2017 is a big year for New England’s biggest newspaper. With coming changes in editorial focus, a move to a new headquarters downtown and new corporate leadership, The Boston Globe is looking to reinvent itself in the new year.
In a noteworthy recent staff memo (read it in full at the bottom of this post), Globe editor Brian McGrory detailed the outlet's so-called "reinvention initiative," which has been in the works since early 2016.
"We need to be still more interesting, relentlessly interesting, every hour of the day," McGrory wrote in the memo, which was first reported by Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy. "To this end, we need to jettison any sense of being the paper of record. We are the organization of interest. If something feels obligatory to write, it’s an obligation for someone to read. The problem is, readers don’t feel that obligation any more.”
McGrory's contention about Globe readers is perhaps reflected in circulation numbers. Like newspapers across the country, print circulation at the Globe has plummeted over 10 years. At the Globe, the decline is 45 percent over the last decade, according to data from the Alliance for Audited Media, from 406,000 papers on weekdays in 2006 to 222,000 in the third quarter of 2016.
While print circulation has declined at the Globe, the number of digital subscribers has increased to 86,000, as of November, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. But web subscriptions are down some 16 percent from their peak in 2014, when BostonGlobe.com moved from a total paywall to the current system, which allows non-subscribers 10 free articles a month.
The Pew Research Center reports that American newspapers now depend on digital for a quarter of all ad revenue. In 2015, the industry saw an 8 percent drop in ad revenue — 2 percent on the digital side and 10 percent on the print side.
McGrory's planned shakeup goes beyond the newsroom, where he plans to reevaluate the beat structure and accelerate breaking news operations. He also wants to explore new partnerships between staff that have traditionally, and deliberately, been kept separate.
"We need to make sure that the boundaries that served us well in better financial times don’t become obstacles to our success," McGrory wrote. "Put more bluntly, we need to work with the other departments to make sure we have enough revenue to support our journalism."
The Globe's move away from being the "paper of record" has caught the attention of media watchers, including Jacob Groshek, assistant professor of emerging media studies at Boston University. Groshek said in an email that being a paper of record is a civic good, "and jettisoning that sensibility" may present some risks.
"These changes generally seem to align with shifts in the industry to treating their reporting online as fluid, rather than fixed," Groshek added. "This practice, of course, comes with risks to the practices of fact checking and conceptions of truth, as well as credibility among audiences."
Another change expected at the Globe is a recalibration of news beats. McGrory is calling on staff to describe "what beats you’ve dreamed of covering or what jobs you’d most like to have."
McGrory declined to be interviewed for this story.
A Globe staffer who agreed to speak on background said McGrory's transparency and efforts to engage staff are being well received, though there is unease about how it's going to play out. As revenue has declined, layoffs and buyouts at the Globe have become routine, the staffer said.
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, said he's optimistic the ideas expressed in McGrory's letter can help effect a turnaround. Edmonds said similar efforts are underway at several "ambitious" metro newspapers across the country.
"We're talking about three to five years, but I think this very much could set things on the right course," Edmonds said. "And it's tough and it's tight and it's not a sure thing, because a recession or further acceleration of the declines would be pretty challenging."
New Workspace, New Leadership
The Globe announced in late 2015 that it was leaving its HQ on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester after six decades. Months later, the paper reported the 16.5-acre property was sold for an undisclosed sum. The city values the property at $55.5 million.
Employees will leave the sprawling Dorchester site for a 40-floor skyscraper, Exchange Place, where the business and editorial departments will occupy two floors. The building at 53 State St. is located a block from City Hall and a half mile from the State House. After the date was pushed back, the move is now slated for mid-2017.
The Globe's print operation is in the process of transitioning from the Dorchester facility to an industrial park in Taunton.
CEO Doug Franklin took the reins of the business on Jan. 1. Franklin previously served as CFO of Cox Enterprises, a 60,000-employee company that specializes in communications, automotive services and media. Its holdings include the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, of which Franklin was publisher.
Franklin has also held management positions at Dayton Daily News and The Palm Beach Post, where he was president and publisher.
Franklin did not respond to requests for comment. But the Globe quoted him in December saying he is more bullish now about the path forward for newspapers than he was 10 years ago.
“There are no silver bullets for the industry, but quality storytelling and great journalism tied to the subscription model has promise,” Franklin said.
The New York Times Co. sold the Globe to Red Sox owner John Henry in 2013 for a fraction of what it paid two decades earlier. Henry bought the Globe for $70 million — less than 7 percent of the $1.1 billion paid by the Times.
Henry is publisher of the Globe, and his wife, Linda Pizzuti Henry, is managing director. In 2015 Henry launched STAT, a website that focuses on health and life sciences. Though it is separate from the Globe, the paper regularly publishes content from STAT, which Henry has said "benefits tremendously from being a sister publication" to the Globe.
