The Boston Globe makes an unconventional hire to run its opinion pages

Bina Venkataraman (via LinkedIn)

The Boston Globe’s next editorial-page editor, Bina Venkataraman, is an unconventional hire for some interesting reasons. She’s young (39), a person of color, an outsider (notwithstanding a brief stint at the Globe some years ago), an academic associated with MIT and Harvard, and a woman (as were her two predecessors, though it’s still unusual enough to be worth noting).

More than anything, though, her intellectual orientation is very different from the politics-and-powerbrokers style that is typical of editorial-page editors generally. She’s a science journalist who’s worked for The New York Times. She was also a senior adviser for climate-change innovation in the Obama administration and is the author of a new book, “The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age.”

This is an enormously important hire. The editorial-page editor, like editor Brian McGrory, reports directly to publisher John Henry and managing director Linda Henry. I’d be very surprised if Linda Henry, in particular, was not a driving force in bringing Venkataraman back to the Globe.

Opinion journalism is everywhere these days, though much of it can’t really be considered journalism. In an interview with the Globe, Venkataraman showed that she gets it, saying, “There are a lot of opinions in our media environment right now, and a lot of people are able to offer their opinions, so it raises the bar for what we produce.”

Venkataraman’s predecessor, Ellen Clegg, who retired a little more than a year ago (disclosure: we are research partners on a project we’re not ready to announce), oversaw a vibrant redesign of the print pages, innovative and controversial projects on gun violence and a fake front page about a possible Trump presidency, and the expansion of digital-only content. After Clegg left, business columnist Shirley Leung filled in for a few months as interim editorial-page editor but didn’t really have time to leave her mark.

I would expect to see Venkataraman lead the Globe opinion pages in a more science-based direction, especially with regard to solutions-oriented journalism about climate change. I’d also like to see further expansion of digital-only content — two print pages with lots of white space really isn’t enough.

One big question is the future of the Ideas section, which will be part of Venkataraman’s portfolio. Earlier this year a sharp-eyed observer found a job ad suggesting that the Globe was going to morph it into more of a traditional Sunday week-in-review section — perhaps similar to the old Focus section that Ideas replaced, though it would need considerable updating.

Whether Ideas stays or goes, I think it needs to be made more relevant and rooted in the news. As it stands, many of the pieces strike me as too obscure. That may be a reflection of my own pedestrian tastes, although I don’t think I’m alone in that assessment. We’ll see what Venkataraman does.

Venkataraman begins in November. You can find out more about her in this online bio.

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The Globe’s URL for its Rhode Island vertical offers some intriguing hints

Is taxonomy destiny? Less than two weeks after GateHouse Media’s Providence Journal laid off a reported six journalists, The Boston Globe has unveiled a new online vertical for its expanded Rhode Island coverage. And the URL is intriguing. Rather than going with bostonglobe.com/metro/rhode-island, the address is bostonglobe.com/metro/new-england/rhode-island (emphasis added).

The Globe’s move into Rhode Island has prompted speculation that other regions might be targeted as well. And, as it turns out, there is a New England vertical on the site, although it doesn’t seem to be listed anywhere. You have to type it in. Who knew?

The great irony would be if the Globe made a move into Worcester, where GateHouse just laid off about six journalists at the daily Telegram & Gazette and the weekly Worcester Magazine. In 2014 then-new Globe owner John Henry sold the T&G to a Florida chain after reportedly assuring staff members that he would keep the paper if he couldn’t find a local buyer. Henry later told me he only remembered promising that he wouldn’t sell to GateHouse — which, of course, ended up with the paper anyway.

In any case, it seems that the Globe has built a system that would easily accommodate future expansion.

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Some perspective on the Globe’s digital landmark

Outside the Globe’s Taunton printing plant. Photo (cc) 2018 by Dan Kennedy.

I’m going to be talking with Barbara Howard on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) this afternoon about the news that The Boston Globe now has more paid digital than print subscribers — a significant landmark that has nevertheless led to some head-scratching among those who are wondering what it means.

The news was reported earlier this week by Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal. Joshua Benton took note of the moment at the Nieman Lab:

The Globe has been lucky to have an attractive market with higher-than-average education and income; it’s been smart to keep cuts to the newsroom smaller than what its peers have. And it’s also still a good newspaper — something that’s harder to say about other metros that have been cut to the marrow.

