A possible buyer emerges for the Globe and T&G

Is the Boston Globe for sale? For the right price — maybe. An investment group headed by a 37-year-old greeting-card entrepreneur named Aaron Kushner emerged this afternoon as a possible buyer for the Globe, Boston.com and the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester.

But the New York Times Co., which wanted to sell the properties in 2009, may no longer be interested. No doubt that would change if Kushner’s group is prepared to fork over some serious money. But we don’t know that yet.

Another caution: Kushner says he wants to beef up the newsroom. Well, wouldn’t we all? He may be well-intentioned, but no one is going to bolster the Globe’s staff unless his intention is to operate the paper at a loss.

Ralph Ranalli is gathering links at Beat the Press.

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Boston Globe edges closer to paywall

The Boston Globe will soon start charging for online content, Eric Convey reports in the Boston Business Journal. As with plans being developed by its corporate cousin the New York Times, the Globe’s paywall will be deliberately porous so that bloggers and their readers can share a certain number of stories each month. Heavy users, though, will be expected to cough up.

I predict, at best, very limited success — so limited that it may prove not worth doing. The Times Co. reported today that its revenue from print advertising and circulation continues to fall, but that online ad revenues are up by 14 percent compared to a year ago. Yes, the overall volume is lower, but online is where the growth is.

Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London lost between two-thirds and 90 percent of its online readers when it erected an admittedly more rigid paywall earlier this year. The Globe’s website, Boston.com, draws about 5 million unique visitors each month. The paywall could wind up alienating readers and advertisers alike.

I’d keep Boston.com free but get rid of the “Today’s Globe” section, which is a perfect replica of the print edition. Post most Globe stories to Boston.com, but maybe not all of them. Make sure readers get the message that the Globe and Boston.com are not the same. And reserve the full contents of the Globe itself for paid platforms — not just print, but mobile, iPad, Reader, Kindle and the like.

The Boston Herald already does a good job of differentiating its print and online editions. And the Globe has a greater opportunity, because the Herald is lagging in alternative electronic platforms.

More from Ralph Ranalli at BeatthePress.org, whose post alerted me to this story. Also, another Times Co. property, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, started charging for online content last month.

Telegram.com takes the paid-content plunge

The Telegram & Gazette of Worcester began charging for online content today. It’s a move widely seen as a test run for the New York Times, which plans to start charging for Web access next year, and whose parent company also owns the T&G (as well as the Boston Globe).

The T&G model, explained in a memo from publisher Bruce Gaultney and editor Leah Lamson, is fairly complex, as the Times model reportedly will be. Here are the basics:

  • Print subscribers will have full access to Telegram.com for no additional charge.
  • Non-subscribers will be able to access up to 10 local stories per month without paying. But they will have to register.
  • Non-subscribers who wish to access more than 10 local stories will have to pay $14.95 per month or $1 for a day pass.
  • Some Web content will remain free, including breaking-news stories.

Will the plan succeed? It depends on your definition of success. It may bolster print circulation, or at least slow its decline. The tiered pricing system is clearly aimed at non-subscribers who make heavy use of the website. Anyone who’s thinking about dropping his print subscription will now have a good reason not to do so.

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the T&G’s Monday-through-Friday circulation is about 70,000, and 81,000 buy the Sunday paper. Among other things, charging for Web access will allow management to count paying online readers in those numbers.

On the other hand, I doubt many people are going to fork over $14.95 a month to read Telegram.com without getting the paper. Even if the move bolsters the Telegram’s bottom line, the danger is that the website will wither. (According to Compete.com, the T&G’s website draws about 275,000 unique visitors each month. The T&G claims about 800,000. Measuring online traffic is notoriously difficult.)

I also don’t see how this amounts to a test run for the Times — the papers are too different. The T&G’s readership is almost entirely local, and I can’t imagine its website has ever been a major priority. The Times is a national paper whose website, NYTimes.com, with nearly 20 million unique vistors per month, is the most widely read newspaper.com in the country.

Yet the T&G may be better positioned to get away with this than the Times, which has any number of competitors for national and international news. There is little competition for news in Worcester and the surrounding area — although this does present an opportunity for an existing news organization to beef up its own free website.

Based on a sampling of the more than 300 comments to Gaultney and Lamson’s memo, it doesn’t seem that the T&G’s announcement has been well-received. Yet that’s a self-selecting group. I did like the comment from the reader who buys a copy on his way to work every morning and thus won’t get free Web access. Management needs to think about how to take care of good customers like him.

