The Globe’s Rhode Island initiative may be expanded across New England

The Boston Globe’s Rhode Island section could be a model for other verticals devoted to different regions in New England. That’s the main takeaway from this week’s edition of “E&P Reports,” a vodcast produced by the trade publication Editor & Publisher.

The vodcast, hosted by E&P publisher Mike Blinder, featured the Globe’s Rhode Island editor (and my “Beat the Press” crony), Lylah Alphonse; Rhode Island reporter Dan McGowan; and Michelle Micone, the Globe’s vice president for innovation and strategic initiatives.

It was Micone who talked about expanding the Globe’s coverage to other regions. She specifically mentioned New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont but not Connecticut, which was either inadvertent or, more likely, a nod to the Nutmeg State’s very different media and cultural environment. I mean, my God, they root for the Yankees down there.

Alphonse and McGowan were careful not to criticize The Providence Journal, but let’s face it — the Globe’s Rhode Island project was begun in response to Gannett’s evisceration of that once great paper. Blinder said that the Journal’s full-time staff is down to about 14. [Note: The actual number is about 30.] Alphonse told me that Globe Rhode Island now has eight full-time journalists. Of course, the folks who remain at the Journal are doing good work under trying conditions, and Alphonse and McGowan were smart to acknowledge that.

One statistic that really hit me was that McGowan’s daily newsletter, “Rhode Map,” is sent to 80,000 recipients each morning, with an open rate of about 30%. By contrast, the Journal’s combined paid print and digital circulation on weekdays, according to data the paper filed with the Alliance for Audited Media, is a little under 31,000. (About 24,000 of that is print, showing that Gannett’s push on digital subscriptions has a long way to go.)

I also want to highlight the news that staff reporter Alexa Gagosz, one of our great master’s degree alums at Northeastern, is heading up expanded food and dining coverage in Rhode Island, including a weekly newsletter.

Now, to get back to possible expansion in other regions: Rhode Island was an opportunity that may not be entirely replicable elsewhere, thanks not only to the ProJo’s shrinkage but to the state’s unique identity. The state has a range of media options, including good-quality public radio, television newscasts and independent community news outlets. But the ProJo’s decline gave the Globe a chance to slide in and quickly establish itself as one of the players.

Where else does opportunity that exist? Worcester and Central Massachusetts strike me as in serious need of more journalism. The Globe memorably walked away from the region when then-new owner John Henry sold the Telegram & Gazette to a Florida-based chain after leading the staff to believe he was committed to selling to local interests. Soon enough, the T&G became part of Gannett, and it was subjected to the same devastating cuts that the chain has imposed throughout the country. The T&G carried on but is currently in flux, having lost its respected executive editor, Dave Nordman, to Northeastern, where he’s heading up the internal news operation. Could the Henrys return to Worcester? I’ve heard that might be within the range of possibilities.

But where else? New Hampshire and Maine both have good-quality independent newspapers, though New Hampshire’s two leading papers — the Union Leader and the Concord Monitor — have shrunk quite a bit. Vermont is unique, dominated by one of the most respected nonprofit news organizations in the country, VTDigger.

Then there’s the distribution model, which, if they were asking me (they’re not), is too reliant on print. Quite a bit of the Globe’s Rhode Island coverage appears in the Globe’s print edition. But rather than take on the cost of trucking more papers to Rhode Island, why not use digital to expand your reach and drive more digital subscriptions? What the Globe is doing with Rhode Island and print simply wouldn’t work if the paper established bureaus in Central Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.

The Globe is one of the few major metropolitan dailies in the country that is growing. What it’s doing in Rhode Island is impressive, and I’d love to see it happen elsewhere.

Correction: After this item was published, I learned that the Journal’s full-time newsroom staff is actually around 30 people, supplemented by freelancers.

BoMag and the Globe offer dueling theories about who shot David Ortiz

David Ortiz celebrates the first of his three championships with the Red Sox. Photo (cc) 2013 by Colin Steele.

Boston magazine and The Boston Globe published dueling stories over the weekend that recount the 2019 shooting of Red Sox legend David Ortiz.

The Boston magazine story, by Mike Damiano, appears to have been many weeks, if not months, in the making — it’s a rich, deeply reported story about Ortiz’s life in the Dominican Republic and his complicated family situation. The Globe article, by Bob Hohler, may have been assigned (or least put on the fast track) in reaction to  BoMag. It’s a newsy account of that attempts to get to the bottom of who ordered Ortiz’s shooting, and why.

