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Every Thursday I post a newsletter that’s exclusively for supporters of Media Nation. I’m especially proud of the new one — a look at how critics of Jeff Bezos’ stewardship of The Washington Post and John Henry’s ownership of the Red Sox have converged into a miasma of resentment and envy. Each newsletter also includes photography, a round-up of the week’s posts and a Song of the Week. I’m especially pleased with what I dug up this week, and I think you’ll be, too.

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How Larry Lucchino saved The Boston Phoenix — and how the Phoenix saved Fenway Park

Larry Lucchino, right, celebrates the Red Sox’ 2013 World Series win. Photo (cc) 2013 by Alicia Porter.

Former Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, who died Tuesday at the age of 78, not only saved Fenway Park — he also saved The Boston Phoenix. His friend and former Red Sox executive Charles Steinberg recalled in an interview with WBUR Radio earlier this week that he once asked Lucchino whether he planned to replace the ancient ballpark. Lucchino’s response: “You don’t destroy the Mona Lisa! You preserve the Mona Lisa!”

In the years before the John Henry-Tom Werner group bought the Red Sox in 2001, the fate of Fenway Park was far from clear. The previous owner — a trust set up by the late Jean Yawkey and headed by Yawkey confidant John Harrington — wanted to build a new ballpark farther south on Brookline Avenue. And that would have required the razing of 126 Brookline Ave., an office building owned by Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich. The building’s second and third floors were occupied by the Phoenix.

Mindich declared war on Harrington’s plans, and the Phoenix was mobilized on his behalf. My friend Seth Gitell and I as well as others, including future Wall Street Journal sports columnist Jason Gay, inveighed against the proposal, arguing that a new ballpark would be better suited to a different neighborhood, such as what is now the Seaport District but was then a barren landscape of parking lots.

One of the last stories we published before the Red Sox were sold came in December 2001. Written by Seth and me, it includes this:

But if the winner of this high-stakes sweepstakes has yet to be named, it’s already clear who the loser will be. Us. Us as in baseball fans. Us as in taxpaying citizens. Us as in ordinary people who occasionally enjoy the simple pleasure of attending a game at the ballpark or tuning in the Sox on TV without having to pay through the nose.

Well, we were certainly right about the cost of attending a game and of NESN cable fees.

There were all kinds of names being bandied about at that time, including cable magnate Charles Dolan as well as local favorites Joe O’Donnell and Steve Karp. Dolan was thought to favor keeping Fenway, telling The Boston Globe: “If they can’t watch the game here, they can watch it on TV.”

But the Henry group was coming together, and it was clear that then-Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig was hoping to steer the sale Henry’s way. That’s exactly what happened later that month, with Lucchino brought in as part of the ownership group and emerging as the main cheerleader for refurbishing Fenway Park rather than demolishing it. As the force behind Baltimore’s retro Camden Yards, the first of the new generation of classic ballparks, Lucchino was the ideal person to lead that effort.

The Phoenix was saved, at least for the time being; it shut down in 2013, falling victim to the economic forces that had been battering the newspaper business. Henry bought the Globe later that year and slowly transformed it into a growing and profitable paper. And the Red Sox, playing in the iconic ballpark that John Harrington wanted to tear down, won World Series in 2004, 2007, 2013 and 2018, although they are currently in the midst of an uncertain rebuilding process.

Larry Lucchino deserves credit for giving the Phoenix another dozen good years. And Stephen Mindich, who died in 2018, deserves some credit for saving Fenway Park in the years before Lucchino arrived on the scene.

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A state judge trims back ex-Globe president’s lawsuit

Remember Vinay Mehra, the former Boston Globe Media president who sued the company for compensation he claims he was owed after he was fired in 2020? Well, his suit continues to wend its way through the legal system, but Suffolk Superior Court Judge Peter Krupp trimmed back Mehra’s demands recently, ruling that Mehra is not entitled to triple damages should he prevail. Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub, channeling Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, has more.