Here’s some perspective. A lot of us thought that the Globe was the first large regional daily cross this particular line. (Our national newspapers, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, have been selling more papers online than in print for quite some time.) That’s not quite true. As I was researching another story, I discovered that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette beat the Globe to it. But there are some unusual aspects to the case of the ADG, which I’ll be writing about next week.

I think it’s safe to say that the head-scratching comes about from a suspicion that the Globe’s supposed digital success is really more a sign of print failure. And there’s no question that the Globe’s print operation is on life support. But the digital accomplishment is real.

Take a look at Seiffert’s chart. In June 2016, the Globe had 67,429 digital-only subscribers and 135,231 print subscribers, for a total of 202,660. By March of this year, the numbers were 112,241 digital and 98,978 print for a total of 211,219. That’s an overall increase of 8,559 paid subscribers. And though digital doesn’t bring in as much as print, it’s still real money — especially with the Globe’s unusually high digital rate of $30 a month once initial discounts have worn off.

Not only has the Globe under John Henry’s ownership maintained its quality better than most major metros, but its user experience, if not great, is at least good enough. It’s also in the midst of transitioning to The Washington Post’s Arc content management system, and though there appear to be a few bugs to work out, we paying customers should expect to see an improving digital product in the months ahead.

But no, print is not doing well. If you want to go back to the Globe’s heyday in the 1980s early 1990s, the paper at one time sold more than 500,000 papers on weekdays and more than 800,000 on Sundays. As recently as the fourth quarter of 2015, weekday print circulation was still 143,348 and 255,735 on Sundays. Now, in addition to that 98,978 figure for weekdays, Sunday is just 172,067. (Figures from the Alliance for Audited Media.)

What happened is no different from what’s happening anywhere, except that there were some special circumstances with the Globe. First, in early 2016, the Globe changed home delivery vendors, with disastrous results. The paper was able to recover fairly quickly by switching back to the original vendor. But then came the opening of the new, not-ready-for-prime-time Taunton printing plant in mid-2017, and it was months before printing and distribution returned more or less to normal.

Unreliable delivery and the high cost of a print subscription ($1,000 a year) no doubt helped drive a lot of customers to digital-only. In the long run, that’s going to benefit the Globe, especially given how cheap it is to add digital subscribers. But since print readers remain more valuable than digital subscribers, moving toward an all-digital future more quickly than is absolutely necessary results in money left on the table.

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John Henry and the Everett casino

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy

There is a ridiculous quantity of media news to sift through this morning. I just want to make a brief comment about The Boston Globe’s report that publisher-owner John Henry twice tried to buy the Everett casino.

Newspaper owners can do what they like. The Globe already has the challenge of covering Henry’s Red Sox, and The Washington Post must negotiate owner Jeff Bezos’ ownership of Amazon. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire surgeon who owns the Los Angeles Times, is an entrepreneur who’s been involved in his share of controversies. Corporate chain owners have their own business entanglements.

Still, casinos are a miserable, contentious business. We should all be glad that Henry stayed out of it — and I wish he’d realized even before making an inquiry that it would put his journalists in a difficult position.

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Shirley Leung to resume her column as Globe seeks editorial page editor

Shirley Leung (via LinkedIn)

Looks like some big changes are coming to The Boston Globe’s opinion pages. On Friday, a friend of Media Nation pointed me to this ad on Indeed.com for an editorial page editor. I made an inquiry and learned that, sure enough, interim editorial page editor Shirley Leung will be returning to the newsroom, where she’ll resume writing her column for the business section.

Leung was named interim after Ellen Clegg retired last summer. Leung emailed me a statement this morning:

It was announced internally to the staff on April 8 that I am returning to my column, which I miss dearly. I’ve learned a lot on the editorial page, and I’ve been grateful for the opportunity — and I got to see my name on the masthead! A national search is underway. We are currently working on a date for my return to the newsroom.

And there’s more interesting information in the listing: “The Editorial Page Editor role will provide leadership (and influence final design) for the Sunday Review, and the Op Ed sections, in addition to being a member of the Editorial Board.”

The Globe does not currently have a Sunday Review section. It does have an Ideas section, but there’s no mention of it in the ad. Lest you think I’m reading too much into that, I have heard anecdotally in recent weeks that the Globe’s owners, John and Linda Henry, have been contemplating a Sunday opinion section that would be more newsy and less esoteric than Ideas, which dates back to the early years of the Marty Baron era.