A second newsroom staffer who spoke anonymously praised STAT's content and staff, but questioned whether part of the intention was to circumvent the newsroom's union.
"Why would John Henry buy this paper," the staffer said, "then put all his own money into this other entity that doesn't have the audience and history of the Globe?"
The Globe staffer described McGrory as a respected figure in the newsroom. "Brian fights for us, he fights for his reporters," the staffer said. "I don't know what happens with him and John Henry behind closed doors, but I think he makes a very strong case for us, because he himself was a reporter."
On top of newsroom layoffs, cutbacks in sections have also taken place during Henry's tenure, including the downsizing of the Globe's Saturday paper in 2015. Last year Globe management axed Crux, a website dedicated to covering the Catholic Church, just months after the release of the Oscar-winning film "Spotlight" depicted the Globe's coverage of clergy abuse. At the same time, BetaBoston, the Globe's free technology site, was folded into BostonGlobe.com.
A third Globe employee who agreed to speak on background described the Henrys as "engaged, active owners” who care deeply about the paper and the city.
“This place needed a future and the Henrys gave it to us,” the staffer said. “I’m not looking around for a new job, I’ll put it that way.”
Here's McGrory's full memo to his staff:
I wanted to give you an update on where we are with the reinvention initiative. The intention was to be brief. The reality is that it’s not. My apologies in advance.
The presentations by the four sets of working group chairs in late November went incredibly well. I hope everyone agrees. The pitches were strong, the questions and comments were smart, and there seemed to be an unmistakable consensus around the need for change. Following those meetings, I’ve sat with a decent swath of the newsroom in one-on-one and small group meetings to get a sense of your thoughts and concerns. I’ve found it truly helpful, to say the least. Your sheer brains and commitment all but guarantee our success in the weeks, months, and years ahead.
Separately, we’ve put together a core reinvention committee, composed of the eight working group chairs, and the deputy managing editors, managing editors, and the editorial page editor. We’ve met several times to begin mapping out initiatives that we can roll out as soon as this month. We’re making good progress, but we need to step it up.
Indulge me while I repeat some of the principles behind a reinvention:
- We need to be still more interesting, relentlessly interesting, every hour of the day. To this end, we need to jettison any sense of being the paper of record. We are the organization of interest. If something feels obligatory to write, it’s an obligation for someone to read. The problem is, readers don’t feel that obligation any more.
- We need to focus on what readers truly value, understanding that we can’t be all things to everyone. The great news is that Globe subscribers most want to read the kinds of stories that we most like to produce. Think accountability journalism, colorful and contextual breaking news reporting, lyrical narrative, smart enterprise reporting, and provocative commentary.
- We need to focus not on platforms, but on journalism. We must redouble all efforts to demolish the stubborn rhythms of a legacy news operation and get our work in front of people when they are most likely to read it.
- We need to make sure that the boundaries that served us well in better financial times don’t become obstacles to our success. Put more bluntly, we need to work with the other departments to make sure we have enough revenue to support our journalism.
- We always need to hold true to our journalistic values, because without them, we lose our credibility. Repeat this last one again.
So here’s a rough map of where we go from here, understanding that this remains very much a work in progress, and there will be bumps – really mountains – to traverse along the way.
1. You’ll receive a questionnaire via email soon, prepared by Jen Peter and Anica Butler, asking, among other things, what beats you’ve dreamed of covering or what jobs you’d most like to have. It could be the one you have now, it could be something else, it could be a role that we haven’t thought about but will want to have when we hear it. Please respond to this questionnaire. We need to hear from you.
2. We’re planning to set up a room-wide Express Desk as soon as possible. This is designed to get news in front of the eyes of our readers quickly, and to have a fascinating diversity of news. It could be a water main break in the Financial District one moment, a passenger handing out Christmas gifts on an arriving JetBlue flight the next. This desk needs to not only be urgent, but smart and clever, and it will be powered by some of the most talented people in this room. I’ve asked Katie Kingsbury to lead a small group in mapping out an Express Desk in terms of size and positions, and she’ll have something back to us very soon.
3. We’re planning to set up a Print Desk, congruent with the Express Desk. While the larger room focuses on journalism, the print desk will focus on how that journalism comes together in paper form every day. Let me be absolutely clear here: The physical newspaper will not be an afterthought at the Globe. It is of vital importance to us, a huge – albeit, declining – source of our revenue, and the most valued product to our most loyal readers. But it cannot continue to needlessly dominate our thinking and resources in the way it currently does. I asked Chris Chinlund to lead a small group in determining the size and components of this operation, and she, too, will have something back in early January.