Earlier:

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How the NY Times over-interprets its reporting about billionaire media owners

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

The New York Times has published a story (free link) that calls into question the rise of billionaires who own news organizations, noting that The Washington Post under Jeff Bezos, the Los Angeles Times under Patrick Soon-Shiong and Time magazine under Marc Benioff are all losing money. True enough. My problem with the story is that reporters Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson try too hard to impose an ubertake when in fact there’s important background with each of those examples. Mullin and Robertson write:

All three newsrooms greeted their new owners with cautious optimism that their business acumen and tech know-how would help figure out the perplexing question of how to make money as a digital publication.

But it increasingly appears that the billionaires are struggling just like nearly everyone else. Time, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times all lost millions of dollars last year, people with knowledge of the companies’ finances have said, after considerable investment from their owners and intensive efforts to drum up new revenue streams.

The role of wealthy newspaper owners is something of ongoing interest to me. My last book, “The Return of the Moguls” (2018), focused on the Post, The Boston Globe and the Orange County Register in Southern California, owned by a rich Boston-area businessman named Aaron Kushner. At the time the book came out, the Post was flying high, the Globe was muddling along and the Register was failing; it eventually fell into the hands of the slash-and-burn hedge fund Alden Globe Capital. The Post’s and the Globe’s fortunes have since moved in opposite directions.

Here are the particulars that get glossed over in Mullin and Robertson’s attempt to impose an overarching framework:

• Bezos, who bought the Post in 2013, made deep investments in technology and built up the staff. The result was years of growth and profits, which only came sputtering to a halt after Donald Trump left the White House. Former executive editor Marty Baron, in his book “Collision of Power,” suggests that, over time, a disciplined approach to hiring became more lax. In other words, the Post got ahead of itself and is now in the midst of a reset. A new publisher, William Lewis, begins work this month, and we’ll see if he can articulate a strategy that amounts to more than “just like the Times only not as comprehensive.”

• Benioff bought a dog and, predictably, it’s going “woof woof.” Time was the largest of the Big Three newsweeklies, along with Newsweek and U.S. World & News Report; it’s also the only one of the three that still exists in a somewhat recognizable form. Newsweeklies succeeded because, pre-internet, you couldn’t get great national papers like the Times, the Post and The Wall Street Journal delivered to your doorstep. Not only is there no discernible reason for them to exist anymore, but the leading newsweekly these days, at least in terms of cachet, is The Economist.

• Not all billionaire owners are in it for the right reasons, and Soon-Shiong has proven to be an uncertain leader. Does he care about the Los Angeles Times or not? He’s built it up; now he’s tearing it down. He recently pushed out his executive editor, Kevin Merida, the most prominent Black editor in the country, and he’s done some truly awful things such as delivering Tribune Publishing’s papers to Alden Global Capital and more recently selling The San Diego Union-Tribune to Alden.

So what does that tell us about billionaire owners? Not much. As Mullin and Robertson acknowledge, some are doing just fine, including The Boston Globe under John and Linda Henry and The Atlantic under Laurene Powell Jobs. They could have also mentioned the Star Tribune of Minneapolis under Glen Taylor or, for that matter, The New York Times, a publicly traded company that is nevertheless under the tight control of the Sulzberger family. I don’t think the Sulzbergers are billionaires, but they are not poor.

At the moment, it seems that the only two viable models for large regional dailies is individual ownership by wealthy people who are willing to invest in future profitability and nonprofit ownership, either in the form of a nonprofit organization owning a for-profit paper, as with The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tampa Bay Times, or a paper that goes fully nonprofit, as with The Salt Lake Tribune and The Baltimore Banner. The Banner is a digital startup that nevertheless is attempting to position itself as a comprehensive replacement for The Baltimore Sun. The Sun, in turn, was one of the Tribune papers that Soon-Shiong helped gift-wrap for Alden, and just this past week was sold to right-wing television executive David Smith.

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Kevin Merida’s departure from the LA Times raises doubts about its billionaire owner

Kevin Merida. Photo (cc) 2021 by Michifornia.

