Do you find it more difficult to read a book these days? Or even a long article? Do you catch yourself pausing every so often (OK, make that every few minutes) to see what’s new on Facebook, scroll through Twitter, check email, or possibly all of the above? Has concentration given way to distraction?
The Boston Globe is replacing its tabloid arts-and-feature section, g, with a standalone full-size Living section later this month, according to a year-end message to the staff from editor Brian McGrory.
Most of McGrory’s message, a copy of which was sent to Media Nation by a kind soul in the Globe newsroom, is a look back at what has been a year of accomplishment for the paper. (McGrory has also written a round-up of his picks for the Globe’s most important stories of 2014.)
McGrory’s superlatives aside, it’s hard to think of a news organization this side of Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post that is expanding its coverage the way the Globe has under the ownership of John Henry. The paper has also been consistently excellent journalistically under McGrory’s watch, and, as he notes, it seems to be paying off in terms of advertising, paid circulation and a growing digital audience.
The full memo is below. But before I get to that, some other Globe news: veteran New Hampshire political reporter James Pindell is returning to the Globe as “a digital-first political reporter and playing a key role in our effort to augment our coverage of the first-in-the-nation contest,” according to an email by Jennifer Peter, the Globe’s metro editor, which someone forwarded to me.
Pindell, whom I’ve known and respected for years, worked most recently for WMUR-TV in New Hampshire, a stint that ended in a minor controversy after he asked U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown an impertinent question that turned out to be based on a mistaken premise. Pindell apologized and briefly disappeared from the air, which suggested an overreaction on management’s part. WMUR’s loss is the Globe’s gain.
Also this week, the departures at the Globe continued. Among those announcing their retirements were columnist Larry Harmon, business reporter Chris Reidy, health writer Deborah Kotz and former Spotlight and higher-education reporter Marcella Bombardieri. Harmon has been an important voice in holding city politicians accountable. I hope interim editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg finds a suitable replacement.
As for g, which was launched under New York Times Co. ownership, I doubt many will miss it. Mrs. Media Nation was a fan, but since we’re digital subscribers except on Sundays we rarely got to see what it looked like in print.
And now (drum roll, please) Brian McGrory’s year-end message to the staff.
Same-old, same-old in 2014, so I’ll be brief.
We, meaning you, had an extraordinary year by every possible measure, certainly in terms of consistently superb journalism, but also with a driving sense of innovation in the work we produce and the way we present it. This was a landmark year for the Globe, one that I hope gives you a deep sense of pride.
Consider, for a moment, the new initiatives — Address, the absurdly readable Sunday real estate section; Capital, the Friday political section that is equal parts delightful and vital; the stand-alone Business section, which is off to a strong start and is set to improve even more; Crux, the company’s groundbreaking website dedicated to Catholicism around the world, done so well it will serve as a template for future initiatives; a restructured Spotlight Team that is set to produce signature investigative journalism with greater frequency; a stunning stand-alone Living broadsheet section to replace the current g tabloid, debuting the second week of January; the Cape Cod summer initiative; record-setting Business magazines, including the new “Game Changers;” the reintroduction of Score, as beautiful as it is insightful; artfully redesigned Sunday regional sections to the north, south, and west of Boston; and a revitalized Sunday Travel section that has become mandatory reading.
None of this came easy. All of it is vital. What made it possible is the high quality journalism upon which everything new and old is built.
Let’s be honest: 2013 was a tough year to follow in terms of accomplishment. And sitting at Columbia University in May, watching Chris Chinlund, Jen Peter, and Mike Bello accept the Pulitzer Prize on behalf of the entire staff, well, that’s a moment that I’ll forever cherish. I’m not sure Bello ever cradled any of his kids as lovingly as he did that plaque.
But you followed great work with still more great work, even amid the demands of so much new initiative. Mike Rezendes gave voice to those who wouldn’t otherwise have had one with his landmark stories on the inhumane and sometimes deadly treatment of inmates at Bridgewater State Hospital — work that led to immediate, meaningful reform. Likewise in the accountability category, Spotlight produced a searing, three-part series on dangerous student housing conditions in this, the college capital of America, a project that has launched vows for widespread change. Kay Lazar and Shelley Murphy kicked the marijuana dispensary licensing process on its side through their in-depth reporting, forcing the state to scrap its deeply flawed work and start from scratch.
