Why John Henry should dump Times content

Screen Shot 2013-10-25 at 2.07.20 PMThe New York Times Co. no longer owns The Boston Globe. Now is the moment for new owner John Henry to take the next step: stop running Times content in his paper.

I’m suggesting this not because I dislike the Times. Rather, I’m suggesting it because the Globe’s best, most engaged readers are those who are most likely to read the Times, too. There’s nothing quite like reading the Globe and coming across a shortened Times story on a national or international event to make you feel like you’re reading Times Lite.

For example: The story above, by New York Times reporter Robert Pear, takes up about 750 words at the top of page A2 in today’s Globe — and 1,170 words on page A18 of the Times.

For many years — even for the first decade or so of Times Co. ownership — the Globe never ran Times articles. Instead, the Globe supplemented its own coverage with journalism from wire services and from newspapers such as The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

Somewhere along the line, though, someone at the Mother Ship decided the Times Co. could save money by running Times articles in the Globe. It’s hard to argue with the math — no matter how they did the accounting, it was essentially free content.

I don’t know how many people subscribe to both the Times and the Globe. The number may be very small. But those double subscribers tend to be journalists, community leaders and opinion makers — the very people Henry needs to court as he embarks on his new career as a newspaper owner.

Dumping the Times would serve as an emphatic statement that he intends to chart a new, independent course for the Globe.

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Globe publisher calls BBJ report “misleading”

Boston Globe publisher Christopher Mayer is disputing a report that toxic contamination at the paper’s 16-acre Dorchester property could interfere with any plans incoming owner John Henry might have to move the Globe and redevelop the land.

In an internal message to Globe employees that I obtained, Mayer refers to the story as “misleading,” and says the contamination will not be an obstacle to redevelopment.

Craig Douglas of the Boston Business Journal wrote on Tuesday that pollution from underground diesel tanks, first discovered in 1996, has led the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to ban “any work or potential development that might disturb sections of chemical-soaked soil in their present state.” [Note: Douglas responds below.]

The $70 million purchase of the Globe has already been delayed by a labor dispute at the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, which, like the Globe, is being sold to Henry by the New York Times Co.

Douglas’ story makes it clear that the such problems are not unusual in urban areas, and that the typical solution is rehabilitation and reuse. But he notes that such efforts can run into the tens of millions of dollars depending on the seriousness of the contamination.

Douglas reports that the Globe and the New York Times Co. declined to comment and that Henry could not be reached.

Mayer’s message to employees refers to “reports,” but the news was broken by the BBJ. For instance, this article in Go Local Worcester, posted on Wednesday, credits the BBJ.

I have emailed Douglas for a response to Mayer’s message.

The full text of Mayer’s message follows.

Dear Colleagues,

I would like to address recent press reports concerning environmental conditions at The Globe’s headquarters on Morrissey Boulevard that raised questions about the safety of two areas of the property.

These reports are misleading. The conditions referred to are nearly two decades old and measures taken at that time addressed the issues that were identified.

Like any property holder with industrial activity conducted on its site over several decades, The Globe has, on occasion, needed to address environmental conditions. Development on the site is governed by health and safety rules and regulations, but it is not prohibited or banned.

Indeed, during the sales process, and prompted by requests from potential buyers (including John Henry), The Globe conducted an updated environmental assessment that did not identify any environmental conditions that warranted further review.

Chris

Christopher M. Mayer
Publisher, The Boston Globe
President, New England Media Group

Update. Craig Douglas responds: “As your blog suggests, there is nothing misleading in our story. The environmental reports we cited speak for themselves, making it clear there are certain activities and uses that are prohibited on the Globe’s property in its current state. We never claim or infer, as the Globe’s publisher suggests, that those problems can’t be remediated or that the Globe employees are exposed in any way to health risks.”

Update II. It’s official: John Henry is now the owner of The Boston Globe, the Telegram & Gazette, Boston.com and several smaller properties. (6:41 p.m.)

Update III. I missed this earlier, but I thought it was worth flagging as a sign of how Henry might respond to negative news coverage. (Saturday.)

 

Globe cuts Your Town staffing in half

Just catching up with this. Jon Chesto of the Boston Business Journal reports that The Boston Globe’s Your Town sites are being trimmed by six correspondents — approximately half the staff. Your Town, part of the Globe’s free Boston.com website, provides hyperlocal coverage of the suburbs as well as of several Boston neighborhoods.