There’s some very bad news coming out of Los Angeles this week. Kevin Merida, the executive editor of the Los Angeles Times, is stepping down after just two and a half years on the job. Merida, who previously held high-level jobs at The Washington Post and ESPN, is perhaps the country’s most prominent Black editor, and his departure raises serious questions about the LA Times’ owner, billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, who bought the paper in 2018.

Soon-Shiong has certainly been a better steward than a corporate chain or hedge fund would have been, but his time at the helm has been unsteady. He wants to grow toward profitability, but he keeps cutting the staff. Twice he has gone out of his way to deliver newspapers into the arms of the undertakers at Alden Global Capital, doing nothing to stop Alden’s acquisition of Tribune Publishing’s nine major-market dailies in 2021 and then selling The San Diego Union-Tribune to Alden in 2023.

Poynter media columnist Tom Jones notes that Soon-Shiong is now trying to reassure the LA Times newsroom that Merida’s departure will not lead to a similar fate:

Perhaps sensing the uneasiness of his newsroom, Soon-Shiong wrote in a note, “Our commitment to the L.A. Times and its mission has not wavered since the inception of our acquisition. However, given the persistent challenges we face, it is now imperative that we all work together to build a sustainable business that allows for growth and innovation of the L.A. Times and L.A. Times Studios in order to achieve our vision.”

Benjamin Mullin, writing in The New York Times, reports that Merida clashed with members of Soon-Shiong’s family over Merida’s edict that staff members who signed a petition condemning Israel’s war in Gaza would be temporarily banned from covering stories related to the war. Whether or not you think Merida was clinging to outmoded ethical standards, you can’t say that move was controversial. Indeed, two New York Times contributors resigned, apparently under pressure, after signing a similar letter.

At one time it looked like wealthy individual owners might be a solution to the news crisis — not that they could be expected to underwrite losses forever, but they could certainly provide the runway needed to build a new, sustainable business model. Now, with Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post floundering, it looks like the only wealthy newspaper owners who’ve fulfilled their promise are John and Linda Henry at The Boston Globe and Glen Taylor at the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.

Sadly, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of the LA Times under Soon-Shiong.

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The late Joe O’Donnell was once part of a group that wanted to buy the Globe

There’s a small omission in The Boston Globe’s obituary of Joe O’Donnell. Bryan Marquard writes that O’Donnell was part of a group that once tried to buy the Red Sox, a prize that was ultimately won by John Henry. What the story doesn’t mention, though, was that O’Donnell also tried to buy the Globe itself. I made mention of it in 2007 in an article I wrote for CommonWealth Magazine, writing that there had been some talk the previous fall that the New York Times Co. might be getting ready to offload the Globe:

The speculation briefly reached a fever pitch last fall, when retired General Electric chief executive Jack Welch, advertising executive Jack Connors, and concession mogul Joseph O’Donnell spread the word that they would like to buy the Globe. But with Times Company chief executive Janet Robinson all but coming right out and saying the Globe is not for sale, talk of a Welch-led sale has died down.

Two years later, the Times Co. did try to sell the Globe, only to pull it off the market when it apparently couldn’t get the price it wanted. Then, in 2013, the Times finally sold the Globe to none other than John Henry, O’Donnell’s rival in the Red Sox sweepstakes. In my book “The Return of the Moguls,” I wrote that Connors was among the suitors who competed with Henry for the Globe; I did not record whether O’Donnell was part of that second Connors bid.