Ideas replaced Focus, which was, in fact, a Sunday week-in-review section.

Leung recently got caught up in a controversy over a column by freelance contributor Luke O’Neil, which, she told WGBH News’ “Boston Public Radio,” was published online without sufficient oversight. O’Neil wrote that one of his “biggest regrets” was “not pissing in Bill Kristol’s salmon” during his days as a waiter. The column was revised twice before being taken down at what Leung said was the Henrys’ insistence. There have been no indications that there was any lasting fallout for Leung over that episode or that her stepping aside is related to it, but that hasn’t stopped her critics on Twitter from speculating to that effect.

As a business columnist, Leung was a provocateur, taking contrary stands on issues such as the Boston Olympics (she was for it, with reservations) and on the Demoulas family controversy (she was sympathetic to Arthur S. Demoulas in the battle over the future of Market Basket in the face of a public outcry on behalf of his cousin Arthur T. Demoulas).

I often disagreed with her, but I’ve missed her voice. This strikes me as a good move.

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Globe: Comments were killed because of ‘personal attacks,’ not criticism of John Henry

Update: The Globe sent the following statement at 2:21 p.m.:

BGMP [Boston Globe Media Partners] uses a third-party service for comment moderation called ICUC. Readers post comments and also flag inappropriate ones for review. If a comment flagged for review doesn’t conform to our guidelines, ICUC will block it.

These comments were removed because they included personal attacks on an individual, which is a violation of our comment guidelines. While our guidelines allow for more leniency against public figures, attacks against a person’s morality (for example, the use of “Liar-in-Chief”) are against our standards.

Based on the “Liar-in-Chief” example, it sounds like the problem was related to criticism of President Trump rather than of John Henry. I’ve done some editing below to reflect the tone of the statement.

Original item (with edits): The Red Sox’ visit to the White House, scheduled for later today, has put The Boston Globe in an awkward position: Globe publisher John Henry is also the principal owner of the Red Sox, and a number of observers have called on the Sox to cancel given that manager Alex Cora, who is Puerto Rican, and the team’s players of color are all taking a pass.

The controversy has spilled over into the comments on the Globe’s website. If you take a look at any of the stories about the visit (like this one), you’ll find multiple examples of comments that have been blocked. We may assume that many of those comments contained racist content. At least three, though, were harshly critical of Henry but otherwise inoffensive.

Two were sent to me by “Sam the Man,” an anonymous commenter who used what appeared to be his real name in communicating with me. I grabbed the third comment myself — it struck me as similar to the first two, and I was wondering whether it would be blocked. It was. Here they are:

From “Sam the Man,” Sunday, 5:17 p.m.: “True that, but I have less respect now for Henry, who has set up a divisive situation by agreeing in that there is now a racial division on the team. Henry should back off, and if he doesn’t he’s no better than Trump butt-kisser Kraft.

“Henry should call the whole thing off. To go is to play into Trump’s hands as well as weaken the team.

“Alex, you are a true leader.”

Also from “Sam the Man”: “John Henry: Call off this trip to visit the Liar-in-Chief. The trip will be manipulated by Trump, will hurt racial harmony on your team, and will send a bad message to our citizens. Be a leader, support your manager.”

From “Thoughtful1,” Monday, 4:54 p.m.: “Note to John Henry: actions speak louder than words. Your newspaper condemns Trump’s divisive policies but now you are going to kiss his ring. You condemned the alleged racism of Tom Yawkey but where you have a chance to make a statement about the bigoted rhetoric of the President of the United States, you have chosen to back off.”

Globe vice president and spokeswoman Jane Bowman sent me this statement earlier this morning:

We value our subscribers who further discussions about stories and topics by posting comments representing a variety of viewpoints. The Globe moderates comments in order to allow our well-informed community of readers to hold civil discussions that move ideas forward in a productive way.

It’s notable that, on Monday, the Globe published a column by Adrian Walker that was quite tough on Sox management. Walker interviewed Sox chief executive Sam Kennedy and pointed out that Henry owns both the Globe and the Red Sox. Walker concluded his column with this:

Henry once spoke of being “haunted” by the legacy left by Yawkey, the last owner to bring a black player to his team. That statement came in the course of announcing the team’s correct and unpopular decision to have Yawkey’s name removed from the home of Fenway Park.