I’d put our 2014 narrative work up against any news organization in the country, and in that regard, I’m specifically thinking of Jenna Russell’s breathtaking account of Michael Bourne and his mother, Peggy, as they battled not only his mental health issues, but a cruelly complicated system that seems to go out of its way not to help. Include there, too, Evan Allen’s heartbreaking story of a Newton father’s quest for justice after his son’s overdose death, Maria Sacchetti’s tense, poignant look at the deaths and recovery efforts along the Mexican border, and of course, Sarah Schweitzer’s extraordinary account of a Woods Hole biologist and his lifelong attempt to save the endangered right whale, a story that was accompanied by a groundbreaking online presentation. There are more, many more.
Day to day, Metro performed an extraordinary public service by driving the heroin epidemic into the public conscience. Business blanketed the single most readable storyline of the year — the Demoulas saga — with expert coverage that drove the plot for months. Photography continued to produce the kind of thoughtful, magnificent images that made readers linger on our pages in awe.
Sports did what our Sports staff always does: It offered the best coverage for the most sophisticated audience of any paper in the nation. Washington produced the deeply reported Power Lines series, along with its consistently probing coverage of two of the most interesting officials in the country — Elizabeth Warren and John Kerry. Living/Arts gave us a record number of colorful front page offerings and, as important, solidified Sunday Arts as one of the most popular and important sections of the Globe. Perhaps that last point is inevitable when you have the all-star roster of critics and writers that we have. The Sunday magazine remains among the most vital aspects of the paper, with consistently sophisticated stories that are devoured by readers.
Our design team was ever bolder in print and online, not only with new sections and sites, but with the front page as well. Our copy editing is ever more meticulous and consistently collaborative. Our graphics are often the envy of the industry, which explains why bigger organizations keep hiring away our directors.
And our digital team has quite literally been transformative, newcomers and veterans, all of whom have banded together to produce an evolving, ambitious namesake site that is a pitch perfect platform for our collective work.
Does any of this matter? Yeah, it does, very much so.
Advertising came in better than expected this year, by no means enough to declare success, but certainly a sign of improvement. In terms of readership, there were many, many weeks in the autumn that saw a net upside in print subscriptions. There are precious few papers that see anything like that. And Bostonglobe.com saw a 34 percent increase in visits and a 26 percent increase in pageviews. We also have more digital-only subscribers than any newspaper in the country outside of the NYT and WSJ, and we’ve begun adding to that number at a strong clip in the last quarter.
I’m way too late to say, “To make a long story short,” right? But please bear with me for one final point.
We can’t let up. To sit still is to beckon defeat, what with the breakneck pace of technology advances and the irrefutable fact that competition continues to lurk all across the web. We need all your creativity, all your ambition, all your brains – all across the enterprise. We also need to take full advantage of an enviable moment. We have committed owners, the Henrys, who value quality over short-term profits, and who believe to their core that the way to make the Globe a self-sustaining enterprise is by thoughtful investment combined with unfailing discipline. We have a CEO, Mike Sheehan, who believes deeply that great journalism is good business. We have a thriving region. We have a robust staff of stellar reporters, editors, and visual journalists, many of the best in the nation. We have all the ingredients in place for profound, durable success.
I’ll set up some times in January to share plans and trade ideas for 2015. Meantime, please take more than a few moments of pride on this New Year’s Eve, for where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are poised to go.
My deepest respect and appreciation to you all.
Correction: An earlier version of this post described the departures of Larry Harmon, Chris Reidy, Deborah Kotz and Marcella Bombardieri as “buyouts.” That was based on an incorrect assumption on my part. Harmon told me he was not offered a buyout, and I do not know about the other three.
The online news site GoLocalProv is taking a well-deserved victory lap now that it’s been announced that GateHouse Media will acquire The Providence Journal from A.H. Belo of Dallas for $46 million. GoLocalProv reported on June 13 that the sale was imminent. But there the matter stood until Tuesday, when we learned that the Journal had been sold to GateHouse’s parent, New Media Investment Group.
