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The Globe’s Challenge: Turning Journalism Into Revenue

The future of the Boston Globe is very much up in the air.

The struggling newspaper’s corporate parent, The New York Times Co., said Friday that unless it got $20 million worth of union concessions in the next month, it would shut down the Globe altogether.

To gauge the severity of that threat, WBUR spoke with Lou Urenick, the head of the journalism department at Boston University.

Is shutting the newspaper a drastic business move or is it a bluff?
I don’t think it’s a bluff. I do think it’s possible; there’s no question that it’s very drastic. You know, it would be catastrophic for this community, I think, but it’s a very real possibility.

There’s some speculation that the Times is trying to force changes on unions at the Globe, in order to make the newspaper more attractive to a buyer. Your thoughts on that?
The Globe is a terrific newspaper, but financially it’s in a very difficult place right now, and the Times is trying to solve that problem through cost reductions. These are draconian reductions, there’s no question, but if the numbers they are putting out there can be believed — and I believe them — this is something that needs to be done in order to continue to operate the paper.

If the Globe unions accept the demands, does it secure the newspaper’s future or does it just hold it off?
It’s holding it off, yes, but it’s an important step toward trying to find a more secure financial future for the Boston Globe.

Do you think the unions will accept?
I think they will, I think they have a gun to their head. And, regretfully, you know, they’re in a situation where there’s really not much choice for them to make, and I think they will go along with it.

Let’s assume the Globe survives. What’s it look like in the coming year? How does the newspaper change in appearance and maybe content?
I think we’ll see fewer pages, we’ll see fewer stories — there’ll be fewer reporters and editors. There’ll continue to be cost reductions. But I think it will continue to be an excellent newspaper. One of the things that impresses me is how well the Globe has continued to do journalistically through this very difficult period. Despite the layoffs, the cost reductions and the angst in that newsroom — they continue to publish an excellent newspaper.

I think we all kind of find it hard to believe that a newspaper with the stature of the Globe is having so much trouble.
Well, it is hard to believe. And these troubles that have descended on the newspaper business have come really rapidly. The ground has shifted under the feet of all news organizations, not just newspapers, but principally newspapers — that’s what we’re reading about right now.

It’s happened very rapidly, for a number of reasons. A combination of a deep recession and this migration of advertising to the Internet, where it’s a lot cheaper — the margins are just much lower on the Internet — is what’s hurting newspapers so badly.

It’s not a lack of demand, newspapers have never had more readers. The Boston Globe has never had more readers. If you count the number of people who read the paper online — for free, by the way — with those who read the paper in its hard copy editions, its circulation has never been higher. The problem is advertising revenue.

The challenge that the Globe faces is trying to turn the demand for what it produces — the journalism that it produces — into revenue. And, in this current situation, it’s really extremely difficult.

Media magnate Rupert Murdoch last week said that maybe it’s time that readers who go to online news sources to read news start paying for those stories that they’re reading online. Do you think that’s a business model that might work?
Yes, I think he’s absolutely right and I think it’s inevitable. The current situation is just not sustainable. It takes an awful lot of money to gather and edit the news, and people are getting it for nothing on the Internet. That can’t last forever. Inevitably, people are going to have to pay for quality news and information.

And I happen to think that they will pay for it. It’s going to be a difficult transition, retraining people to pay for what they have been getting for nothing for quite some time now, but, in my view, there really is no other choice. The advertising model no longer works for newspapers, and I think what we’re going to see in the future is a combination of advertising and an online-subscription model as a way to restore financial health to the news industry.

Should The New York Times Co. move to sell the Boston Globe, do you think there would be a buyer?
If the Globe is sold, it’s likely to be sold either to someone who is looking to pick up the paper at a very low price, but more likely — in my view — it would be sold to a group of investors who have the best interest of the community at heart. And I understand that already people in town are talking about ways to come forward to save the newspaper.

So, yes, it could be sold. I think, if it is sold, it’s likely to be sold to some group of people who want to save the newspaper for its journalism. But, you know it’s hard to know, it’s hard to put a price on the paper right now because of its financial problems.

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