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 8.38.56 AMGlobe regional editor David Dahl tells Chesto that there will be no site closures. But it seems inevitable that there will be cuts in coverage, even though Globe staff reporters and freelancers will continue to contribute. There are more than 100 Your Town sites and about 15 related Your Campus websites covering colleges and universities in Greater Boston.

Your Town got off to a shaky start in 2008, as GateHouse Media — which operates Wicked Local sites in virtually all of the same communities targeted by Your Town — sued the New York Times Co. (the Globe’s owner, at least for a few more weeks) for copyright infringement, arguing that the Your Town sites in some cases aggregated virtually all of GateHouse’s content for a given community without offering much else.

The two sides reached an out-of-court settlement in early 2009, as I reported for The Guardian. Your Town eventually grew into a valuable resource in many communities. But it looks like the sites, which carry little advertising, got to be too expensive to operate.

Chesto writes that the cuts call hyperlocal coverage into question as a business strategy, noting that AOL’s Patch sites are in the midst of deep cuts as well. But though hyperlocal may well be a loser at the corporate chain level, there are a number of successful independent sites operating across the country. You could read a book about such sites, hint, hint. The real issue is that hyperlocal is best understood as a grassroots phenomenon.

Did Globe executives reach this decision on their own? Or was incoming owner John Henry involved? And if he was, what does that say about his priorities for the Globe?

(Disclosure: Journalism students at Northeastern as well as several other Boston colleges and universities contribute to the Your Town and Your Campus sites.)

BBJ scores big on two local media stories

The Boston Business Journal has come up aces during the past week with two meaty stories on local media news.

• A shaky future at the Globe. The first, published last Friday, found that confidential financial documents put together by the New York Times Co. suggest The Boston Globe was in slightly worse shape than outside observers might have imagined when the paper and several affiliated properties were sold to Red Sox principal owner John Henry for $70 million in early August. The BBJ’s Craig Douglas writes (sub. req.):

In essence, Henry is buying into a borderline breakeven enterprise already teed up for $35 million in cost cuts over a two-year period before he even walks through the door.

How bad is it? According to the documents cited by Douglas, advertising revenue at the New England Media Group (NEMG) — mainly the Globe, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester and Boston.com — is expected to be 31 percent below the 2009 level next year. And paid print circulation revenue continues to slip despite price increases at the Globe and the T&G.

You may have heard people say at the time of the sale that Boston.com was worth more than the Globe itself. Well, I don’t think you’ve heard me say it. Print advertising remains far more valuable than online, and that holds true at NEMG as well. Douglas writes:

The Globe is by far the biggest revenue generator of the group, accounting for 69 percent, or about $255 million, of its forecasted revenue this year. The Telegram & Gazette in Worcester is next in line at $42.5 million in forecasted revenue this year, while Boston.com is on track to book about $40 million.

Print products account for about 88 percent of NEMG’s total annual revenue. That heavy reliance on print-related advertising and circulation revenue has proven particularly problematic of late, as both categories have lost ground since 2009 and are forecasted to see continued deterioration for the foreseeable future.

Douglas’ story is protected behind a paywall, but if you can find a print edition, you should. Suffice it to say that John Henry has his work cut out for him. The picture Douglas paints is not catastrophic. But it does show that the Globe is not quite as far along the road toward figuring out the digital future as some of us might have hoped.

• Tough times ahead for local papers. The other big media splash, which I linked to last night, is Jon Chesto’s analysis of the sale of Rupert Murdoch’s Dow Jones Local Newspaper Group (formerly Ottaway Newspapers) to an investment firm affiliated with GateHouse Media. The papers sold include three prominent Greater Boston dailies: The Standard-Times of New Bedford, the Cape Cod Times and the Portsmouth Herald, on the New Hampshire seacoast.

Chesto’s article is part of the BBJ’s free offerings, so by all means read the whole thing. It’s a real eye-opener, as he explains as best anyone can at this early stage what the sale and simultaneous bankruptcy of GateHouse will mean for local papers and the communities they serve. Unfortunately, indications are the news will be very bad indeed.

Fairport, N.Y.-based GateHouse, which publishes about 100 local papers in Eastern Massachusetts (including The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, The Enterprise of Brockton and The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham), will somehow be combined with the entity that holds the former Ottaway papers into a new company with the uninspired name of New Media (that may change). (Update: Chesto is a former business editor of The Patriot Ledger, which no doubt helped him write his piece with a real air of authority. And thanks to Roy Harris for reminding me of that.)