As I told Ted Nesi of WPRI.com, I think it’s a shame that some way couldn’t be found for the Journal to return to local ownership — a lost opportunity, just as it was when John Henry sold the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester to Halifax Media Group of Daytona Beach, Florida, earlier this year. There is no substitute for a newspaper that is fully invested in the community. I have no doubt that cuts will follow, just as they did when New Media/GateHouse last year purchased Rupert Murdoch’s Dow Jones community papers, including the Cape Cod Times and The Standard-Times of New Bedford.
Still, any incoming chain would make cuts, and I think the new, post-bankruptcy GateHouse, based in Fairport, New York, deserves a chance to prove it will be good steward of the Journal. Despite reductions at the Cape Cod and New Bedford papers, journalists there continue to do a good job of serving their communities. On the other hand, the more than 100 community papers GateHouse already owns in Eastern Massachusetts are strictly barebones operations.
In a full-page ad in today’s Journal aimed at reassuring his new employees, customers and the community of the company’s good intentions, GateHouse chief executive officer Kirk Davis concludes:
We know The Providence Journal plays an indispensable role in helping you live your life in and around Rhode Island. We look to uphold these great traditions and make the investments needed to thrive in the new multimedia world. The purchase is expected to close later this summer. We are looking forward to welcoming the readers, advertisers and employees of The Providence Journal to our family.
At $46 million, New Media/GateHouse paid a surprisingly high price for the Journal. Although Belo is keeping the pension liabilities, it’s also keeping the downtown property. By way of comparison, John Henry paid $70 million for the Globe, the Telegram & Gazette and all associated properties — then turned around and sold the T&G for $17.5 million, according to a source involved in the sale. One possible explanation is that the New York Times Co. sold the Globe and the T&G to the low bidder, as one of the spurned suitors, “Papa Doug” Manchester, complained at the time. New Media/GateHouse, by contrast, was presumably the high bidder for the Journal.
Another possible explanation is that the Journal is worth more to GateHouse than to other buyers because it gives the company new territory for its Propel Marketing subsidiary. According to a perceptive analysis of the deal by Jon Chesto in the Boston Business Journal, Propel is seen by GateHouse executives as “the primary engine for growth at the company.”
Yet another wrinkle: The Globe has developed a nice side business printing other newspapers, including the Boston Herald and GateHouse properties such as The Patriot Ledger of Quincy and The Enterprise of Brockton. At a time when Henry is getting ready to sell the Globe’s Dorchester plant and move printing operations to a former T&G facility in Millbury, the prospect of losing GateHouse’s business has got to be disconcerting.
Rick Daniels, a longtime news executive who served as president of The Boston Globe and CEO of GateHouse Media News England, has been named COO of GoLocal24, which publishes a network of sites that includes GoLocalProv and GoLocalWorcester. In 2013 Daniels led an unsuccessful effort to buy the Globe from the New York Times Co.
From the announcement:
“Rick is a tremendous addition to the leadership of our team. At the helm of the Globe, Rick launched Boston.com and BostonWorks – two of the best and most highly monetized news Web products,” said Josh Fenton, Co-Founder and CEO of GoLocal24.
GoLocal24 announced in January it would be launching its third market, Portland, Oregon this summer. GoLocalPDX.com will focus on providing the highest quality investigative journalism, top-flight lifestyle content, and best in breed comprehensive news coverage.
John Henry has some explaining to do to the people of Central Massachusetts. According to the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, a paper that Henry acquired along with The Boston Globe last year, Henry may be preparing to sell the T&G to Halifax Media Group, a chain based in Daytona Beach, Fla. Halifax owns 35 daily papers, mainly in the Southeast.
Rick Edmonds, who analyzes the news business for the Poynter Institute, writes, “Halifax’s way of operating remains mysterious but appears typically to involve newsroom layoffs and a booster-ish editorial tone.” Edmonds’ article is recommended reading, as it has a lot of details about Halifax and its competitors in the community-newspaper business — including GateHouse Media, which owns about 100 papers in Eastern Massachusetts.
