The Globe’s Saturday shrinkage and its digital future

saturday-globe

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

If you’d asked me 10 years ago if I thought The Boston Globe and other metropolitan dailies would still be printing news on dead trees in 2015, I’d have replied, “Probably not.” Even five years ago, by which time it was clear that print had more resilience than many of us previously assumed, I still believed we were on the verge of drastic change — say, a mostly digital news operation supplemented by a weekend print edition.

Seen in that light, the Globe’s redesigned Saturday edition should be regarded as a cautious, incremental step. Unveiled this past weekend, the paper is thinner (42 pages compared to 52 the previous Saturday) and more magazine-like, with the Metro section starting on A2 rather than coming after the national, international and opinion pages. That’s followed by a lifestyle section called Good Life.

The larger context for these changes is that the existential crisis threatening the newspaper business hasn’t gone away. Revenue from print advertising — still the economic engine that powers virtually all daily newspapers — continues to fall, even as digital ads have proved to be a disappointment. Fewer ads mean fewer pages. This isn’t the first time the Globe has dropped pages, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. (The paper is also cutting staff in some areas, even as it continues to hire for new digital initiatives.)

How bad is it? According to the Pew Research Center’s “State of the Media 2015” report, revenue from print advertising at U.S. newspapers fell from $17.3 billion in 2013 to $16.4 billion in 2014. Digital advertising, meanwhile, rose from just $3.4 billion to $3.5 billion. And for some horrifying perspective on how steep the decline has been, print advertising revenue was $47.4 billion just 10 years ago.

The Globe’s response to this ugly drop has been two-fold. First, it’s asked its print and digital readers to pick up more of the cost through higher subscription fees. Second, even as the print edition shrinks, it has expanded what’s offered online — not just at BostonGlobe.com, but via its free verticals covering the local innovation economy (BetaBoston), the Catholic Church (Crux) and, soon, life sciences and health (Stat). Stories from those sites find their way into the Globe, while readers who are interested in going deeper can visit the sites themselves. (An exception to this strategy is Boston.com, the former online home of the Globe, which has been run as a separate operation since its relaunch in 2014.)

“I don’t quite think of it as the demise of print,” says Globe editor Brian McGrory of the Saturday redesign. He notes that over the past year-plus the print paper has added the weekly political section Capital as well as expanded business and Sunday arts coverage and daily full-size feature sections in place of the former tabloid “g” section.

“There are areas where we do well where we’re enhancing in print and there are areas where we’re looking to cut in print,” McGrory adds. “It’s a very fine and delicate balancing act.”

Some of those cuts in print are offset by more digital content. Consider the opinion pages, which underwent a redesign this past spring. (I should point out that McGrory does not run the opinion pages. Editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg, like McGrory, reports directly to publisher John Henry.) The online opinion section is simply more robust than what’s in print, offering some content a day or two earlier as well as online exclusives. This past Saturday, the print section was cut from two pages to one. Yet last week also marked the debut of a significant online-only feature: Opinion Reel, nine short videos submitted by members of the public on a wide variety of topics.

All are well-produced, ranging from an evocative look at a family raising a son with autism (told from his sister’s point of view) to a video op-ed on dangerous bicycle crossings along the Charles River. There’s even a claymation-like look at a man living with blindness. But perhaps the most gripping piece is about a man who was seriously beaten outside a bar in South Boston. It begins with a photo of him in his hospital bed, two middle fingers defiantly outstretched. It ends with him matter-of-factly explaining what led to the beating. “It was because I stepped on the guy’s shoe and he didn’t think I was from Southie,” he says before adding: “It was my godmother’s brother.”

Globe columnist and editorial board member Joanna Weiss, who is curating the project, says the paper received more than 50 submissions for this first round. “It has very much been a group effort,” Weiss told me by email. “The development team built the websites and Nicole Hernandez, digital producer for the editorial page, shepherded that process through; Linda Henry, who is very interested in promoting the local documentary filmmaking community, gave us feedback and advice in the early rounds; David Skok and Jason Tuohey from BostonGlobe.com gave indispensable advice in the final rounds, and of course the entire editorial board helped to screen and select the films.”

But all of this is far afield from the changes to the Saturday paper and what those might portend. McGrory told me he’s received several hundred emails about the redesign, some from readers who liked it, some who hated it and some who suggested tweaks — a few of which will be implemented.