The deal with Murdoch — at $82 million, quite a bit more than I had anticipated — was done through Newcastle Investment Corp., a real estate investment trust that is part of Fortress Investment Group, which in turn is GateHouse’s principal backer.

The powers-that-be are already talking about slashing the Ottaway papers, which are among the best local dailies in the region. Chesto writes:

The papers are described as “under-managed by News Corp.” with “expense reductions of only 6% since 2010.” Translation: We can take more out of the expenses than News Corp. did. GateHouse has been an aggressive cost cutter in recent years, most notably with efforts to consolidate most of its page design and layout functions. That work was centralized in two locations, including an office in Framingham. But it will soon be downsized further, into one location in Austin, Texas.

Yes, Murdoch, the “genocidal tyrant,” is likely to prove a better steward of local journalism than the people he’s selling to.

Post-bankruptcy, with $1.2 billion in debt off their backs, the executives now running GateHouse are going to be empowered. According to a presentation put together for investors, Chesto writes, New Media may spend $1 billion to buy up local media companies over the next three years.

Chesto doesn’t say so, but if I were working for the Eagle-Tribune papers north of Boston (The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times), I’d be polishing that résumé right now. On the other hand, those papers have already been cut so much under the Alabama-based CNHI chain that it’s not like a new owner could do a whole lot worse.

At a time when there are reasons to be hopeful about the newspaper business thanks to the interest of people like John Henry, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett, the GateHouse deal shows that there are still plenty of reasons to be worried about the future.

Some pressing questions for John Henry

Boston Globe InstagramThis commentary was published earlier at The Huffington Post and at WGBH News .

The speculation had been building since Wednesday, when The Boston Globe reported that Red Sox principal owner John Henry had restructured his bid to buy the paper.

It reached a peak on Friday afternoon, when legendary baseball reporter Peter Gammons — himself a Globe alumnus — posted a one-line item on his new website, Gammons Daily: “A source says the New York Times Corporation has chosen John Henry as the new owner of the Boston Globe.”

Confirmation came early today, as the Globe and The New York Times each reported that Henry had purchased the Globe and its associated properties — most prominently Boston.com and the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester — for $70 million. The Globe’s story led page one, whereas the Times’ version apparently didn’t even make it into today’s print edition.

The sale price represents a huge comedown from 1993, when the Times Co. purchased the Globe for $1.1 billion, half the company’s stock-market valuation at that time. As if by way of justification, the Times’ report on the Henry deal runs through several other pennies-on-the-dollar sales of major metropolitan newspapers in recent years, including those of Philadelphia’s daily papers, the Inquirer and the Daily News, as well as The Tampa Tribune.

Henry’s winning bid also thwarts an attempted comeback by members of the Taylor family, who owned the Globe almost from its founding in 1872 until the 1993 sale.

Among the would-be buyers was a group that included Stephen Taylor, a former executive vice president of the Globe, and Benjamin Taylor, a former publisher. A lot of people in Boston were rooting for the Taylors. But the money they got for selling the paper 20 years ago was split among dozens of family members, and their bid to repurchase the Globe was widely viewed as undercapitalized. You have to assume that if they had the money, the Times Co. would have sold it to them already — or in 2009, when the Globe was first put up for sale.

The ascension of a wealthy local owner may represent the best possible outcome for the Globe. Nevertheless there are questions Henry will have to answer soon — starting with the fate of publisher Christopher Mayer and editor Brian McGrory, well-liked Globe veterans who generally get high marks for the way they’re running the paper. Will they stay? Or will Henry bring in his own people?

Here are a few other questions for Henry.

1. Will he seek to improve the Globe’s bottom line by investing — or by cutting? Unlike newspaper owners who’ve financed their acquisition by taking on debt that they then have to pay off by slashing the newsroom, Henry has the luxury of being able to do anything he wants.

Although paid print circulation and advertising revenue have been dropping, the Globe is believed to be marginally profitable — a considerable improvement over 2009, when the Times Co. actually threatened to close the paper over mounting losses. The Globe today also has about 360 full-time editorial employees. That’s quite a drop from the 550 or so the Globe employed a dozen years ago, as my WGBH colleague Adam Reilly recently reported in Boston magazine, but it’s still enough to make the paper by far the largest news organization in Eastern Massachusetts. The Globe may no longer be the 800-pound gorilla, but a 600-pound gorilla can still accomplish a lot.

My guess (and hope) is that Henry will pursue a growth strategy, and that he has a healthy enough ego to believe he can succeed where others have failed. Perhaps he’ll emulate Aaron Kushner, the young greeting-card executive (and onetime Globe bidder) who’s attracted attention with his attempts to turn around the Orange County Register by hiring journalists and expanding coverage.

