Jimmy Guterman's blog

media, technology, management, and the rest of it

Saving the Boston Globe

with 4 comments

globeFrontPageBy the time The Boston Globe arrived Saturday morning with the ominous headline Times Co. Threatens To Shut Globe, it was old news and that’s the problem. The story had been broken the day before by Adam Reilly at The Boston Phoenix and Monica Brady-Myerov at WBUR, both via electronic media; by the time the newspaper landed with a very light thud at homes and newsstands, the story had moved along. On Saturday morning, the initial shock had moved on to questions about management’s negotiation tactics and other meta-issues. The bloggers and microbloggers had taken over the story.

The Boston Globe is an inconsistent newspaper. Some sections, particularly Washington and Metro, are strong; others, like Sports, are driven by personality and trivia; still others, like Living/Arts, are so full of factual and conceptual errors that they rise to mediocrity only on a very good day. But none of that may matter when considering the survival of the newspaper. The life-threatening problem facing The Boston Globe is not, primarily, a content problem. The Boston Globe is middling and The New York Times may be the best in the English language, but they both face the same problem: a combination technology and business problem that adds up to a dynastic problem.

It’s the end of the print dynasty as the primary delivery mechanism for the content typically housed in a newspaper. Although papers as different in quality as The Boston Globe and The New York Times have shrinking print readerships, they have strong and, in many cases, growing online readerships. People want their product — just not in the wrapper that the newspapers currently offer as their primary product. Indeed, the costs associated with delivering the newspapers on paper are so extraordinary that one enterprising reporter has imagined a dramatically different and provocative way to spend that money.

If I’m right that this is a dynastic problem, not a content problem, then better content — although always desirable — will not solve the profound problems facing newspapers. The businesspeople charged with saving the Globe, whether it be the current ownership or a new team, must confront the truth that cutting down trees, printing tree-based products on large machines, and delivering smaller packages via trucks, is a dead business model for the delivery of timely news.

I’m not arguing that print as a general medium is dead. I am arguing what should be self-evident, but isn’t to many in newspaper management: that print as a way to deliver timely news will soon be over. Smart folks at the Globe and the Times may well dream up tough-minded, profitable print products, but those print products will be expensive, low-volume, premium entries, not mass-market ones. There is a small but sustainable audience that will pay a premium price for a high-quality physical item, so long as it plays to the strength of a physical item, such as permanence, portability, and higher, more controllable production values. But that print product will be secondary to its electronically published siblings. Once publishers stop wrestling with that, they can focus entirely on building the future rather than resuscitating the past. Even those of us who see the Globe as far from perfect want it to survive — but the powers that be on Morrissey Avenue and across the street from Port Authority had better understand that the only way it can survive is in a far different form. Newspapers: you wanna live? Give us new products. Now.

(Disclosure: Between 1998 and 2006, I served on and off as a consultant to boston.com, The Boston Globe‘s website, and over the past 15 or so years I have written a grand total of one book review and two op-eds for The Globe, none more recent than 2005. )

Written by guterman

April 5, 2009 at 8:46 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Done and dusted. Don’t know if you saw Marc Andreessen on Charlie Rose, but Mr. Andreessen was quite emphatic that the show’s over. I like with the WSJ and NYT are doing: Making the newspaper a useful adjunct to the online operation.

    briandavidjohnson

    April 5, 2009 at 9:00 pm

  2. Hi Jimmy:
    Some salient points. I agree wholeheartedly that the biggest problem with newspapers in general is the “paper.” The only way for the Globe to survive is to embrace the web like no other newspaper before it.

    Here are my suggestions: http://tinyurl.com/c7qhsn

    I have a greater opinion of the Globe’s content than you – although I will admit that the quality has suffered terribly in the last few years (for that I blame the staff cuts from the New York Times Co.).

    The Globe needs to stop cutting reporting and editing – its the only thing of value they have left to sell! Get rid of that and they will indeed be forced to close.

    gfsnell3

    April 6, 2009 at 1:50 pm

  3. […] terms) think that aggregators stealing their content, rather than their own inability to navigate the dynastic shift I mention here, is their biggest problem, maybe they do deserve to go away. Those aggregators are giving the […]

  4. I must be too old. I think newspapers printed on paper will survive as they often have in advertising depressions, as reader-supported dollar-dreadfuls, serving up emotion more than breaking news.

    What Andreessen and others are missing is that reading a newspaper is not about finding out the news, but about being part of the community that reads that newspaper. Then you have a common conversation waiting in line, over coffee, at lunch, with neighbors. Until all 3-D locality disappears, there will be such publications, and the dispersed networks of blogs and aggregators, though taking more of our time, are not yet home for most people. It may be that young people will always live jacked into the phonosphere — but it may not. It may be that they develop loyalty to a locality more specific even than a facebook network.

    mzanger

    May 3, 2009 at 11:11 pm


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