The idea that Henry might sell the T&G to an out-of-state chain with a penchant for cost-cutting is alarming. But would he really do it? Back in November, he met with the T&G staff and said his preference was to sell to local owners — and that if such owners didn’t materialize, he might keep the paper. Here’s some of what T&G reporter Lisa Eckelbecker reported on Nov. 26 about Henry’s visit:
“I think it’s important for the Telegram & Gazette to be under local ownership,” he [Henry] told a gathering of the newspaper’s staff in the newsroom Tuesday afternoon. “I have been talking to local people who have expressed an interest. There’s absolutely nothing imminent.”
Mr. Henry told the newspaper’s employees that a potential sale would not happen until 2014 and that it would only be to the “right buyer.”
“I think you need a local owner,” he said. “A local owner can sit down with advertisers, readers and community leaders and ask for their support. I’m looking for someone with tremendous energy and a passion for this newspaper.”
Mr. Henry also said that if he cannot find the right owner, he would keep the T&G.
“This is not a forced sale,” he said. “If we don’t find the right owner, you’re stuck with me.”
In March, the T&G’s Shaun Sutner reported that the chances of a sale to local ownership had all but evaporated, as a group led by retired T&G editor Harry Whitin and Polar Beverages chief executive Ralph Crowley had taken itself out of the running. But Henry, rather than reasserting his love for Worcester and its environs, has apparently been quietly pushing ahead with a possible sale.
Now, a couple of caveats. First, just because Halifax executives are nosing around the T&Gdoesn’t mean that Henry would sell to them. Let’s not forget that the New York Times Co. let the truly alarming “Papa Doug” Manchester of U-T San Diego kick the tires on the Globe, but in the end handcrafted a deal that allowed Henry to take charge. Perhaps Henry will do something similar now that the situation has been reversed.
In addition, even if Halifax did acquire the T&G, we don’t really know what kind of a steward it would be. Virtually all newspaper companies lay people off when they acquire a new property. The real issue is whether they cut so deeply that their papers are no longer able to fulfill their journalistic mission. According to Edmonds, Halifax’s papers still engage in investigative journalism; its largest paper, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, won a Pulitzer in 2011 (although that predated the paper’s 2012 acquisition by Halifax).
Still, there’s little question that the Telegram & Gazette would be better off in the hands of local owners. Given that the paper’s reported value is just $7 million, it would be nice to think that the local owner might prove to be John Henry himself.
Photo (cc) by Terageorge and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
This week’s Boston Globe-related media news continues, as the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester reports that the only potential local buyers for the paper have withdrawn.
Retired T&G editor Harry Whitin and Polar Beverages chief executive Ralph Crowley had been mentioned as possible buyers since 2009, when the New York Times Co. first put the Globe and its related properties (including the T&G) up for sale. John Henry, who bought the Globe late last year, told the T&G staff in November that he hoped to sell the paper to someone local, and that he might hang onto it if he couldn’t find the right buyer. (Henry also said he would keep the T&G’s Millbury printing plant — a facility that is likely to be used to print the Globe and handle its contract work, including the Boston Herald, after Henry sells the Globe’s current headquarters on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester. He recently confirmed that move in an interview with Boston magazine.)
Now, though, Whitin and Crowley are out, with Whitin telling the T&G’s Shaun Sutner: “For all intents and purposes, we have withdrawn from the process.”
Today’s T&G story also quotes Tim Murray, CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce and the former lieutenant governor, as saying that Henry should sell the paper at a discount if that means transferring it to local owners, just as the Times Co. sold the Globe to Henry out of a sense that he would prove to be a good steward. Here’s Murray:
The fact of the matter is The New York Times gave a discount to a local buyer for The Boston Globe because they had a buyer who professed to be committed to the region, Greater Boston and the journalistic mission that newspapers play. And therefore it is not unreasonable for Mr. Henry to extend that same courtesy to the residents of Worcester in contemplating a sale.
Sutner quotes me regarding two national chains — GateHouse Media, which owns about 100 papers in Eastern Massachusetts, and Digital First Media, which owns several papers not far from Worcester, including The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.
Of the two, I think Digital First would be the more interesting choice. Headed by the bombastic John Paton (profiled in 2011 by David Carr of The New York Times), his company — which includes papers such as The Denver Post and the New Haven Register — has been trying to innovate its way out of the financial morass in which the newspaper business finds itself.
