Are John and Linda Henry looking to sell The Boston Globe? Folks in the newsroom have been wondering in recent weeks. But according to Linda Henry, the paper’s managing director, the answer is no.
Henry hosted a Zoom town hall for Globe employees earlier today. Among the questions she was asked, according to a source, was whether the departure of Boston Globe Media president Vinay Mehra last week was related to a possible sale. I contacted her a short time later, and she replied via email:
The question [at the town hall] was if Vinay’s departure had anything to do with our ownership status, which it absolutely doesn’t. This doesn’t affect our thinking or what we have said about stewarding this great institution. The Globe is not for sale, I’m pretty sure you would have picked up on if it was.
The idea that a sale might be under consideration gained steam recently when Sarah Betancourt reported reported in CommonWealth Magazine that — according to the Boston Newspaper Guild — the Henrys were “apparently insisting on the removal of a provision in the existing contract that would keep the contract terms intact if the newspaper is sold.” Management and the Guild have been enmeshed in acrimonious contract talks for quite some time.
Yet in most respects the Globe seems to be doing well, although its status as a profitable business probably came a sudden halt when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and advertising nosedived. The paper went over the long-hoped-for 200,000 mark in digital subscriptions recently, and hiring continues. Just today, editorial-page editor Bina Venkataraman announced that Kimberly Atkins would be leaving WBUR Radio and joining the opinion section as a Washington-based senior writer.
Editor Brian McGrory also announced ambitious plans just last week to improve the diversity of the Globe’s hiring, promotions and coverage.
Two years ago, John Henry responded to similar talk of a sale by saying: “I don’t think of selling any local assets during my lifetime. Linda and I love and are committed to this city.”
Now here’s an interesting media twist. Michael Rezendes, who did so much to expose Cardinal Bernard Law’s involvement in the Catholic Church’s pedophile-priest crisis when he was a member of the Spotlight Team at The Boston Globe, has written a new report about sexual abuse — this one involving the Red Sox, whose principal owner, John Henry, is also the owner of the Globe.
Rezendes, who’s retired from the Globe, now works for The Associated Press. His story was published on the Globe’s website today at 3:40 a.m. and presumably will be in Wednesday’s print edition.
The report is about former Red Sox clubhouse manager Don Fitzpatrick, who for years preyed on young Black clubhouse employees. Fitzpatrick left the Sox in 1991 — 10 years before Henry bought the team — and pleaded guilty to charges of sexual battery in 2002.
Although Fitzpatrick was long gone before the dawn of the Henry era, the team remains entangled in Fitzpatrick’s web. Victims are seeking compensation, suggesting that it’s hypocritical for the Red Sox to come to terms publicly with their history of racism (some of it pretty recent) while failing to reach out to Fitzpatrick’s victims.
One of Fitzpatrick’s alleged victims, Gerald Armstrong, told Rezendes, “Now would be a good time for the Red Sox to show everyone they mean what they say.”
Vinay Mehra, president of Boston Globe Media Partners, is leaving after three years at the helm, according to an announcement to employees by managing director Linda Henry late this afternoon.
No idea of what prompted this, but I wonder if Mehra’s departure might help break the logjam between the Boston Newspaper Guild and management, which are bogged down in protracted contract negotiations.
Then, too, the union has raised the prospect that John and Linda Henry are interested in selling the Globe, according to a recent story by Sarah Betancourt of CommonWealth Magazine. It seems unlikely, but who knows?
What follows is Linda Henry’s message, a copy of which was provided to me by a trusted source a little while ago.
After three years with us, today is Vinay Mehra’s last day with Boston Globe Media Partners.
We are grateful for his work in helping to stabilize and grow our remarkable organization and are especially thankful to him for building an incredibly strong and effective Senior Leadership Team. This team is well-positioned to lead our organization and to continue the important work of ensuring that our institution continues to serve our community and our mission for years to come.
We wish Vinay the best of luck in his next venture.
