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.
Just days after striking a deal to buy the Boston Globe from the New York Times Company last summer, John Henry walked into the paper’s newsroom as the city’s most important private citizen in decades—maybe centuries. He already owned one great Boston institution, the Red Sox, and now, for a mere $70 million, he’d bought a second.
As he made his way around the room to greet reporters and editors, neither party knew quite what to make of the other. “He was standing, hovering over my desk with an outstretched arm. It was really weird,” one reporter recalls. “Like, ‘Hi, I’m John Henry.’ ‘Oh, hello.’”
“You’re shaking a billionaire’s hand,” says another. “There’s an apprehension to it. Okay, what’s going to happen? We know so little about him.”
However awkward the encounters, there was an incredible amount riding on Henry’s venture into the newsroom, and, by extension, the news business. Though the Globe’s journalism continues to be strong—really, irreplaceable—as with newspapers everywhere, its business model is broken. Henry’s purchase included the Times Company’s entire New England Media Group, made up of the Globe, Boston.com, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette (which Henry intends to sell), and sundry other related businesses. The group, rechristened as Boston Globe Media, has been bleeding revenue for years. At the time of Henry’s deal, total 2013 group revenue was projected at $370 million, down from $388 million in 2012, according to the paper’s internal numbers. The Globe operates “somewhere near breakeven,” Henry tells me, “but that’s not a good thing when revenues are declining.” In short, the 142-year-old newspaper needs saving.
“I wanted to be a part of finding the solution for the Globe and newspapers in general,” Henry says. “I feel my mortality. I don’t want to waste any of the time I have left, and I felt this was a cause worth fighting for.”
Since officially taking over in October, Henry, 64, has plunged into his new role: He’s presided over an executive shakeup, rattled his digital team’s cage, given the order to change the subscription model for BostonGlobe.com, and, by all accounts, immersed himself deeply in the details of the paper’s business. He pops into meetings, roams the halls—“There’s a lot to learn, so you might find me anywhere there on any particular day,” he says—and has become known for asking an endless stream of questions. (Henry declined to be interviewed in person, but instead agreed to exchange emails.)
He’s also decided that it’s time for the Globe to make a move. The prospective sale of the paper’s 16-acre Morrissey Boulevard property, he says, “will provide us with the ability to move into a smaller, more efficient and modern facility in the heart of the city. We believe that there is enough excess value there to fund very important investments in our long-term future, if the community supports development of the property.”
To guide him, Henry says that he met with executives and editors from Forbes, the Deseret News, in Salt Lake City, the Times of London, the Guardian, the New York Times, and the L.A. Times, where he spent two days. Katharine Weymouth, the publisher of the Washington Post, traveled to Boston for a meeting.
Henry and his wife, Linda Pizzuti, also shared a three-hour lunch in London with George Brock, the head of the journalism department at City University London. “Don’t ask your people to innovate,” Brock told Henry. “Tell them to experiment. Turn the Globe into a giant laboratory for journalism.” Henry says, “That resonated with me.”
The question is, what will Henry’s experiments be? And in the face of historic challenges, will they be enough to save the Globe?
Sitting in his corner office, Globe editor Brian McGrory says that he hears from Henry regularly. “He sleeps odd hours. It is not unusual for me to get emails at 1, 2, 3 in the morning,” McGrory says. The missives are not about the nitty-gritty of the paper’s daily journalism, which McGrory insists that Henry doesn’t muddle in, but bigger-picture issues: “He’s emailing me about something he saw in the Financial Times and a change of direction they have in terms of going digital-first, or how the Guardian is trying to lure more people in America to subscribe through their investigative reporting.”
Henry describes his relationship with McGrory as “excellent,” and says he intends to keep him on as editor. One Monday after a Patriots game early in Henry’s reign, the new owner walked into McGrory’s office, sat down, and started thumbing through the Sports section. Why, he asked, weren’t there more ads? Soon after, McGrory and his fellow editors launched a new Patriots recap section called “Score”—with more space for big, eye-catching photos, and hopefully greater appeal to advertisers.