Why the Kevin Merida announcement is good news for the Los Angeles Times

Patrick Soon-Shiong may be the most important newspaper owner in the country after Jeff Bezos of The Washington Post. So Monday’s announcement that the next executive editor of the Los Angeles Times will be Kevin Merida of ESPN was significant as much for what it says about Soon-Shiong’s commitment to the paper as it does about Merida’s own considerable abilities. Given the Times’ size, influence and unrealized potential, its fate is crucial to the journalistic ecosystem.

It was just a few months ago that Lukas I. Alpert of The Wall Street Journal dropped a bombshell: Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon who bought the Times in 2018, was looking to get out. Soon-Shiong denied it, but actions speak louder than words — and now he has acted. The fact that he could recruit someone who is regarded as the best free-agent editor out there suggests he was able to reassure Merida about stability in the owner’s suite. The Times itself, in a story by Meg James, puts it this way:

His hiring reaffirms the Soon-Shiong family’s commitment to the paper they purchased, along with the San Diego Union-Tribune, for $500 million from Chicago-based Tribune Publishing in June 2018. The Soon-Shiong family has since invested hundreds of millions of dollars more to replenish the newsroom’s withered ranks, built a campus in El Segundo, upgraded the paper’s technology and covered financial losses that deepened last year when coronavirus shutdowns prompted a steep drop in advertising revenue.

Key to all this may be Soon-Shiong’s daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong, who, according to Katie Robertson’s report in The New York Times, “has become an active part of the newspaper’s management team.” In that regard, she may play a similar role to that of Linda Pizzuti Henry, who co-owns The Boston Globe along with her husband, John Henry. Linda Henry, named CEO of Boston Globe Media last year, is heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the Globe, thus serving as a guarantor of sorts that Henry won’t sell.

Merida will be the LA Times’ second Black editor, which is also significant because of the paper’s diversity issues under former executive editor Norman Pearlstine. It also raises the question of why The Washington Post didn’t push harder to hire Merida as a replacement for Marty Baron, who retired recently. Merida was a highly regarded top editor at the Post before leaving for ESPN.

One possible explanation is that Merida is just two years younger than Baron. As Tom Jones of Poynter writes, “Maybe the Post is looking for a long-term editor — someone who could take over for 15 or so years, and, perhaps, Merida’s age (64) didn’t align with that plan.”

The Soon-Shiong ownership of the LA Times has been a mixed bag thus far. The newsroom has been bulked up in the hopes that the paper could emerge as a national force. But that hasn’t happened, and its digital subscription numbers have proved disappointing as well. It could be that there’s just no room for a fourth national newspaper along with The New York Times, the Post and the Journal. But the LA Times could dominate the West, serving as a much-needed counterbalance to the East Coast media.

All in all, the appointment of Merida was very good news, not just because he’s a first-rate choice but because it signals that Soon-Shiong is committed to the LA Times’ long-range future.

Correction. The original post described Merida as the LA Times first Black editor. In fact, he is the second; New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet served in that role from 2005 to ’06.

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Will Patrick Soon-Shiong stand up to Alden — or sell his newspapers?

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Photo (cc) 2019 by the World Economic Forum.

It was quite a week for Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire surgeon who owns the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune.

On Tuesday came the news that the hedge fund Alden Global Capital was offering $630 million to boost its share of Tribune Publishing from 32% to 100%. Alden would take Tribune private and then, presumably, do what it does: slash the newsrooms of the Chicago Tribune, the Hartford Courant and others to ribbons. One unexpected benefit: The Baltimore Sun and several sister papers would be acquired by a nonprofit foundation.

The complicating factor was that Soon-Shiong, the second-largest Tribune shareholder at 24%, has the right to veto Alden’s acquisition. Would he? Probably not, guessed Poynter analyst Rick Edmonds. “I would bet that getting out with a good return on his investment will be Soon-Shiong’s main or sole objective,” Edmonds wrote.

Then, on Friday, came a bombshell. Lukas Alpert of The Wall Street Journal reported that Soon-Shiong was looking to get out of the newspaper business less than three years after he bought the Times and the Union-Tribune from Tribune’s absurdly named predecessor, tronc.