By all means, read both. But by far the most interesting detail is the dueling theories about the role of a major drug trafficker, César Peralta, known as “The Abuser.” According to the Globe’s account, former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis, who was hired by Ortiz to investigate the shooting, Peralta is in fact the guy who ordered the hit. Hohler writes:

Davis, disclosing his findings for the first time, said the powerful and politically connected drug lord César “The Abuser” Peralta came to feel disrespected by Ortiz, prompting him to place a bounty on Ortiz’s head and sanction the ragtag hit squad that tried to kill him.

“Peralta said he had David shot,” Davis said in an interview, citing information that he said US law enforcement officials gathered and shared with him.

The BoMag story, on the other hand, all but rules out Peralta as having any role. Here’s what Damiano has to say:

As I, too, tried to get to the bottom of what caused the shooting, I found that the closer I got to people with genuine knowledge of the Santo Domingo underworld, the more skepticism I heard about the love-triangle theory and any possibility of Peralta’s involvement. One man I spoke with who knows many of the men in Peralta’s circle, as well as some of the men accused of involvement in the shooting, said that the theory was bunk. No part of it added up, he said, and hardly anyone in his neighborhood — Herrera, a hot bed of Dominican drug trafficking — believed it.

The two accounts also raise some questions about access. The Globe’s owner and publisher, John Henry, is also the principal owner of the Red Sox. Davis is a security consultant for the Globe. It does not appear that Davis shared his theory about Peralta with BoMag.

Both stories dismiss the widely mocked theory put forth by Dominican authorities that Ortiz was the victim of mistaken identity.

The conclusion I took away from Damiano’s and Hohler’s reporting was that we may never know who ordered the hit on Ortiz. I’m just glad he’s still with us.

Footnote: I’m told that Damiano has been hired by the Globe.

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The Boston Globe marks 150 years as a growing and profitable news organization

There’s a bit of news in Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory’s message marking the paper’s 150th anniversary today: he writes that the Globe now has “about 250 staffers in its newsroom and on the editorial pages.”

That’s up significantly from a few years ago. In 2018, the Globe had a full-time staff of about 220 journalists, which means that the size of the newsroom has increased by nearly 14% over the past four years. Regular readers know that the paper has been boosting its coverage of climate change and technology, among other topics.

McGrory and owners John and Linda Henry deserve to take a bow for the Globe’s renaissance in recent years. After buying the paper from the New York Times Co. in 2013, the Henrys compiled an uneven record in rebuilding the Globe as a sustainable business. When I checked in with John Henry in mid-2018, the paper was still losing money and had fallen short of its goal of selling 100,000 digital subscriptions. Henry was forced to declare that he had no plans to sell.

Six months later, Henry said the Globe had finally become profitable. Today the paper has some 235,000 paid digital subscribers, making it a leader among large regional newspapers, and has far more reporting capacity than most of its peer news organizations, many of which are owned by cost-obsessed hedge funds.

I’ve been a Globe reader for nearly 50 years. It’s a very different institution compared to the pre-internet glory days, when it covered national and international news with its own reporters and had a staff — at its 2000 peak — of about 550 full-timers.

Yet it remains one of the best, most deeply staffed papers in the country. It’s also evidence that committed, deep-pockets local ownership can be the difference between a thriving journalistic enterprise and a decimated newspaper hanging on for survival.

How The Boston Globe could help offset the local news vacuum

Could The Boston Globe, profitable and growing, help make up for the local news vacuum in Eastern Massachusetts? The shortage of reliable community journalism became much more acute last week when Gannett told reporters at most of its weekly papers that they would be reassigned to regional beats or to one of the chain’s dailies.

The Globe could conceivably step in by reviving an idea that was perhaps before its time. Under New York Times Co. ownership, the Globe published web pages known as YourTown, one for each suburban community as well as a few of Boston’s neighborhoods. They relied heavily on aggregation — too heavily, as the Times Co. found out in court — and they competed with papers owned by GateHouse Media (now Gannett) that weren’t nearly as hollowed-out as they are today. What’s more, YourTown was part of the Globe’s free Boston.com site (this was before BostonGlobe.com), and the hyperlocal advertising that was supposed to support YourTown never materialized. John Henry shut down YourTown not long after he bought the Globe in 2013.

