The Boston Globe, once a beacon of U.S. metro dailies, continues to falter

The New England Media Group — which oversees The Boston Globe, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Boston.com and a few other papers — is whacking its workforce again.

At The Globe, 43 people are leaving — 23 in advertising and 20 in the newsroom — through buyouts. Another 10 are victims of “involuntary reductions.” (Wonder if an HR person actually said to a staffer: “We’re sorry, but we’re involuntarily reducing you …”)

And the reason? From the memo circulated by Globe publisher Christopher Mayer:

This move, difficult as it is, is part of a program to rebalance the business and will allow us to reallocate resources toward the investments we need as we innovate and introduce new products. This will also assure that we continue to meet the needs of our advertisers, and provide readers the high-quality journalism they expect from us. [emphasis added]

Huh? Rebalance the business? What the hell does that mean?

Perhaps I just don’t understand the new content-provision economics being preached by Mayer. If resources — in this case, human capital — are being divested (fired, whacked, cut, tossed out, rent asunder), how does management reallocate reduced capital to bring about innovation and new products?

Perhaps an explanation is provided at the end of that graf: Mayer privileges the needs of our advertisers above providing readers with the high-quality journalism they expect.

The newspaper business for generations has always been a for-profit enterprise, one of America’s most successful. It has been underpinned by extraordinary human capital — the people who write the news, edit it, print it, circulate it, and sell the ads that support the ability of journalists to tell truth (sometimes) to power. The Globe is further reducing two important facets of that capital: people in the newsroom, and people in the advertising department.

Perhaps I’m stuck in the memory of the business model in which I labored, the model that earned newspaper corporations always rising annual advertising revenues, peaking at more than $60 billion at the end of the last century. Then the Internet arrived; newspaper annual revenues now barely reach $20 billion.

But I don’t understand how casting off human capital meets the needs of advertisers, let alone provides “high-quality” journalism. (Wonder if The Globe will beef up its “hyperlocal” reporting by outsourcing to an outfit like Journatic. That hasn’t worked out so well at The Chicago Tribune and its TribLocal operation.)

The New England Media Group continues to underperform financially lately. In the fourth quarter of 2011, its revenues fell 7.7 percent for the quarter to $104.4 million. Yet Mayer boasts that The Globe is still a big shot:

The Globe still has by far the largest newsroom in New England, and it continues to deliver groundbreaking, award-winning journalism across all media platforms. We continue to offer effective solutions for our advertisers using the Globe and Boston.com as we add new offerings such as BostonGlobe.com, Ricochet, eBooks, ePaper, and the upcoming RadioBDC. Even more exciting initiatives are in development. [emphasis added]

Really? Effective solutions? The core of newspaper industry’s profit success, to be crass, has for centuries been provision of an environment on the printed page that is friendly to advertisers. If The Globe is reducing both the workforce that provides the environment (news, preferably local) and sells and designs ads (local, of course, but desirous of national advertising as well), what will these effective solutions look like? (Well, we known they’ll be digital, not print.) As for the new offerings and those even more exciting new initiatives, who will produce what kind of content designed for what demographic? And how friendly will that content be to advertisers?

What content, exactly, will produce advertising revenue in sufficient amounts to rebuild a workforce of skilled journalists? Or does The Globe actually plan to return to its heady days of being known as a model metro daily (even if entirely online) reporting news without (it seems trite to say now) fear or favor? That’s a question that lingers over all the nation’s great metropolitan dailies: Will they see as part of their future corporate focus providing stories reported and edited by trained professionals with a nose for news (especially local) even if it’s costly to produce and pisses off advertisers from time to time? Increasingly, the answer is probably not.

The New York Times Co. bought The Globe in 1993 for more than $1 billion. That investment has not worked out so well. And no one, it seems, is willing to step up to buy what used to be one of America’s greatest newspapers from NYTCo. Perhaps part of the $24 million the corporation laid out for Janet Robinson when she departed as Times CEO might have been more wisely used to allow The Globe “to rebalance the business and will allow us to reallocate resources toward the investments we need as we innovate and introduce new products.” Well, The Globe was losing $1.6 million a week in 2009 when it whacked 150 jobs. Even diverting Robinson’s $24 mil wouldn’t have fed The Globe for long.

As a native New Englander, I grew up reading The Globe. For most of my life, I considered it one of the greatest American newspapers — required reading for anyone serious about understanding how the world works and why it works that way. It informed my own conduct and knowledge as a newspaper professional for two decades. I leaned on The Globe to tell me what I needed to know to be an informed citizen. Well, no more.

It has been personally painful as a reader to watch the printed edition of The Globe physically shrink since the turn of the century. Like all major metro dailies, The Globe is either retrenching or reinventing itself. It will not return to what it once was. None of these metro dailies will. In the short term, the focus of newspaper managements is clear: Find a way to return to profitability. In this short term, telling readers what they need to know no longer matters much; telling readers whatever they want to know, that keeps them returning to cartoonish content, is what counts. Rebuilding the tradition of public service has fallen from their corporate radar.

I wish The Globe well in finding its content compass. But I’ll bet Mayer’s vague, multisyllabic memo was written with the phrase “investor relations” in mind more than “building trust with readers.” Or trust with employees.

2 comments on “The Boston Globe, once a beacon of U.S. metro dailies, continues to falter

  1. This was a great newspaper under Taylor family ownership. Then The New York Times got their hands on it, and it’s never been the same.

  2. How long before newspapers are history, Denny? I think NYT, WaPo, all of them are in trouble. The issues you delineate here explain more than, I fear, what is happening to one newspaper – they explain what is happening to our ability to understand the events of our world. And I, for one, am not happy….

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