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.”

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The Globe drags its opinion pages into the 21st century

Of all the hoary traditions of 20th-century newspapering, few seem quite so hoary as the editorial and op-ed pages. Mixing editorials (unsigned because they represent the institutional views of the newspaper), cartoons, columns by staff members and outside contributors, and letters from readers, the opinion pages often seem anachronistic in the digital age — a bit too formal, more than a bit too predictable and way too slow off the mark.

Starting today, The Boston Globe is attempting to bring that nearly half-century-old construct up to date. No longer is the left-hand page labeled “Editorial” and the right “Opinion.” Instead, both pages are unified under “Opinion.” Content — some of it new, some familiar — is free-floating.

Much of it is what you’d expect: a pro-Olympics editorial (sigh) as well as staff columns by Joan Vennochi and Dante Ramos. Some is new: a roundup of opinion from elsewhere called “What They’re Saying,” a very short take by staff columnist Joanna Weiss on a much-delayed skate park, and an amalgamation of letters, tweets and online comments rebranded as “Inbox.” (The changes are outlined here.)

“You could look at this as a meal where you want snackable content and meatier content and the occasional dessert,” says interim editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg. Some of the ideas, she adds, were developed by experimenting with the opinion content of Capital, the Globe’s Friday political section.

Globe Opinion pages

Regular columns have been cut from 700 to 600 words. But op-ed-page editor Marjorie Pritchard says that the new Opinion section will also be more flexible, with pieces running from 400 to 1,200 or more words. (Coincidentally, this article in Digiday, in which Kevin Delaney of Quartz calls for the demise of the standard 800-word article, is the talk of Twitter this week.)

The Globe’s opinion operation has been on a roll under Clegg and her predecessor, Peter Canellos (now executive editor of Politico), with Kathleen Kingsbury winning a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing last month and Ramos being named a finalist in 2014. But the look and feel of the pages haven’t changed much since the 1970s.

And then there’s the whole matter of print in the digital age. Globe editor Brian McGrory recently told his staff that a print-first mentality still prevails, writing that “too many of us — editors, reporters, photographers, graphic artists — think of just print too often.”

McGrory does not run the opinion pages, as both he and Clegg report directly to publisher John Henry. But the redesigned print section, with its careful attention to art and graphics, has the look and feel of a print-first play. In fact, Clegg is pursuing a two-track strategy — an improved but tightly curated print section and a larger online Opinion site. “Brian as usual captured it beautifully,” Clegg says. “I think that captured the ethos of where we’re all going, where we’re all headed.”

For some time now Clegg herself has been writing an online-only “Morning Opinion Digest” with summaries and links to provocative content elsewhere. Opinion pieces often run online before they appear in print. And some pieces are Web exclusives, such as this commentary by editorial writer Marcela García on the cultural stereotypes surrounding Cinco de Mayo.

Says Pritchard: “We’ve run a lot of online exclusives in the past, and we’re trying to beef that up.” Clegg adds that “we certainly don’t want to shortchange the print reader, but we want to enhance the digital experience. There has to be a balance.”

It was a half-century ago that The New York Times developed the modern op-ed page. Times editorial board member John Oakes, the Ochs-Sulzberger family member who was largely responsible for the idea, once called it “one of the great newspaper innovations of the century,” according to this Jack Shafer piece.

By contrast, the Globe’s new Opinion section should be seen as a modest improvement. But at a time when newspapers, both in print and online, are fighting to maintain their relevance, the Globe deserves credit for trying something new.

Also posted at WGBHNews.org.

The Globe’s opinion pages beef up

Joshua Green

A year ago, the biggest question at the Boston Globe was whether the New York Times Co. was serious about shutting it down if it couldn’t squeeze out $20 million in union concessions.

These days, the story is considerably more pleasant. Though no one thinks the Globe is entirely out of the woods (there is, after all, a revolution under way), the paper keeps expanding in modest but useful ways.

The latest initiative is coming tomorrow: a weekly column on the op-ed page by the Atlantic’s fine political writer, Joshua Green, who, according to Globe editorial-page editor Peter Canellos, will offer a Washington perspective from a non-ideological perspective.

“He’s a pure reporter and analyst,” Canellos says. “And I think that for somebody looking at the changing landscape of Washington these days, this is a happy meeting of a writer and subject, because it’s a fascinating time.”

This coming Sunday will mark a significant expansion of the opinion pages. For years, the Globe has published a third opinion page, reserved for letters, every other week. Now the paper will publish three and four pages on an alternating schedule.

Newish op-ed columnists Joanna Weiss and Lawrence Harmon will join standbys Joan Vennochi and Jeff Jacoby. Harmon, the Globe’s chief editorial writer on city issues, will continue to write his column once a week. Weiss will now write twice weekly, picking up Harmon’s Tuesday slot.

On weeks when there are four opinion pages, Canellos says, the extra space will be used for features such as “visual op-eds” by cartoonist Dan Wasserman and longer essays by columnist James Carroll and other writers.

Finally, Canellos says that a somewhat nebulous new online feature called “The Angle” will be beefed up with some definition and some original content as the result of a new partnership with “Radio Boston,” which WBUR (90.9 FM) is expanding from a weekly to a daily program next week.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Joanna Weiss on her new Globe post

Ralph Ranalli of Beat the Press has an interview with Boston Globe feature writer Joanna Weiss on her impending move to the editorial and op-ed pages. Weiss tells Ranalli:

I’ll still be writing about pop culture, but from a different direction. I think it’s exciting; it’s a different kind of forum. And I’ll reach a different kind of reader that didn’t necessarily read my TV coverage.

As for Weiss’ expectation that she’ll get some pushback from readers who’d prefer a traditional op-ed-page columnist, I have some advice: Don’t worry. There aren’t that many of them. And, at this point, they’re all 70 and older.

Pop go the Globe’s opinion pages

Peter Canellos
Peter Canellos

In an apparent attempt to infuse the Boston Globe’s opinion pages with a pop-culture sensibility, editorial-page editor Peter Canellos has announced that feature writer Joanna Weiss will be moving to the editorial board and writing a weekly column for the op-ed page.

Canellos also announced that editorial-board member Larry Harmon will begin writing a weekly column as well.

The full text of Canellos’ e-mail to the staff follows.

Folks,

I’m pleased to announce that Joanna Weiss, whose Globe career has spanned political writing, popular culture, and TV criticism, will be joining the editorial-page staff on November 16. She will be a regular member of the paper’s editorial board and write a weekly op-ed column. A close observer of social trends and culture, and a bright, empathetic writer, Joanna will provide a vibrant new voice on our op-ed page, and an important new perspective on our daily editorials.

Joanna joined the Globe in 1999 from the Times-Picayune of New Orleans. She grew up in Maryland and is a graduate of Harvard University.

I’m also pleased to be able to add a weekly op-ed column by one of the longtime stars of our editorial board, Larry Harmon. He will remain a regular member of the board while bringing a new voice to the op-ed page. A lifelong Bostonian and graduate of Boston Latin School and Boston University, Larry joined the editorial board in 1992. He is the co-author of “Death of an American Jewish Community,” the definitive account of the block-busting and red-lining of Mattapan in the ’60s and ’70s. Larry knows Boston from the street level, and will bring a neighborhood perspective to our op-ed page.

As the months go by, Marjorie Pritchard, Dante Ramos and I will continue to look for new voices to add to our op-ed pages, in print and online, to ensure the broadest and most provocative range of opinions.

Please join me in congratulating Joanna and Larry,

Peter