Traditionally, a newspaper’s Saturday edition is its weakest both in terms of circulation and advertising. In the Globe’s case, though, the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday papers sell a few thousand fewer copies than Saturday’s 160,377, according to a 2014 report from the Alliance for Audited Media. No doubt that’s a reflection of a Thursday-through-Sunday subscription deal the Globe offers — though it does raise the question of whether other days might get the Saturday treatment.

“We have no plans right now to change the design or the general format of those papers,” McGrory responds. “But look, everything is always under discussion.” (The Globe’s Sunday print circulation is 282,440, according to the same AAM report. Its paid digital circulation is about 95,000 a day, the highest of any regional newspaper.)

One question many papers are dealing with is whether to continue offering print seven days a week. Advance Newspapers has experimented with cutting back on print at some of its titles, including the storied Times-Picayune of New Orleans. My Northeastern colleague Bill Mitchell’s reaction to the Globe’s Saturday changes was to predict that, eventually, American dailies would emulate European and Canadian papers by shifting their Sunday papers to Saturdays to create a big weekend paper — and eliminating the Sunday paper altogether.

The Globe and Mail of Toronto is one paper that has taken that route, and McGrory says it’s the sort of idea that he and others are keeping an eye on. But he stresses that the Globeisn’t going to follow in that path any time soon.

“Right now we have no plans to touch our Sunday paper,” he says. “It’s a really strong paper journalistically, it’s a strong paper circulation-wise, it’s a strong paper advertising-wise. We’re constantly thinking and rethinking this stuff. But as of this conversation, Sunday is Sunday and we don’t plan to change that at all.”

He adds: “We’re trying to mesh the new world with the printing press, and I think we’re coming out in an OK place. Better than an OK place. A good place.”

Banyan Project eyes Haverhill for its first news co-op

This article was previously posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Ownership matters.

It matters in New Orleans, where Advance Publications is cutting The Times-Picayune’s print edition from seven days a week to three — and gutting the staff —despite earning a profit and paying bonuses in 2010 and 2011.

It matters in Chicago, where Tribune Company — which may soon emerge from bankruptcy — got rid of its hyperlocal reporters at the Chicago Tribune and replaced them with Journatic, which outsources coverage, in some cases to the Philippines, and which until recently used fake bylines on some of its stories. (On Friday, the Tribune suspended its relationship with Journatic after a plagiarism complaint arose.)

And it matters in the Boston area, where GateHouse Media — the national chain that owns more than 100 community newspapers here — is preparing to unveil a centralized in-house content farm whose work could eventually find its way into eastern Massachusetts.

Newspapers, the source of most local journalism, are weighed down by chain ownership and corporate debt. Independent online news sites are a promising alternative. But for-profit sites like The Batavian and Baristanet are too small to provide the full range of community journalism that was typical a generation or two ago. And larger nonprofits like the New Haven Independent and Voice of San Diego are rare, in part because the IRS has put a hold on new ventures.

So what can be done? Later this year, a community news site based on an entirely different ownership model is scheduled to debut in Haverhill, a blue-collar city of 60,000 about 45 minutes north of Boston on the New Hampshire line. The site, to be called Haverhill Matters, will be cooperatively owned, similar to a credit union or a food co-op. Neither for-profit nor nonprofit, the site, if it is to succeed, will depend on the goodwill and support of its members. And it is designed to be easily replicated in other cities and regions.

Haverhill Matters will be the first visible manifestation of the Banyan Project, an idea that veteran journalist Tom Stites has been working on for several years. I recently met Stites, whose long résumé includes editing stints at The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, and Mike LaBonte, who chaired the site’s local organizing committee, at a restaurant in Haverhill to discuss their plans. (LaBonte stepped aside a short time later, citing health issues and the pressures of a new job.)

It was something of a reunion. I’d written for Stites several times when he was editor of the UU World, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s denominational magazine. I knew LaBonte through his volunteer work as an editor at NewsTrust, a social network that evaluates journalism for qualities such as fairness and sourcing; he’d led several workshops for my students.

What attracted Stites to the co-op model was his belief that newspaper executives, in their relentless pursuit of high-end advertising, had abandoned all but their most affluent readers. It’s a subject he has spoken and written about passionately, including at the 2006 Media Giraffe conference at UMass Amherst and in a series for the Lab last December.

Banyan sites such as Haverhill Matters are aimed at serving “news deserts,” a term Stites consciously adopted from “food deserts” — that is, lower-income urban neighborhoods where grocery stores are scarce and fast food restaurants proliferate. The idea is that a lack of fresh, relevant news can be as harmful to civic health as a lack of fresh, nutritious food can be to personal health.