My prediction is that the move will be of limited benefit, but that it won’t look that way. Very few people will sign up for Web access, and print circulation will continue to decline — but the drop in print would be worse if the T&G hadn’t made this move.

Note: I spoke with WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) this morning about the T&G’s move. I’m not sure whether it made it on to the newscast, and it doesn’t seem to have been posted online yet.

Worcester Guild slams Times Co. executives

One month after Newspaper Guild members at the Boston Globe circulated a letter criticizing New York Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger and president Janet Robinson for richly rewarding themselves while threatening to shut the Globe, their counterparts at Worcester’s Telegram & Gazette have followed suit.

Beset by what they describe as a four-year pay freeze, substantial newsroom downsizing and proposed cuts in benefits, union officials say management has repeatedly called for “sacrifice” while Sulzberger and Robinson paid themselves more than $12 million in 2009.

As you no doubt know, the Times Co. operates the Globe, the T&G and Boston.com as a unit known as the New England Media Group. But though the Guild has a presence at both papers, the largest union at the Globe is the Boston Newspaper Guild, whereas T&G employees are represented by the Providence Newspaper Guild.

The Worcester protest coincides with an announcement by the T&G that it will start charging for some online content starting this summer. (So, too, will the Concord Monitor, as the paid-content trend continues to ramp up. Here is Tony Schinella’s take.)

The full text of the Worcester Guild’s press release and letter to Sulzberger and Robinson follows.

NYTimes Execs Big Raises Gall Guild in Worcester

Contact:

Bob Datz  508 xxx-xxxx
Lee Hammel 508 xxx-xxxx
Worcester Unit Council members
Local 31041 The Newspaper Guild

The letter below was sent April 23 to NY Times Co. chairman  Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and CEO Janet Robinson by the Worcester (Mass.) unit of The Newspaper Guild, expressing frustration with the enormous pay raises they recived.

During the three years that contract negotiations with the Guild in Worcester have stretched out, the company has offered its employees no pay raise. (The day before union members were scheduled to ratify the letter,  the company finally offered a one-time $750 signing bonus, which amounts to about  0.4 percent of pay over 3 years without raising base pay, in exchange for stripping away hard-won rights and benefits).

We would appreciate if you would consider a story alerting your readers to the dichotomy between the NYTimes editorial insistence that others behave justly and its attitude toward its own employees.

April 23, 2010

Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr.
Chairman
Janet Robinson
President and Chief Executive Officer
The New York Times Company
620 8th Avenue
New York, NY10018

Dear Arthur and Janet,

Many of us at the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester don’t pay a lot of attention to high finance in New York. We have terrific jobs in the world’s best industry, and we are only too happy to concentrate on the business and politics and human drama that enliven Central Massachusettsday in and day out that we are privileged to gather and write and distribute.

But even the most focused of us could not help but notice the pay raises that both of you received for 2009. You have told us that our business is changing and times are difficult, and we have heard the same in contract negotiations over the past three years. We understand that we must change with the times in an environment where paid circulation and advertising revenue are falling. And management has told us that sacrifice is necessary.

So imagine our surprise upon learning the kind of “sacrifice” that you are enduring. As President and Chief Executive Officer, you Janet, have been given a 31.8 percent increase in salary, bonus, and other compensation in a single year, bringing your total compensation to $6.3 million.

Arthur, as Board Chairman and Publisher of the New York Times, your total compensation more than doubled in 2009, to $6 million. The $3.7 million that your compensation increased could pay the salary of some 75 of the people that have been laid off by the company, some of whom we have been saddened to see walk out our own doors.

Meanwhile, The Newspaper Guild has been in negotiation with the management in Worcester, as our contract expired nearly three years ago. Fortunately, we are told, the Telegram & Gazette is not only not losing money, but continues to make money through this period, albeit at lower than customary levels.

Nevertheless we have been offered neither a pay raise nor bonus over a four-year period. In fact, the company proposes to slash real compensation when benefits are considered. Management also wants to stop offering a pension to any new hires and to freeze the guaranteed pension of those of us who have one, in a “tradeoff” that the company should be well aware calculates to significant losses in projected retirement income.

While offering little or no financial incentive, the company wants to change contract language to remove the substantial equivalency of our medical coverage with no guarantees on the proportionate sharing of the premium costs. Finally, the company wishes to be allowed to lay off employees regardless of seniority.

