Specials

Memo from Brian McGrory on the Boston Globe reinvention

A dedicated group of Boston Globe staff has spent much of the past year examining our digital and print report, talking with colleagues throughout the newsroom, the company and the wider industry, and creating a blueprint for what the Globe should look like in the future. Below is the latest staff memo on this reinvention process from Globe Editor Brian McGrory.

Hey all,

We’re ready to begin putting the pieces in place for a restructured newsroom. None of the changes detailed here will come as any surprise, though in total, they represent significant change. The basic goals are familiar as well: to be more nimble, more innovative, and more inclined to take worthwhile risk; to get our best journalism in front of readers when and where they want to read it, throughout the day and across all our platforms; to be relentlessly interesting, jettisoning any sense of obligation in our report; to once and for all break the stubborn rhythms of a print operation, allowing us to unabashedly pursue digital subscriptions even while honoring the many loyal readers who subscribe to the physical paper.

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Easy, right? Well, given the spectacularly talented roster of journalists here, it won’t be as hard as some might fear. The journey to this point has been a telling one in every good way. We began a year ago with a dozen somewhat skeptical editors. We brought in a trio of invaluable consultants. We recruited more than 60 staffers who wrote four detailed reports that created the backbone of all our efforts. We heard fresh and inspired ideas from more than 200 newsroom members in a survey earlier this year. Dozens of people shared their thoughts and insights in small group and one-on-one meetings. Some 15 senior staffers hammered out the details in a series of lengthy sessions over the past few months.

One result: I’m more enthusiastic about this room and its prospects than ever before, an enthusiasm that comes from bearing witness to your creativity and commitment. Really, you’ve been amazing. And long before this initiative, you’ve already shown, time and again, that you know how to create meaningful change. Your work has led to one record-breaking traffic month after another on bg.com. We’ve racked up journalism awards at every turn, including four Pulitzer Prizes and eight finalists in the last four years. We are the clear leader in the number of digital-only subscribers among all metropolitan news organizations in the nation. This is a big deal – every bit of it.

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Of course, this kind of success raises the completely legitimate question of why change something that’s working so well. The short answer: we can do even better – far better. You’ve achieved this success in a newsroom that still tilts toward a print operation, with structures that inhibit nimbleness as much as they encourage it. A McKinsey type would tell us we’re creating too much needless friction. This, we can stop.

So we’ll make changes, quite a few of them, to departments, to beats, and to our culture. We’ll acknowledge going in that not all of the changes will work. We’ll set specific goals for every aspect of the reinvention and reevaluate constantly. An important note: we will be prepared to change even the things we just changed. Really, the point is that we need to constantly change, because the industry, and the habits and desires of our readers, are constantly changing. There’s no hubris here, just a desire to achieve great journalism and the financial stability that will support it.

In brief, we’ll have:

1/ The continued and vital oversight of Chris Chinlund as the managing editor for news and Katie Kingsbury as the managing editor for digital – with an asterisk, that being that in the case of Chris, we’ll have her until she insists on following through with her long-planned departure, which she says could be as soon as this summer. I predict that she won’t be able to bring herself to leave. Chris predicts that I’m wrong. Regardless, Chris and Katie will both be central to all aspects of our transformation.

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2/ An Express Desk. This well-staffed department, comprised of some of our most prized editors and reporters, will tell our readers what they need to know and what they will undoubtedly want to know. It will include straightforward breaking news, everything from manhole explosions to major events. It will also include trending news on the socialsphere in Boston and beyond, as well as the kinds of delightful local stories that Steve Annear and others unearth by brilliantly mining social channels and direct sources. The common thread in all these stories is an urgency to get them published. Through this desk, we will produce the in-the-moment important, quirky and just plain fascinating stories that metrics show our readership craves, all in a web-first environment that will have the benefits of copy-editing, photo-editing, and graphics. This desk will also renew our charge to reach people on mobile. It will be overseen by Jason Tuohey, our deputy managing editor, along with Cynthia Needham, Hayley Kaufman, and Mike Bello, an all-star quartet by any standard, with complementary talents. This is a no-lose proposition.

2/ An Audience Engagement Team. This is a group of creative-minded editors, producers, and reporters who are particularly skilled at getting the right journalism in front of the right audience at, again, the right time. They are able to spot what’s trending, or what might trend before it does, quickly work across the enterprise to deploy resources, and will be expert in keeping our subscriber base deeply engaged – i.e., retained. They will oversee our alerts and newsletters, be the rigorous stewards of provocative and delightful headlines, push training opportunities to the broader room, and know the ins and outs of the major social platforms where huge readership – and revenue opportunities – await. This, too, will be overseen by Jason. We’ve also asked Jason to run the lobby juice bar at 53 State, be the Globe CFO, and manage the company softball team.

