Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Sure, The Boston Globe Can Stop Spinning. Here's How

No Broadsheet Out of Morrissey Street Hard to Fathom, But Not Out of the Question

Let's first work from the assumption that the initial threat by The New York Times Co. to -30- The Boston Globe was a combination of saber- rattling and a cry for help.

There was a time, not too long ago, when I would've dismissed it as a bluff that could be easily ignored in spite of the prodigious amount of red ink spilling from the Globe's balance sheets. But that was before I saw Newhouse playing hardball with the Star-Ledger in New Jersey.

I wrote last year how I was skeptical when Newhouse threatened to close the paper, unless a huge chunk of the newsroom -- 40 percent, as it turned out -- took buyouts and agreed to other concessions. After all, how could Newhouse shutter its flagship paper and leave a gaping hole in coverage of the Garden State? However, I'm now a reluctant believer. At blinding speed, the newspaper biz has gone from bad to worse to extremely crappy, with a forecast of more apocalyptic adjectives to come.

That means the Globe, which lost $50 million last year and could lose $85 million in 2009, while not in a death spiral yet, is in the newspaper I.C.U. with little hope of getting out. Sure, the unions can agree to concessions. Heck, maybe those lifetime job guarantees for veteran employees can be disposed of. Higher newsstand prices just enacted can help. But is all that merely putting off a date with the inevitable?

The New York Observer has a piece on how the Globe could become, in effect, a New England edition of the Times. Conceptually, it sounds ridiculous. But so does the notion that a buyer can be found for the Globe, or that the Times can sustain it indefinitely.

The Times would not have to look far for a precedent, namely its own national edition, which features a couple of pages of New York news. That could be swapped out for Boston-area items with a skeletal staff of 6-10 reporters, maybe a columnist and a couple of editors. Same goes for the sports pages, a couple of whiich could be repurposed for a Boston audience. Much of the rest of the paper could go out as is, with a tweak here or there for New England, e.g. a column of local business briefs.

I'm not saying this is an optimal solution -- of course, it isn't -- but it may be the only way to preserve what little capital the Times Co. has left in the Globe without incurring huge costs for a shutdown (one analyst values the Globe at no more than $20 million, a far cry from the$1.1 billion the Times paid in 1993).

Regardless of the outcome, the Globe that readers will see in 6-12 months will be vastly different from the one they have now. Which is a lot different than the one they used to have. All that change has done nothing to make the Globe a better paper.

But at least it's still a paper.

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