Digital First employs some of the most respected thinkers in digital journalism, including editor-in-chief Jim Brady and digital transformation editor Steve Buttry. Here is a press release on Digital First’s most recent initiative, Project Unbolt, which seeks to remove the “bolts” that still keep local journalism attached to the industrial processes that defined pre-Internet newspapers. Digital First also has a content partnership with GlobalPost, the pioneering online international news service founded five years ago by Boston media entrepreneur Phil Balboni. (I wrote about some of Paton’s early moves in New Haven in my book “The Wired City.”)
The Telegram & Gazette is a major media presence in Central Massachusetts. I still hope it ends up in local hands — or that Henry decides to keep it. But if it’s going to be sold to a national chain, the staff and the community could do worse than to be served by a company that is trying to revive the business of local news.
The local media community has been buzzing since Tuesday, when Jason Schwartz’s 5,000-word Boston magazine article on the state of The Boston Globe under John Henry went live. The piece is chock-full of goodies, and you should read the whole thing. As you do, here are six takeaways for you to ponder.
1. It could have been a lot worse. Although we knew that Douglas Manchester, the right-wing hotel magnate who bought the San Diego Union-Tribune and unforgivably renamed it U-T San Diego, was interested in buying the Globe (he even threatened legal action after it was sold to Henry instead of him), it is nevertheless chilling to read Schwartz’s account of Manchester’s coming in and kicking the tires after the New York Times Co. put the Globe up for sale.
As I wrote in my book about online community journalism, “The Wired City,” Manchester has been described as “a minor-league Donald Trump” who uses his newspaper to promote his business interests as well as conservative causes such as his opposition to same-sex marriage.
In the Boston magazine article, Globe editor Brian McGrory tells Schwartz that “some potential bidders” — and by “some,” it’s clear that he’s including Manchester — would have “cut the living bejesus out of the place.” And Schwartz includes this delicious anecdote: “During the U-T San Diego presentation, people who were in the room attest, Manchester at one point instructed McGrory to call him ‘Papa Doug.’ McGrory did not call him Papa Doug.”
2. It’s official: The Globe is moving. Even before Henry won the Globe sweepstakes, it was clear that the next owner was likely to sell the paper’s 1950s-era Dorchester headquarters for redevelopment — a move that would presumably recoup virtually all of the $70 million Henry paid to purchase the Globe, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester and related properties.
Henry has now made it official, telling Schwartz his goal is to move the paper to a smaller space with better access “in the heart of the city.”
Of course, the Globe still needs a printing press, not only for its own use but for other publications it prints under contract — including its tabloid rival, the Boston Herald. One likely possibility: the Telegram & Gazette’s printing facility in Millbury, which Henry said he was keeping when he announced recently that he was putting the T&G up for sale.
3. The two-website strategy needs an overhaul. Since the fall of 2011, the Globe has offered two websites: BostonGlobe.com, a paid-subscription site offering Globe content and a few extras; and Boston.com, a free site that’s been around since the mid-1990s.
The problem, Schwartz tells us, is that Boston.com, stripped of most Globe content, has been struggling, while BostonGlobe.com hasn’t produced as much revenue as Globe executives would like. The next step: a looser paywall for BostonGlobe.com to encourage more social sharing and a mobile-first Boston.com that’s still in development. (Joshua Benton has more at the Nieman Journalism Lab.)
4. Henry wants to reinvent the newspaper business. This week’s New Yorker includes a rather dispiriting account by George Packer of how Jeff Bezos and Amazon.com took over the book business. Anyone looking for signs that Bezos has a clear idea of what to do with The Washington Post, which he agreed to buy just days after Henry’s purchase of the Globe was announced, will come away disappointed — although he is, to his credit, spending money on the Post.
By contrast, Henry comes across as energized, bristling with ideas — peppering Brian McGrory with emails at all hours of the night — and getting ready to unveil new products, such as standalone websites that cover religion, innovation and other topics.
“I wanted to be a part of finding the solution for the Globe and newspapers in general,” Henry tells Schwartz. “I feel my mortality. I don’t want to waste any of the time I have left, and I felt this was a cause worth fighting for.”
