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.

john-henry

Illustration by Rob Day

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.

ADVERTISMENT

  • King-Stanley-Krauter

    The Boston Globe could increase its revenue if its reporters would start communicating like teachers instead of entertainers.
    —-
    This could be done by publishing an annual one week review of events and conditions like a teacher would for a summer remedial education class of students who flunked their regular classes. (It would be very easy to make this annual review profitable but no one in the news media is interested in working harder and smarter.) The annual review would work like the report cards that teachers use for rewarding and punishing their students. And most parents, when a child brings home too many bad report cards in a row, become more involved in both disciplining and helping their child. Their extra discipline usually includes better monitoring of their child’s study habits and test scores. Their extra help usually includes reading their child’s textbooks so they can provide some free home schooling. Which enables the parents to set better goals for their child.
    —–
    The same steps will happen with an annual review. When the government gets too many bad report cards in a row, voters will become more involved in both disciplining and helping their politicians. Their extra discipline will include better monitoring of their politicians’ behavior by reading more newspapers Their extra help will also include reading more newspapers. Setting better goals will also require reading more newspapers. A win-win solution.
    —–
    But my advice will be ignored because reporters prefer communicating like entertainers because a teacher’s job is too boring for them.

  • dougkinan

    Mr. Henry may be faced with a much larger problem in the months ahead concerning the credibility of certain reporters, which may have implications of wrecking his newspaper. Were those “alleged” details told to him before and during negotiations? Just asking?
    dougkinan@yahoo.com
    617-323-6171

  • Weebs

    Henry’s desire to launch a stand-alone Catholic news site is extremely interesting. How will that mesh with the Globe’s hyper-liberal, pro-abortion editorial stance?

  • Hawkeye

    Look how popular Fox News has become. What the Globe needs is some new editorial writers.

  • http://www.fibrowitch.net Jan Dumas

    Here’s an idea, how about getting the paper delivered on time! I know several people who have stopped subscribing to the Globe, because getting the paper to our doors each morning is impossible. I was an 8 year subscriber until I got tired of playing find the paper every morning. Promise me the paper will arrive at my door; and by door I mean within a foot of my front door and in readable condition, by 7am every morning and I will resubscribe. It is the one part of the news delivery cycle that the reader experiences, and the greatest money maker for the paper. That the Globe is more interested in building a on line presence than making sure the print edition gets where it needs to go.

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  • Sharoney

    One mention of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. ONE.

    Hey, Mr. Henry–there’s an entire newspaper in your portfolio you’ve ignored since taking over the Globe empire, and all you’ve said publicly is that you plan to sell it…. someday.

    There’s an entire state beyond 495. Either cut the T&G loose so it can better cover the part of Massachusetts the Globe has steadfastly ignored, or let us know what you plan to do with it, if anything.

  • jack

    The Globe’s got a sugar daddy but for how long? The future is a smaller location, online only and a continuous loss of money.