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June 18, 2009, 12:02 p.m.

Metamorphosis for the Globe?

globe

Imagine one morning, you wake up from your troubled dreams and find yourself transformed in your bed into a horrible vermin… No, no, wait! Imagine you wake up and find yourself holding the keys to the Boston Globe. And Arthur Sulzberger is standing beside your bed, ready to hand you $20 million or so if you will please, please, just take it off his hands.

This scenario could well play out — well, not quite like that of course — since the value of the paper is essentially zero. The Times Company has put it up for sale, and the question is really whether the buyer will pay some token sum to the Times, or whether the Times will subsidize the buyers by spotting them some working capital.

The folks nibbling at this opportunity (some of whom have been mentioned in the Globe and elsewhere) have to be asking themselves whether this white elephant of a newspaper can be made profitable once again. A key part of that question is whether Boston can remain a two-newspaper town.

My prediction is that, ironic as it may seem, Pat Purcell’s Boston Herald will be left as the only daily paper in Boston, and that the Globe will evolve into something different. That doesn’t mean the Herald wins, because in the long run, daily print is just not a sustainable business model anywhere. Or almost anywhere, if we want to hedge that bet a little.

If Denver, Tucson, Albuquerque and Seattle, all with populations in the same ballpark as Boston’s, couldn’t sustain two newspapers, then neither can Boston.

In Boston, for years the Herald seemed to be the one on the ropes, but its ship was more or less righted, for the time being, after owner Pat Purcell sold his chain of suburban weeklies and used the money to pay down the Herald’s debts. Purcell bought the Herald from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in 1994 so that News could buy a Boston television station, and Purcell maintained a close relationship with Murdoch over the years. In fact, while still continuing to run the Herald, Purcell currently oversees the Ottaway newspaper subsidiary of Dow-Jones, acquired in 2007 by News Corp. along with the Wall Street Journal. For a time, News had tried to sell off Ottaway, which was not a good fit for its holdings. Ottaway will become known as Dow Jones Local Media Group as of July 1.

Presumably, therefore, the Times won’t entertain a market-rationalizing offer from Purcell, given his connections and direct allegiance to News Corp., which is seen by the Times as challenging its turf as Paper of Record. Most of the other newspaper chains that otherwise might be kicking the tires are bankrupt, in default, in the red, or pretty close to one or more of those predicaments. The likeliest buyers are local individuals who have made a nice fortune in other ways, and don’t mind putting some of it at risk for the glory of being a publisher.

So what, having fully awakened from that bad dream, do you do, as buyer of the Globe, on Day One? Here are my suggestions:

  1. Declare unequivocally that the Globe’s future is digital, and that Boston.com is now its focus and top priority.
  2. Launch or subsidize a network of hyperlocal sites all over eastern Massachusetts — not the kind of robotic aggregators that Gatehouse sued the Globe about, but real sites with local personalities.
  3. Launch another network of local niche verticals that can be accessed directly as well as through any of these hyperlocals and Boston.com — orient them to weather, traffic, jobs, cars, real estate, food, diet, technology, entertainment, travel, art, gardening, green living, education, you name it.
  4. In each of these, plan to create a tiered, variable pricing model — make most of the content free, but charge for the stuff that a small but highly-engaged group will pay for: fancy charts for the weather junkies, access to experts, diet club membership, online lectures, etc. This won’t bring in megabucks, but cash flow is cash flow.
  5. Monetize these verticals further with transactional revenue: sell theater tickets, facilitate restaurant reservations, earn commissions on affiliate sales and lead generation.
  6. Turn the Globe (oh, yes, we own a newspaper, too!) into a once-weekly guide to all of those niches and to all other media. Add features, opinion and news analysis. Think of it as the Sunday paper without breaking news, and distribute it on Friday so it’s positioned as a guide to the weekend that has several days of shelf life and gets bought in advance of the other Sunday papers. To be clear: yes, publish only that weekend edition and kill the rest of your print editions. With some ingenuity, you can preserve the majority of the remaining print advertising in the weekly edition.
  7. Publish a slew of niche publications in print, re-purposing content that’s already online, which can cross-promote Boston.com and all of your sites.
  8. Continue your partnership in publishing the Boston Metro commuter paper, which is essentially another niche publication.
  9. Build a digital-savvy team of salespeople and designers, adept at cross-selling all of these platforms, who can help Boston’s advertisers build their businesses by focusing on connecting with their customers online.
  10. Sell that big building, sell the presses, and subcontract all printing and delivery so you can focus on your digitally-centered publishing business.

Postscript: Dan Kennedy at MediaNation points out that in March, he posted “Next steps for the shrinking Globe.” While some of my suggestions sound like they echo his, I had not previously seen that piece. Dan expanded more than I did on the “digital first” strategy, recommends charging a lot more for the print edition (which the Globe has done), blogging what can’t be covered, building on the Metro stake, and repackaging more content into niche publications.

Photo by ckirkman, used under Creative Commons License.

POSTED     June 18, 2009, 12:02 p.m.
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