5. Mike Barnicle is lurking off stage. If you were worried when you spotted Barnicle with Henry during the World Series, well, you were right to be. Barnicle, who left the Globe in 1998 after a career full of ethical missteps finally caught up with him, really does have Henry’s ear — and even supplied him with the email address of John Allen, the National Catholic Reporter journalist whom Henry successfully talked into coming to the Globe.
The old reprobate hasn’t changed, either, supplying Schwartz with a great quote that artfully combines religion with an F-bomb.
6. The executive team is now in place. By accepting publisher Christopher Mayer’s resignation, naming himself publisher and bringing in former Hill Holliday president Mike Sheehan as his chief executive officer, Henry has completed a series of moves that have remade the top layer of Globe leadership. McGrory is staying. Andrew Perlmutter, who made his bones at Atlantic Media and The Daily Beast, has replaced Jeff Moriarty, who left for a job in Britain, as the Globe’s chief digital strategist.
That’s not to rule out further change, especially if Henry’s goals aren’t met. But the sense you get is that Henry — to use a Red Sox analogy — now has his Larry Lucchino/Ben Cherington/John Farrell triumvirate in place. No doubt they all realize that winning a world championship is a lot easier than finding a profitable way forward for the beleaguered newspaper business.
Nearly 33,000 people have signed an online petition put together by RootsAction, headed by longtime media critic Norman Solomon, to call attention to Amazon’s $600 million contract to provide cloud services to the CIA. The Post’s owner is Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon. Here is the text of the petition:
A basic principle of journalism is to acknowledge when the owner of a media outlet has a major financial relationship with the subject of coverage. We strongly urge the Washington Post to be fully candid with its readers about the fact that the newspaper’s new owner, Jeff Bezos, is the founder and CEO of Amazon which recently landed a $600 million contract with the CIA. The Washington Post’s coverage of the CIA should include full disclosure that the sole owner of the Post is also the main owner of Amazon — and Amazon is now gaining huge profits directly from the CIA.
Baron, in his response, argues that the Post “has among the strictest ethics policies in the field of journalism, and we vigorously enforce it. We have routinely disclosed corporate conflicts when they were directly relevant to our coverage. We reported on Amazon’s pursuit of CIA contracts in our coverage of plans by Jeff Bezos to purchase The Washington Post.” Baron goes on to point out that the Post has been a leader in reporting on the National Security Agency and on the CIA’s involvement in the Colombian government’s fight against an insurgency, writing:
You can be sure neither the NSA nor the CIA has been pleased with publication of their secrets.
Neither Amazon nor Jeff Bezos was involved, nor ever will be involved, in our coverage of the intelligence community.
(Note: I first learned about the petition from Greg Mitchell’s blog, Pressing Issues.)
The exchange between RootsAction and Baron highlights the conflicts of interest that can arise when wealthy individuals such as Bezos buy in to the newspaper business. It’s a situation that affects The Boston Globe as well, as its editors juggle the lower-stakes conflict between John Henry’s ownership of the Globe and his majority interest in the Red Sox.
Baron himself is not unfamiliar with the Red Sox conflict, as the New York Times Co., from whom Henry bought the Globe, owned a minority stake in the team and in New England Sports Network, which carries Red Sox games, during most of Baron’s years as Globe editor.
The way the Globe handled it during those years was just about right: don’t disclose in sports stories, but disclose whenever the paper covers the Red Sox as a business. Current Globe editor Brian McGrory has insisted that Henry will not interfere. Henry, in a speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last week, said he would not breech the wall of separation between the Globe’s news operations and its business interests.
Of course, it’s not as though the era in which news organizations were typically owned by publicly traded corporations was free of such conflicts. (The Times Co., after all, is a publicly traded corporation, though the Sulzberger family calls the shots.) Media critic Danny Schechter noted in his book “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception” that MSNBC — then in its pre-liberal phase — was a cheerleader for the war in Iraq even as its then-corporate parent, General Electric Co., was a leading military contractor.
But the rise of a new breed of media moguls such as Bezos, Henry and Aaron Kushner of the Orange County Register, who buy their way into the news business with their own personal wealth, seems likely to bring the issue of conflicts to the fore. The same is true of a media entrepreneur of a different sort — eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who is launching an online venture called First Look Media with (among others) the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.
