As recounted here last August, John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox, bought another great Boston institution, the Boston Globe, for just $70 million. That’s $1.13 billion less than the New York Times paid for it 20 years ago. The Times retained the paper’s $110 million in pension liabilities, so you could say the price was negative $40 million.
So grim are the economics of newspapering in the 21st Century, lots of industry watchers thought Henry was nuts. Late last month, he took to the paper’s editorial page to explain what motivated him.
I have been asked repeatedly in recent weeks why I chose to buy the Globe. A few have posed the question in a tone of incredulity, as in, “Why would anyone purchase a newspaper these days?” But for the most part, people have offered their thanks and best wishes with a great deal of warmth. A number of civic and business leaders have also offered their help. I didn’t expect any of these reactions, but I should have.
Over the past two months I have learned just how deeply New Englanders value the Globe. It is the eyes and ears of the region in some ways, the heartbeat in many others. It is the gathering point not just for news and information, but for opinion, discussion, and ideas.
Truth is, I prefer to think that I have joined the Globe, not purchased it, because great institutions, public and private, have stewards, not owners. Stewardship carries obligations and responsibilities to citizens first and foremost — not to shareholders. This is especially true for news organizations. As the respected Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston once said, “Only one industry throughout America carries on its day-to-day business with the specific blessing of the Constitution.”
I didn’t get involved out of impulse. I began analyzing the plight of major American newspapers back in 2009, during the throes of the recession, when the Globe’s parent company, the New York Times Company, considered shutting down the paper. As I studied the problems that beset the newspaper industry, I discovered a maddening irony: The Boston Globe, through the paper and its website, had more readers than at any time in its history. But journalism’s business model had become fundamentally flawed. Readers were flocking from the papers to the Internet, consuming expensive journalism for free. On the advertising front, print dollars were giving way to digital dimes. I decided that the challenges were too difficult, so I moved on.
Or, I should say, I tried to move on. I couldn’t shake off what I had come to admire about the Globe. I grew to believe that New England is a better place with a healthy, vibrant Globe. When the Times put the Globe up for sale this winter, I resumed my studies. I soon realized that one of the key things the paper needed in order to prosper was private, local ownership, passionate about its mission. And so decisions about The Boston Globe are now being made here in Boston. The obligation is now to readers and local residents, not to distant shareholders. This, ideally, will foster even bolder and more creative thinking throughout the organization, which is critical in an industry under so much stress.
May his words offer inspiration to those struggling to maintain smaller papers like the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, enterprises equally important to their communities.
The whole piece is worth a read. Thanks to Doug MacKay, who edited the late, lamented Halifax Daily News at the peak of its glory, for pointing it out.