Creating Technology for Social Change

Brian McGrory on The Boston Globe’s new frontiers

Brian McGrory and Ethan Zuckerman at the Center for Civic Media, MIT

Photo: Brian McGrory, editor of The Boston Globe, and Ethan Zuckerman at the Center for Civic Media, 03/21/13

This is a liveblog by Catherine, Erhardt and Rodrigo and may contain errors and typos. Feel to correct typos, add useful links and references. You can watch a live-prezi of the talk by Willow Brugh at the bottom of the article.

Ethan Zuckerman starts his introduction of Brian by describing the Center’s partnership with the Globe, and explains that the Globe is undergoing a transition in editorial, ownership and strategy.

We’re on the market, the books are going out to interested suitors, and we don’t know what the future holds. We know there’s a lot of interest from the community. There’s been interest locally, and from New York.

I want to talk about the idea that newspapers are dying and that the Globe is in trouble. One of the biggest changes has been the shift in classified ads. The ‘dirty secret’ of newspapers was that classified ads funded most of print journalism. At one point the Globe was one of the most successful papers in the country at getting those ads.

There was one Sunday paper that weighed up to 10 pounds, just filled with classified advertising. The Globe once made 160-180 million dollars a year on these ads. That money has been lost to, Craiglist and others and it’s not coming back.

The Globe once had bureaus in Berlin, two in the Middle East, NYC, Silicon Valley, New Orleans, etc. When classified ads left, that all had to get cut.

At the same time we saw a ‘precipitous drop’ in newspaper sales. “We shouldn’t have been shocked that when we put the newspaper online for free, people stopped paying for it.”

The Globe used to have 400,000 daily readers and 800,000 Sunday readers. Now have 180,000 daily and 320,000 on Sunday. It’s not true that people aren’t reading the Globe. The Globe now has more readers than ever before; 300–325k(?) unique visitors to every day.

Brian says, he hasn’t seen any drop in our authority in the community during the decline in print readership. If anything the Globe has become more relevant because it’s not a stagnant vehicle that is dropped on people’s doorsteps once a day. They’re in people’s faces, their pockets, their iPads, and that’s what matters.

“We’re a stable enterprise… we’re a cash positive enterprise.”

I walked into this a couple of months ago from a pretty limited background in digital. As the NYT pointed out, I had fewer than 900 Twitter followers. They didn’t mention any of the columns I had written.

“I’ll tell you about my plans for the newsroom.”
We’re at a very unusual moment for the Greater Boston Area. The city is emerging from the recession, we see cranes up in the air for the first time in a long time. There are parts of the city that are suddenly coming alive where we never saw possibility before: Boylston Street, Dudley, the Waterfront, the Seaport is arguably the hottest waterfront neighborhood in the country. Kendall Sq is a fantastic neighborhood. Longwood is the hottest medical area in America.

Tom Menino told Brian there are $4.4 billion worth of construction in progress that is the equivalent of 11m square feet of new space — office, residential, commercial — and another $4.6 billion on the drawing board set to be in the ground next year.

“I aim to make the sure the Globe captures the moment for what it is and helps spread this prosperity to places where it doesn’t normally go.” The Globe needs to foster a conversation about how this works and serve as a watchdog to make sure it takes place.

Our investigative reporting is where we’ve made the biggest mark. Think about Boston without the Globe:
* Whitey Bulger would still be killing with impunity – the Globe broke the story of his connections with the FBI,
* Cardinal Law could be sending one pedophile priest after another to towns across the state, and
* The probation dept would still be run like a criminal enterprise.
Accountability reporting is the bedrock of why we’re here.

As the Globe moves forward, Brian aims to make the front page a little more accessible to the community at large — a mix of small ‘l’ liberal stories. Examples: NFL Tuck rule getting disbanded, more stories on the art world on the front page.

“We need a more healthy mix to engage people.” To do the lighter fare that might engage readers a little more, you have to make sure you’re strong on the bedrock values of investigative and accountability reporting. You can’t have one witout the other.

Areas for growth:
* Biotechnology and the tech community: We need to ramp up our effort on how we cover that, the people, the culture we don’t know enough about. The best way to do that will probably online, not in print.
* Medical, healthcare and hospitals: We’re the national capital of that stuff, we need to reach out and cover these communities more meaningfully.
* Cover Kendall Square as a geographical beat: The same for the Seaport District. The Globe should cover it from the bottom up and the top down.
* Higher education: The Globe has done reasonably well on this front but there’s more than MIT and Harvard in this area, need to be more effective. Higher Ed trends usually begin in Boston. Again this will be more in the Globe’s digital rather than in print offerings.