This takes place in a backdrop of existing layoffs, buyouts and hiring freezes that have brought an 18 percent reduction of the company’s work force in 2009 alone. The employees remaining are asked, or forced, to reduce their benefits in the wake of a management decision to build a new skyscraper for the company headquarters. Our productivity subsidizes not only distant and ill-fated real estate transactions (click here) but deficits in units where employees are paid significantly better than we are, even with recent concessionary contracts.

We are thrilled to see the New York Times editorial pages seek fair treatment for people. Arthur and Janet, we ask that we, like you, receive some financial consideration for our efforts and that you recognize the increased work load we have taken on, because we, like you, have families who depend on us.

Sincerely,

Members of The Newspaper Guild
Worcester Unit, Local 31041

After tumult, status quo for the Times Co.

Downtown Worcester
Union Station, Worcester

With 2009 drawing to a close, it’s now possible to say something that would have been inconceivable six months ago: the New York Times Co. is still the owner of the Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Was it all a dream? Starting last spring, and stretching well into the summer, there was nothing but tumult. First the Times Co. demanded — and ultimately got — $20 million in concessions from the Globe’s unions. The drama was high, as management threatened to shut down the paper if the unions refused to meet its demands, while the Boston Newspaper Guild — by far the largest union at the Globe — rejected one set of concessions before finally bowing to the inevitable.

Then the Times Co. put both papers on the market. And, for a while, it looked like a significant restoration was in the works. A group headed by former Globe executive Steve Taylor emerged as a leading would-be possible buyer for the Globe, and former T&G editor Harry Whitin looked like he might be moving into the publisher’s office at his old paper.

But Times Co. executives decided to hold on to the Globe. Then, yesterday, they announced that the T&G was no longer for sale, either.

No doubt the papers were pulled off the market for a variety of reasons, both good and bad. Costs are down, circulation revenue is up thanks to a hefty price increase and, overall, the financial picture at both papers appears to be brighter than it was a year ago. On the other hand, is there any doubt that both papers would have been sold if Arthur Sulzberger and company had been able to get what they considered to be a fair price?

With things more or less the same as they ever were, members of the community have a right to feel as though they’ve been jerked around. It would be a good idea if the Times Co. devoted 2010 to rebuilding the Globe’s and the T&G’s ties to the community.

Naming Chris Mayer to be the Globe’s next publisher (he’ll have responsibilities for the Telegram & Gazette as well) was a smart first step. He’s energetic, he’s rooted in Greater Boston and he seems far more likely to be a presence on the local scene than his recent predecessors have been.

But both papers have a long way to go if they are to recover from the wounds they’ve suffered — wounds that are largely characteristic of what the entire industry is going through, but some of which were self-inflicted. The best thing the Times Co. can do next year in these parts is to make itself invisible.

Photo (cc) by Bree Bailey and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Through the glass darkly

Boston GlobeFriday was deadline day for bidders seeking to make an offer to buy the Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from the New York Times Co. And it appears there’s not much to report.

New York Times media reporter Richard Pérez-Peña writes that it’s not even clear whether the two contenders for the Globe, a group led by former Globe executive Stephen Taylor and California-based Platinum Equity, had submitted bids.

Each had reportedly offered to pay $35 million as well as assume pension liabilities of $59 million. Jessica Heslam had reported in the Boston Herald that the estimate of those liabilities had recently been revised upward to $115 million. Pérez-Peña quotes sources who confirm the upward revision, but suggest the error was not quite as great as that.

It’s hard to know what to believe. I can tell you that I’ve heard the actual pension liabilities may be even higher than what Heslam’s sources told her. The truth may be that such estimates are hard to nail down, and that opinions differ.

Meanwhile, Telegram & Gazette reporter Shaun Sutner breaks the news that former T&G editor Harry Whitin is involved in a group that is seeking to buy the paper separately — the first indication that the Globe and the T&G might be split up. (The Globe runs the story as well.)

The money guy is identified as Ralph Crowley, the president and CEO of Polar Beverages.

The Times Co. bought the Globe in 1993 for $1.1 billion and the T&G in 2000 for $296 million.

Several months ago, a T&G source explained to me all the multifarious ways that Globe and T&G operations had been combined over the years. I was left with the distinct impression that it would be an expensive proposition to try to separate the two at this point.

But if the two papers end up with different owners, I suppose it wouldn’t be that difficult for them to reach an agreement to continue joint operations that make sense.

At newspapers, the slashing continues

Budget-slashing at newspapers continues, both locally and nationally.

