I don’t know John Henry. We’ve been introduced at fundraising events a couple of times; there was no extended conversation. He seems very nice, if shy. I have no reason to think he’ll ruin the Boston Globe, which he has just purchased for $70 million from the NY Times, by running it into the ground. He seems a better choice than some of the alternatives. Still, some aspects of the acquisition bother me.
Is the venerable newspaper just another toy for him? Like his enormous yacht, which he docks at Rowes Wharf? Like the Liverpool soccer club that has taken much of his attention over recent years? He is not a newspaper man, not a journalist even broadly defined. Then, too, neither is Warren Buffett, a billionaire investor who has purchased more than 60 papers, including his hometown Omaha Herald. Maybe it’s what rich people do who own everything else. Maybe, looking at the numbers of a new media business model, it’s a counterintuitive smart thing to do. After all, local news is still in high demand in a highly fragmented media market.
One worries that the purchase translates into a debt-laden acquisition that will necessitate huge cuts in staffing and product. Even though Henry won’t be saddled with the estimated $110 million in retiree pension liabilities, which remains with the Times, one still remembers those newspapers who were acquired and driven into bankruptcy. (Minneapolis Star Tribune, Orange County Register, The Tribune Company, Philadelphia Inquirer, the New Haven Register, the Chicago Sun-Times, and more.)
The Taylor family set the standard for me for local newspaper ownership. They were committed to the community, hired outstanding people (think editor Tom Winship) and let them run the paper. The sale to the New York Times 20 years ago, while a pill to swallow for Yankee-loathing, Knicks-hating Boston sports fans, was nonetheless a sale to an institution steeped in journalism. If family ownership had to give way to corporate, at least it was a newspaper corporation.
As Dan Kennedy points out in his blog Media Nation, question #1 is whether Henry keeps publisher Chris Mayer, who has been a low-key but fine addition at the top of the masthead, and editor and former stellar columnist Brian McGrory, who has done a top-notch job in his short time as a replacement for esteemed former editor Marty Baron. I’d not like to see more changes there.
Then there’s the question of what kind of sports coverage will John Henry encourage. Will he give a free hand to writers (like Dan Shaughnessy) whom we depend upon to provide insight (always provocative if occasionally flawed) into our hometown faves. Or will Henry meddle in the coverage, or have a say in the hiring and firing of sports writers depending on how they treat his other property?
Right now, everyone is saying the right thing. But new owner/CEO speech #1 is, “We acquired you because we value you; we’re not going to change a thing.” A year later, everything is changed and rarely for the better. I know. In my career I’ve lived through three mergers and an acquisition. I could set that speech to music.
Henry is a smart businessman, and he seems committed philanthropically to the community. Maybe it will work out all right. As the television reporter’s tag line puts it, “Only time will tell.” That’s journalese for, “I really don’t know.”
I welcome your comments in the section below.