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A new report finds that news deserts are spreading — but there are bright spots, too

Photo (cc) 2008 by Stefano Brivio

The release of a new report by Penelope Muse Abernathy on the state of local news is always a big deal. For 15 years now, she’s been tracking the extent of the crisis, and has done more than anyone to popularize the phrase “news deserts,” which describes communities without a source of reliable news and information. This week Abernathy, now at Northwestern University’s Medill School, issued “The State of Local News 2023.” It’s a downbeat report, although there are a few bright spots. Here’s a key finding:

The data and insights collected and analyzed in this 2023 report on The State of Local News paint the picture of a country and society increasingly divided between the journalism-have’s — mostly residents in more affluent cities and suburban areas where alternative news sources are gaining traction — and the journalism have-not’s, those in economically struggling and traditionally underserved metro, suburban and rural communities. This partitioning of our citizenry poses a far-reaching crisis for our democracy as it simultaneously struggles with political polarization, a lack of civic engagement and the proliferation of misinformation and information online.

Before I continue, a disclosure: Abernathy, who’s been a guest on our “What Works” podcast about the future of local news, was kind enough to provide a pre-publication endorsement of the book that Ellen Clegg and I have written, “What Works in Community News,” which comes out in January.

Abernathy’s principal collaborator on the new report is Sarah Stonbely, director of Medill’s State of Local News Project, who I interviewed in 2022 when she was at the Center for Cooperative Media, part of Montclair State University in New Jersey.

If you’d like a good summary of Abernathy and Stonbely’s report, I recommend Sarah Fischer’s overview in Axios, which leads with the prediction that the U.S. will have lost one third of its newspapers by the end of 2024.

The cleavage between affluent urban and suburban areas and less affluent urban and rural areas is one of the major challenges Abernathy and Stonbely identify, and it’s definitely something that Ellen and I noticed in our reporting for “What Works in Community News.” I recall asking folks at the start-up Colorado Sun why they were trying to stretch their resources to cover stories across the state rather than focusing on Denver. The answer: the Denver metro area was already fairly well served despite massive cuts at The Denver Post, owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. By contrast, there was very little news coverage in the more rural parts of the state.

As Abernathy and Stonbely put it: “The footprint for alternative local news outlets — approximately 550 digital-only sites, 720 ethnic media organizations and 215 public broadcasting stations — remains very small and centered around metro areas.” Indeed, this chart tells a rather harrowing tale. As you can see, people who live in news deserts are considerably less affluent and less educated than the national average.

The report also includes a section called “Bright Spots in the Local News Landscape.” Although the interactive map is a little hard to navigate, I can see that several projects that Ellen and I profile in “What Works in Community News” are included, such as NJ Spotlight News, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, The Texas Tribune, The Colorado Sun and the Daily Memphian.

The report also highlights The Boston Globe as one of its good-news stories, observing that, under the ownership of John and Linda Henry, the paper has thrived on the strength of its digital subscriptions. In a sidebar, Tom Brown, the Globe’s vice president of consumer analytics, tells Abernathy that digital growth continues, although at a slower rate than during the COVID pandemic. Retention is down slightly, too. “We are nonetheless still seeing overall strong retention,” Brown says, “and we are investing in several areas of the business with the goal of engaging subscribers more and, in particular, our new subscribers.”

Editor Nancy Barnes adds that though the Globe is ramping up its coverage of the Greater Boston area as well as in Rhode Island and New Hampshire, it can’t fill the gap created by the gutting and closure of local weekly papers at the hands of Gannett, the giant newspaper chain that until recently dominated coverage of the Boston suburbs and exurbs.

“Having returned to Boston after many years away, I have been stunned by the decimation of local newspapers across Massachusetts and New England,” Barnes says. “However, our coverage strategy is not tied to specific Gatehouse newspaper communities [a reference to Gannett’s predecessor company]. We cover greater Boston in depth, but we don’t have the bandwidth to be the local news source for everyone.”

This week’s Medill report is the first of a multi-part series. Future chapters will be released over the next few weeks and into January.

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Paid circulation of Worcester’s daily newspaper has dropped by about 80% in 10 years

Former headquarters of the Telegram & Gazette. Photo (cc) 2011 by Daderot.

With a population just north of 200,000, Worcester is the second largest city in New England; surrounding Worcester County is home to more than four times that number of residents. Yet the 157-year-old Telegram & Gazette, the daily newspaper of record in Central Massachusetts, has lost most of its paid readership under the ownership of Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain.