Brian argues that the Globe has to make sure that this moment spreads around the city, that the neighborhoods realize it as well. “I’m trying to discern the paper’s role in this — I think that’s to launch a meaningful civic discussion about it.” He doesn’t want to wake up 5–10 years from now and realise that the good days didn’t affect enough people.

Brian switches discussion to the Globe’s two websites.

Our two websites: this is unusual for metro papers around the country. began in 1995. It was one of the leading metro news sites in the country. Four million page views a day. In Fall 2011, they decided to make an effort to have people pay. There was a lot of internal discussion about that. Brian was originally in favor of charging, many people were not.

The Globe has a newsroom of 360 journalists — newsroom reporters, designers, data people. It’s by far the biggest newsroom in New England. Per reader, it’s probably the highest proportion of any metro newspaper in the country (although Brian doesn’t have specific data on that). A new owner could come up and say “why? let’s cut that.”

We have 30,000 paid subscribers. $190 per year. It’s going “reasonably well.” We have two ways to reach our readership:
* advertiser based model
* subscriber based model (“We have won multiple design awards for the reading experience on this site.”)

According to Brian, the problem has been that when they launched the paid model, there was a mantra of “do no harm” to what we already had ( His view is that we ended up giving away too much Globe content for free on They were too reliant on the idea that readers would pay for the cleaner reading experience. “I think we’ve hit a ceiling.” They’ve pulled more and more off to guide people to the paid website. “We’re going to do more of that.” From April, they’re going to stop providing any full Globe stories for that day on It’s a pretty stark change.

We think we could be at 50k subscribers by the end of the year, which is a pretty good place to be.


Ethan: It’s great to hear that the Globe is cash-positive and that it’s an attractive target. It’s great to hear you valuing the community and political importance of the Globe. The Globe is not just a watchdog of economic growth and expansion in Boston but also looking at economic redistribution in this area as well. One of the things you’ll hear from people here is talking about redistribution of attention. We are interested in entities like the Globe because of the authority that they have. These become powerful ways of drawing attention to stories that don’t always get on the map. Where you might get pushback from this table is around the business model of where the paywall is. By being one of the first papers to do this, it also turns the paper into a bellweather to see where that falls. Do you have the same impact in exposing cardinal law when it’s only accessible to 25K or 50K people rather than to the general public?

Chris Peterson: When we took a tour of the Globe I was surprised by the size of the print operations and learned that that was a revenue source. Can you talk about ways that the Globe has tried to build other capacity and businesses to try to fund the journalism side? (E.g. making money from printing the Herald’s paper to fund the journalism. Are there other ideas on the table?)

Brian: Our printing capacity has been a blessing recently. It’s weird that we print the Herald — it has taken a bit of getting used to, but it’s a very profitable part of our business. As much as we’d like to drive the Herald out of business, we’re better off with them being around right now. They’re a good opposition paper. We make good money, but it’s not enough. It’s not going to make up for what we lost in classifieds.

We are willing to try almost anything, but when you focus on the industrial plant we have, most big city papers have abandoned their huge operations in downtown areas. Most owners will be looking at the Globe’s site and asking what kind of money can I make from this, sell it, put the presses in a suburban site and pocket the money. We’ll do anything to fund the journalism, we just haven’t found a match yet.

Ian Condry: I’m curious how you spread the prosperity across Boston. Economic inequality is a different kind of problem than accountability journalism. A biotech firm might say, hey, Dorchester’s problems are not ours. We are doing the best we can.

Brian: It’s an excellent question, and I don’t have an easy answer. A week ago I gave a talk to a group of Boston real estate developers, 350 white men aged 30–50 in a hotel ballroom, and I gave a shout out to the diversity committee. The point I made to them was we’re not going anywhere, we’re rooted in this city. The way a city thrives is by having the whole city thrive, not just pockets. I want to launch a discussion that plays on that belief. I don’t have the exact answer to how we’re going to do that but I’m going to work like hell to try to figure it out.

Q: For commercial developers in certain parts of the city, it required contributing to an affordable housing fund. It managed to keep some level of affordability for the city; it was redistributive.

Current Globe Investigative Reporter: The last time the formula was adjusted was right after we wrote about it.

Brian: It’s time for another story.

Brian Mooney: It’s the only tool the government has come up with. The other one was that half the construction jobs had to go to Boston residents but the unions got involved and it was deemed unenforcable. The only thing we can do is editorialize and bring attention.

Brian: Yes, but attention is power.

Saul: You mentioned Kendall Sq, and all these issues happen in Cambridge as well. Walk on to Main St, turn right and you’ve got the most innovative space in America, turn the other way and you’ve got struggling public housing. As a Cambridge person, it’s annoying to me that the Globe’s coverage starts at Kendall Sq and ends there unless you’re covering our Mayor’s salary or some other scandal.

