What would Boston's media landscape look like without the BostonGlobe?It still feels strange to ask the question: local press watchers (including me) have long assumed that the tabloid BostonHerald would die before its bigger, more sophisticated, more popular broadsheet competitor. Not anymore. On April 2, the New York Times Company — which purchased the Globe from the Taylor family in 1993 for $1.1 billion, and has seen its value fall catastrophically since then — said it would close the Globe if the paper's unions didn't make $20 million in concessions within a month. And on April 23 — the same day that Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. spoke soothingly about placing the Globe on the "path to sustainability" — his corporate counterpart, president and CEO Janet Robinson, told Globe reporter Keith O'Brien that the May Day union-concession deadline was still very much in effect.
The total disappearance of the Globe isn't the only possible bad outcome here. Not quite as gloomy, but still ominous, for example, is a scenario in which the paper could end up online only, with a skeleton staff, à la the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Or, as Herald business writer Jay Fitzgerald has suggested, the Times Co. could wrest concessions from the Globe's unions — then take it into bankruptcy anyway while searching for a buyer.
Still, the worst-case scenario has to be taken seriously — which is precisely what the state's congressional delegation (minus Congressman Steve Lynch) did when it sent a letter of concern to Sulzberger this Tuesday. Curiously, in terms of readership (as opposed to circulation), the Globe is actually doing well: while weekday print circulation dropped from about 382,000 to 302,000 in the past two years, boston.com, the paper's Web site, attracted 5.7 million unique visitors in the month of February. (The Herald's weekday print circulation fell more steeply, from 201,000 to 150,000.) And the circulation revenues for the Times Co.'s New England Media Group, a subgroup of publications that is dominated by the Globe, are almost unchanged ($38.5 million in early 2007, $38.1 million in early 2009).
The problem is advertising. For a bevy of related reasons — including the shift to online readership, the Craigslist-induced death of classified advertising, the incredible shrinking US economy, and the fact that online advertising simply isn't that profitable — the Globe's ad revenue has plummeted, from $97.2 million in the first quarter of 2007 to $55.7 million today. Inevitably, the paper's bottom line has suffered: the Globe lost $50 million in 2008; this year, it's projected to lose $85 million (including severance costs).
Meanwhile, the Times Co. itself is in enough trouble that it's borrowing $250 million, at high interest, from dubious Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú — a man described in the New York Times' "Editorial Observer" column in 2007 as a latter-day "robber baron" — and, in return, giving Slim warrants that could ultimately land him control of 17 percent of the Times Co.'s common stock. Compared to that leap of faith, shutting down the Globe would be easy.
It would also be devastating. The Globe has plenty of critics (again, including this reporter). But there's no denying the outsized role it plays in setting Boston's news agenda. The paper has Boston's only full-time religion reporter, five health and science reporters, 36 metro reporters, 122 reporters total in its newsroom. And thanks to this staffing depth — as well as the skill of many of its journalists — the Globe produces good, sometimes great work that dominates the local conversation. Tune into WBUR-FM or WBZ-AM in the morning, or local TV news at night, and you're more likely to see or hear a follow-up to a Globe story than you are a story that originated anywhere else. It's true that the Globe's demise would create major opportunities for other news outlets, including the Phoenix. But even as a group, it would be exceedingly difficult for the rest of us to fill the post-Globe vacuum.
'Much bigger than us'
Given all this, Globe editor Marty Baron's April 23 speech at Boston's Seaport Hotel was packed with dramatic potential. Would he rail against his corporate overlords? Or urge the Globe's unions to act quickly for the greater civic good? Or plead for a local savior — perhaps Red Sox principal owner John Henry, who's reportedly interested in acquiring the paper?
He would not. Instead, Baron immediately depressurized the proceedings. A joke at the expense of George Regan — the Boston PR bigwig who was sponsoring the speech, and who'd collapsed after a recent appearance by Boston Mayor Tom Menino — helped relax the room. ("George, it's great to see you looking well. Please try to stay upright during lunch.") So, too, did an early disclaimer: rather than holding forth on the Globe crisis, Baron would reprise a speech he recently gave at the University of Oregon — coincidentally, on the very same day that the Times Co. was first delivering its ultimatum.