That all sounds good, but where will the money come from? Stites said that Banyan sites would be supported through a combination of membership fees, grant money, and advertising. I told him that sounded exactly the same as the model used by nonprofit sites such as the New Haven Independent. Stites responded by emphasizing the benefits of membership in a co-op.

So let me draw a few comparisons between the Banyan model and the Independent. Stites hopes to sign up some 1,200 people who would pay $36 a year, bringing in a little more than $43,000 annually. The Independent asks for readers to pay $10 to $18 a month voluntarily; editor and founder Paul Bass told me he’s got about 100 voluntary subscribers paying a total of about $13,000 a year, which comes to less than 3 percent of his site’s $450,000 annual budget. Given that the Independent has been around for nearly seven years and serves a city twice the size of Haverhill, Stites’ goal is ambitious indeed. But there are differences in terms of the incentives.

Banyan sites such as Haverhill Matters would be free, as is the Independent. But in order to participate on the Haverhill site using community tools that Stites promises will be unusually sophisticated, readers will be asked to pay — a request that would become a requirement after several months. The Independent, by contrast, does not assess any mandatory charges. In keeping with the cooperative model, paid-up Banyan members will elect a board, which will in turn select the full-time editor. Readers will also be able to become members by contributing labor rather than time — perhaps by writing a neighborhood blog that appears on the site. If it works, in other words, a Banyan site would foster a sense of ownership and participation that other models lack.

“This is different from a hyperlocal news site,” Stites told me. “This is a community institution owned by a widely distributed, large number of community members. It has to be owned by members of the community, and they’ve got to support or it doesn’t happen.”

The next few months will be crucial ones. Currently, Stites is trying to raise money for the launch with a pitch at Spot.us. He and the organizing committee are planning a community meeting in Haverhill this September. And if all goes according to plan, Haverhill Matters will go live by the end of the year.

Stites is planning to launch Haverhill Matters with two paid staff members: a full-time, professional editor with roots in the city and a “general manager” whose job would be to build a community around the site and to write. Beyond that, his ideas for covering the news are evolving. Journalism students from nearby Northern Essex Community College would be involved. High school interns might be put to work assembling a community calendar. In our conversation, it came across as amorphous but potentially interesting — worth watching, but with compelling, useful journalism by no means assured.

Strictly speaking, Haverhill is not entirely a news desert, but it comes pretty close. The nearest daily, The Eagle-Tribune, is based in North Andover and owned by CNHI, a national chain based in Montgomery, Alabama. The paper publishes a daily Haverhill edition and a weekly, The Haverhill Gazette. But LaBonte told me that both were a far cry from the days when the Gazette was an independently owned daily paper.

“That was a thriving daily at one point,” LaBonte said. “What I’m hearing from an awful lot of new people is, how do I find out what is going on in Haverhill?”

By early 2013, one of the answers to that question might be a start-up website called Haverhill Matters.

A cloudy digital future for New Orleans

It’s the afternoon before Memorial Day weekend, and I’m sure most people have better things to do than to sit around reading media news. So I’ll be brief on the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s decision to cut back its print edition to three days a week.

First, taken in isolation, I think it’s a good idea. Print is inefficient and expensive, and newspaper companies ought to invest in journalism, not printing and distribution. Print ads are still far more lucrative than their online equivalent. But if the diminishing number of advertisers can be squeezed into fewer editions, then that makes a lot of sense.

It is a little strange that New Orleans will be the first major city to try such an experiment, given that 36 percent of residents are not online. But management is promising to beef up those three days’ worth of print editions, so I don’t see any harm. A daily print newspaper is a cultural artifact that doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense anymore.

Second, and unfortunately, we can’t take this in isolation. It seems that Advance, the corporate chain that owns the Times-Picayune, is cutting not just its print edition but also its coverage of the city. (Advance is also doing the same thing at three of its papers in Alabama.)

Reporters are being laid off. Jim Romenesko yesterday heard that there has been talk of drastic salary cuts for those who stay — even though the paper has been profitable and has paid bonuses in recent years. The paper’s website is a disgrace.

This could have been an exciting day for New Orleans if it meant that the Times-Picayune was embracing a bright digital future. Unfortunately, it has all the appearance of a corporate chain trying to bleed dry one of its most celebrated newspapers.

Page-one image from “Today’s Front Pages” at the Newseum.