According to Statements of Ownership that the T&G filed with the U.S. Postal Service on Oct. 1, average weekday paid circulation of the print edition stands at 8,698. The paper also reported an average of 4,133 paid electronic copies for a total paid average weekday circulation of 12,831. On Sundays, the numbers are 12,403 for print, 4,054 for electronic, and 16,457 for total paid average circulation. And as I pointed out the other day, digital circulation is reported using guidelines from the Alliance for Audited Media, which are somewhat inflated since AAN allows for some double-counting of print and digital.

Ten years ago, the T&G enjoyed paid circulation (print plus digital) of 74,000 on weekdays and 78,000 on Sundays, according to a story published just after then-new owner John Henry visited the paper’s offices, which means that circulation is down about 80% over the past decade. The aftermath of that meeting proved to be contentious, with T&G folks coming away from it believing that Henry — who acquired the paper as part of his purchase of The Boston Globe — had promised not to sell unless he could find a local buyer.

“It’s good to hear John Henry is focused on finding the right owner for the newspaper,” T&G publisher Bruce Gaultney was quoted as saying after meeting with Henry.

Henry later told me that he believed he’d promised only that he wouldn’t sell to GateHouse Media chain, which was notorious for laying off journalists and slashing coverage. Henry ended up selling to a Florida chain, which in turned handed it off to GateHouse, now Gannett. And Gannett has gutted the T&G, as it has so many of its properties.

Worcester is not a news desert. It has a number of other outlets, including the Worcester Business Journal, MassLive, the fledgling nonprofit Worcester Guardian, a GBH News bureau and several smaller outlets, including a lively aggregation service called The016. The once-mighty Telegram & Gazette, though, is barely a shadow of its former self.

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The Globe fires back against its ex-president, claiming his spending was out of control

Vinay Mehra (via LinkedIn)

Boston Globe Media Partners has fired back against its former president Vinay Mehra, who sued the company in June over what he claimed was $12 million in compensation that he is owed in lost commissions, wages and other compensation. The Globe’s answer, filed Wednesday in Suffolk Superior Court, goes beyond the usual dry denial of Mehra’s charges to offer a rather vivid account of its own allegations against Mehra. It begins by claiming that the Globe …

… terminated Vinay Mehra’s employment [in June 2020] for cause for repeated instances of poor judgment (or worse) with excessive, unauthorized, and inappropriate spending of the Globe’s money. Unable to resist the temptation to spend corporate money for his own benefit, Mehra repeatedly used his corporate credit card or else spent company money to run up extraordinary expenses that offered no benefit to the Globe. At first, Mehra acknowleged the Globe’s objections to these abuses, and promised they would not recur. But they did recur, and Mehra eventually simply stopped even attempting to justify them.

According to the answer, filed by the Globe’s lawyer, Mark W. Batten of Proskauer Rose, Mehra:

  • Leased a car for $23,000 without authorization shortly after he was hired in 2017.
  • Spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on consultants without seeking approval from ownership.
  • Spent $45,000 on a two-year subscription to Bloomberg Financial, accessible only to him and “with zero discernible benefit to the company.”
  • Racked up some $400,000 on his corporate credit card without approval, spent Globe funds to attend the 2019 Super Bowl with no benefit to the Globe, and mischaracterized a charitable endeavor related to COVID-19 that primarily benefited a hospital connected to his wife.

The narrative section of the Globe’s answer concludes by alleging that, after repeated offenses, “it became clear that his behavior could not, and would not, stop” and that “the breach had at last become irreparable.”

On Thursday, the Globe’s Larry Edelman reported on the Globe’s answer and quoted Mehra’s lawyer, David W. Sanford, as saying: “The Boston Globe’s accusations are false and a jury that will hear this case eventually will understand them to be false…. The hard work of the litigation begins now with discovery, and discovery will show Vinay is right.”

Before coming to the Globe, Mehra held high-level corporate positions at Politico and, before that, GBH in Boston.