3/ A Super Department with a refreshed beat structure. This will include much of what is now Metro, Business, and the Living side of Living/Arts. It’s past time that this happened. I was proposing it back in 2008 when I was the Metro editor. Admittedly, it was a failed power grab then, but now it’s just common sense. One Super Department allows for more collaboration and coordination, a far more efficient operation, and a smarter clustering of beats and reporters to better serve readers. As part of this, we’ve spent a lot of time and thought calories rethinking existing beats and adding new ones, which will be outlined in far greater detail below, work that was helped enormously by your input on the survey and in conversations. Think the scourge of student debt, the era of political engagement, and a new consumer advocate, among many others. Some beats are meant to last but a few months, others longer, but all will need to be constantly reassessed. This department will get the extraordinary leadership of Larry Edelman, who has already engineered the reinvention of our business coverage, with the strong help of a team of what I can guarantee will be some of the best editors in the room.

4/ A Print Desk. I can’t say it enough, and you can’t either: We are not giving up on print. We simply don’t want it to dominate everything we do and how we do it in the way it currently does. So we’re asking two of our best editors, Mark Morrow, among the most thoughtful journalists and gifted writers to ever come through these doors, and David Dahl, who has some of the soundest news judgment and the most ferocious work ethic I’ve ever seen, to oversee a top-flight team of about a dozen editors, designers, copy-editors, and graphic artists. These are not people who wander into the room late in the day and curate the best of online for tomorrow’s print edition. No, they are helping shape our coverage across the day and through the week, editing for digital and print, always demanding that our physical paper be fresh if not outright surprising. Our goal is not to have a “digital first” enterprise. That phrase is as exhausted as it is trite. Our goal is to be great on all platforms, and to not trip over one platform to get to another. This desk will focus on print, but will also raise the level of work across the whole organization.

5/ An enhanced Projects Team. This is our signature work, journalism that has been recognized with three Pulitzer finalists in the last three years, as well as a Pulitzer winner for photography. Of course, we’ve also put the “long” in longform, but that’s an issue for another day. Scott Allen, our crusading but scrupulously fair Spotlight editor, will ascend to the role of assistant managing editor for projects. Stay tuned for a new Spotlight editor as well. We’ll keep Spotlight at or near its current staffing level, add a deputy projects editor to help Scott and the Spotlight editor, embed at least part of a technologist with digital story-telling experience, create a new strike force of reporters focused on shorter term accountability stories, and encourage reporters room-wide to join the team on a per-project basis. Mark, of course, will continue as an idea generator and quality control czar from his perch on the print desk. Readers crave our best accountability work, and we will give them more of it.

6/ An “Air Traffic Controller” or “Traffic Cop” – two names used by separate working groups to describe one very important position. This will be Senior Deputy Managing Editor Jen Peter, and her job will be to make the room, the entire room, smoothly run through the day and across the week, parceling out our best journalism to where and when it’s needed most, constantly weighing the balance of enterprise work with quicker hits, giving voice to the audience engagement team, and assuring that our most important stories are rigorously edited earlier in the day so that things don’t back up at night. In some ways, Jen will be the glue that holds everything together, in other ways the grease that makes sure things don’t grind. There’s nobody better to fill this key role.

7/ A newsroom Innovations Editor. Janice Page will combine her seriously impressive entrepreneurial skills, her unsurpassed knack for getting things done, and her drive to create fresh revenue opportunities. We too often have creative ideas, but no place to take them. Janice is that person, someone who can assess the value, then reach across departments, to Advertising, Circulation, and Events, in order them into the mix. Ideally, we’ll get a small team in support of Janice as well.

8/ A digital Story-Telling Team, comprised of staff from product, development, and design. This is utterly central to what we do, how we attract digital subscribers, and how we keep them. We have such a team already, but it’s been hammered by attrition. We need to rebuild it, fast, and in the reconstruction, we need to devote ever more of our design and graphics firepower to the digital side, a goal that is being embraced by Tonia Cowan and Heather Hopp-Bruce.

Other departments will largely remain as-are, even as I’m asking their editors for a fresh outlook. Photography will reallocate resources to create a digital editor, and will work with the larger room to be far more selective about photo assignments, allowing us to spend more time on our most visually compelling work. We’re aiming to add a slot to the DC bureau. Sports will continue to be the online trendsetter; in a perfect world, we will sell sports-only digital subscriptions soon outside of New England. Our great editors in Travel and Address, Chris Morris and Eileen Woods, have taken on new digital roles that cross the borders between globe.com and boston.com. Our stable of elite critics will freshen up approaches to become more focused on our website.

Some other quick thoughts:

-- The day will start earlier for most people. A good part of the Express Desk will certainly launch between 6 and 8 a.m. The morning news meeting will be moved soon to 9:15. The entire room has to default to a 9 rather than a 10 a.m. start. Believe me, I’m well aware that most people are tuning in far earlier than that, checking phones at dawn, emailing with colleagues and sources before much of the world has even gotten out of bed. But we need to formalize the process. In turn, senior editors have to hold up our end of the bargain and get everyone out earlier. There’s a big, happy, fulfilling life to be lived at 4, 5, or 6 in the evening, at home and in the throes of the city, and we’ll all be better journalists for living it.