Brian: The greatest need is often in the shadow of the tallest buildings. We do need to throw some light on the issues you raise. I appreciate that point.

Ethan: There’s a sense in which we look at these questions — What does it mean to have high and low growth side by side in our own complicated geography. What are the legislative tools? When were they last updated? One opportunity would be to not just watch-dog around the issue but also host the conversation. The Globe, having this deep sense of place — Does that become an opportunity to host a conversation that might not be happening in the physical space?

Brian: I’m not sure what the proper role would be. We could hold a forum, we could hold a digital forum, but I think where we’re best is where we’re most comfortable — shedding light and attention on these issues. E.g. a story on one square mile where we see the deepest poverty and the biggest wealth. That would be our way of fostering a conversation. Could we follow up with a forum? Yes. We’ve done that in the Geneva neighborhood.

Dan (remote): Journalism’s great and everything, but over the past decade we’ve all been coming to grips with an understanding that a masterful application of technology is just as (if not more) important if the goal is to have an impact in the digital age. Right now there are only two full time creative developers that actually work in the newsroom; the more traditional development team is generally taking orders from people who have not grown up with the internet and aren’t trained in the space of digital solutions. What is your planned strategy to put more of an emphasis on meaningful realization of digital innovation in the process and dissemination of journalism?

(Rodrigo asks Dan’s question)

Brian: It’s a legitimate question. I come into this space not steeped in our digital side. I’ve been very upfront about that. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate that side; it’s our future. We make the vast bulk of our money on the dinosaur print side. The future is entirely on the digital side. I have been learning as fast as I can about that side. I’ll continue to learn and place emphasis there. I do take some exception: I think a great story is necessary to make a mark as much on the digital side as on the print side. Nothing engages readers, regardless of platform, more than really strong journalism. That’s my emphasis and will remain so. I am very cognizant that we have to engage with technology. “I don’t know if I did anything to answer his question.”

Denise: One of the most powerful things about the Globe is to direct attention. Has the Globe ever discussed partnering with some of the outlets in Cambridge, e.g. the citizen journalism outfit CCTV?

Brian: Partnerships represent a good chunk of the future of what we do. We’ve already engaged in some strong and meaningful ones with student reporters, e.g. BU, Northeastern; we have this partnership at the Center. I’ve been talking with Global Post about their foreign coverage. I have got to get my head around the concept of citizen journalists. I have to understand it more. It’s a situational process based on who it is and how they do. Partnerships are important but we can’t lessen the quality or we dilute the impact of what we do.

Denise: I was a coordinator for a citizen journalism project that partnered with a daily in Grand Rapids. The daily regularly printed our stories because they knew they couldn’t build from scratch. It’s possible for newspapers to invest resources in citizen journalists that have already made a mark, so that their quality continues to go up.

Brian: It’s an interesting thought. Another area where we are engaging with this is bloggers, some of whom are good and some awful. We are trying to weed out the awful ones. That seems like a good place to launch that endeavor.

Ethan: You have one of the great innovators in the space — Lisa Williams — who did hyperlocal blogging in Watertown. She’s someone who would be good to speak to.

Michael Manning (Globe’s Executive Director for Emerging Products): From a partnership standpoint it has to work for both parties. is a big broad audience so when you are talking about the neighborhood level the vast majority of the audience isn’t interested in that. How do you let the right people know that information they want is happening? It’s a marketing challenge in certain ways.

Ethan: This might be a place where Global Post and Global Voices might serve as good examples where they are doing journalism that’s extremely local but trying to bridge it to a larger audience.

Alexa Mills: My question is about the discussion about local neighborhoods. At any time in the past 5 years do you feel like the Globe has done something very local that engendered that kind of broader discussion?

Brian: I’d point to the recent Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood project — we planted a couple of reporters there, they rented an apartment over the summer. It has the most shootings of any area in the city. The goal was to figure out how this happens and why. We wanted to tell the story of people’s hopes and dreams, and their fears. We did it over a week of stories. It was extraordinarily successful, we’ve followed it up with forums. That was a mega project, a very expensive undertaking: 5 reporters, 4 photographers, probably around $500-600,000. I don’t see this being part of a series, I see it as part of a tone that the paper takes.

Rahul Bhargava: I’m interested in the language you’re using around digital and what it means. At the Center for Civic Media, we see digital as an enabler. I’m going to make you an unsolicited offer to sit down with you and suggest some ideas about things that might work in the newsroom, in storytelling. Flushing out what it means to “go digital,” to build something that’s engaging and storytelling; that’s a hard question. I think there’s the idea of looking at what’s already there, what strategies are already being used and how you can leverage those for journalism.

