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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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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A wary but grateful look back at 2020, the worst year ever

COVID-19 testing. 2020 photo via U.S. Air Force.

Previously published at GBH News.

If we’re lucky, we’ll never encounter another time as awful as 2020. A raging pandemic, economic collapse, white racism in the face of a long-overdue reckoning with racial justice and an authoritarian-minded president who is still plotting to overturn his decisive defeat have all conspired to make this a year to put behind us.

Then there were the personal tragedies. “I remember that first Thanksgiving, the empty chair,” said President-elect Joe Biden, a man who knows tragedy in his bones and in his soul. The lost job. The lost business. The lost hope.

During the past year, I’ve tried to capture some of that — the lows as well as a few reasons for optimism. Below are 10 of my GBH News columns. They’re in chronological order, starting with the world we lost and ending with a glimpse of better days to come.

The strangling of local radio, Jan. 21. The New Year had barely begun when we learned that iHeartMedia, a conglomerate that owns some 850 stations, was gutting its properties. Among them: Boston’s venerable WBZ (AM 1030), the city’s last remaining commercial news station, which laid off several longtime journalists. For-profit radio has been sliding downhill since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which effectively removed caps on how many stations a company can own. As with newspapers, a few giant corporations took on massive amounts of debt to build empires, slashing costs so they could pay their creditors. Employees and listeners were the losers.

The last normal week, March 4. I spent Super Tuesday in Ukiah, California, covering a packed event in a bar (imagine that) hosted by The Mendocino Voice, a small website that was transitioning from for-profit to cooperative ownership. “We are going to be owned by our readers and our staff,” publisher Kate Maxwell told those on hand. “We think that’s the best way to be sustainable and locally owned.” By the end of the week, I found myself accompanying Maxwell and managing editor Adrian Fernandez Baumann to Mendocino County’s first news conference about what was then called “the novel coronavirus.” A day later I returned home on a half-empty flight wondering what was coming next.

A campus empties out, March 17. Northeastern University, where I’m a journalism professor, takes its spring break the first week of March. Despite the increasingly ominous news, we actually resumed classes the following week. All of us, though, had the sense that a shutdown was imminent — and it was, as we all had to scramble quickly to move our classes online. This fall, like most of my colleagues, I taught partly in person, partly online, getting tested twice a week. And I am filled with gratitude every day to be one of the lucky few who is still employed and working in a relatively safe environment.

Fox News endangers lives, April 22. Rupert Murdoch’s cable news station has become a dangerous behemoth, promulgating all manner of misinformation and disinformation about climate change, Hillary Clinton and the awesome wonderfulness of President Donald Trump. Never, though, was Fox News more of a menace than it was in the spring of 2020, when prime-time hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham promoted the toxic idea that COVID-19 (it finally had a name) was a “hoax.” They disdained mask-wearing and cheered on the armed right-wingers who protested the shutdown, falsely claiming that COVID was nothing to worry about. “The question is why are our leaders hurting us on purpose,” Carlson told his viewers. “And the answer is: Because they can.”

Avoiding a 2016 repeat, May 27. With Biden having vanquished his Democratic primary opponents and building a solid polling lead over Trump, I asked whether the media could avoid the mistakes they made in 2016 — obsessing over Hillary Clinton’s emails and elevating her minor transgressions so that they appeared to be as serious as Trump’s. In fact, the media appeared to have learned some lessons. Sexual assault charges brought against Biden by Tara Reade, a former Senate staffer, and, later in the year, Rudy Giuliani’s attempts to make some sort of criminal connection between Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings in Ukraine were both quickly dismissed as lacking any evidence. The next question: How will the press cover the Biden presidency?

A newspaper laid low by racism, June 17. Alexis Johnson, a young Black reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, had been covering the Black Lives Matter protests that broke out following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. Then she tweeted out a humorous but pointed observation comparing the damage caused by looters to the mess left behind by tailgaters at a Kenny Chesney concert. She was taken off the protest beat for supposedly failing to maintain her objectivity — a ludicrous overreaction met with protests by her fellow journalists and the community. Before long, Johnson had left for Vice News and the Post-Gazette had a new executive editor: Stan Wischnowski, who’d just left as executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer after he approved an insensitive “Buildings Matter, Too” headline. Wischnowski was actually an upgrade over his predecessor, Keith Burris, who continues to run the editorial pages. But he was hardly the sort of change that was called for under the circumstances.

In the dark on Beacon Hill, July 16. Massachusetts is just one of four states whose legislatures are exempt from public-records laws. Cities, towns, counties and state executive agencies must turn over payroll records, contracts, internal communications and other documents when asked to do so by journalists or ordinary citizens. But not the Legislature. “The Legislature has no interest in changing the status quo,” said Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. And so it remains. In the fall, Northeastern journalism students asked every legislative candidate whether they favored ending the exemption. Most of those who answered said they did — but only 71 of the 257 candidates bothered to respond despite repeated email and phone requests.

Local news, saner views, Nov. 11. With the election over and the Trump era drawing to an end, I explored the idea of whether a renewed focus on community life could help overcome the hyperpolarization that has ripped the culture apart at the national level. Before that can happen, though, we need to find ways to revive local journalism. One modest solution would be to create a special state commission to study the problem in Massachusetts and make some recommendations. As 2020 draws to a close, the legislation that would create that commission remains in limbo.

Linda Henry takes charge, Nov. 18. Some five months after Vinay Mehra exited as president of Boston Globe Media Partners, managing director Linda Pizzuti Henry got a title enhancement: she was named chief executive of the company, which comprises The Boston Globe, Stat News and Boston.com. Although the COVID-related advertising meltdown hurt the Globe as it did every other media company, 2020 turned out to be a good year for owners John and Linda Henry. The Globe’s paid digital circulation passed the long-sought 200,000 mark, and Stat News emerged as a national leader on COVID coverage. Moreover, the company employs about 300 full-time journalists across its three platforms — a far higher number than would be expected under chain ownership. That said, the company continues its unseemly battle against its union employees, a situation that should have been resolved long ago.

Back to a better future, Dec. 2. Are there reasons to be optimistic? We all hope so. President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will restore civility to the White House. A COVID vaccine has brought the end of the pandemic within sight. But what about beyond that? In a new book, “The Upswing,” Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett argue that the selfishness that led to the original Gilded Age eventually gave way to the Progressive Era, the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement — and that it can happen again.

We are entering what is likely to be a devastating winter — what Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, predicted could be “the most difficult in the public health history of this nation.” We need to take care of each other and get beyond the sickness and fear that have come to dominate our lives. And we have to tell ourselves that things will get better — and work to make it come true. What alternative do we have?

Finally, my thanks to GBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2021.

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.

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

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.

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

Fascinating stuff from the Boston Business Journal.

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