Thursday, June 11, 2009

John Henry, a two-paper city turns its lonely eyes to you

Will those who tote the tape recorders (not pictured) for The Boston Globe one day report to John Henry? Photo from this site.

The battle between The New York Times Company and The Boston Globe got uglier and moved towards a potentially catastrophic end game this week, when the Boston Newspaper Guild on Monday rejected the Times’ proposed wage cut of more than eight percent as well as reductions in health benefits and retirement packages. The Times—which threatened to close the Globe in April but said Tuesday it has no plans to shut the doors—responded by declaring an impasse in negotiations and announcing it would implement a 23 percent wage cut beginning Sunday. The union filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board Tuesday.

Late yesterday, news broke that the Times has retained Goldman Sachs to solicit bids for the Globe. The Globe’s sources are two potential bidders for the paper, which quite frankly are two more bidders than I would have anticipated. Even Rupert Murdoch, who has never minded taking a bath with a newspaper in order to build his empire, appears close to selling The Weekly Standard.

The concept of someone, anyone, stepping in to buy the Globe and save it from potential extinction sounds good, but sometimes the newspaper business feels like a modern-day fable—or maybe a modern-day Twilight Zone, I’m not really sure—in which those who are viewed as the saviors are actually more ruthless and bent on destroying the product than their predecessors. Ask anyone who works—or used to work—for Sam Zell and the Tribune Company, or those at Newsday on Long Island who work—or used to work—for a paper that now charges its readers 50 percent more to read a whole lot less.

If you think Times management is cold, imagine the ax in the hands of Jack Welch, who was placing a cutthroat emphasis on the bottom line back when today’s newspaper barons were pledging Phi Beta Trustfund. It’s a sad day when Welch, the former CEO of General Electric and "Voice of the Fan" on NESN (snort), makes a good point about how a newspaper’s management engaging in the type of behavior that it would typically criticize.

Along those lines, the Globe’s best hope for survival still might be Sox owner John Henry, who was reportedly interested in making a bid for the Globe—perhaps in conjunction with buying the Times’ stake in the Sox—less than two months ago. Talks apparently didn’t get beyond the exploratory stage, as evidenced by the following statement released by the Sox Apr. 30: “Neither John Henry, Tom Werner, nor any affiliates of the Boston Red Sox are involved in any sales discussions or negotiations with regard to the acquisition of the Boston Globe.”

But Henry has already displayed the deft PR touch that will be needed for whomever is willing to try to figure out a way to streamline operations (i.e. cutting staff) while keeping a dinosaur around long enough to figure out a way to make money on the online product. Henry and his ownership group already won over a fan base that wanted nothing to do with “outsiders” owning the Red Sox, and that occurred long before the Sox won two championships in four years.

Henry and Co. remain popular even though ticket prices have consistently climbed upward, Sox games are no longer on free TV and management has figured out a way to profit from just about every element of the fan experience.

That said, Henry and his management aren’t tone-deaf either—as evidenced by the decision this year not to raise ticket prices—which automatically makes them better than 98 percent of media companies. And unlike most of the people running those media companies, Henry at least sounded sincere when he acknowledged the traditional importance of newspapers during his brief flirtation with the Globe in April.

Of course, it’ll take a lot more than savvy and sincerity to save the Globe, and Henry didn’t become a billionaire (or turn the Red Sox into the closest thing baseball has to a dynasty this decade) by allowing emotion to dictate his decision-making. It would be difficult to blame him if he passes on the Globe, figuring that newspapers are money pits beyond repair.

If that’s the case, let’s just hope that whomever buys the Globe doesn’t leave us wondering if the paper would have been better off if it were allowed to perish, leaving us with bittersweet memories of what it once was instead of bemoaning what it no longer is.

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