So what would a revived YourTown look like? Advertising isn’t nearly as important as it used to be, but the Globe has been successful in selling paid digital subscriptions. So imagine a YourTown with one full-time reporter in each community. If the Globe signed up 500 new subscribers in a community, that could bring in as much as $120,000 a year. I’m basing that on an average subscription costing $20 a month (the full cost is $30, but many people would be paying discounts).

No doubt this would work better in some places than in others. I live in Medford, a city of about 58,000 residents that, as of now, doesn’t have a single full-time reporter covering the community. Selling an extra 500 subscriptions — or more — ought to be doable.

But right next door, in Arlington (population: 43,000), there’s a good-quality nonprofit news website, Your Arlington, which would make a Globe-branded YourTown less attractive. Or consider a small town like Bedford — not only are there just 13,000 residents, but it’s the home of a well-established nonprofit news site, The Bedford Citizen.

Still, I think a revived YourTown would work well enough in a few communities that it’s worth trying. I doubt it would be a money-maker for the Globe, but it might be a break-even proposition. And the paper would be filling a real need.

Bina Venkataraman to step down as the Globe’s editorial page editor

Bina Venkataraman. Photo (cc) 2019 by TED Conference.

Less that two weeks after sending out a memo to her staff looking ahead to the new year, Boston Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman has announced that she’s leaving. She posted a thread on Twitter within the past hour that begins:

Her departure isn’t entirely unexpected, as she took a leave of absence during the fall in the midst of the Boston mayoral campaign. Nevertheless, it’s stunning that her tenure lasted such a short time. It’s also at least a temporary setback for the Globe’s efforts to diversify; having a woman of color as one of the top two journalists (along with editor Brian McGrory) reporting to Linda and John Henry sent a powerful signal.

Venkataraman isn’t leaving completely. She’ll remain as an editor-at-large, which she says will involve writing for the Globe and advising The Emancipator, a racial justice digital publication that the paper is launching in collaboration with Boston University.

Unlike the news side, where McGrory has been a fixture since 2012 (he actually helped recruit Henry to buy the Globe from the New York Times Co.), the opinion side has been in flux for a long time. Ellen Clegg replaced Peter Canellos as editorial page editor in 2014, less than a year after Henry completed his purchase. Clegg served until her retirement in 2018, followed by business columnist Shirley Leung on an interim basis. Venkataraman arrived in 2019. (Clegg and I are now research and podcast partners.)

Venkataraman was an unconventional hire — a science journalist and author who didn’t come from the politics and policy side where most opinion editors cut their teeth. It will be interesting to see what direction the Globe heads in next.

What might John Henry’s track record mean for the Pittsburgh Penguins?

You may have heard that John Henry and his Fenway Sports Group are looking to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL. I spoke with Christopher Ayers of WESA Radio in Pittsburgh what Henry’s leadership style at the Red Sox and The Boston Globe might mean for the Penguins.

Alden’s latest move may be the final act in Warren Buffett’s newspaper misadventure

Warren Buffett. Photo (cc) 2011 by Fortune Live Media.

The final act is about to be consummated in Warren Buffett’s disappointing dalliance with the newspaper business. Despite the legendary investor’s self-professed love for newspapers, he ran the newspapers he acquired starting in 2012 as a hopeless cause rather than investing in them as his fellow billionaires Jeff Bezos did with The Washington Post and John Henry did with The Boston Globe.

Buffett eventually sold his papers — including his hometown Omaha World-Herald — to Lee Enterprises. And on Monday we learned that the predatory hedge fund Alden Global Capital is now attempting to purchase Lee’s 90 daily newspapers, which are located in 26 states. The death watch has begun.

I wrote about Buffett’s track record as a newspaper owner in my book “The Return of the Moguls.” Here’s an excerpt.

***

When Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway investment company purchased 63 newspapers from the Media General chain in 2012 for $142 million, the news was greeted with the hope that the legendary octogenarian might be just the person to show the way forward. Buffett bolstered his new holdings by extending loans to those papers totaling $445 million. It was a generous gesture with which Aaron Kushner and his investors, who also wanted the papers, could not compete. A year earlier Buffett had bought his hometown paper, the Omaha World-Herald, along with six other papers for $200 million. He already owned The Buffalo News. And in those pre-Bezos days, he held a substantial number of shares in The Washington Post Co. “Does Warren E. Buffett want to be a media mogul?” asked The New York Times.

