The Globe sale, contextualized

By PETER KADZIS  |  February 27, 2013


Two months after popular columnist Brian McGrory was named editor of the Boston Globe to sustained local applause, the cold and calculating corporate overlords at the New York Times confirmed that the Globe was for sale.

All things considered, 60 days of warm and fuzzy satisfaction that New England's most influential news outlet had returned to a semblance of local management was about as good as it gets in these days of high economic anxiety.

News that the Globe was on the auction block was certainly a shock, but it should have been no surprise.

In retrospect, the fact that New York allowed Globe publisher Christopher Mayer a free hand in picking the successor to Marty Baron, who now helms the Washington Post newsroom, should have been a tip-off.

I suggest no disrespect to Mayer or McGrory. Writing in the Nieman Journalism Lab blog, the gimlet-eyed Ken Doctor held that "Mayer is a rarity. He's a savvy modern publisher, digitally aware." And as for McGrory, he was a Baron favorite who embodies the paper's zeal for public service and brings a humanizing and popular touch to the enterprise.

In the 20 years that have passed since the Times paid $1.1 billion for the Globe, then a record, much has changed. The world of daily newspaper publishing has flipped upside down and been turned inside out.

When Baron arrived at the Globe 12 years ago via the Miami Herald — after punching his professional ticket with a stint at the Times' mother ship — New York was still searching for a way to salvage its Boston investment. The reality was that the value of all big dailies, including the Times itself, was plunging.

By the time late last year when Baron announced he was going to Washington, it was clear to serious students of publishing that the future of the Times and the Globe were no longer intertwined. They were, in fact, at odds.

The Times had stripped itself of superfluous assets, including its minority stake in the Boston Red Sox, repaired its wobbling finances, and repositioned itself as a global news brand. Its competition would be the likes of the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, and the BBC — not the Boston Herald or the Newark Star-Ledger.

McGrory inherited an already refocused Globe, leaner and more regionally targeted with just enough national and international news to satisfy its still-substantial base of well-educated, high-income readers. If you believe New York Times Company vice chairman Michael Golden — who was dispatched to Morrissey Boulevard last Friday to calm the natives — the Globe is "cash-flow positive." (That same day, by contrast, Baron's new employer announced that the Post had more than doubled its operating losses in 2012, to a staggering $53.7 million.)

McGrory's challenge is to make sense of the Globe's bifurcated online presence. He has already announced that the push will be to keep content comprehensively behind a paywall, while untethering so that it can function as a digital tabloid dedicated to quick hits. Call it a class/mass strategy.

The thinking — which is reasonable (to the extent that anything about the web can be forecast) — is that the former will generate more cash while the latter maintains the site's high traffic.

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