“The move,” Alpert wrote, “marks an abrupt about-face for Mr. Soon-Shiong, who had vowed to restore stability to the West Coast news institution and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the paper in an effort to turn it around.” Soon-Shiong denied it, tweeting, “WSJ article inaccurate. We are committed to the @LATimes.”

We are left wondering what’s correct — “people familiar with the matter,” as Alpert described his sources, or Soon-Shiong’s on-the-record denial. Alpert is a good reporter, and presumably his sources are aware of at least some frustration on Soon-Shiong’s part. What’s especially worrisome is that Alpert’s sources say Soon-Shiong has come to believe his papers would be better off “as part of a larger media group.” Other than Alden or Gannett, it’s hard to imagine any other options. If Soon-Shiong is really tired of the business, why not sell them to a nonprofit?

Nevertheless, it’s hard for me not to think about all the times that John and Linda Henry have been rumored to be selling The Boston Globe since they bought it in 2013. Every so often they deny it, such as in 2018 and 2020. And there certainly haven’t been any signs that they’re selling.

Still, the Henry rumors never made it into The Wall Street Journal. Let’s hope that, whatever else comes out of the Tribune meltdown, Southern California’s major newspapers remain within the relatively safe orbit of Soon-Shiong’s protection.

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Kathleen Kingsbury: Endorsing two candidates confused Times readers

Kathleen Kingsbury. Photo via The New York Times.

The Nieman Journalism Lab’s Sarah Scire last week spoke with The New York Times’ recently named opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury. It’s an interesting conversation that defies easy summary, but I was struck that Kingsbury now says she and the Times “ended up confusing people” when they endorsed two presidential candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, in last year’s Democratic primaries.

More than anything, I think Kingsbury represents steady leadership after the tumultuous James Bennet era, often caricatured as coming to an abrupt end over the infamous op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton but that was in fact — as Scire points out — punctuated by numerous lapses in judgment. Kingsbury demonstrated that steadiness last week when she killed a piece by columnist Bret Stephens. If the commentary, an n-word-filled defense of Don McNeil, had run, critics would be wondering if Kingsbury were up to the position. (Stephens’ point, such as it was, is that it ought to be considered acceptable to quote others using the n-word as long as there was no racist intent.)

I was also interested to see that Kingsbury and publisher A.G. Sulzberger “tend to talk daily.” The rule of thumb for good publishers is that they should stay out of the newsroom but that involvement in the opinion section is appropriate. John and Linda Henry are certainly involved in The Boston Globe’s opinion operation. On the other hand, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos is known to be as hands-off with opinion as he is with news coverage. Sulzberger is entitled to have his say, but maybe he ought to back off and let Kingsbury do her job.

I had a long interview with Kingsbury several years ago, when she was the Globe’s managing editor for digital. She struck me then as capable and creative. The Times’ gain was definitely the Globe’s loss.

Correction: Kingsbury objected to my original characterization that she had said the Times made a mistake by not endorsing just one of the Democratic candidates. “I still believe choosing the two candidates was the right thing to do,” she says. I’ve updated this post to reflect that.

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Google and Facebook have decimated newspaper ad revenues. A lawsuit aims to change that.

GBH News illustration by Brendan Lynch

Previously published at GBH News.

One afternoon in early 2016, I arrived at The Boston Globe’s former headquarters in Dorchester to talk with John Henry about the state of his newspaper. Before we could begin, though, he wanted to talk about something that was bugging him.

Google, it seemed, had started slapping the word “subscription” on Globe content when it came up in searches, even though few people were likely to run into what was then a relatively porous paywall. It took months to straighten out, he complained — costing the Globe readers and, therefore, advertising revenue.

Henry’s lament illustrates the complicated relationship publishers have long had with Google. On the one hand, they complain bitterly that the dominant search engine is repurposing their journalism without paying for it. On the other hand, they depend on the clicks that Google sends their way.

Now matters may be coming to a head.

Under pressure from the Australian government, Google and Facebook have agreed to start paying for the content they repackage, MediaPost reports.

In the U.S., the News Media Alliance, which represents newspaper publishers, has long sought an exemption from antitrust law so that they could attempt to negotiate a compensation package with the two companies. There are signs that Congress may finally pass legislation to let them try.