Certainly Buffett had the right pedigree. Not only was he a brilliant financial thinker, but he had long loved newspapers and had been a close adviser to the Graham family at The Washington Post for many years. He even had a hand in winning a Pulitzer Prize: in 1973, when he was the owner of the Omaha Sun, he helped his reporters investigate a local charity by finding documents, providing financial analysis, and even assisting with the writing. Katharine Graham praised Buffett fulsomely in her autobiography, saying that he became a trusted confidant after he invested in the Washington Post Co. “By the spring of 1974,” she wrote, “Warren was sending me a constant flow of helpful memos with advice, and occasionally alerting me to problems of which I was unaware.”

Yet Buffett, astute financier that he is, expressed skepticism about prospects for the newspaper business after it entered its long decline. In 2009, for instance, he said he had no interest in purchasing papers, because their financial outlook was so grim. “For most newspapers in the United States, we would not buy them at any price,” he said. “They have the possibility of going to just unending losses.” And though he later reversed himself, his acquisition strategy gravitated toward papers of the type that still do reasonably well: those in medium-sized markets where the local paper is the principal source of regional and community news and where competition from the internet is less a factor than it is in large cities. Buffett’s papers carry little debt and are profitable. In the spring of 2016, though, he admitted that the picture was continuing to darken for the newspaper business and that he was no closer to finding a way out than anyone else.

“We haven’t cracked the code yet,” he told USA Today. “Circulation continues to decline at a significant pace, advertising at an even faster pace. The easy cutting has taken place. There’s no indication that anyone besides the national papers has found a way.” He added that even though all of his papers were making money (at that time he was up to 32 dailies and 47 weeklies), that might not be the case in future years. “If you have a problem in five years, you have a problem now,” he said. Buffett doubled down on those remarks in early 2017, telling CNBC that The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and possibly The Washington Post were the only newspapers he believed had an “assured future,” explaining, “They have developed an online presence that people will pay for.”

Less than two months later, the hammer came down at BH Media, the company Buffett had set up to manage his newspapers. BH Media announced the termination of 289 positions throughout the chain, including the elimination of 108 vacant jobs. The BH Media president and chief executive officer, Terry Kroeger, told the Omaha World-Herald that Buffett had been informed of the reductions but that “his opinion was not sought or offered,” in keeping with Buffett’s hands-off investment philosophy. Kroeger blamed the papers’ declining revenue on changes in retail advertising, and especially on the move to online shopping — an irony given how the most successful of the new breed of newspaper owners, Jeff Bezos, made his money. Buffett’s World-Herald did not suffer any cuts at that time. But then, in May, BH Media reduced the size of the Omaha paper and eliminated three jobs, according to a memo to the staff from the executive editor, Melissa Matczak.

For a self-confessed newspaper fan whose net worth was roughly the same as that of Bezos (more than $60 billion apiece in mid-2016), Buffett’s role in helping to figure out the future of journalism might be considered disappointingly modest. Perhaps it would be too much to expect someone in his mid-80s to dedicate himself to figuring out the future of the newspapers he had acquired. But he was ideally positioned to bring in the sorts of minds who might apply themselves to the task of saving smaller papers in much the same way that Bezos and Henry were attempting to reinvent their much larger properties. Surely Buffett understands as much as anyone that readers and advertisers will put up with an ever-diminishing paper for only so long before an irreversible downward spiral sets in.

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Guild approves contract with Boston Globe Media, ending nearly three years of strife

After nearly three years of increasingly fraught negotiations, the Boston Newspaper Guild and Boston Globe Media Partners have finally reached agreement on a new three-year contract. The Guild is the union that represents newsroom employees at the Globe as well as several other departments. Staff members at Boston.com and Stat News are included as well.

Don Seiffert has the details in the Boston Business Journal, reporting that about 85% of Guild members approved the contract proposal, which calls for raises, a signing bonus, a new parental-leave policy, the continuation of overtime pay and unspecified protections against outsourcing.

