A Taylor to the Rescue?
Stephen Taylor, scion of the Boston Globe‘s first family, one-time executive VP at the paper, and near-certain bidder to buy it back from the New York Times Company, teaches a course on the business of newspapers at the Yale School of Management. For students, one perk of enrolling is the pizza-and-beer outings that their instructor springs for after class. For Globe-watchers, on the other hand, the class offers something even better: a window into not just why Taylor wants the Globe back, but also what he might do with it.
Since leaving the paper in 2001, Taylor, who lives in Milton, has kept busy with angel investing and money management projects. He started teaching the Yale course three years ago. Dave Bledin, who took the class in the spring of 2008, says back then it might as well have been listed in the course catalog as the business of doomsday.
“We had speaker after speaker from the newspaper industry coming in, painting this bleak picture,” he says. “It was sort of depressing.” According to the syllabus, those lecturers included a Globe op-ed columnist, a Times Company senior exec, a top Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor, and the lead Bancroft family trustee (this, less than a year after the Bancrofts had relinquished the Wall Street Journal to Rupert Murdoch). In other words, a lineup that understandably could make Taylor’s three-hour lessons a serious downer.
But Bledin, who kept tabs on the class by talking with this year’s students (and who even attended a session), says a funny thing happened: As the future of journalism grew more dire, the tone of the class grew more hopeful. This time around, the roster of speakers comprised online gurus from Hearst and the Globe, the CEO of citizen journalism website Helium, the founder of MinnPost.com, and an executive from the very much evolving Newsweek. John Bourne, one of Taylor’s students this past spring, says the latest edition of the course was decidedly optimistic.
“A lot of it was focused on how journalism stays relevant in an increasingly digital world,” Bourne says. “It was something [Taylor] was very curious to figure out. It was almost as though he was learning alongside us, as someone who knows how the world of journalism used to work and [wants] to keep it alive.”
Even if, in the case of the Globe, that might mean creating a newspaper that looks very different from the one that Taylor’s family once so benevolently ruled.
As of press time (a quaint idea, we know, for this magazine), the reported potential bidders for the Globe included Taylor, local ad magnate Jack Connors, Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca, and local company Intercontinental Real Estate. Though Taylor is hardly poor, unlike his fellow bidders he is not known to have the hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank necessary to keep the paper on life support while a turnaround plan is put in place, a fact that leaves him needing to build a team of investors. He’s also the only bidder who is intimately familiar with the Globe, which gives him a vital understanding of its workings—but also the potential for a sentimental streak that could cripple his ability to execute a radical makeover. After all, he comes from a family that operated the paper for more than a century without ever laying off a single reporter.
Judging from his Yale classes, though, it would be a mistake to conflate the noblesse oblige ofTaylor’s forebears with how he’d run things. While working at the Globe in the 1990s, he was instrumental in founding Boston.com, and pushed Times Company leadership to invest heavily in the site. Owner of a Kindle and an iPhone, Taylor remains an early adopter, someone inclined toward innovation. “He was fascinated by e-readers,” says Bourne, “the idea of potentially subsidizing [them] to keep subscribers and be able to drive ad revenue by saying, ‘Look, we’ve got all these people with Kindles out there.'” Another new model Taylor explored with his students was a pay-for-content setup, often discussing the various means that have been floated—from micropayments to subscription services—of wringing money directly from online content.
Of course, if Taylor does wind up as the next owner of the Globe, his most urgent challenge will be to bring down the paper’s unsustainable costs. This, too, dovetails with a broader industry challenge that was chewed over in his classroom. The Globe unions’ recent wage and benefits concessions will help reduce the paper’s losses, but it will take much more to transform the company into a viable news organization for the future. That may mean, as many media analysts believe, a violent turnover of personnel. Salespeople accustomed to selling print ads to department stores and car dealerships, for instance, will likely have to be replaced by tech-savvy innovators, on the hunt for ways to profit from the Web. The paper’s management may require a similar going-over. While Bostonians are looking for a white knight to swoop in and save the Globe, what the paper needs more is a clear-eyed pragmatist willing to do the dirty work to turn things around. Given the enthusiasm for new ideas Taylor’s students say he displayed, it seems with him as owner, nothing would be off the table.
Former Globe editor Matt Storin, whose tenure at the newspaper overlapped with Taylor’s, points out that Taylor’s greatest claim to fame outside of journalism is as a world champion sailor who has navigated across the Atlantic and back. That’s not an insignificant fact, given the choppy waters ahead if Taylor’s bid prevails. “He’s an adventurer,” Storin says. He’ll have to be.