Will John Henry Save the Globe?

Maybe, but his ambitions are much grander. “I feel my mortality,” he says. So here’s his plan: He’s going to use the time he has left on earth to try to save journalism itself.

As the weeks passed, though, staffers started to wonder what exactly Henry was going to do. The op-ed was a fine mission statement, but what about an action plan? Shortly after Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos struck a deal for the Washington Post—just two days after Henry made his for the Globe—he held a rah-rah town-hall meeting to address his troops. But that wasn’t Henry’s style. “At some point I thought there’d be some sort of grand announcement, but I guess there won’t be,” reporter and editor Scott Allen says. “Not like tablets coming down from on high.”

Another reporter compared the initial months after Henry’s purchase to the scene in The Perfect Storm when crew members on George Clooney’s battered fishing boat see a sliver of sunlight break through the dark clouds, and you don’t know yet whether it represents hope and survival…or if another crushing wave is about to come and blast everything apart.

 

In 2011 the Globe embarked on a so-called two-brand strategy: BostonGlobe.com was created to house the Globe’s reporting, accessible only to paid subscribers, while Boston.com remained free and was envisioned as the city’s home page: a portal for breaking news, weather, sports, lighter fare, and a handful of Globe stories. As print revenue has dropped, though, digital has not picked up the slack. The print edition of the paper accounted for $264 million in revenue in 2012, while Boston.com was good for $41 million and BostonGlobe.com, with its roughly 46,000 subscribers, a paltry $4.7 million, according to Globe numbers.

To save the Globe, Henry must fix that problem. And so, in November, he hired Andrew Perlmutter, a 30-year-old Harvard MBA and Law School grad who’d most recently been VP of operations at Newsweek and the Daily Beast, and before that had helped run digital strategy for Atlantic Media. While at Atlantic Media, according to Michael Finnegan, the company’s vice president of finance and analytics, Perlmutter had been instrumental in helping launch Quartz, a global business site targeted specifically at businesspeople and designed to be consumed on mobile devices. It’s come to be highly regarded, both for its sharp, voicey content and its apparent economic viability.

Henry gave Perlmutter a broad portfolio—to look for new digital opportunities—and installed him in a vacant office in the Globe’s executive suite, across from the publisher, Mayer. Quickly, the wunderkind exec became known as Henry’s eyes and ears inside Morrissey Boulevard—instead of being responsible to Mayer, he reported straight up to Henry.

Even before Perlmutter came onboard, the Globe was heading toward a strategy of creating niche sites, not unlike Quartz. Under Henry, though, the push has been accelerated. “Part of it is coming from John, part of it is coming from Andrew,” McGrory says. Bennie DiNardo, the Globe’s deputy managing editor for multimedia, explains that, just as Gawker has offshoots focused on sports, tech, and cars, and New York magazine has its culture and lifestyle brands, the Globe envisions creating a network of sites under its own umbrella.

The paper has already launched new brands like the RadioBDC online station, and the arts-and-lifestyle site BDCWire, which debuted last fall. But its next move is more ambitious, and draws more on Boston’s natural resources. It is a standalone tech site, internally being called BetaBoston.

The new site, which was in the works even before Henry’s arrival and which McGrory expects to launch soon, will exist as a separate entity from the Globe and Boston.com. Unlike the paper’s current tech coverage—including BetaBoston’s previous incarnation, a tech blog called the Hive—the site will target tech-community insiders, an attractive group to advertisers, rather than general-interest readers. McGrory would not divulge the staffing level on the project, but, as he explains it, it’s a relatively small financial risk with the potential for large rewards.

According to media analyst Ken Doctor, one of the keys to Quartz’s success, which the Globe would be wise to follow, is that it has a strong, unique voice targeted at a specific audience. “It’s hip,” he says. Media analyst Jay Rosen also points out that Atlantic Media’s and Gawker’s platforms have “national and international scale,” a notable advantage over any Boston-focused site. Still, he says, the gambit is worth trying.

 

Henry’s seats at Fenway Park are just beside the Red Sox dugout in the front row. Mike Barnicle, the former Globe columnist who resigned from the paper after a plagiarism scandal, sits directly behind him and, over the years, the two have struck up a friendship. (The idea that Henry even talks to Barnicle makes some Globies uneasy—“Just his presence in the background is disturbing,” one told me.) During a game against the Yankees on September 13—Henry’s birthday—the Sox owner sat down next to Barnicle and began to chat about how religion is covered in the news. “He was very interested in how the element of faith plays a role in all of our lives,” Barnicle says. “It was pretty interesting to listen to, but I was trying to watch the fucking ball game.” Henry asked Barnicle if he was familiar with John Allen, a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. Though not a household name, Allen is the Peter Gammons of the Catholic world—an impeccably sourced must-read on the Vatican. Barnicle says Henry then asked him if he had Allen’s email—it turns out, he did.

Henry emailed Allen and, a few days later, they talked on the phone. “Then I called Brian [McGrory], and he was just as excited as John was,” Henry says. “So we all met in Boston the day after the World Series ended.” Allen started for the Globe in February, essentially writing the same column on the Church that he has for years. The Globe’s hope is to eventually launch a standalone Catholic news site, headlined by Allen and covering local, national, and international churches. “It’s in a very conceptual stage,” Allen says. Though the project has been floated publicly only as a possibility, Allen says it’s what sold him on leaving the National Catholic Reporter, where he’d worked since 1997. “I was persuaded that they were serious,” he says. “They meant it.”

McGrory says he embraced Henry’s idea. “You have a guy who owns the paper who’s offering to expand in an area of journalism in which this area might naturally be intensely interested,” he says. “It was the only time I’ve seen him initiate something like this.”


Jason Schwartz
Jason Schwartz Jason Schwartz, Senior Editor at Boston Magazine jschwartz@bostonmagazine.com