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The Globe has been growing in recent years, as its paid digital subscription drive has led to profitability (at least before the pandemic) and new hires. William Turville wrote in the U.K.-based Press Gazette last week that digital-only subscribers have settled in at about 225,000, as the paper has retained most of those who signed up at a big discount during the height of COVID-19.

Still, there are warning signs for owners John and Linda Henry, as Seiffert notes. The contract talks grew increasingly contentious over time. In September, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey pulled out of a Globe-sponsored event in order to show their support for the union.

“There’s definitely a sour taste lingering in our mouths,” an anonymous union member told Seiffert. “I doubt any of us will trust our owners as much as we once did.”

Such feelings are understandable but can be overcome with time. The best way to do that is to put out a great newspaper.

Here’s a statement from management, as reported by the Globe:

A Globe spokesperson said the contract “provides strong protections and economic benefits for Guild members and we will immediately start working together on its implementation.”

“The Globe remains committed to journalistic excellence and a relentless focus on providing the best possible service to our region,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We will continue to invest and innovate in order to ensure that the local, independent journalism that our community has relied on for nearly 150 years will thrive and be sustainable for many years to come.”

And here’s a statement from the Guild, provided Friday night by a trusted source:

Dear Guild members,

Following the tabulation of today’s vote, we are pleased to announce that Guild membership has voted to ratify the three-year tentative contract agreement between the Boston Newspaper Guild and Boston Globe Media Partners.

Together, the two parties have reached an agreement that will benefit the approximately 300 members of the Guild while also providing the company some of the operational flexibility it desired to chart a path for the company’s future success.

As soon as the contract is officially ratified by both parties, which will happen in short order, Guild members will receive a $1,000 signing bonus and a 3 percent raise on their base salary. At the start of year two and year three of this agreement, members will receive 2 percent raises. After nearly three years of difficult negotiations, it is nice to know that our members will have some extra money coming in during the holidays.

Additionally, this agreement will help codify crucial employee rights that were at risk during many stages of these negotiations. All employees will be protected by the Guild’s powers of grievance and arbitration in matters of discipline, termination, and any attempt by the Globe to create new company policies. The Guild also ensured that strong fences have been put around the company’s ability to subcontract work to outside providers, a crucial compromise that protects the integrity of our newsroom. This agreement also retains the successors and assigns clause from our prior CBA, which means that the vast majority of Guild members will enjoy all of the rights afforded by this contract in the event that the Globe comes under new ownership.

This contract would not have been possible without the time and effort of so many of you who chose to fully engage, show up, and do the hard work required, despite the demands of your own busy lives. Through your words and actions over the last three years, we have reached an agreement that stands in stark contrast to the one we were first offered back in 2018. Over the next three years, we hope that every member will continue to stay involved and be vocal about policies you believe will create a better, stronger Boston Globe.

In solidarity,

The BNG Negotiation Team

Scott Steeves
Jenna Russell
Kevin Slane

Details emerge on Globe contract

Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal has some details on the proposed contract settlement between the Boston Newspaper Guild and Boston Globe management, news that I broke here on Friday afternoon. This is a huge step forward for the Globe, as three years of talks had become increasingly contentious.

As Seiffert notes, the two big takeaways are that management won on seniority and the union won on a clause that keeps the contract in effect in case the owners, John and Linda Henry, sell — although I think he’s on target in observing that management “may have used the threat of taking away that provision mostly in order to obtain other concessions from the union.”

The growing Boston Globe’s biggest obstacle is ongoing labor strife

The Boston Globe keeps growing, announcing on Thursday that it’s adding a new section and newsletter on technology — an expansion made possible by two recent hires. It’s hard to think of a large regional paper other that the Globe that is actually building up rather than trying to stave off another round of cuts.

Yet labor strife at New England’s largest news organization seems to be getting worse. The Boston Newspaper Guild has targeted Globe Summit 2021 as a public relations opportunity in its nearly three-year-old quest for a new contract. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey have pulled out of the event in solidarity with the union, according to a Guild press release.

It takes two sides to come to an agreement, and I know that management has its issues with the way the Guild has conducted negotiations — just as the Guild has issues with what it describes as hardball tactics and unreasonable demands.

But it’s way past time for Globe owners John and Linda Henry to figure out a way to wrap this up to everyone’s satisfaction. There are just too many other good things happening for them to continue to let this drag the paper down.