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May 6, 2009, 9:36 p.m.

Boston Globe drama: What’s next?

In the high-stakes poker game to at least erase the Boston Globe’s reported $85 million annual operating loss and get to breakeven, it looks like management has won the first few hands.  Following deals with several other unions, the Globe and the Newspaper Guild reached a settlement in the wee hours this morning.  All of the deals need to be ratified, but assuming that happens, what’s next?

The employee concessions so far will only bring the deficit down to $65 million, which leaves a long way to go.  Presumably, the restructured union contracts will provide management the flexibility it needs to pursue strategies that not only close the gap, but reshape the business into a news enterprise ready for a new age.

Here are some thoughts on what else might be coming down the pike for the Globe of tomorrow to survive and be profitable:

  • A continued shift toward developing an online-first corporate culture.  At a place like the Globe, this is like turning around a battleship in a bathtub.  But perhaps it is indicative that the Globe was mentioned at today’s announcement of the supersized Kindle among papers that would offer discounts on the device as part of a longer-term subscription.  Anyone whose job is focused on the nightly print deadline at the Globe needs to be ready to think differently.
  • A reduction in print frequency.   If you’re losing $85 million a year, does that mean every day of the week is in the red?  Probably not — the Sunday Globe is smaller than it used to be, but with all those lucrative inserts, it’s probably in the black.  Maybe a couple of weekdays are, as well.  The Globe should consider a version of the Detroit model.  If I could swing the scepter, it would publish for home delivery a nice fat Saturday-Sunday package on Friday afternoon, for distribution all weekend, and a newsstand-only edition Monday through Friday mornings.  That formula could retain most of the existing advertising, position the business for ad growth as the economy improves, and cut out a huge amount of printing, packaging and distribution expense.
  • Pricing to market. The Globe has already announced that both weekday and Sunday single copy prices are going up to $1 weekdays and $3.50 on Sundays.  Certainly this kills some sales, but it introduces a healthier differential between single-copy and home-delivered pricing, which should encourage full-price subscriptions.  Even allowing for some attrition and presumably a cut for retailers (and without considering a Detroit gambit), the price increase should yield around $8 million.  Rather than a home-delivery price increase to follow, look for the Globe to be much more resistant to selling cut-rate subscriptions.
  • Geographic retrenchment. For decades, the Globe has had pretentions of being the newspaper of New England.   It should recognize that those days are over.  I get my Sunday Globe at the Schoolhouse Grocery in Vernon, Vermont.  I phone them around 8 a.m. each Sunday to see if the Globe has arrived; about half the time the answer is, “Not yet!”  Without timely delivery or an advertising base, why is the Globe even sold here, or in Northern Maine, or throughout Rhode Island?  Believe it or not, I might pay to read it online to avoid the hassle at the store.  Which leads us to:
  • Paid content online. This is not the answer to the Globe’s troubles, or to the troubles of any newspaper.  But.  As John Pontin of Technology Review suggests in a comprehensive post, “[e]ditors can charge readers for content that is uniquely intelligent. ”  Or scarce, I might add.  What does this mean in Boston?  I’ll turn to Dan Conover of Xark, who suggests in a lengthy riposte to Pontin: “Semi-structured information, created in the process of reporting what we traditionally think of as news and stored in ways that make both facts and contexts easy to retrieve, represents my best candidate for a robust new revenue stream that could support quality, sustainable journalism well into the future. My dictum: Donate the stories, sell the data.”  Which, of course, is more easily said than done, but has a lot to do with the “future of context” I touched on the other day.  Perhaps a restatement of Dan’s dictum could become: “Give away news, monetize context.”  For the Globe: don’t count on charging for what you’re already giving away.  Find ways to generate, and sell, new, incremental, contextual information that’s useful enough that people will pay for it.
POSTED     May 6, 2009, 9:36 p.m.
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