And now, a chain of newspapers in West Virginia has filed a lawsuit charging that Google and Facebook violated antitrust laws by forming an alliance aimed at perpetuating their monopoly on digital advertising.

In order to understand exactly what the two companies — especially Google — have done to harm the news business, you need to consider two different but related practices.

First there is the matter of grabbing content, which, as Henry’s complaint shows, is convoluted: Publishers can’t live with Google and can’t live without it. Years ago, before the Google-Facebook lockdown on ad revenue was even on the horizon, publishers would argue that Google should pay them. Google would counter that it was driving traffic to news sites, thus increasing the value of advertising on those sites. There was some logic to Google’s argument, though somehow it never worked out in favor of the publishers.

The problem in recent years is that Google acquired a number of advertising businesses and now controls not just search but also the advertising associated with search. Through the use of an automated auction system, the price of digital ads is being driven ever lower, making it all but worthless. As Nicco Mele, a former deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times, explained several years ago, a full-page weekday ad in the paper that cost $50,000 had given way to Google ads on its website that brought in less than $20 to reach the same number of readers.

“To a large extent, Facebook and Google are sucking up revenue that publishers of content should be receiving,” Mele told an audience at Harvard.

It’s the ever-shrinking value of digital advertising that’s being targeted in the West Virginia lawsuit, brought by HD Media. The small chain owns seven newspapers, most notably the Charleston Gazette-Mail and The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington. Paul Farrell, the lawyer who represents the papers, told the trade magazine Editor & Publisher that Google is leveraging its control of two entirely different businesses in order to monopolize ad revenues and squeeze out anyone else.

“They have completely monetized and commercialized their search engine, and what they’ve also done is create an advertising marketplace in which they represent and profit from the buyers and the sellers, while also owning the exchange,” Farrell was quoted as saying. “Google is the broker for the buyer and gets a commission. Google is the broker for the seller and gets a commission. Google owns, operates and sets the rules for the ad exchange. And they are also in the market themselves.”

So where does Facebook fit in? According to a lawsuit filed by several state attorneys general that was reported by The Wall Street Journal, Google and Facebook are colluding through an agreement that Google has code-named Jedi Blue. The AGs contend that Google provides Facebook with special considerations so that Facebook won’t set up a competing ad network. (Google and Facebook have denied any wrongdoing, and, in the E&P story, Google reiterated that stance with regard to the HD Media suit.)

For Google, it’s a perfect closed environment: It holds a near-monopoly on search and the programmatic advertising system through which most ads show up on news websites. And it has an agreement with Facebook aimed at staving off competition.

As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan observed, the collapse of advertising is what has led to the closure of more than 2,000 newspapers over the past 16 years — as well as the shrinkage of surviving papers like the Gazette-Mail, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the opioid crisis in 2017.

Back when newspapers were manufactured out of dead trees, advertising was responsible for about 80% of revenue. Once they started moving online, that revenue stream was decimated, first by Craigslist, a mostly free service that scooped up nearly all the classified ads, and then by Google and Facebook.

Ironically, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark today directs much of his considerable philanthropy to the news business, and Google and Facebook spend quite a bit on various journalism initiatives as well. But whereas Newmark’s only sin was to build a better mousetrap, Google and Facebook’s dominance has more in common with the robber barons of the Gilded Age. It’s time that someone brought them to heel.

At least some newspapers have come up with a formula for overcoming the digital-advertising debacle. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and, yes, John Henry’s Boston Globe have all reinvented themselves as successful enterprises by reducing their reliance on ads in favor of digital subscriptions.

But it’s far from clear whether that will work for local and most regional papers, and even those that are doing well run the risk of becoming overreliant on one source. A reliable stream of ad revenue, freed from the depredations of Big Tech, would go a long way toward revitalizing journalism.

The Globe will partner with the Portland Press Herald on a Spotlight reporting project

The Boston Globe will partner with the Portland Press Herald on an unspecified investigative reporting project, according to the trade publication Editor & Publisher. The partnership will produce “a multi-part investigative report that will be published by both organizations this fall.”

The project will be funded by the Spotlight Investigative Journalism Fellowship, established by the Globe and Participant Media, the producers of the movie “Spotlight.” Grants of up to $100,000 are awarded to reporters or teams of reporters. This is the first time the Globe has partnered with another news organization. The series will be published by both papers.

