Books

book review

Guardians of the newspaper galaxy

Boston Globe owner John Henry bought the newspaper in 2013.
globe file photo
Boston Globe owner John Henry bought the newspaper in 2013.

Barely a day goes by without headlines that chronicle the turmoil in the US newspaper industry, even as the nation’s interest in events of the day has surged in the past year.

A bankruptcy court approves the sale of the Boston Herald to a hedge-fund company. The troubled LA Times exiles its editor and publisher, as it prepares for a sale. Tronc, a strangely named media company for strange times, announces big plans to reorganize newsrooms in ways that produce more questions than answers.

Now, veteran media critic and Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy offers a deep dive into this current nail-biting news environment with “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century,” as did the Hearsts and Pulitzers of another era.

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The title of this insightful and timely book suggests some hope in the midst of the traumatic disruption of the industry — and that salvation may come at the hands of “wealthy civic-minded owner[s],” such as Washington Post boss Bezos or Boston Globe owner Henry.

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A core problem, as the book points out, is the failure of digital advertising to come anywhere near replicating the print advertising revenue that sustained and enriched newspapers for decades. This has led to a frantic search for new consumer-based revenue streams — from digital subscriptions to event hosting — in order to recoup lost ad dollars.

If this task was easy, there would be no need for this book — or for Bezos and Henry. And while it may be a well-worn cliché, Henry’s pronouncement that “[n]o one’s come up with a magic bullet for this,” bears repeating.

Kennedy builds his narrative around three owners who made their bones as entrepreneurs in other industries so may be better positioned to see fresh solutions.

Amazon gazillionaire Bezos — the only mogul who declined to be interviewed — has presided over some notable successes at the Post in part by resolving tensions over whether its mission is primarily local or national, with national winning out (a decision that confers an advantage on the Post over regionals like the Globe, which draw from smaller pools of potential readers). Bezos followed up by making major investments in digital infrastructure and expanding the news staff. He comes across, not surprisingly, as highly intelligent, very methodical, and a little strange, at one point lauding paper’s “badassness” while addressing the staff.

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Henry, of course, is the former investment guru who now owns two of Boston’s most powerful institutions — the Red Sox and the Globe — and has proved a worthy newspaper steward, along with his wife, Linda Pizzuti Henry, who has over time taken a greater leadership role at the Globe. Henry is deeply aware of the responsibilities that come with owning the region’s dominant news outlet and is clearly willing to engage in bold experiments, including digital products focused on American Catholics, the state’s tech industry, and most recently, the respected life-science and drug-industry website Stat. Though he has had to make hard decisions in the search for quality and profitability, Henry has kept Globe journalism at center stage.

The one who fares poorly in the book is Aaron Kushner, the greeting-card tycoon who, for one memorable moment, set hearts-a-flutter in the media world with his counterintuitive effort to emphasize print and hire scores of new journalists at the Orange County Register. That heavily leveraged experiment quickly crashed and burned, leaving the reader to decide whether Kushner was well-intentioned and delusional or, in the words of one critic, a “confidence man.”

I don’t believe Kennedy intended to instill an overarching sense of gloom about the newspaper industry’s future. But in reading “The Return of the Moguls,” it’s hard not to be affected by the cumulative casualty count, the evidence of decline that jumps off the pages.

At $70 million dollars, Henry buys the Globe and Worcester Telegram & Gazette for about six percent of what The New York Times Co. paid a few decades earlier. The Philadelphia Inquirer, a once great regional paper, gets passed from owner to owner before landing, out of desperation, in the hands of a nonprofit. Maine’s largest daily, the Portland Press Herald, endures four rounds of layoffs in the course of one year. And that’s just a sampling.

To his credit, Kennedy devotes some time to a few smaller, more nimble organizations — most notably, Philadelphia’s digital site Billy Penn — that have helped fill in the news ecosystem as bigger newsrooms have shrunk drastically. But by definition, a book about the new newspaper moguls is going to be focused on the larger papers that have been hardest-hit by the cratering of the business model.

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Exhaustively researched and authoritatively written, “Return of the Moguls” gives readers a bird’s-eye view and an important understanding of the ongoing efforts — ambitious and in some cases, downright courageous — to reconstruct that business model while introducing us to some of the key people engaged in that enterprise.

Even if you’re not a news junkie, there are lots of tasty appetizers, ranging from Joseph P. Kennedy’s unsuccessful effort to buy the Globe in the ’50s to the “MartyBot,” an image of Washington Post (and former Boston Globe) editor Marty Baron’s face that pops up on Post journalists’ screens as deadline approaches.

If there’s a stylistic quibble, it’s the frequency of the first-person pronoun throughout. Writers, like good boxing referees, are more effective when they’re not often noticed.

Importantly, Kennedy emphasizes the vital task of sustaining the watchdog “accountability journalism,” that has been largely been produced by America’s newspapers. In his final paragraph, he warns that “our democracy will be much the poorer if they lose their struggle for survival.”

This book is too smart to try and predict the outcome of that struggle. But it certainly understands the stakes.

THE RETURN OF THE MOGULS:

How Jeff Bezos and John Henry are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century

By Dan Kennedy

Fore Edge, 281 pp., $29.95

Mark Jurkowitz, a former Globe media reporter and associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, owns the Outer Banks Sentinel in North Carolina.