Now the “white” Sox are going to the White House, while their manager and most of their teammates of color sit home in silent but unmistakable protest.

I think someday that will prove haunting too.

I don’t think the Globe’s comments (or those of most other newspapers) are especially well managed. I’ve long argued that if you’re not going to screen every comment before it goes up, then you shouldn’t have comments at all. I think newspapers ought to consider a real-names policy, too.

But if you’re going to have them, you certainly need to take steps to ensure that non-crazy comments that are critical of the paper’s owner don’t get taken down — even if that’s not actually the reason they were deleted.

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The Wall Street Journal takes on the local news crisis

Wall Street Journal reporters Keach Hagey, Lukas I. Alpert and Yaryna Serkez weigh in today with a comprehensive overview of the crisis threatening local newspapers — a crisis that contrasts with the relative good health of the three national papers, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Journal.

It’s well worth reading, even if there’s nothing especially new. Two quick observations:

1. Although the story pays lip service to the harmful effects of chain ownership, it doesn’t quite get at the fundamental problems: the debt amassed to build the chain, the lack of investment in technology, and the drain created by having to export a good chunk of revenues to some distant corporate headquarters.

2. The Journal also calls The Boston Globe a “notable outlier” among regional papers for its relative success in building digital subscriptions and maintaining a decent-size newsroom. The obvious if unmade argument is that other papers could do the same with committed local owners.

Globe owner John Henry is not perfect, but MediaNews Group (the new name for Digital First Media), Gannett or GateHouse would likely have cut the newsroom of roughly 220 people by another 100 or so.

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John and Linda Henry disagree on whether The Boston Globe is profitable

Fascinating stuff from the Boston Business Journal.

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Newspaper Guild and John Henry trade charges over Globe contract talks

Contract negotiations between The Boston Globe and the Boston Newspaper Guild are becoming increasingly tense, with the Guild accusing management of union-busting and Globe publisher John Henry denying it.

Earlier this week the Guild posted an open letter to John Henry and his wife, Linda Pizzuti Henry, who is the paper’s managing director. The key takeaway:

Now, we are in the midst of negotiations led by a mercenary law firm that is trying to bully your employees into a contract that essentially asks them to give up their rights as union members. These tactics are threatening to destroy the long-standing, constructive and respectful relationship between the Guild and management. This approach to collective bargaining has also stoked feelings of deep anger and even betrayal among employees. It is doomed to fail.

That was followed by John Henry’s sending an email to the Boston Business Journal in response to the Guild’s letter. The highlight:

Globe management has set a very simple but very important goal of strengthening our newsroom for the challenges of a long-term future in local journalism. The Globe and the guild need to engage in a collaborative effort designed to ensure what both sides need in order to have a vibrant workplace and serve the needs of our community.

This has been ugly right from the start, and it doesn’t look like it’s getting any better.

Earlier: “Newspaper Guild blasts Boston Globe management over contract woes” (Dec. 14).

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Globe president, in year-end message, says digital subs are approaching 110,000

A source just sent along this end-of-the-year message from Vinay Mehra, the president and chief financial officer of Boston Globe Media Partners. It follows publisher John Henry’s statement earlier this week that the Globe is now profitable and is likely to remain in the black next year as well.

The main takeaways here are that the Globe, having passed the crucial 100,000 mark for paid digital subscriptions several months ago, is now closing in on 110,000. Globe executives have said that if they can hit 200,000 then the paper may be able to achieve long-term sustainability. Also of interest: The Globe is taking part in a three-month exercise with Harvard Business School “to define our business strategy.”

What’s missing: Any mention of the Globe’s contentious negotiations with the Boston Newspaper Guild, including management’s decision to bring in what the Guild has described as a “union-busting” law firm. One hopes that Mehra and the Henrys understand that the people who produce what he describes as “the many successes our journalism racked up this year” should be treated fairly.

The full text of Mehra’s message follows.

Dear Colleagues,

As we head into the holiday season, on behalf of [managing partner] Linda [Henry] and myself, I want to take a moment to share with you a few highlights of what we have achieved this year as well as an outline what we hope to achieve in 2019.