One aspect of Kushner’s stewardship I hope Henry doesn’t emulate is Kushner’s emphasis on print. The Globe has taken an innovative approach to the Internet with its two-website strategy (Boston.com, which is free, exists alongside the paid BostonGlobe.com site), a streaming music station, RadioBDC, and online coverage of Boston’s suburbs, neighborhoods and colleges through its Your Town and Your Campus sites. (Disclosure: Our students at Northeastern University contribute to Your Town and Your Campus as well as to other parts of the Globe.)

Henry could be a hero to the newspaper business if he can figure out new digital strategies. A print-first orientation would be a major step backwards.

2. What happens to the Globe’s Boston headquarters? The Globe occupies prime Dorchester real estate near the University of Massachusetts and the JFK Library, leading to considerable speculation that the next owner might want to sell the property and move the paper. Indeed, the Globe’s land and physical assets might be worth the $70 million purchase price all by themselves.

The challenge is that the Globe’s massive printing presses would have to be moved. And the paper has been able to build a nice business for itself by printing a number of other papers, including the city’s second daily, the Boston Herald, as well as some suburban papers.

Still, it would make all kinds of sense to move the presses to a low-cost exurban location and transfer the newsroom and business operations to a smaller space closer to the downtown.

3. How will the Globe cover the Red Sox? The jokes have already started (yes, I’ve done my best to help) about Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy, a notoriously negative presence who wrote former Red Sox manager Terry Francona’s trash-and-burn memoir Francona: The Red Sox Years, which is highly critical of the Red Sox’ ownership.

In fact, the Globe and the Red Sox have been down this road before. Until a few years ago, the Times Co. was a part-owner of New England Sports Network (NESN), which broadcasts Red Sox and Bruins games and whose majority owner is the Red Sox. Henry’s sole ownership of the Globe, though, would represent full immersion in a way that the NESN deal did not.

The real issue is not how the Globe covers the Red Sox as a baseball team but rather how it manages the tricky task of reporting on a major business and civic organization that’s run by the paper’s new owner.

Earlier this year the Globe published a tough report on a sweetheart licensing deal the Red Sox have with the city to use the streets around Fenway Park before games — making “tens of millions of dollars” while “paying a tiny fraction in licensing fees.” (Further disclosure: Some of the Globe’s reporting was done in partnership with Northeastern’s Initiative for Investigative Reporting.)

I’d expect to see tough scrutiny of how the Globe covers the Red Sox in the months and years ahead. No doubt the Herald and other rival news organizations will pay close attention to the relationship. The problem isn’t so much that the Globe is likely to go into the tank for the Red Sox (it isn’t), but that it’s really in a no-win situation.

The answers to those and other questions will emerge in the weeks and months ahead. What matters today is that our largest and most important news organization has been purchased by a local businessman with deep pockets and a track record as a good corporate citizen. That’s good news not just for the Globe, but for all of us.

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy.

While we wait for the John Henry announcement

We’re all waiting for confirmation of Peter Gammons’ report that the New York Times Co. will sell The Boston Globe to Red Sox principal owner John Henry. Gammons’ tidbit broke too late for “Beat the Press.” But in Rants and Raves, I talked about why a sale to Henry made sense. You can watch it above.

Why John Henry’s bid for the Globe makes sense

John Henry
John Henry

Maybe it’s because this has dragged on for such a long time, but Beth Healy’s report that Red Sox principal owner John Henry has decided to make a solo bid to buy the paper and its associated properties carries with it the ring of inevitability.

He’s got the money, which has always been the big question about local favorites Steve and Ben Taylor. If they had the cash, the New York Times Co. would have sold it to them in 2009.

Henry doesn’t have any obvious flaws, like San Diego businessman “Papa Doug” Manchester. He’s even restructured his bid — possibly at the request of the Times Co.?

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Henry introduced as the next owner of the Globe sooner rather than later — possibly to be followed by an announcement that Dan Shaughnessy has accepted a job at ESPN.

Photo via Wikipedia.

What to watch for as the Globe sale heats up

CA_SDUTBeth Healy today offers an update on who might buy The Boston Globe and its related properties, which include the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester and Boston.com. She reports that eight potential buyers are circling, and that the deadline for submitting bids is June 27.