Scott Allen, the Globe’s assistant managing editor for projects, declined in an email to say what the topic of the reporting would be — but when I noted that the Press Herald reporter who’ll be working on the project, Penelope Overton, covers the lobster industry, Allen said that “we expect to take full advantage of her considerable expertise.”

There are some interesting intersections between the Globe and the Press Herald. The E&P story points out that Press Herald managing editor Steve Greenlee worked at the Globe for 12 years. But it goes beyond that. Lisa DeSisto, who is chief executive officer of the Press Herald and its sister papers, was previously a high-ranking business-side executive at the Globe (and, before that, a colleague of mine at The Boston Phoenix).

The two papers also have the distinction of having been pursued by Boston-area businessman Aaron Kushner, who tried to buy the Globe in 2010 and nearly succeeded in buying the Press Herald in 2012. Kushner and a team of investors ended up purchasing the Orange County Register in Southern California later in 2012. They spent considerable resources in building up the Register and acquiring and launching other papers — only to tear it all down in short order when the hoped-for revenues failed to materialize. Today the Register is owned by the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital. (I tell the story of Kushner’s newspaper adventures in my book “The Return of the Moguls.”)

Today the Press Herald is owned by Reade Brower, a printer, who’s built a small chain of Maine newspapers and gets generally high marks for his stewardship. The Globe, of course, is owned by billionaires John and Linda Henry.

The Philly Inquirer will outsource its printing to Gannett

Philadelphia City Hall. Photo (cc) 2016 by Dan Kennedy.

It’s one thing for the chain-owned Hartford Courant to outsource its printing. It’s quite another for an independent major metro like The Philadelphia Inquirer to do so.

The Inquirer, recently shorn of its online comments, is owned by a well-funded nonprofit organization, the Lenfest Institute, and it continues to be reasonably well-staffed. Nevertheless, Kristen Hare of Poynter Online reports that the Inquirer will sell off its suburban printing plant and outsource its production to a Gannett-owned facility instead.

The print edition of many newspapers has become such a small part of their operations that printing simply isn’t cost-effective unless they’re able to take on outside customers. No doubt they’re celebrating at Gannett, since the Inquirer deal means less time that their presses will be idle. But when the Inquirer’s shutdown takes place later this year, 500 people will lose their jobs.

You can be sure that Boston Globe owners John and Linda Henry are looking at this move closely. The launch of the Globe’s printing plant in Taunton in mid-2017 was plagued with problems, and after they were fixed the Globe found itself with fewer outside printing jobs than it had expected. With digital far outpacing print, at some point it may make sense simply to sell the Taunton plant and print the Globe elsewhere.

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In year-end message, Linda Henry announces that the Globe is expanding

The Boston Globe is expanding, according to chief executive officer Linda Pizzuti Henry.

The news comes in the form of a full-page ad in Sunday’s print edition — an odd choice, given that the Globe has about 220,000 digital-only subscribers and, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, has a Sunday print circulation of about 140,000. But maybe a lot of those digital subscribers use the e-paper and saw it anyway. (Update: I’m told Henry’s message was emailed to digital subscribers last week. I can’t imagine why I didn’t see it, but there you go.)

Henry begins by thanking readers following a difficult year of pandemic, economic collapse and “an overdue reckoning around race, equity and social justice.” And, of course, she praises the Globe as a “local, independent news organization,” citing highlights such as the paper’s COVID coverage, Mark Shanahan’s article and podcast about recovering from prostate cancer and “A Beautiful Resistance,” a celebration of Black life in New England by culture columnist Jeneé Osterheldt.

Now about the expansion:

  • Reporters and editors will be added to beef up the paper’s innovation, political and investigative beats.
  • A new Health and Science section will be launched, featuring coverage from Stat News and the Globe’s staff. (Perhaps something to keep an eye on: Stat News is non-union, whereas the Globe’s union and management have been at loggerheads over a new contract for several years.)
  • The Rhode Island bureau is being expanded, an initiative that had been announced previously.

Particularly welcome is the news that the Globe will be “improving our mobile app experience.” I hope those improvements extend to tablets as well as phones.

We all have our quibbles with the Globe, but the past few years have been extraordinary in putting the paper on a sustainable financial footing.