It is the very fact that these individuals have been successful that makes them such intriguing players in the quest to reinvent the news business. But disclosure and non-interference need to be at the forefront of their ethical codes.
Boston Globe publisher Chris Mayer was his usual affable self when we exchanged New Year’s greetings this morning at the Mandarin Oriental hotel. He knew something very few others knew — that he would be announcing his departure before the end of the day. But no doubt he’d come to terms with that as early as last August, when Red Sox principal owner John Henry agreed to buy the paper from the New York Times Co. for $70 million.
Mayer, like me and several hundred other people, had turned out for a breakfast speech by Henry before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. The soft-spoken Henry didn’t make much news. He talked about his soccer and baseball teams for so long that I wondered if he would ever get around to his newspaper. When he did, it was to say he planned to apply the same formula to turning around the Globe that he did to reviving the Red Sox — hard work and smarts, leavened, he hoped, with good fortune.
“No one has a magic bullet for newspapers,” Henry said. “We have to get it right at the Globe, and we’ll work as hard as we need to do to do that.” And though he talked about boosting the paper’s coverage in areas in which it excels — particularly in local coverage — he conceded that it meant cutting back in some other, unspecified areas as well.
If it’s smarts that Henry is looking for, Mayer has plenty. A longtime Globe veteran who got the top job in 2010 following a string of Times Co. executives, Mayer was a popular choice both inside and outside 135 Morrissey Blvd. Moreover, he deserves much of the credit for some key business-side decisions made in recent years, such as raising the price of the print edition and introducing the paper’s two-website strategy — the subscription-based BostonGlobe.com and the free Boston.com.
Still, it’s hardly a surprise that the new owner would want to pick his own publisher. Last week came word that the Globe was hiring Hill Holliday chairman Mike Sheehan as an advertising consultant, a move that seemed more Henry than Mayer. And this morning Henry announced that he was seeking a chief operating officer to run the Globe — a person who, one might assume, could be handed the title of publisher as well. (Craig Douglas of the Boston Business Journal covers Mayer’s departure here and Henry’s talk here.)
With Mayer leaving, it’s time to start wondering how committed Henry is to keeping Brian McGrory as the Globe’s editor. Owners hire publishers; publishers hire editors. And Mayer’s successor may want to put his or her mark on the paper by choosing the Globe’s top news executive. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have done a better job than McGrory, who oversaw the paper’s Pulitzer-caliber coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings as well as important enterprise projects. But it’s hard to imagine how Mayer could have done a better job, either.
The message today, in case anyone had missed it before, is that Henry didn’t inherit the Globe — he bought it. And though he seems sincere in talking about the paper as a public trust, he’s making it clear that he intends to run it as he sees fit.
John Henry’s nearly 2,900-word message to readers of The Boston Globe could have been little more than an exercise in public relations, standing up for what is good and deploring what is bad.
There’s a lot of that, of course. We’re only into the second paragraph before he dutifully informs us that the Globe “is the eyes and ears of the region in some ways, the heartbeat in many others.” But Henry, a billionaire financier who is the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, is also unexpectedly revealing about himself and how he intends to run the Globe. (Henry purchased the Globe, its BostonGlobe.com and Boston.com websites, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester and several smaller properties from the New York Times Co. for $70 million. The sale, announced in August, closed last week following a brief delay over a labor dispute at the T&G. Henry also made a bit of news when folks at the T&G noticed that his message omitted Worcester entirely.)
Henry’s piece, headlined “Why I bought the Globe,” takes up a full page in the Opinion section of Sunday’s paper. It’s teased on the front page as well. He writes about his life, the Red Sox, the financially struggling news business and what he thinks needs to be done to set it on a sustainable path. Here are what I think are the most important takeaways.
1. He plans to be an activist owner. Just the atmospherics of the essay itself are a pretty strong indication that Henry does not see this as a passive investment. He wants to be the face of the Globe.
To counter his image as a reserved, slightly eccentric rich guy who dabbles in sports, Henry goes into some detail about his involvement in the civil-rights movement and his subsequent retreat “into what most of my friends thought was my primary talent at the time — writing and performing rock music.”