4. We’ll expand on our excellence in projects, with an eye toward even more, with a greater range of ambition and length (some even shorter than this memo).
5. We’ll set up an Audience Engagement team under Jason Tuohey designed to make sure we are better connecting to existing audiences, and seeking new audiences, in every way possible, through our journalism and the way we present it. We are swimming in metrics. The goal now is to refine, interpret, and apply them. We will offer whatever training is necessary to work on the team.
6. We will reimagine our beats with the same eye toward becoming relentlessly interesting. I don’t know that we’ve done a major refresh of our beats in decades. It’s time. So the reinvention group, or some subset of it, will outline new beats and recalibrate the resources we have on our coverage areas. The broader room needs to play a major role in this with your ideas, whether through the questionnaire or in conversations with me and others. Please express your creativity and passions, and do it soon.
In determining what we want to cover, it will become clearer to all of us what we should forego, or at least what we can cover less of. As part of this, we’ll look at presenting news in different formats, to cut down our overuse of the incremental 700-word story.
7. We will refine and then refine again the Hubs system that was proposed by the Mission working group, but it’s not quite ready to be implemented yet – or maybe we as a room are not quite ready to accept it. There are many intriguing, even brilliant, aspects to the Hubs concept, which would push us to be far more nimble, provocative, and – this word, again – interesting But there needs to be more clarity in how it would work day to day. My sense is that we’re getting snagged up on Hubs as the infrastructure of the room. If we create Hubs within the infrastructure, we will get a better sense of how they’ll work and how effective they can be. So that’s exactly how we’ll start. Hub ideas are welcome.
8. We are planning to appoint a small, tech-savvy group that will devote itself to making Methode more user-friendly and an overall better communications tool for the entire room.
9. We are setting up groups to further engage Advertising and Circulation, hoping to involve the newsroom deeper in both areas. On Circulation, we will focus on subscriber retention, with some acquisition, working with our colleagues there to do direct outreach to subscribers. On Advertising, we are putting together a newsroom-based advisory group to offer input on all forms of sponsored and native campaigns, with the intention to ratchet up the creativity that goes into these campaigns. David Dahl is currently drawing up rules of the road to make sure that we don’t put ourselves in a compromising position.
10. We’ll be looking, soon, to get much of the room started earlier in the day, and impose rolling deadlines on enterprise stories through the day, to assure that we have a flow of fresh stories when people are most likely to read them. Still too many stories are posted on the site in the evening, because we’ve followed old-school print deadlines. That’s got to stop. The news meetings will be pushed up soon, probably to 9 a.m. The morning meeting will focus on brainstorming ideas, and the specifics of when stories will be posted. The afternoon will include the timing of web stories, but focus too on the print paper.
Key point: As part of this, we have to fulfill the promise to everyone in the room that as you get here earlier, you leave earlier. Foreign as this might seem, it is very doable.
Over the next few weeks, a dedicated group will basically create a blueprint for a reimagined newsroom, carving out the new desks mentioned above, prescribing headcounts to each of these areas, and getting right down to specific beats, possible Hubs, and reconfigured departments. You aren’t just invited to be a part of it, you need to be a part of it. Offer up your thoughts. We’ll come back to the room soon with what we have.
There’s more, especially in terms of communications and the culture of the room. And please keep in mind that this is not a one-and-done project, but a constant evolution; some of the things we change will need to be changed again.
In sum, picture a newsroom that kicks to life before dawn, as members of an Express Desk arrive and continue to flow in through the morning, ready to post breaking news, fashion clever ideas, and find the wryest stories trending on social media. Picture the larger room starting their jobs by 9 in most instances, ready to publish at peak times. Picture a round-the-clock multiplatform desk ready to give stories an expert workover regardless of the hour they are submitted.
Picture a wider range of fresher beats to produce a steady stream of fascinating stories. Picture a story-telling team from product and development working on hubs to create extraordinary presentations. Picture respected and experienced “priority editors” – what one working group described as “air traffic controllers” and another as “traffic cops” – making the best use of our journalism across the day, the week, and the platform. In this scenario, the print desk begins arriving in the early afternoon, working with a team of talented designers to produce a stunning newspaper for the following morning.
Lift the lens a bit and see an even broader picture, of a room more inclined to pursue risks and more accepting of the inevitable failures. It is an enterprise more crusading in our approach, an organization that not only covers the region, but regularly provokes it – by holding the powerful accountable, giving voice to those who wouldn’t otherwise have one, advocating for what works, and being our readers’ best ally. All the while, we will be working closely with the business side to drive digital subscriptions, keep our existing subscribers happy, and offer our creativity to native content.
Probably not, but we will accomplish this in the coming months, your help very much required. Please continue to speak up. We need to hear from you.