Boston Can Survive, Even Thrive, Without Today’s Globe

4/10/09Follow @wroush

It’s difficult to see how the Boston Globe can last long in its current form. Even if its owner, the New York Times Co., extracts the entire $20 million in concessions that it demanded this week from the paper’s unions, the paper would still lose $65 million this year, according to the company’s own figures. A business hemorrhaging cash at that rate—in a hemorrhaging industry—is unlikely to attract a buyer, or at least a palatable one. The only thing keeping the Times from shutting down the Globe completely may be the huge unfunded pension liabilities and severance payments it would owe to laid-off employees.

Sensing that the 137-year-old newspaper’s situation has grown truly dire, a grassroots group of Boston-area bloggers, led by Paul Levy, the CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, has been staging a “blog rally to help the Boston Globe” this week. In the April 6 post that started the rally, Levy called the Globe an “important community resource” and said his goal was to stimulate discussion in the blogosphere about steps the paper could take to rebuild its revenues.

With all due respect for Levy and the dozens of bloggers who have responded to his call, community activism can’t save the Globe. Neither can the paper’s unions, no matter how much they give back in pay cuts, lower pensions, and reduced health benefits, nor can its executives, no matter how much they give back in bonuses. Either the Globe will save itself by hitting on a new model, or it will find a white knight, or the Times Co. will continue to cover the paper’s losses. But it’s not realistic to expect it to do that forever.

The Boston Globe front pageAfter all, the Globe‘s troubles aren’t simply the product of the recession. Revenues from print advertising and classifieds are shrinking because technology is giving businesses more efficient ways to reach their customers than newspapers. And as the Globe‘s own columnist Scot Lehigh noted this week, the paper suffers from a “self-defeating business model…we’re selling the paper with one hand and giving it away on Boston.com with the other. That’s never made any sense—the more so since website ads aren’t anywhere near the revenue-generator that print ads are.”

I have nothing personal against the Globe. I haven’t subscribed since the mid-1990s, but I certainly believe that a city as diverse, energetic, and productive as Boston deserves to covered by a community of professional journalists—and for the better part of the last two centuries, major newspapers like the Globe have been those journalists’ most important home. All things being equal, New Englanders would be better off if the Globe somehow survived.

But all things are not equal: the Globe doesn’t have a sustainable business, and the larger newspaper industry is in its death throes. The regional monopolies newspapers used to hold over the advertising market no longer apply. Paper, printing presses, and fleets of delivery vans are just too expensive. As NYU Internet and media guru Clay Shirky observed in a sympathetic but clearheaded analysis last month, the fact that the profession of journalism and the business of newspapers have been so closely intertwined since the mid-1800s is largely a historical accident—a matter of convenience for both sides. It’s time to acknowledge that the two are not the same; that while newspapers may succumb to creative destruction, journalism will likely emerge alive and well. “When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution,” Shirky writes. “They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place…They are demanding to be lied to.”

If Bostonians aren’t willing to cover the cost of running the Globe out of their own pockets—which they most assuredly are not, given that the company would have to charge reader several dollars per copy, every day of the week, to cover its real expenses—then they should adjust to reality, and stop looking for ways to prop up a doomed enterprise. Instead, they should be asking themselves what kinds of information they do value.

If they value international news, they can turn to GlobalPost, a new Web-based international news publication headquartered in Boston (and led by a former Globe staffer). If they value a long history of editorial independence and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism, they can turn to the Christian Science Monitor, which has discontinued its daily print edition and shifted resources to an expanded website, CSMonitor.com. If they value hyper-local coverage of specific communities, they can turn to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.racetalkblog.com Ben Haber

    I was recently asked by someone if I would pay for an online subscription for Boston.com, and while I do go to the site every day, I said no. I also agree with you that there are many great blogs that focus on Boston news, which often dive deeper into their specific topics. That said, I do think it’s important that the Globe survives, but I also believe this can be moved completely online and serve the same purpose. It’s certainly less expensive, and if they really work to engage readers and create back-and-forth dialogue (maybe their reporters should get on Twitter!) then they can work to create a new revenue model.

  • http://www.lewis360.com/ Rich Young

    I like what the former Rocky staffers have done with In Denver Times. Starting May 4th, the premium content goes behind the paid wall. Will be interesting to see how/if it succeeds: http://www.indenvertimes.com/

    Why isn’t the Herald ever discussed as the surviving print alternative to the Globe? A somewhat serious question.