Somewhere along the way he made a lot of money, but he writes about that only briefly. Instead, he describes his stewardship of the Red Sox as a possible model for what he intends to do with the Globe:
When we acquired the Red Sox, profit was literally at the bottom of our list of goals. We were determined to do whatever it took to win.
Now I see The Boston Globe and all that it represents as another great Boston institution that is worth fighting for.
Here’s another intriguing example of what sort of profile Henry intends for himself as the Globe’s owner: Recently the Boston Business Journal reported that toxic waste at the Globe’s Dorchester property could complicate any plans Henry might have to develop the site and move the paper to a cheaper location. Henry used his Twitter feed to dispute the BBJ’s story and slam an earlier piece about the Globe’s break-up with a classified-ad site called Cars.com:
A feisty newspaper owner who fights back in public? Bring it on. That’s certainly an improvement over the gray management style of the Times Co.
2. He’s looking for advice in all the right places. If the Globe and other large regional dailies are going to survive and prosper, they need to develop new ways of doing business. So it’s encouraging that Henry mentions alliances the paper already has with Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, the MIT Media Lab and the Nieman Journalism Lab.
Henry also gives a shout-out to Clay Shirky, which I take as a signal that Henry is reading and talking to the right people. It doesn’t sound like he intends to take the approach adopted by Aaron Kushner, a one-time Globe suitor who’s winning plaudits for trying to revive the Orange County Register by focusing on the print edition. The Globe has been a leader in digital journalism. So it’s good news that Henry sounds like he’s going to double down on innovation.
3. He has some retro ideas about paid content. Near the top of his commentary, Henry repeats an old trope, writing that newspapers have been losing money because “Readers were flocking from the papers to the Internet, consuming expensive journalism for free.”
Now, I’ve got nothing against charging for digital subscriptions, and the Globe has had some success with that — 39,000 at last count. But it’s important to keep in mind what newspaper owners are up against in asking readers to pay for online access.
As has often been said, newspaper readers never paid for the news — they paid for the expense of printing and delivering the paper, with advertisers picking up the rest. These days, readers are paying — a lot — for their own printing presses (computers, tablets and smartphones) and their own delivery (broadband and cellular access). It’s perfectly understandable that they don’t want to pay more.
What went wrong was not that newspapers started giving away their content but, rather, that the advertising model collapsed, especially from classifieds. Henry understands this, writing, “I feel strongly that newspapers and their news sites are going to rely upon the support of subscribers to a large extent in order to provide what readers want.”
I wish any newspaper owner well in persuading readers to pay for journalism. But we have to understand that we are asking them to do something they’ve never done before: pay for news in addition to paying for printing and delivery. We need to be humble about how much we’re asking of our audience.
4. He wants the Globe to act as a guide to the larger conversation. One of the most important roles professional journalism can play is to aggregate and curate the torrent of information — not just when big news breaks, but on a daily basis.
The New York Times does this with The Lede; the Globe does it from time to time, as it did following the Boston Marathon bombing. The idea is to become the go-to place for trustworthy links to other news sources, blogs and citizen media. Henry clearly gets that, writing:
We will provide what we will call the Globe Standard when it comes to curated links that will ensure our readers do not waste their time when they click on news, reviews, writers, columnists, ecommerce, events, opportunities, and social engagement from any of our platforms.
One thing Henry gets absolutely right is that the newspaper business is not now and never was compatible with ownership by publicly traded corporations and the quarterly demands of Wall Street. For more than a generation, corporate chains slashed newsrooms, first to drive up profit margins, later to stave off mounting losses. The debt they took on to build their chains is one of the prime reasons for their inability to set themselves on a new path. Henry understands that.
“I soon realized that one of the key things the paper needed in order to prosper was private, local ownership, passionate about its mission,” Henry writes. Farther down, he adds: “But this investment isn’t about profit at all. It’s about sustainability. Any great paper, the Globe included, must generate enough revenue to support its vital mission.”
Leaving aside the obvious fact that profit is a key to sustainability, Henry articulates a vision in which journalism comes first — which is another way of saying the customer comes first. Too many newspaper owners have forgotten that.
Photo (cc) by Patrick Mannion and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.