John Henry’s recent speech to the Boston Chamber of Commerce has been eagerly dissected by media-watchers here in Boston who want to know what kind of changes Henry will make at the paper that sets the tone for the New England press corps. (Watch the entire speech here, or check this blog post out for some highlights/analysis.) Although he didn’t delve into too many specifics, Henry definitely seems invested, saying he wants the paper to be “aggressively relevant” and that he’ll push a culture of innovation. Reasons to be cautiously optimistic.
To me, one of the most interesting things that Henry’s done came a few days before this speech, when he brought on Former Hill Holiday CEO Mike Sheehan as an advisor.
What I like about the Sheehan hiring is that it doesn’t feel to me like Henry bringing in “his guy,” or just an out-of-town industry insider. I get the sense he looked around, said “I need to be innovative about the way I sell ads,” and simply found the smartest ad guy in town – not the smartest newspaper ad guy. I like it when business leaders do this, and I think it could bode well for the Globe. They already have some really smart newspaper people on Morrissey Boulevard. What might help them transform the paper for the digital age is to bring in some smart folks from other fields.
There was one thing, however, Henry said that gave me pause – he waxed nostalgic about the morning ritual of reading the print edition of the paper. Bezos actually said a similar thing when he bought the Washington Post, and I think it illustrates a quirk of the whole “can rich tech guys save newspapers?” phenomenon. As much as journalism watchers have hope that this trend will help save the industry, I think part of the attraction for these tech guys is the nostalgia of newspapers. While they’re innovative and willing to eschew conventions in the business that made them fortunes, their love of newspapers is rooted in the past. I’d have felt better if Bezos’ first words to the Post staff were: “You know what? I think newspapers are boring and I hate everything about them. We’re going to blow up every aspect of what you guys do and build a new product from the ground up.”
Look, there certainly may be many Globe readers who share Henry’s love of the tradition of a morning paper and a cup of coffee. However, those people won’t be around forever. That shouldn’t be the demographic Henry and his team are focused on. I remember, at one of my first times attending the New England Press Association annual conference, a presentation on a Japanese paper that did an extensive study on the habits of its readers. They found out who was engaging with what product, and when (print in the morning, mobile on the commute, desktop site during the day, and mobile again on the way home, TV/video in the evening, etc.) Then they designed content around it. These are the habits Henry should be focused on. For example, I’d love to see the Globe get away from publishing content and then adapting it for mobile, and start thinking about creating content exclusively aimed at mobile readers, people who may not even read the print edition. That’s the kind of outside-the-lines thinking it’s going to take to really reinvent the Globe. Otherwise, the best Henry can hope for is to slow the bleeding — and that’s not good for those of us who care about journalism in the Hub.