Can Linda Henry Save the Boston Globe?
A couple of years into the Henry era, the Globe’s brand was boosted by a rolling wave of Spotlight PR. But inside 135 Morrissey Boulevard, the mood wasn’t always buoyant. After an inaugural year of ramped-up hiring and bold investments, John began to retrench. In 2015, dozens of positions at the Globe and Boston.com were eliminated through layoffs or buyouts. In early 2016, there was the infamous Globe delivery fiasco, a cost-saving gambit gone disastrously wrong. John had turned over print distribution to a California firm, ACI Media Group, with a less-than-perfect mastery of Boston’s geography. Delivery trucks were dispatched on comically circuitous routes; dozens of drivers quit in protest and thousands of subscribers went paperless. Humiliatingly, reporters and editors were left to deliver papers themselves. A few months later, the paper shut down its standalone Catholic site, Crux, and after that, its shrinking politics section, Capital. John’s biggest success story—the health site Stat News—wasn’t affiliated with the daily paper.
The reality was that Henry’s bets weren’t paying off financially. “Word on the street is, it hasn’t been an accretive investment for them,” says Suffolk Construction’s John Fish diplomatically. “It’s been very dilutive.” As talk spread of John Henry’s frustrations, Linda was gaining prominence. In July 2016, it was announced that she would oversee Boston.com, which she was scaling back in an effort to funnel readers to the paper’s paid site. Meanwhile, she played a central role in the company’s move downtown, scouring locations with Sheehan, McGrory, and her husband. “She wants the Globe right smack in the middle of things, and the corner of State and Congress can’t be much more than that,” McGrory says. “She has got very clear ideas of what a contemporary, forward-looking company should look like. I don’t think you can underestimate how important the move is culturally.” In 2017, new CEO Doug Franklin began convening a “senior management team” that would meet weekly to discuss strategy. Franklin was on it, as was McGrory, as was Linda. John was not.
When the Boston.com announcement occurred, it was, incredibly, the first time Linda’s hands-on role at the Globe had ever been publicized. “I heard a lot of people who were offended, saying, ‘What are her qualifications?’” says a veteran Boston journalist, not from the Globe. “Well, what are John Henry’s qualifications to be publisher?” Indeed, to some in the newsroom, it was Linda, not John, who had earned the benefit of the doubt. “You need to be able to point to a person and vision,” says an editor at the Globe. “Him, we don’t know.” Linda’s presence, on the other hand, was palpable. “If we get to a day when she’s appointed publisher,” the editor says, “we will be in a better place. We will have a person we can look to who is a strong leader, who is here every day.”
The day after our meeting in the bowels of the Globe, Linda and I end up in a decidedly tonier corner of the eastern seaboard: a buzzy brunch spot called Bubby’s, in lower Manhattan. Linda is already sitting down when I arrive, mischievously eavesdropping on a table of girlfriends plotting a text message to a potential hookup. Wearing black boots and a black leather jacket, she’s in town for the Tribeca Film Festival, gathering inspiration for GlobeDocs, which will see its third iteration this fall. She’ll meet a couple of close collaborators at the Globe—Janice Page and Meredith Goldstein, the paper’s Love Letters columnist—at the festival later in the evening.
We order—huevos rancheros for Linda, a BLT for me—then realize we can barely hear each other over the din of the restaurant. Conversation-sapping acoustics are not unusual in Manhattan. But at noon on a Friday, this seems extreme. Absently, I ask where the noise is coming from. Linda answers immediately. “There’s nothing to absorb the sound. They don’t have curtains. There’s a hard ceiling.” She shakes her head, glancing around the restaurant. “Hard doors. No tablecloths.” Linda actually knows the answer. “They did nothing to attenuate any sound.”
All of this comes second nature, of course, from her years in real estate. It reminds me of something she had told me the day before, explaining the connective tissue between her various endeavors. “I would say, fundamentally, I’m a producer. When you’re making a building, when you’re doing real estate development, you are a producer,” she has said. “You have a vision for a project and you surround yourself with people who are way more talented than you are. The architect. The builder. You pull it together.” She’s being modest, but her point stands. In using the Globe as a forum for a certain type of discourse, art, and, yes, journalism, she’s hoping to transform the city into more than the sum of its parts.