At the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, 36 positions are being cut and zoned local editions are being eliminated, according to the Daily Worcesteria, which adds: “This is the journalistic equivalent of bunkering in at the last, strongest point and abandoning the outposts.”

Ironically, the Daily Worcesteria is part of Worcester Magazine, which is shedding positions following an ownership change, reports the, uh, Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

The T&G, as you probably know, is owned by the New York Times Co., whose New England Newspaper Group (the T&G, the Boston Globe and Boston.com) suffered a 24.5 percent loss in advertising revenue in July as compared to the same month in 2007.

Things are at least as grim on the North Shore and in the Merrimack Valley, as CNHI, the corporate owner of the Eagle-Tribune papers, announced this week that it is eliminating 52 jobs, writes Boston Herald media reporter Jessica Heslam. The chain comprises the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, the Daily News of Newburyport, the Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times.

And it’s no better elsewhere. Alan Mutter, who writes the Newsosaur blog, tells us today that newspaper revenues are down $3 billion over the first six months of 2008, bringing revenues to their lowest level in a dozen years.

Even online revenues are slipping, Mutter says, which shows that what’s happening now has as much to do with the economic recession as it does with the stampede from print to the Web.

Where’s the bottom?

The New York Times Co. reports that ad revenues at its New England Media Group, which includes the Boston Globe (along with Boston.com and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette), were down 24.5 percent in July compared to the same month a year ago. (Via Adam Reilly.)

A rewarding clash of headlines

The Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette may both be owned by the New York Times Co. But their copy desks certainly didn’t see eye to eye when it came to writing a headline for an AP story on those annoying rewards cards. To wit:

Since I’ve already got more than enough crap that I carry in my wallet, I’ll go with the Globe.

Recycling quotes isn’t plagiarism

Today’s Worcester Telegram & Gazette runs an “amplification” that reads:

Remarks by Darrel Slater in a Nov. 23 editorial on the release of accused killer Daniel Thomas Tavares Jr. from custody in Massachusetts were reported in the Boston Herald Nov. 21. The editorial neglected to credit the Herald as the source of the quotation.

Fair enough. The Herald deserved credit. But I’m beginning to think we’re all getting carried away when it comes to the use and misuse of background material.

This latest incident began to unfold yesterday, when Boston magazine’s John Gonzalez reported on the matter. The T&G had begun an editorial by quoting Slater, the father of a young woman allegedly murdered by Tavares in Washington state. “It’s because of stupidity in Massachusetts that my daughter is dead…,” Slater reportedly said. “How does a guy who killed his mother, gets charged with more crimes, get out of jail? How can he leave the state?”

As it turns out, the T&G had taken that quote from a Herald story written by Michele McPhee and Jessica Van Sack.

To be sure, the T&G should have credited the Herald. But the headline on Gonzalez’s item — “Worcester Telegram Plagiarized Herald” — vastly overstates what happened. This was not plagiarism. Opinion pieces regularly recycle quotes from other news sources without credit.

No one could reasonably have believed that the T&G editorialist had interviewed Slater. The problem here was simply that the Slater quote was a pretty significant exclusive for the Herald, and it was cheap of the T&G not to acknowledge it. The paper’s editors realized that and have made amends.

But do quotes always need to be credited? Of course not. Let me offer an absolutely typical example from yesterday’s James Carroll column on Middle East peace prospects, which appeared in the Boston Globe. Toward the end, Carroll writes:

Which brings us to the final reason for hope. The status quo is now universally recognized as catastrophic for everybody. “Unless a political horizon can be found,” Olmert said last week, “the results will be deadly.” Deadly to a two-state solution, Palestinian hope, and Israeli democracy. Deadly to the world. By comparison, all obstacles to peace are minor.

No one would think Carroll had interviewed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Olmert said it, it got reported around the world and Carroll used it as background material in expressing his opinion. It was an entirely unremarkable bit of journalistic craft.

Recently, you may recall, WBZ-TV (Channel 4) political analyst Jon Keller was called out by the Herald’s Jessica Heslam because he recycled some quotes without credit in his fine new book on Massachusetts politics, “The Bluest State.” What Keller did was standard practice for an opinion journalist, especially in a non-academic book aimed at a mass audience. Nonetheless, he was put through the wringer for a few days.

There is a huge difference between plagiarism (“It involves both stealing someone else’s work and lying about it afterward”) and being slipshod with background material. I’m afraid we’re beginning to lose sight of that.