-- We need more training, more consistently, on all the topics that are flying at us with dizzying speed, whether it be interpreting the right metrics in the right way, or writing in alternative formats, and so much else. We’ve already ratcheted this up, courtesy of Jason and Katie, and this will continue.

-- We’ll continue to have small teams from the newsroom working with other departments in the organization, specifically Advertising, Circulation, and Events, so that we do a far better job keeping in touch, sharing what we can share, and collaborating on projects. I’ve asked David Dahl to oversee these efforts with Janice Page. David, for the record, will also take over some key newsroom administration responsibilities.

-- We’re going to be more crusading. We’re going to grab seismic issues like inequality and drive them in smart, relentless fashion. Likewise, we are going to do whatever we can to put the 600-word incremental story out of its sad little end-state misery.

-- We’re going to be more humorous, god dammit, and absolutely more humane. Boston is a big and fascinating place filled with savvy, often funny, and occasionally brilliant people. We need to reflect this even more, tap into it, and be part of it.

-- We’ll work double-time with other departments around the building to seek a more coherent video strategy. Right now, there’s a disconnect between what our advertisers want and what our readers are clicking, and a stark, perhaps unchangeable disparity between the huge success of our videos on social channels and the far more modest viewership on site.

-- We will maintain the values that have guided this organization for a century and a half, giving voice to those who need one, holding powerful people and institutions accountable, and revealing essential truths. This will not change one bit.

So how do we get from here to there?

Approach me, Chris Chinlund, Katie Kingsbury, or any of the desk and department editors mentioned above, with any questions and thoughts, sooner rather than later. You might have job and beat proposals that are better than anything that made the cut. We want to hear them. At the same time, you may get approached by any of us with ideas about the roles we’d like you to consider. Department heads have permission to recruit. Key to this is that everyone needs to send a short note to me, Chris, and Katie by Tuesday, May 2 indicating the top two and possibly three roles that you’d like to have going forward. It could be your current job, but be imaginative and share your ambitions.

Let’s accept upfront that this will be a disruptive stretch, pretty much starting right now, despite all good efforts to prevent it. I don’t know any way around it. Transitions are inevitably rocky, but let’s put our heads down and collectively get to the other side. I’ll hold some Winship Room meetings on Wednesday, April 26 at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., to answer any questions and offer updates on this and other fronts.

From May 2-12, senior editors will go full bore at getting everyone into the right positions to serve our readers best, fully taking into account your requests. The company is scheduled to move downtown in stages over the first three weeks of June, with the newsroom coming at the latter end of that timeframe. This means we can have the new pieces in place for three or four weeks before we land at 53 State.

Here, a quick word about change. There’s always a natural tension between experience and freshness, here and everywhere. Put more bluntly: how long should someone stay in one job? Experience yields wisdom, confidence, and in our business, sources. But the nagging underbelly of experience is often complacency. We get set in our ways. There’s no right answer as to which is best, but this organization dramatically lists toward experience, perhaps to our detriment. Too many people remain too long in too many positions. So let’s establish that we have no tenured jobs in the Globe newsroom. Let’s mix it up. Let’s be unafraid of new roles. This will invigorate people individually, and open up our arteries collectively. Spotlight, as one example, will go to a strict two-year rotation, and we’ll put another one-year rotation in the Sunday magazine.

Which is a long way of stressing that as you signal to us the jobs you’re most interested in, consider a flyer in your mix. Many of you already have. Still more of you should. That’s not to say that everyone’s going to be doing something wildly different come late May or June. Continuity and experience matter. But we’ll strive to stir things up in our push to refresh the whole enterprise.

Finally (really), we are uniquely qualified to pull this off, to revamp the room, to broaden our ambitions, to transform what it means to be a major metropolitan news organization in 2017 and beyond. We’re uniquely qualified for many reasons – the thoughtfulness and unequivocal support of John Henry, Linda Henry, and Doug Franklin, the passion of our readership, the unrivaled success of our digital subscription model. Most of all, though, we’re uniquely qualified because of this room. I’ve seen it in the quality of the journalism, hour after hour, one day to the next. I’ve seen it in the quality of thinking that went into these changes by a striking number of people. Katie and Chris are the best managing editors in the industry. So is the rest of the senior team – Mark, Jen, Janice, David, and Jason. We asked a massive amount of the eight working group chairs, and they exceeded even the loftiest expectations – Jason and Anica Butler, Shirley Leung and Dahl, Larry Edelman and Katie, Cynthia Needham and Matt Pepin. They, in turn, will rightfully nod to their respective groups. Credit, too, to Ellen Clegg, and certainly the hugely helpful consultants who have become our friends: Tom Rosenstiel, Marty Kaiser, and Jeff Sonderman. It’s been hard work, and will get harder still, but it’s some of the most worthwhile work that any of us will undertake in our time here. Please know, and I hope you already do, that you have my most sincere gratitude for what you do every day, what you’ve done on this, and what we’re about to do together.

Brian

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