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.
A classically salty New Englander, the 52-year-old McGrory had his first job as a kid delivering the Globe on a paper route. He joined up officially as a reporter in 1989 and never left, rising to the position of editor in December 2012. Though his selection was popular in the newsroom, he inherited a difficult situation: After buying the Globe for $1.1 billion in 1993, the Times Company had long since grown weary of its ward to the north. In 2009 the company threatened to shut the newspaper down, only relenting when Globe unions agreed to $20 million in cost savings. Four uncomfortable years later, in February 2013, the Times decided to rid itself of the Globe for good, and put its New England Media Group up for sale.
Several interested buyers emerged, with at least six groups making it to the final round. Those included bids led by members of the Taylor family, the paper’s former owners; local power brokers Jack Connors and John Fish; a private-equity firm from California; and the owners of the U-T San Diego newspaper. Henry entered the sweepstakes late, and his interest came as a surprise.
Throughout the spring, groups of bidders met with top Globe brass, including McGrory and publisher Chris Mayer. The San Diegans, led by a real estate developer and U-T co-owner who refers to himself as “Papa Doug” Manchester, particularly scared Globe newsroom staffers. “There were some potential bidders who would have come in here and in the first weeks, if not days, looked to cut this place by anywhere from 10 to 30 percent,” McGrory says. “And we would have faced widespread layoffs, enormously diminished ambition, and, as a result, probably higher profits, temporarily.”
“Do you have any idea what it was like to sit in a conference room at a downtown hotel, day after day, eating God-awful catered food,” he continues, “sitting there with people who you know just wanted to cut the living bejesus out of the place that you love the second they got their hands on us? And you had to be polite, you had to be informative, and these meetings stretched on forever, five, six hours at a time—most of the time I got so bored I just had to leave.” During the U-T San Diego presentation, people who were in the room attest, Manchester at one point instructed McGrory to call him “Papa Doug.” McGrory did not call him Papa Doug.
Henry’s meeting with the Globe representatives went much better. It took place at the downtown law firm of Proskauer Rose, where the Red Sox owner arrived with a large contingent of advisers. He asked a battery of sharp questions, impressing the Globe delegation. “They had spent a lot of time with the data,” says one Globe exec who was at the meeting. “They were incredibly well informed.”
Henry’s entourage was made up of officials from his Fenway Sports Group, the umbrella company that owns the Red Sox, Liverpool FC, and NESN, among other businesses. He had originally considered making the bid through FSG, because of the obvious Globe-NESN tie-ins, but says he dropped the idea when some of his partners expressed PR concerns. Henry also felt uneasy roping his fellow FSG investors into something as crazy as buying a newspaper. “It’s hard to justify purchasing a business with falling revenues unless you have a solid plan for turning it around,” Henry explains. “No one has found a magic bullet for newspapers or magazines yet.”
His next idea was to lead a philanthropic effort to buy and care for the paper, but Henry was discouraged by people at the Globe, who argued that newspapers should be able to stand as viable businesses. After that, he says he considered bringing on minority owners, but decided that, on his own, he would be freer to make decisions. More partners, the Red Sox owner says, could also have led to more conflicts of interest. He decided to make his offer solo.
Not wanting to look like it was leaving Boston to the dogs (or Papa Dougs), the Times Company had been looking for a graceful exit from the city. Henry’s offer of $70 million cash had the advantage of being debt free, meaning there would be little chance of an immediate, embarrassing bankruptcy or harsh cost-cutting to satisfy creditors. His status as a wealthy, civic-minded local provided even more cover. Though other groups say they presented higher offers, on August 3, the Times Company chose John Henry to be the next owner of the Boston Globe.
When he first arrived in town after buying the Red Sox in 2002, the soft-spoken Henry was derided as an outsider and, worse, a midwesterner. But over the years—and through three World Series championships—the Quincy, Illinois, native’s relationship with the city has grown.
The deal became official on October 24, and shortly after Henry and Pizzuti made a late-night visit to the giant pressroom in the Globe headquarters, a Rube Goldberg–like wonderland of conveyor belts and chutes. Tim McMahon, a pressman since 1975, says it reminded him of the old days, when Globe patriarch Bill Taylor used to walk the floor. In 20 years of ownership, he says, no Times Company officials had ever come to introduce themselves like that. McMahon made Henry and Pizzuti a folded newspaper hat to mark the occasion. The couple returned to the pressroom a few weeks later to pose for pictures with the Red Sox World Series trophies. When Henry offered to join one pressman in a shot, the employee protested, requesting that Pizzuti step into the frame instead. “She had a beautiful dress on,” he says, “and oh my God.”
In the newsroom, Henry’s reception was more complicated, with initial handwringing over his conflicts with the Red Sox. “This was the last circumstance anyone would want,” legendary Globe sportswriter Bob Ryan told the New York Times right after the sale. And though Henry says his only conflict resides “in the sports pages,” the truth is that FSG has broad business dealings that bear attention. Henry and McGrory have promised unbiased coverage, though proof of that can only come with time. “Judge us when something really explosive happens in the Red Sox clubhouse,” one reporter says.
Overall, though, in my many interviews with Globe newsroom members, it became clear that the overriding feeling was optimism and excitement (and relief) over having a local owner with deep pockets and apparently good intentions.
On October 26, two days after his deal with the Times Company officially closed, Henry wrote a nearly 3,000-word op-ed in his new paper explaining why he bought it. “I invested in the Globe because I believe deeply in the future of this great community, and the Globe should play a vital role in determining that future,” he wrote. “I invested in the Globe because it is one of the best and most important news organizations in the world.” The op-ed was a hit.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the news business,” one reporter says, “but I think that we feel optimistic in a way we hadn’t under the New York Times in a long, long time.”