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.
Some staff members have begun to chafe at their boss’s impatience and inexperience, though. After Henry bought Liverpool FC in 2010, Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy made a habit in his column of asking whether he was spread too thin to effectively run the Red Sox (in case you’re wondering, McGrory says Shaughnessy has “the safest job in New England”). Now Henry has the Red Sox, Liverpool, and the Globe.
One Boston.com employee complains that it’s hard to command Henry’s focus, and that he doesn’t adequately understand what’s involved in relaunching a site so large and complex. “He forgets things you’ve already told him,” this person says. “Two months later you hear the same questions.”
“I can’t imagine all of the things he’s dealing with,” the employee continues. “‘What did you do last weekend, John?’ ‘Oh, I traded a soccer player for $82 million.’”
Henry dismisses the notion that he’s too busy—or, in fact, that he’s ever been too busy. “When the Red Sox had a terrible year, some people wrote that I was too focused on Liverpool. But the truth was that I hadn’t been there in a year,” he says. “The fact is I don’t operate the Red Sox or any of the individual companies we own.” With the Red Sox, he says CEO Larry Lucchino, general manager Ben Cherington, and manager John Farrell run the show. His role, he says, is “to make strategic, long-term decisions.”
Henry adds that closing off his commodities trading firm to clients at the end of 2012 has also helped free his calendar. “I have time to devote to the Globe, and I’m greatly enjoying every day I’m there,” he says. “I try to be there as often as my schedule permits.”
I think very differently than I did seven months ago,” Henry says. “I used to think this was solely a move from a legacy print business to a digital future. But it’s far more complicated than that.” Advertising and subscription revenue may be declining, but the Globe print product still represents about 70 percent of Boston Globe Media’s revenue, and it demands careful management.
On January 8, Henry made his first big speech as the owner of the Globe, at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast. He offered few specifics, instead vowing to make the paper “aggressively relevant” and waxing at length on all of Boston’s great virtues. The Globe will rededicate itself to customer service, he told the crowd, both for advertisers and subscribers. His message to the business community was clear: His bet on the Globe was really a bet on Boston, and he needed the entire city’s help—and especially the help of anyone present interested in buying an ad.
One way Henry has been trying to reach out to the community is through reviving the Globe Foundation. Pizzuti has taken charge of it, and set up an office in the paper’s executive suite. (She also, according to Henry, “serves on a number of internal committees that deal with real estate, circulation, social media, and other business issues.”) She’s spearheading a new program, announced by Henry at the chamber breakfast, that lets subscribers donate vouchers for free advertising to a nonprofit of their choice.
Later that day, publisher Chris Mayer—who’d been at the paper for nearly three decades—announced he would be stepping down. His departure wasn’t exactly a surprise, even if announcing it on the same day as Henry’s speech seemed odd. Mayer, who will stay on as an adviser, was used to running the show, and having a new boss like Henry, given to asking lots of challenging questions, had proven awkward. “I have a different management style and philosophy,” Henry says. “The organization needed to move in new directions that could only come from new management.”
When Jeff Moriarty, the general manager of Boston.com, took a new job at the Johnston Press in Britain just a few weeks later, Henry promoted Perlmutter to the expanded role of overseeing all digital business. Then, in late January, Henry named himself publisher and hired former Hill Holliday boss Mike Sheehan, who had been serving as a consultant, to be his CEO. Though Henry says the Globe’s management structure will be dictated by the paper’s specific needs, it broadly mimics the system he’s set up for the Red Sox: Sheehan says he will run the day-to-day business of the Globe, with a special focus on finding new revenue, while Henry focuses on the big picture.
In the search for new money, Sheehan has promised to be creative and open to anything, as long as it respects editorial independence. That could mean more native advertising, allowing a single advertiser to sponsor an entire section, or something else entirely. One new source of revenue, at least down the line, could be the creation of a Globe TV network, which Henry floated the idea of in his chamber speech. “We will get to it,” he tells me. “It’s a natural fit for the Globe.” In the meantime, Globe officials are busy at work on new collaborations with NESN. “I would bet that if you look at the Boston Globe Media Group a couple years from now, it’ll be much different than it is today,” Sheehan says.
The flow of new ideas—and the money to actually fund them—is more than welcome in the Globe newsroom. Even if the future is uncertain, for the first time in years, there’s a sliver of sunlight on the horizon. “We ended up with a good owner,” McGrory says. “And we ended up with an owner who is hell-bent on not cutting.”
Henry’s midwestern reserve has made him hard to figure over the years, even to those reporters who met him on his first trip through the newsroom. But maybe his shyness has just been masking something we should have seen all along: an audacious sense of self-confidence. Without knowing anything about Boston, he bought the Red Sox. Without knowing anything about soccer, he bought Liverpool. And now, despite being a total industry novice, he thinks he can save journalism.
Speaking at the Chamber of Commerce event in early January, Henry talked about his arrival in town. “Although I didn’t know it at the time, it turns out I was more the New Englander than I thought,” he said. “I know you don’t become a New Englander, you’re born and raised a New Englander, but I’m sort of like an Irish fighter who thinks he’s a heavyweight even though he weighs 160.”
Now Henry’s fight has just begun. “Newspapers and magazines have to adapt in ways that make sense,” he says. “There is a lot riding on this.”