Would John Henry sell the T&G to an out-of-state chain?

Worcester skyline. The Telegram & Gazette headquarters is the larger building on the left.
Worcester skyline. The Telegram & Gazette headquarters is the larger building on the left.

This article was previously published at WGBH News.

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.

Six takeaways from BoMag’s big John Henry profile

John Henry
John Henry

This article was posted earlier at WGBH 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.

“Papa Doug” minion squawks over Globe sale

A real bump in the road? Or just the Herald being the Herald when it comes to all things related to The Boston Globe?

Chris Cassidy reports in the Boston Herald that the group headed by Douglas Manchester, the right-wing businessman who owns the paper formerly known as the San Diego Union-Tribune, is squawking because its executives believe they offered more money for the Globe than Red Sox principal owner John Henry. Cassidy quotes John Lynch, the chief executive of U-T San Diego:

We bid significantly more than Henry. At the end of the day, I’m certain our bid was higher and could have been a lot more higher if they had just asked. I’m just stunned. I thought this was a public company that had a fiduciary duty to get the most by its stockholders…. From the beginning, I don’t think they wanted to sell to us.

Cassidy writes that the allegations “could delay the deal and leave the New York Times Co. open to shareholder backlash.”

Could they? No doubt we’ll learn more in the days ahead. One thing working in favor of the deal is that the Times Co. has two classes of stockholders, with the voting shares firmly under the control of the Sulzberger family and its allies. But that doesn’t mean the Sulzbergers are legally allowed to leave money on the table.

Last February, Boston Globe reporter Beth Healy wrote an article in which Times Co. vice chairman Michael Golden made comments that could be construed as at least somewhat contradictory. Here is how she began:

New York Times Co. vice chairman Michael Golden told Boston Globe employees Friday that the company has a duty to seek the highest bidder in a sale but aims to leave the newspaper in responsible hands.

“We have no intention to send the New England Media Group to the slaughterhouse,” he said in one of three town-hall style meetings with employees.

One way of interpreting that is that the Times Co. would select the highest qualified bidder — language often invoked so that (for example) a city council isn’t legally bound to award the trash-hauling contract to the low bidder if it turns out that he plans to burn it all in his backyard. Or that the Times Co. would be required to sell to the likes of “Papa Doug” Manchester.

In today’s Globe, Healy reports that, ultimately, what fueled the Henry bid was a lot of green, which may be what prevents the Manchester group’s complaints from rising to the level of seriousness. She writes:

His [Henry’s] was not the highest bid for the Globe, according to people involved in the process. But his offer was appealing to the Times Co. because it was cash, unencumbered by financing issues or a bevy of investment partners. One executive working for the Times Co. said the key was who was best able to get the financing together and close the deal relatively quickly.

It sounds like Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr., if pressed, will be able to make the case that he sold not just to the buyer most likely to preserve the Globe, but also to the one who was the best prepared to sit down and write a check. Money talks.