Linda may not have originally trusted the business model of a daily metro newspaper, but she recognized its unique potential as a regionwide convener. In 2014, then–editorial page editor Peter Canellos was sitting with John in the owner’s box at Fenway. Canellos mentioned an idea he’d been kicking around with local venture capitalists Jeff Bussgang and Jon Auerbach: a massive Boston-based ideas festival, powered by the Globe. Like Austin’s South by Southwest, but nerdier. “That’s exactly what my wife wants to do,” John said. “Make Boston big in the world.” Bussgang and Auerbach needed someone who could not only leverage the Globe’s power, but also convince other local institutions—Harvard, MIT—to collaborate. Linda loved the idea. “Who do you have in mind?” she asked them, not realizing they wanted her to helm HUBweek. She blanched—she was already working full time at the paper—then accepted anyway. “I was in a number of meetings with various leaders of Boston, including people from Cambridge who were quite full of themselves,” Canellos says. “I watched how Linda politely and smartly put people in their place.” HUBweek took off; last year’s iteration, its second, featured more than 500 speakers and artists, and brought in more than 33,000 event registrations.
Despite HUBweek, the Globe hasn’t quite transitioned from old-media behemoth to nimble, new-media platform. Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post uses Amazon Kindle to push out its product; the Globe only has an outdated e-paper app. More than anyone else at the paper, though, Linda is the one branching outside of Boston—and investing in projects outside the scope of traditional journalism—to position the paper for the future. Example: HUBweek partners with WBUR. WBUR and the Globe are collaborating on a Serial-style podcast about the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist. Separately, Linda is an investor in a forthcoming documentary about the caper. When that film wraps, you can bet you’ll see it screened at the GlobeDocs film festival.
“Newspapers are not exactly what people think of when they think of the industries of the future—probably kind of the opposite,” says Fidelity CEO Abigail Johnson. “So to get in there and do some of the stuff Linda has been spearheading around HUBweek, those are all smart business moves.”
One prominent member of the tech community is more blunt. “I think she is a much more important figure than John,” he says. “It’s not even close. John is introverted, he’s brilliant, and obviously owns the Red Sox. But in my judgment, Linda is the star. Who created HUBweek? John had nothing to do with HUBweek. Who is on the board of MassChallenge? She is now on the board of the Engine, MIT’s new investment firm. These are next-generation institutions.”
What does all this mean for the future of the Globe? Right now, the Henrys are betting on two strategies. The first is to grow the paper’s already impressive digital subscriber base of 83,000 while maintaining one of the highest weekly online-only rates—nearly $7—in the country.
The second is to drastically reduce costs. In June, the Globe moves out of its severely outmoded 800,000-square-foot Dorchester headquarters. The monthly lease at 53 State Street, Linda says, costs far less than it does to maintain the current offices.
Ditto the newspaper’s new printing facility in Taunton, whose efficiencies will in theory make it worth the $70 million price tag. (The search for a buyer of the current headquarters is ongoing.)
All this, Linda says, should get the Globe to break even “within a few years.” But what if it doesn’t? What if, like most major metro dailies on the planet, it keeps bleeding cash? It’s not clear how long John would tolerate such a scenario. When he purchased the Globe, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette was included in the deal. John said he intended to sell it, but strictly to a local owner. Instead, he reneged and sold the paper to a Florida chain, which agreed to buy it only once he had laid off 25 percent of the staff.
Of course, Linda too would like to get the Globe out of the red. But she’d been skeptical from the start that it could ever get there. When I asked her if their goal was still to get the paper to financial sustainability, she demurs. “So I would say that that was John’s goal,” she says. “My goal was that I had been doing all these different projects for Boston. And a strong city needs a strong, healthy newspaper. So I viewed it as part of my mission with the city.” When I ask how long she and John aim to own the paper, Linda tells me “she’s in no rush,” adding, “I plan on being here for a very long time.”
Linda, by nature, is self-effacing, and strongly resists the notion that she’s the most significant figure at the paper—let alone its savior. The credit, she says, belongs to the company’s CEO, to McGrory—to anyone beside herself.
And yet, grudgingly, she seems to acknowledge that the future rests on her shoulders. “I don’t want to be the one speaking on behalf of the Globe,” she says. “Yet.”