The Boston Globe has been a regular in the news lately, as financial problems lead to a $20 million concession demand from their owner, the New York Times Company. Boston Globe staff reporter Sean P. Murphy took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss a few topics including the concession demand, the current state of the Globe, and what the future may hold for the paper.
RaceTalk: While I knew the Boston Globe was having some financial problems, I was shocked to see the headline “Times Co. threatens to shut Globe; seeks $20m in cuts from unions” on April 4th. What was your initial reaction when you learned about the Times’ concession demands?
Sean Murphy: I didn’t believe it could ever happen, and that it was [actually] a bargaining tactic. As a mater of fact, it was a Friday afternoon and I was writing on deadline so my concentration was on my story, and that was probably a good thing. It seems unimaginable that things should get this bad so quickly and I’m very much still very optimistic that things will go on.
RaceTalk: Meeting the Times’ $20 million concession demand obviously seemed like a very difficult process. What are union and management relations like following that process?
SM: The representatives that the New York Times Co. sent to Boston took a very hard line with the union negotiators. It’s not a warm and fuzzy relationship, it usually isn’t at the best of times. But these people dug in, and there is no animosity, everyone knows there’s a job going on here and everyone is doing their job. But, at the same time, there are few breaks of humor or displays of any warmth at all.
RaceTalk: I think it’d be pretty much impossible to find someone that doesn’t value what the Boston Globe brings to New England, but it would seem that many of these people aren’t subscribing to the Globe because the content is available online. Going forward, do you think it’s more important to charge online readers or put new online advertising models in place?
SM: Well, I haven’t really given that a lot of thought. I’ve taken my job really seriously as a journalist and an investigative reporter. I’ve covered things like casinos, the Big Dig, no-show employees and now public penchants, so I haven’t really thought about that. I’m flattered to think that I have more readers then ever because of the availability of my stories online, and I know that some stories have 200 or more comments posted, which is flattering. I do get emails from people all over the country like ex-Massachusetts residents or family. So I think if I’m pressed for an answer that I’d have to say yes, we have to charge some kind of micro-payment online. People have approached me and said that they’re willing to pay and so am I. When I consume some really valuable, documented and well-edited journalism, I know that I have to pay for that.
RaceTalk: Has becoming an online-only outlet been discussed at all, or is the focus on maintaining the print edition?
SM: Well I think it’s a duel approach. The circulation price has gone up. There are people who are 50 and over who need to have that Globe newspaper on their front doorstep to start their day and I am one of them. At the same time we know that people under 50, my children included, won’t read it except online. There’s a strong desire to keep both going through the next transition period, 10-15 years. There are some people that really love to have a newspaper in their hands. It may be that it becomes a luxury item and is very expensive, but those that insist on it will get it. We hope that people begin paying for it online and that we pick-up more advertising revenue online as well.
RaceTalk: Investigative reporting, such as your story on pensions from Sunday’s paper, is probably the most important part of the Globe. What would happen in Massachusetts without these types of checks and balances?
SM: The inmates would be running the asylum, that’s one way to put it. I think that there would be a longer leash for politicians and other who may want to bend the rules in their favor. I’ve written stories after surveying the U.S. Marshall and the State Secretary of Transportation, and in both cases they have lost their jobs. I also think there is a deterrent affect as well. People that read these things certainly don’t want the Globe following them around and might clean up their act a little bit. So I think it’s very important to check state and local government and it’s a very important monitor of state politics and state government as well.
RaceTalk: President Obama recently said “a government without newspapers, a government without a tough and vibrant media of all sorts is not an option for the United States of America.” Has there been any internal discussion about a potential bailout for newspapers?
SM: Honestly I don’t know. There are other proposals like becoming not-for profit, being endowed like a University and living off the earnings of the endowment. We’re clearly in a period of possible and likely innovation. Thomas Jefferson said that with the choice between a government with no newspapers or newspapers with no a government, he’d take newspapers with no government. So it’s obviously a very valued component of our society.
RaceTalk: The Wall Street Journal recently launched Kindle newspaper subscriptions. Do you think something like the Kindle can help provide some financial stability to the newspaper industry in the future?
SM: As a matter of fact I do. I’m hoping that technology, which has cost us so much heartache in terms of effort, the Internet, and the migration of readers and advertisers away from newspapers, becomes a great beneficiary to us. People can gravitate to the Kindle and other devices to find really well-reported content that they can read and take to the bank. I think we’re in a difficult shakeout period and that could happen soon.
RaceTalk: I hate to ask this question, but how much time do you think it will be until the Times Co. demands more cuts?
SM: Well they certainly appear poised to make more cuts, even after the concessions made. But I do find slimmer of hope in the idea of a moving economy.