Ethan: There’s a sense that what the Globe’s done is take a top-quality newsroom and figure out how to deliver that on multiple platforms. We often look at the digital element as an alternative form of input. How do you look at imagery on instagram, like Chris Marstall’s group is doing, and use that as a input mechanism? How do we help you on not just the output side but possibly on the input side as well? How do we open a space digitally where over time we get more inputs?

Brian: Give me an example of something digital we could have done digitally, differently, on the Bowdoin-Geneva project.

Ethan: There’s an anormous amount of imagery created by folks in Bowdoin-Geneva.

Jason Tuohey (Editor of Chris has a tool called Snap (described on; we’re doing this to some extent.

Ethan: For example, we have the D’Amicos from Homicide Watch DC who treat a murder as a long-form story. By creating an online space, you end up with a longer and more thorough dialogue. Could that method be used here and re-purposed for other topics and stories?

Chris Marstall: What kind of things do we show up for? We have a State House office, a City Hall office. What’s the theory of what we show up for — how do you figure out how to allocate resources?

Brian: I place a lot of importance on actually being in a space. You make contacts, you hear the tone of the speech. There’s a lot of information you can’t get otherwise. I encourage our journalists to be at as many events as possible which might be newsworthy. Years ago we’d be everywhere the governor went. We used to trail the President. Now we don’t have those resources. We are more issues oriented. But we still go to important speeches and community meetings. For example today there’s a meeting of the Gambling Commission that will be making important decisions about the future of southern Mass. We’ll be there.

Ethan: I don’t think Chris is actually asking to hire 2700 more journalists. But if you have the possibility of people coming in to collect information about a specific geography that could be an asset. Alternately, something goes on in North Cambridge has relevance for the whole community.

Ian: It gets back to the access and impact question. It can’t just be Watertown.

Brian: We target neighborhoods, we have neighborhood sites in the Your Town sections where there are several hundred separate town sites.

Rodrigo: In addressing the question of equal distribution of this boom, if accountability journalism is one part of this question, to what extent is the other empowering citizens to agitate for that? To what extent do
you want to foster agency and citizen action? If yes, how would the Globe’s role work in that? (E.g. journalism pushing towards campaigns that seek to promote activism.)

Brian: By accurately reporting on. By making sure the community at large knows that we are at a prosperous moment. It’s a really interesting question: how would we then take it the next step and given them a venue to agitate for their piece of this? I don’t know what our proper role is in that. It could get pretty dicey. I’m not going to sit here and give you are reasonably good answer on that.

Rodrigo: Very different question — with classifieds gone, the problem with comparing paper ad revenues and digital ones is that without printing costs, digital ones have little intrinsic value. The attention question doesn’t work that well for ads because so many people use Ad Blockers. The value is in what they point to — the product or property being sold. So should the Globe be getting into those areas like selling products or events?

Brian: There is a pretty spotty history of this in journalism. WaPo has pulled back on that. We’re not going to endorse products; that’s not what we do. We provide a forum for advertisers. I know there’s been a push among big papers to profit from holding events and exploiting our expertise in other ways. I haven’t found a way that I find would work for the Globe.

Willow: It’s more of a comment than a question. The function of classifieds in the past was getting the message out. Advertisers could get their message to an audience, then the advertiser’s concern was people not shooting the messenger, and now you’re asking people to pay for that messenger. Because you have a position as a trusted sourced and people want to go to you to get stories… If you have citizen journalists who want to get their stories out, they can pay a nominal fee to get their story out in the same way as classifieds, but if it seems appropriate you can pay them.

Brian: I don’t know that we would ever allow… if it’s a citizen journalist doing something under the guise of journalism, are you saying that we accept money from them and print it as journalism?

Willow: No, in the same way as classifieds were always clearly identified as separate, this would be too.

Ethan: Willow’s making the point that you guys are an amplifier. What Willow’s suggesting is that you could imagine a section of the Sunday Globe put together by paying for it. And then you might find that over time it becomes an interesting source of revenue.

Brian: My glib answer is yes, if we could make money off it. I’d have to picture it…

Brian Mooney (former Globe political reporter): Look at obituaries. People pay for something that we cover journalistically, selectively.

Brian: Maybe if we can make that clear, that relationship, then perhaps it could work. We’re always looking to hire.

Chris Marstall: I wonder if a person would pay to have their comments positioned more prominently?

Brian: I have often pitched this idea internally, that the success of the newspaper industry would be paid pet death notices. If Willow’s idea of citizen journalists willing to pay for publication of pieces would work, it’s an interesting notion.