Much of the recent growth, he said, has been driven by interest in the Globe’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a follow-up email, McGrory told me that the number of digital-only subscribers has risen from about 145,000 just before the pandemic to nearly 205,000 today.
“It took us 7 years to get our first 100,000 digital-only subscribers, and about 11 months to get to 200,000,” he said, adding: “The rise has been substantial, gratifying, and important in terms of supporting our journalism…. We’re the only metro paper that could support the current size of its newsroom through revenue from digital subscribers.”
That 200,000 mark has been a goal for a long time. When I interviewed McGrory in early 2016 for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” he told me, “If we got to 100,000 things would be feeling an awful lot better. And if we got to 200,000, I think we’d be well on our way to establishing a truly sustainable future.”
This week’s landmark comes with some caveats, though.
First, most of those new subscriptions were sold at a steep discount, generally in the range of $1 a month for the first six months. Given that the Globe’s profitability (pre-COVID, anyway) was built on an industry-high rate of $30 a month, the paper will presumably face a challenge in keeping those new subscribers.
Second, although we’ve been heading into the post-advertising era for quite a while, the pandemic has sent ad revenues across the newspaper business into a steep downward plunge. As the newspaper analyst Ken Doctor wrote for Nieman Lab in late March, “Advertising, which has been doing a slow disappearing act since 2008, has been cut in half in the space of two weeks. It’s unlikely to come back quickly — the parts that do come back at all.”
Nor has the Globe been immune from budget cuts. Co-op students, summer internships and freelance were cut right at the start of the shutdown. Don Seiffert recently reported in the Boston Business Journal that there have been an unspecified number of layoffs in advertising and other non-news operations, as well as reduced retirement contributions, in response to “significant” reductions in revenue.
Still, that’s minimal compared to what’s taking place across the newspaper business. The New York Times reported several weeks ago that some 36,000 news employees throughout the United States have been laid off, furloughed or had their pay cut. Many papers have cut back on the number of print days or eliminated print altogether. Some are closing. Poynter Online is keeping a list of cuts, and it is long and daunting.
The three leading national papers — The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal — have been exceptions to the death-of-newspapers narrative for several years. But among the big regional papers, the Globe is doing better than all but a handful. In late 2018, publisher John Henry said the paper had achieved profitability. A year ago, Joshua Benton reported in Nieman Lab that the Globe had become the first U.S. regional paper to sign up more digital subscribers than weekday print subscribers.
But print still accounts for a lot of revenue in the newspaper business. Last week the Times reported that its shrinking print edition still accounted for more than half of its revenues. The Globe charges about $1,300 for seven-day print delivery. That’s a lot of money, but its print subscriber base continues to shrink. According to the Globe’s most recent filing with the Alliance for Audited Media, weekday print circulation is under 85,000 and Sunday print is about 147,000.
During the SPJ session, McGrory was asked why the Globe has kept COVID-19 coverage behind a paywall given that some other news organizations have made it free. McGrory responded that pandemic coverage is already free at two other Globe-owned sites: Stat News, which covers health and life sciences, and Boston.com. He added that he didn’t see cost as an obstacle in light of the discounts.
Via email, I asked McGrory about what steps the Globe was taking to keep all of its new subscribers once they were asked to pay $30 a month. “We’ve significantly ratcheted up the rate at which we’re graduating people from the low introductory rate into the full rate,” he replied. “We were doing really well with that retention before the coronavirus hit, and far better since.”
He added: “To keep the new subscribers who are part of this surge, we’re doing a lot of outreach — letters from notable staff members and the like. We’re also doing gifts, a possible loyalty program, virtual events for new subscribers…. There’s more. These readers are so vital to our future, and we want to let them know that. Of course, the most important thing is to feed them consistently strong and relentlessly interesting journalism. We will be in a huge news cycle for many, many months, between the virus and the massive economic disruption that it’s caused, inequality laid devastatingly bare, an epic presidential race, a reordering of so many things core to so many of our lives, condensed sports seasons, and on and on.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Also: I can confirm that she’ll resume writing her column for the @BostonGlobe business section.
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.
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.