There he goes again: Patrick Soon-Shiong delivers another paper to Alden Global Capital

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Photo (cc) 2014 by NHS Confederation.

Patrick Soon-Shiong, the wealthy surgeon who owns the Los Angeles Times, has delivered yet another daily newspaper into the greedy hands of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Soon-Shiong announced Monday that he’d sell The San Diego Union-Tribune to Alden’s MediaNews Group. By my count, the Union-Tribune becomes the 10th paper that Soon-Shiong has helped turn over to Alden. As Sara Fischer and Andrew Keatts report for Axios, the new owners immediately announced cuts to the newsroom.

When Soon-Shiong bought the LA Times in 2018, the Union-Tribune was thrown in as part of the deal. Soon-Shiong was hailed by optimistic media observers as someone who, like Jeff Bezos at The Washington Post and John Henry at The Boston Globe, would provide his papers with the runway they needed to become self-sustaining enterprises.

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It’s been a mixed bag. Soon-Shiong’s main interest has been the LA Times, but he’s gone back and forth between investing and cutting. By no means has the Times been hollowed out as if it had been owned by, oh, let’s just say Alden Global Capital. But he’s run a lean ship, with the Times announcing just a few days ago that the recent sale of its press meant that game stories, box scores and standings would be eliminated from its print edition, according to Andrew Bucholtz of Awful Announcing.

Selling off the San Diego paper to one of the worst possible buyers is reminiscent of John Henry’s decision to sell the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester to a Florida chain back in 2014. As I recount in my book “The Return of the Moguls,” folks at the T&G thought Henry had promised not to sell unless a local buyer could be found; Henry told me his only promise had been not to sell to GateHouse Media. In any case, GateHouse managed to acquire the T&G within months and immediately began hollowing it out. GateHouse later morphed into Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain with about 200 dailies, which is notorious for its cost-cutting.

Alden Global Capital’s two newspaper chains, MediaNews Group and Tribune Publishing, make it the second largest owner with about 100 dailies. Alden is often described as the worst newspaper owner in the country, denounced as “vulture capitalists” who slash news coverage and sell off real estate in an attempt to squeeze out as much revenue as possible. Locally, Alden owns the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

Soon-Shiong was perhaps the central player in Alden’s acquisition of Tribune Publishing. Whereas MediaNews Group comprises mainly smaller papers, plus a few large dailies such as The Denver Post, Tribune owns eight of the largest, most iconic papers in the country, including the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel and, closer to home, the Hartford Courant.

In the spring of 2021, Tribune, then comprising nine papers, was up for grabs, as it had been many times before. Stewart Bainum, a Baltimore hotel magnate, was attempting to buy the chain and sell off some of its properties to what he hoped would be public-spirited local owners. His main interest was in saving the Sun. Also bidding for the papers Alden. The hedge fund actually offered less money than Bainum, but its offer was reportedly less complicated as well.

The Tribune board ended up voting to sell the papers to Alden — a move that could have been halted by just one board member. Soon-Shiong, who was on the board, abstained, and he did so in a way that mean his vote essentially counted as a yes. As The Washington Post reported at the time, Soon-Shiong submitted his ballot without having checked the “abstain” box; if he had, his vote would have been counted as a “no.”

Bainum went on to found the nonprofit Baltimore Banner. Tribune, meanwhile, spun off one of its most prominent papers, the Daily News of New York, which remains part of the Alden empire as a separately owned entity.

So what’s next for The San Diego Union-Tribune? Nothing good, you can be sure. Voice of San Diego, a nonprofit news site, headlined its story “LA’s Richest Man Sells Union-Tribune to Feared ‘Chop Shop.’” Will Huntsberry and Scott Lewis interviewed the news-business analyst Ken Doctor, who predicted that San Diego will not be rid of Alden anytime soon.

“People get confused because these people are cut-throat capitalists,” Doctor told them. “But their papers are making money and they’re holding onto them for the time being.”

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