Boston Can Survive, Even Thrive, Without Today’s Globe
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.
After 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 the Gatehouse chain’s huge network of Wicked Local websites. If they value alternative news, they can turn to the ThePhoenix.com, or if they want a smart daily survey of the local blogosphere, they can turn to Adam Gaffin and Steve Garfield’s Universal Hub. If they value coverage of the Red Sox and other local teams, they can turn to Over the Monster or dozens of other local sports blogs. And dare I say it—if they value coverage of the local technology, business, and venture investing scene, they can turn to Xconomy.
My point is that the local Web is already teeming with great journalism. Even if you took the Globe out of the equation, there would be plenty of local writers ready to fill the vacuum, and plenty of outlets to fill up the Boston page of your RSS aggregator every morning. And let’s be honest: we’ll still have the Boston Herald, and the Globe, or parts of it, will probably stay around in some form. Even if the once-unthinkable comes to pass and the Times Co. shuts down the Globe‘s print edition, there would be good reason to keep operating its online counterpart, Boston.com, which is far less expensive to run and is already one of the region’s top Web destinations.
It would not be a surprise—and it be would hard to call it a tragedy—if the Globe were to follow the same path as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in one of Xconomy’s other home cities. The P-I‘s owner, Hearst Newspapers, shut down the print version of the paper on March 17. About 20 of the newsroom’s 150-plus staffers were kept on to run Seattlepi.com. And while that may sound small by city-room standards, a staff of 20 would the be the envy of most local Web publications—indeed, my heart skips a beat at the thought of what Xconomy could do with that many writers.
Interestingly, Hearst Newspapers president Steven Swartz said Seattlepi.com (with which Xconomy has a content-sharing arrangement) would not be an online newspaper. “It’s an effort to craft a new type of digital business with a robust, community news and information Web site at its core,” he said in an announcement. While the site will feature traditional breaking news and commentary by veteran journalists and columnists, it will also link to community blogs, and will have “new columns from prominent Seattle residents; more than 150 reader blogs, community data bases and photo galleries.”
Now, while that all sounds nice enough, it isn’t likely that Seattlepi.com it will have the heft of the old P-I. One of the biggest reasons to regret the troubles of the P-I, the Globe, and other big papers is that they have played an important watchdog role. Indeed, as WBUR detailed just this morning, the Globe is largely responsible for the bringing about the current investigation into the business dealings of former Massachusetts House Speaker Sal DiMasi’s associates, not to mention the truth about sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. It’s hard to say who, in the post-newspaper era, will keep knocking on the doors that the powerful don’t want opened.
But as Clay Shirky notes wryly, “‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!’ has never been much of a business model.” Journalists who want to keep working need to join—or start—digital publications that don’t merely cling to dying revenue streams, but that experiment tirelessly with new ones, whether that means online display advertising, new types of interactive ads, underwriting and sponsorships, virtual goods, micropayments, “freemium” models that put some content behind a paid firewall, donations from community members and foundations (the model pursued by the Voice of San Diego in Xconomy’s third home town), or all of the above.
The era of print is ending. The era of creative journalism may be just beginning.