Three story lines worth following:

1. The Taylors are still in the mix. It would be a comeback of epic proportions if Steve and Ben Taylor were to repurchase the Globe 20 years after their family sold it to the New York Times Co. for $1.1 billion. And for those of us who want to see the Globe wind up in responsible local hands, it would probably represent the best outcome.

The question since 2009, when the Taylors made their first failed attempt to reacquire the Globe, is whether they can raise enough money to buy the paper and run it properly. Maybe the Taylors can combine forces with the Kraft family, who own the New England Patriots and are said to be interested.

Former Globe president Rick Daniels is in the mix as well. But he’s partnering with a private-equity executive, which raises all kinds of red flags.

2. The “face of hell” emerges. “Papa Doug” Manchester, as he likes to be known, bought the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2011 and renamed it U-T San Diego, which ought to be reason enough to disqualify him. But it gets worse. Manchester, a hotel magnate, is a conservative opponent of same-sex marriage who has shaped his paper’s coverage to serve his business interests. Here is a charming excerpt from a profile of Manchester by Voice of San Diego’s Rob Davis:

Few San Diegans could have evoked the visceral cancel-my-subscription-today reaction that Manchester did when he bought the Union-Tribune. He has a reputation: egomaniacal, short-tempered, litigious, unrelenting. Some fear him. Two politically connected people warned me not to write a negative word about him. “If there is a hell, Doug Manchester is the face of it,” one said.

And now he’s said to be interested in the Globe.

3. The Globe’s headquarters may be sold. Healy reports that several prospective buyers would sell the Globe’s Dorchester plant if they succeed in buying the media properties. This strikes me as odd, since the Globe has had some success in taking on outside printing jobs such as the Boston Herald, The Patriot Ledger of Quincy and The Enterprise of Brockton.

I don’t understand how the Globe can keep the presses rolling unless it stays put. On the other hand, space isn’t exactly at a premium at 135 Morrissey Blvd. these days. Maybe the idea is to sell the building, lease back part of it and rent out the rest.

No doubt we’ll learn more in the weeks to come.

Image via Today’s Front Pages at the Newseum.

Poynter analyst hails Globe’s prospects

Rick Edmonds

Earlier this month, before the New York Times Co. announced it was putting The Boston Globe up for sale for the second time in four years, Poynter Institute business analyst Rick Edmonds sat down with Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab for the lab’s weekly podcast, “Press Publish.”

Toward the end of their nearly hour-long conversation, Benton asked Edmonds which newspapers he thought had the brightest prospects over the next few years. Edmonds responded that he could think of four major metros that were getting it right: the Globe, the Seattle Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Tampa Bay Times — formerly and still better known as the St. Petersburg Times.

(It should be noted that Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times, although I think anyone would point to that paper as one model for how to do it right.)

What Edmonds meant: the four papers had done a better job than most of maintaining the quality and depth of their journalism while at the same time achieving some measure of success financially. Earlier in the podcast, Edmonds voiced his enthusiasm for flexible online paywalls such as the Globe’s (now becoming less flexible).

As another prominent newspaper analyst, Ken Doctor, observes, a lot of newspapers are likely to be sold in the months ahead. The business has recovered slightly since the depths of 2009 and prices are low. Of course, prices are low because the long-term prospects for newspapers remain grim. Still, there are no doubt a number of prospective owners who have enough money and ego to think that they will be the great exception.

Seen in that light, the Globe is a prime property that can be acquired for an attractive price. “The Globe isn’t going anywhere,” Globe columnist Kevin Cullen writes. “It’s changing owners.”

More pointless speculation on who will buy the Globe

There’s a name I left out in my earlier post on the possible sale of The Boston Globe: Rick Daniels, a former top Globe executive who, in December, left GateHouse Media New England, where he was president.

Not long after Daniels’ departure, I started picking up some buzz that he would emerge as part of a group interested in buying the Globe. And I see both the Globe and the Boston Herald mention him today.

No one has any idea what’s going to happen. But it strikes me that one possible scenario is an alliance joining Orange County Register owner Aaron Kushner; former Globe executive Stephen Taylor, part of the family that used to own the Globe; and Daniels. Kushner wanted the Globe at one time, still may, and has joined forces with Taylor in the past. Daniels worked for the Taylors. Why not?

Update: Your first must-read on the whole topic is Ken Doctor’s latest for the Nieman Journalism Lab, “The newsonomics of The Boston Globe’s sale.” Among other things, he guesses a sale price of $100 million to $150 million for the Globe and its related properties — 10 percent of what the New York Times Co. paid 20 years ago, not adjusted for inflation.