Publisher John Henry announced in late 2018 that the Globe had become profitable after years of losses and cost-cutting. The paper passed the 200,000 digital-subscription mark in early 2020, a long-sought measure of viability. And when Linda Henry was made CEO of Boston Globe Media Partners in November, the company said it currently employs more than 300 full-time journalists across its three platforms — the Globe, Stat News and Boston.com.

That is an impressive number at a time when The Denver Post’s newsroom, to cite just one example, has been slashed to about 60 by its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital.

The full-page ad appears below.

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3 reasons why it matters that Linda Pizzuti Henry was named CEO of the Globe

Previously published at GBH News.

Surprising though the news may have been, there was a certain inevitability to Linda Pizzuti Henry’s being named chief executive officer of The Boston Globe’s parent company.

She had long held the title of managing director, and it has become increasingly clear over the past few years that she and her husband, publisher John Henry, were determined to impose their will on the media properties they own. Indeed, the Henrys have been calling pretty much all the shots on the business side since the summer, when Vinay Mehra exited as president and was not replaced.

These are the best and worst of times for media organizations. The COVID-19 epidemic and the presidential campaign have resulted in renewed interest in the news as well as growing audiences. But advertising, already in long-term decline, has fallen off a cliff.

The Globe is no exception to those trends. Earlier this year, the Globe passed the 200,000 mark for digital-only subscriptions, a long-sought-after goal. Another Globe Media property, Stat News, has established itself as one of a handful of go-to sites for news about COVID.

Yet the paper, reportedly profitable before the pandemic, has been forced to trim its budget to adjust to the pandemic economy, cutting back on its use of freelancers and paid interns, for example, as well as implementing some business-side reductions.

Time will tell what the Linda Henry era will bring. But here are three thoughts that I think are worth keeping in mind:

There is no longer any middleman. With co-owners John and Linda Henry holding the top two positions, all the heat will now be directed their way, for better or worse. When Mehra was in charge — and, before him, Doug Franklin and Mike Sheehan — both credit and blame could be deflected.

Now the Globe is the Henrys’ paper in every respect. That extends into the editorial operations as well given that editor Brian McGrory was actually involved in recruiting John Henry to buy the paper and that editorial-page editor Bina Venkataraman was hired by the Henrys.

For a useful contrast, consider The Washington Post. Although owner Jeff Bezos does involve himself in business strategy to a degree, he hired a publisher, Fred Ryan, to run the paper on a day-to-day basis, and left the executive editor (Marty Baron), the editorial-page editor (Fred Hiatt) and the top technology executive (Shailesh Prakash) in place after he acquired the paper.

The Henrys must now settle an ugly labor dispute on their own. Earlier today the Boston Newspaper Guild, involved for quite some time in acrimonious contract talks with management, issued a statement ripping the Henrys for using the law firm of Jones Day, which critics say has a reputation for union-busting.

That’s not new. What is new is that Jones Day has been involved in representing Republicans in their attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election. “How can the Globe’s political journalists be asked to continue to endure such workplace attacks from the very law firm whose actions they are now reporting on and investigating?,” the union’s letter asks.

The Globe is not for sale. From time to time, rumors have circulated within the newsroom and in the larger community that the Henrys are looking to get out. This happened most recently last fall, when Linda Henry presided over a town hall-style meeting on Zoom at which she was asked about a replacement for Mehra.

When I asked her about it, she replied via email, “The Globe is not for sale, I’m pretty sure you would have picked up on if it was.” After that, the rumors appeared to fade away. Now, by occupying the top two operational roles at the Globe, the Henrys, seven years into their ownership, clearly seem to be sending a signal that they’re in it for the long term.

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Globe union rips management for using Trump law firm in contract negotiations

In a press release sent out earlier today, the Boston Newspaper Guild rips John Henry, Linda Pizzuti Henry and Boston Globe management for using the controversial law firm of Jones Day in contract negotiations.

This is not a new complaint, as Jones Day is sometimes characterized as a union-busting operation. But now the firm has been called out for representing President Trump in his efforts to overturn the election results.

Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.

Contrary to buzz in the newsroom, Linda Henry says: ‘The Globe is not for sale’

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.”

It sounds like that hasn’t changed.

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