    Rich

  • http://www.mocospace.com Jim Gregoire

    Thoughtful piece Wade. I would personally miss the Globe and the Sunday ‘experience’ it offers me still. But I can’t argue with the logic here and certainly newspapers seemed to have (incorrectly) defined their ‘core competence’ as the medium (print newspaper) – or as too closely tied to the medium – rather than the content itself regardless of the medium. I do believe this thinking has lead to the current situation where its too late for many to course correct without disaster. Too bad. :(

  • Tom Mulvoy

    Wade: To quote you: “It’s hard to say who, in the post-newspaper era, will keep knocking on the doors that the powerful don’t want opened.”

    To me, that is the only substantial question that matters, and you pass over the issue in a single sentence without any expatiation. Sports and celebrity infotainment and columnist/blogger commentary about the state of our world and times that are offered as news are essentially fluff that anyone can drop onto an electronic page for what it’s worth to an individual consumer. Locally, things like priest abuse, civil rights outrages, health care initiatives, government and political scandal, lender horrors etc. and etc. are something else again and it costs money (for things like libel protection, FOIA applications, defense counsel against suits), lots of time in courthouses and registries and online seeking data and diligence to dig something up and present findings that stand the test of credibility and legality.
    I have not read anywhere a decent notion of how, absent the costly organization of so-called watchdog journalism that is practiced in the now-dying form of energetic newspapers — and the advertising and consumer investment that is needed to support it, in print and online — presidents and the Congress and selectmen and every public official in between can regularly be called to account for their actions. Who’s to push them if individual livelihoods are at risk when the powerful strike back?
    This isn’t a plug to keep newspapers alive just because the good ones are excellent watchdogs; it’s a sentiment that we need to come to grips with what you pass over in a single sentence as we escort newspapers to their final resting places. Their electronic descendants will need a theory of the case.

  • Nan Doyle

    Tom Mulvoy: spot-on.

    Another thing I haven’t seen addressed anywhere: where are people who don’t have easy access to the Internet (or even if they do, aren’t comfortable with it) going to get the content for which they currently rely on a daily paper Globe? Going cold-turkey to online, or even going to a weekly print model, will disenfranchise hundreds of thousands. There’s some real ageism lurking in there, too.

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  • Wade Roush

    Tom Mulvoy and John Dodge (both veteran newspapermen) are absolutely correct to point out that my piece does not answer the question of who would fill the Globe’s shoes when it comes to muckraking and watchdogging. I don’t think anyone has an answer to that question, yet. The reason I liked Clay Shirky’s piece so much is that he dares to be blunt about this point: in real revolutions, he writes, “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.”

    What I’m trying to say is, let’s not be overly sentimental about this. We can all agree that the Globe’s passing would be a shame, and that a strong press is key to the functioning of a democracy. That agreement is beside the point. What the Globe needs to survive is either new revenues on the order of $100 million a year or more, or the equivalent in cost savings. It’s difficult to see where the earnings would come from—certainly not from print advertising or subscriptions. But it’s very easy to see where the savings would come from: by shutting down the presses, mothballing the delivery trucks, and scaling down the newsroom to the size of other respectable Web publications.

    What I’m also trying to say is that you might be surprised how much of the stuff needed to replace the Globe is already here. Local Web publications like GlobalPost or Xconomy certainly do not have the manpower—”enough feet on the street,” as Dodge puts it—to take over for the Globe. But we’ve made a start, and (unlike the Globe, frankly) we’re hungry, energetic, and inventive.

    I cannot accept the proposition that local democracy is so fragile that it depends on the survival of a single newspaper. Mulvoy asks who is going to call public officials and other fat cats to account in the absence the today’s costly newsrooms. Well, the Voice of San Diego is making a pretty good start—just this week the non-profit, online-only publication started publishing the results of a three-month investigation into a huge real-estate scam. And Manhattan-based ProPublica, with funding from the Sandler Foundation, is doing some great work covering the federal bailout and U.S. treatment of terrorism detainees. In other words, the online experiments we’re already seeing leave me optimistic that journalism will survive the death of newspapers. And who knows, the immense openness of the Web might even create new varieties of populist muckraking, or new pressures for government transparency, that we can’t imagine right now.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    Interesting (if rather chilling, considering the corporate context) piece today in the New York Times about automated local news aggregators. It starts out: “If your local newspaper shuts down, what will take the place of its coverage? Perhaps a package of information about your neighborhood, or even your block, assembled by a computer.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/13/technology/start-ups/13hyperlocal.html

    And one more interesting online journalism experiment, just launched over the weekend: True/Slant, funded by Forbes Media and Velocity Interactive Group: http://trueslant.com/dvorkin/2009/04/08/welcome-to-trueslant/. Walt Mossberg review of True/Slant: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123922742849502695.html

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