12 Aug Another day, another newspaper sold for 5¢ on the dollar
The tagline at the top of this blog, which many readers will recognize as a phrase from the 1967 Beatles song, A Day in the Life, was also the name of a column I wrote for the Boston Globe, where I worked from 1968 to 1970.
It was my first job in journalism. The Globe was the most progressive big city daily in the United States, the only one to favour unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam. It was also a great place to work. In an era of political and cultural tumult, the paper’s managers reached out to rebellious young readers in a concerted way. I was 23 when I started there. The paper’s senior editors indulged me with generosity I still marvel at 45 years later.
One weekend in 1970, the Nixon White House called reporters in on short notice. The Globe’s regular White House crew was unavailable, so Tom Oliphant, who would go on to cover 10 presidential campaigns and share in a Pulitzer Prize, got his first White House assignment on 10 minutes notice.
Oliphant, in his early 20s, arrived in the sneakers and casual clothes he’d been wearing when summoned. He found Press Secretary Ron Ziegler and introduced himself as a Globe staffer. Ziegler looked the young reporter up and down with evident disdain and said, “Figures.”
Tom Winship, the Globe’s editor-in-chief at the time, recounted the incident to me with a satisfied chuckle.
The Globe consistently ranks among the top 10 U.S. newspapers. Over the last half century, it has won 22 Pulitzer Prizes, often for exposing wrongdoing in high places. It won for “massive and balanced coverage of the Boston school desegregation crisis” (during which bullets flew through windows in the paper’s newsroom),”courageous, comprehensive coverage in its disclosures of sexual abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Church,” and a series on racism that included self-criticism.
All the while, circulation plummeted. In 1993, when the New York Times Company bought the Globe from the family that had piloted it for a century, it had a weekday circulation of 506,996. Today, Monday to Friday circulation stands at 245,572, a 52 percent drop. With plunging newspaper sales, ad revenue hemorrhaged, and the rise of the internet vaporized lucrative classified sales.
Last week, the New York Times Company sold the Globe to the owner of the Boston Red Sox, thefolklorically named John Henry. The sale price was $70 million, a figure the Times story called “a staggering drop in value.” For a sense of perspective, consider that six years ago, the Red Sox paid the same amount, $70 million, for the services of outfielder J.D. Drew. Given that the Times will retain the Globe’s estimated $110 million pension liabilities, you could say the price was negative $40 million.
Included in the sale were another Massachusetts daily, the Worcester Telegram; Gazette; the websites BostonGlobe.com, Boston.com, and Telegram.com; the direct-mail marketing company Globe Direct; and the Times’s 49 percent interest in Metro Boston, a free daily akin to Halifax Metro. The Times paid $1.1 billion for the Globe in 1993, and six years later spent another $295 million to acquire the Telegram & Gazette—a total investment of nearly $1.4 billion. Twenty years later it sold them for 1/20th of that amount.
Within days, news of the Globe sale was eclipsed by the Graham family’s sale of the once mighty Washington Post to Amazon founder and internet visionary Jeff Bezos for $250 million. In public statements, Bezos spoke respectfully of the paper’s role as a public trust, but speculation abounds as to his reasons for the purchase. Is it a billionaire’s act of philanthropy, to ensure an important institution’s survival? A Washington lobbying tool, as Amazon comes under increasing legislative and regulatory scrutiny? Or does Bezos believe his proven insights into consumer dynamics in the internet age can restore elusive value to journalistic enterprises?
You have to hope it’s door number three. We are surely in the final decade or two of the printed newspaper. Bezos, who developed the Kindle, is as well placed as anyone to figure out what will replace dead tree editions. As Nova Scotians watch the Chronicle-Herald struggle through the same disruptions that humbled the Globe and the Post, let’s hope he finds a model that works.