Our success in 2018 was no accident. It was a tough year that required a lot of work and I am pleased to say our efforts began to pay off. We started, of course, with powerful journalism across all our brands — The Boston Globe, STAT and Boston.com. On top of that, we found areas of real growth, while we aggressively targeted savings across all facets of our business and carefully managed expenses to stay ahead of the structural declines we are all seeing in our industry.  For the first time in a long time, we are ending the year in black, and to remain there we must continue our vigilance in looking for efficiencies.

But financial results are just one measure of the many successes our journalism racked up this year. There are way too many to list here, so I’ll mention just a few:

  • Spotlight was a Pulitzer finalist for its groundbreaking series in December [2017]  on race issues in Boston that inspired a region-wide discussion that has no precedent
  • Our coverage of the State Police overtime fraud investigations, the Columbia gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley, the investigative pieces on Massachusetts secret courts and the TSA’s Quiet Skies program drove accountability and change
  • The stories in STAT about IBM-Watson’s troubled health business led to a major leadership change at the company

We also extended the reach of our journalism by expanding into new platforms:

  • The Aaron Hernandez Spotlight series in the Globe resulted in a podcast with over 4 million downloads, a trip to number 1 on the Apple charts, and considerable interest from Hollywood
  • Last Seen, a true crime podcast examining the most valuable and confounding art heist in history from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, hit over 3.4 million downloads and was in the top 10 on iTunes
  • Season one of the Love Letters podcast launched earlier this year when Meredith took on the hardest question she gets: How do I get over it?  Leveraging its success, season two will launch in early 2019

As incomparably talented as our journalists are, they don’t do it alone. Peel back the curtain, and what’s revealed is you … our employees across all departments of BGMP [Boston Globe Media Partners]. Day in and day out, your coordinated efforts — leveraging your relationships, expertise, passion and creativity are what have made this institution a leader in an industry that is starting to find its footing.

For growth on the digital side to be sustainable, we must remain focused, bold, and daring, and in 2018, we had no shortages of examples:

  • We continued our digital growth, ending the year with close to 110,000 digital-only subscribers for the Boston Globe — more digital subscribers than almost any other major metropolitan news organization
  • We invested in a new digital content management system, Arc, and launched a new mobile app for the Boston Globe, another step in our digital transformation
  • STAT doubled down on coverage of life sciences, pharma and biotech, resulting in record revenue and subscriber growth
  • We launched a new section on cannabis dedicated to covering and facilitating conversations around the politics, business, use and impact of cannabis in the Northeast
  • Our events brought the community together to talk about important issues such as race, the future of work, the future of democracy, and the midterm elections

Impressive commercial results and remarkable engagement of our readers to our stories are not the only things that drive us. Being a leader in the news industry comes with responsibility. We take that role seriously and demonstrated it in August, when our editorial board led a coordinated effort that resulted in 450 newsrooms across the country joining us to defend the freedom of the press against harmful rhetoric labeling the press as “the enemy of the people.”

As important as it is to drive these conversations in the community, it’s important for us as an organization to reflect on how we can live up to what we shed a light on. One example was the Race Series, which prompted a degree of self-reflection.  Leadership on diversity and inclusion starts at the top, so we have made an intentional effort to ensure our executive team represents a broad range of backgrounds. We will continue to move through our practices in recruiting, talent assessment, and measuring the leadership of this organization against a few core guiding principles, one of which is related to creating an environment that nurtures inclusion, and compensation goals will be tied to this important measure.

It’s not lost on me that there are many questions about the future of our business and our strategy. This past month, a cross-functional team of more than 30 leaders across all disciplines of our organization met with me and a team from Harvard Business School to begin a 3-month exercise to define our business strategy. We all left very encouraged and I will have more to share as we move forward.

As we reflect on a transformative and eventful year, the reality is this: when the business had been experiencing double-digit declines we didn’t dig a hole and hide, we invested — in new business models, new technologies, new talent. We didn’t lose faith. We continued to produce quality journalism, launch new products, and provide opportunities to convene our community around important issues.

All of us know that people who choose to spend their lives in the news business are special, they’re unique, and they are undeniably passionate about their work.  This isn’t simply a job, it’s a mission — a mission motivated by our love of informing people. And that’s precisely what makes me so proud to work alongside each and every one of you.

We wish you and your loved ones a happy, restful and safe holiday and I look forward to seeing you in 2019.

Vinay

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