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.
The boom in interest in the Vatican under Pope Francis is one driver for the Globe’s effort, but there’s more basic math at work: While the Boston area has some 4.5 million people, there are hundreds of millions of English-speaking Catholics in the world.
More broadly, Henry believes there’s no reason that Boston’s paper of record can’t be as influential as the city itself. If Boston is a tech center, then the Globe can own tech. If Boston is a capital of Catholicism, then the Globe can own Catholicism. In a similar vein, Henry has approved the expansion of the Globe’s highly regarded Ideas section, hoping to draw more smart voices from the city’s vast intellectual plant into the paper. “He sees Boston in a much, much wider frame,” says Globe editorial page editor Peter Canellos, “and sees Boston as a global city, as a place of real innovation and national leadership.”
If BetaBoston works, similar endeavors covering topics like education and medicine will likely follow. As Henry has said publicly, his plan is for the Globe to focus on what it’s good at. Part of that process will be shrinking some departments and growing others, especially on the digital side. “We probably need five times the developers we currently have,” he says. As for any other departments requiring cuts or growth, “It’s too early to say.”
Ken Doctor believes that the Globe’s niche strategy is a smart and creative play. Over the past six years, he points out that newspapers nationwide have lost 55 to 58 percent of all print ad revenue. Niche sites likely can’t single-handedly replace that big a chunk of money, but as Henry is keenly aware, every bit helps. That’s also why, since arriving, he has been focused on another of the Globe’s digital properties: Boston.com.
Late in the morning of December 24, John Henry poked his head inside a large conference room on the third floor of the Globe. Everyone there knew that they’d better look busy. Not long after the new owner’s arrival, the space had been converted into a boiler room for a team of about 10 developers, designers, and project managers working to redesign Boston.com. During the bidding process, Henry had been told that the project, launched in May, would be done by January, but, much to his frustration, progress had been slow. To speed things along, the staffers had been moved to and sequestered in the room.
Henry’s brief visit was pleasant enough, but after he left, everyone breathed a sigh of relief that they’d come into work before the holiday. “Everybody got a gold star that day,” says one Boston.com employee. When I asked DiNardo, the multimedia editor, when the redesign would be ready, he replied, “You’ve been talking to John Henry. He’s been asking that question every day.” The target is now the end of the first quarter.
Inside the Globe, Boston.com is regarded as a great, underutilized asset. Publisher Chris Mayer’s plan was to slowly separate the site from BostonGlobe.com, but as Globe execs have continuously pulled Globe material away from Boston.com over the past three years, the site has suffered, losing both its sense of purpose and traffic. The Boston Business Journal has reported that, between 2010 and 2012, page views plummeted 24 percent, from 188 million to 143 million, according to the sale book on the Globe commissioned by the Times Company. Globe editors refute those numbers, though, and say that an uptick in mobile users has pushed traffic up from last year.
The vision for the new Boston.com is to be, as Henry puts it, “a phone-first website” and totally independent of the Globe—something like a mixture of the Huffington Post with BuzzFeed. He’s dropped in on several meetings and made additional visits to the Boston.com boiler room.
“He is very interested in design aspects of the site,” DiNardo says. “He was encouraging the designers to make the images larger on parts of the site. He wanted a more visual presentation. In general, that is the direction of the redesign. Plus, if John Henry says it, of course I agree with it.”
Meanwhile, changes are afoot at sister site BostonGlobe.com. Around the same time as the Boston.com relaunch, BostonGlobe.com will switch from a hard-paywall model, where all Globe content is behind the curtain, to a New York Times–style metered model, where readers will be given a certain number of free stories each month before being asked to pay. “It was being talked about before he came, but his presence accelerated it,” DiNardo says.