the Globe newsroom does just about everything, from the way beats are structured, to how many days the paper should appear in print, to how best to use technology.

“To help shape the discussion,” McGrory writes, “consider this question: If a wealthy individual was to give us funding to launch a news organization designed to take on The Boston Globe, what would it look like?” Needless to say, the Globe itself is already owned by a wealthy individual—John Henry, a financier who is the principal owner of the Red Sox.

Last fall I asked McGrory if the redesigned, thinner Saturday print edition was a prelude to cutting back on the number of print days. At that time he said no, but added, “We’re constantly thinking and rethinking this stuff.” Many newspaper industry observers believe it’s inevitable that daily papers will eventually move to a weekend print edition—where most of the advertising appears—supplemented by digital the rest of the week.

The conversation is being facilitated by three outside consultants, Tom Rosenstiel and Jeff Sonderman of the American Press Institute and Marty Kaiser, the former editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

So let’s get right to it:

Hey all,

It’s time to bring everyone up to date on a series of conversations I’ve initiated among senior editors over the past couple of months, conversations intended to lay the groundwork for a no-sacred-cows analysis of our newsroom and what the Globe should look like in the future. It’s also time to get the room fully involved in the process.

You know it as I know it: The Globe, like every other major legacy news organization, has faced what have proven to be irreversible revenue declines. The revenue funds our journalism. The declines have mandated significant cuts over the past dozen years.

There’s far too much good that goes on at this organization on a moment-by-moment basis to allow ourselves to be consumed by what’s wrong with the industry. But we can’t ignore hard realities, either, or simply wish them away. My own strong preference is to somehow shed the annual reduction exercise that seems increasingly inevitable here and everywhere. So I’ve asked senior editors to think about how we, at the very least, might get ahead of the declines, and in the best case, work to slow or even halt them. To help shape the discussion, consider this question: If a wealthy individual was to give us funding to launch a news organization designed to take on The Boston Globe, what would it look like?

There are important issues to raise and explore in what I’ll call a reinvention initiative: Do we have the right technology? Do we train staff in the right way? Should we remain in the current print format that we have now, same size, same sections? Do we have the right departments? Is our beat structure outdated? How can our work flows improve? Do we have too many of XX and not enough Ys? Should we publish seven days a week? Do print and digital relate in the right ways?

The questions could go on and on. They could become bolder still.

Easy answers, as you well know, are elusive. The good news is that we’ve got an absurdly smart, dedicated collection of journalists, many of the best in the nation, that has embraced profound and meaningful change over the years, always while maintaining our values. We’ve built two of the most successful websites in the industry, first boston.com, and now bostonglobe.com. The latter site is not only thriving, but growing rapidly, up more than 15 percent in uniques and page views this year over last, and leading the league in digital-only subscribers—the most important metric. We successfully overhauled key parts of the site last year. We’re about to launch a major sports redesign this spring, all while we confidently spread our wings with a broader array of stories and topics geared first to our web audience.

At the same time, we haven’t just maintained print, but enhanced it over the past few years, with a great new standalone business section through the week, a Sunday Arts section that showcases some of the best critics in the industry, Address, premium magazines, broadsheet feature sections. I’m missing things, I’m sure. We saw quite clearly in January just how much the physical paper means to an enormous swath of our readership.

The journalism, through it all, has been consistently exceptional. We drove the Olympics debate. We launched a national debate on concurrent surgery. We’ve been one of the smartest, freshest voices on the national political scene. We’ve chronicled poverty in rural Maine and economic segregation in greater Boston in deeply memorable ways. Day in, day out, we are one of the most thoughtful metropolitan news organizations in the land.

All of which is to say: We’re very good at change. We’re committed to high standards. We are well-positioned to go even further.

So I’ll frame the discussion one more way: Is it possible to build something bold rather than shrink what we have?

It’s perfectly reasonable to ask whether this reinvention initiative is an excuse for more cutting. The glib answer is that we don’t really need an excuse to cut. The revenue declines require it. The more involved answer is that even without declining revenue, we should still be exploring reinvention, given the massive advances in technology and massive changes in reader habits. And even without a reinvention initiative, we’d still have to cut. So the honest answer is that a reinvention would naturally take into account the realities of declining revenues.

I’ve sought some outside counsel to help facilitate the process, people who have thought long and hard about these issues and are deeply knowledgeable about what’s been tried at other news organizations and how it’s worked. Tom Rosenstiel and Jeff Sonderman, the executive director and deputy director respectively of the American Press Institute, plan to be in the newsroom on Friday—tomorrow—to meet in small groups with some staff. They’ll be joined by Marty Kaiser, the highly respected former editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who has worked with Tom on these exact issues. After Tom, Jeff, and Marty get an initial sense of our newsroom, we’ll discuss a path forward and how they might help. The key is to create a process that involves as many people as possible, at all levels, tapping into the wealth of creativity that is this newsroom’s trademark.

This is a significant and important undertaking. It’s also an exciting one. We’re in a moment in this industry and at this organization that requires us to be bold (have I used that word enough yet?) and imaginative, always in our journalism, but also in determining how we best fulfill our civic responsibilities. There’s not the tiniest bit of doubt that we’re up to the challenge.

I’ll be reaching out to some of you about meeting with Tom, Jeff, and Marty tomorrow, and then I’ll report back soon in a series of Winship Room gatherings about the road ahead. We’re committed to a process in which everyone can effectively share their thoughts, ideas, and concerns. In the meantime, feel more than free to reach out to me directly.

Brian