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The Boston Globe started off the new year with a bit of a kerfuffle. After switching delivery companies, thousands of customers reported that their daily newspaper was missing, in some cases, that it hadn’t come in over a week. As readers canceled subscriptions, customer service phone lines became overwhelmed with complaints, and reporters and editors put in time delivering the papers themselves, a number of questions arose. Was the big switch an effort to save money? Why did this happen in the first place? What happened to the newspaper carriers from the previous company? And finally—when can readers expect to get their newspapers again?

 

Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory checked in with Jim and Margery on Boston Public Radio today to discuss how the paper has handled things, and answer questions surrounding the hugely catastrophic (and somewhat mysterious) delivery crisis.

MCGRORY:

I’ve been here a long, long time, about 27 years, and this has been far and away the worst week I have experienced at the Globe, and the worst week that anybody in this newsroom has experienced. The reasons are very simple. This goes far beyond inconveniencing our subscribers, it goes far beyond merely letting them down by not delivering papers to them—it’s deeper than that. We have a special obligation to the people we serve, and it happens here in the newsroom, where we write the truth, where we hold powerful people accountable, where we give voice to those who otherwise wouldn’t have one, where we are ethical, where we are accurate, this is the commitment we make to our subscribers. We also make the commitment that we will get their work to our subscribers, and we also make the commitment that we will get our work to their doorstep, or wherever else they want our newspaper, every morning, rain or snow, sun, summer, winter, fall, good weather, bad weather, in the light or dark, and we broke that commitment last week. We really wreaked havoc on the relationship, that special bond that we have with readers. We are beyond regretful about that over here. It has been awful, and we are dead-set on improving it. We will redouble and triple our efforts to rebuild that bond with our readers, and we are profoundly sorry that this happened.

We’re prepared to do whatever it takes to repair it, and we have several hundred people here in this newsroom who give it their all every single day, who have done whatever it takes, through journalism and through a whole lot of other things this past week. We will do what it takes to fix this.

JIM: How soon is it going to be fixed, Brian?

That’s a good question. We have a lot of very good people working furiously on it now, we took a very dramatic step as a company yesterday in bringing back the old newspaper vendor to deliver half the routes, we expect that they will start to contribute to the cause, hopefully to the Sunday paper, and then definitely starting on Monday. That doesn’t mean by any stretch that it’s going to be perfect next week, it’s not going to be, there will be things that need to be ironed out, but we do expect that over the next couple of weeks, people will see a dramatic turn back to normal.

JIM: Who made the decision? I had Michael Sheehan, your CEO, on Greater Boston the other night, and he said he was responsible. Who made the decision to switch from a carrier that most people were happy with to a carrier that apparently most people are wildly unhappy with?

I’m not sure that you’re right when you say that most people were happy with that carrier. A couple of things were at play, and John Henry had an apology on the Globe editorial page today in which he spelled some of this out, but we get a lot of cancellations over here, like any big paper, it’s called "churn." Some people cancel, other people subscribe. The overwhelming reason why people gave when they canceled the newspaper? Their delivery of the newspaper was bad service. The goal here was to improve that service, that was first and foremost. Lower what we call the “churn,” keep more subscribers, while we add subscribers. We also had a very expensive delivery proposition here, it costs a lot of money to get papers out the door and to people’s houses. We thought at the same time we could do it at a lower expense with better service, in retrospect that looks a bit too good to be true. A lot of good people contributed to that decision over here, it wasn’t any one person’s decision, it was a lot of really well-intended people. This wasn’t meant to increase distributions or dividends for investors, this wasn’t meant to line the pockets of an owner, it wasn’t meant to contribute a greater profit margin—we’re not a profitable enterprise here, at this point, not yet anyways. What this was intended to do is to preserve as much money as we possibly could to dedicate to the journalism that people really value, and that’s what we’re trying to do here in many of the things that we do.

JIM: Brian, you reference John Henry’s letter, and in his letter today, he said it was “substantially cheaper.” I don’t quite understand, when I spoke to Michael Sheehan, it seems to me that the only way you can have a “material savings” is if the firm with which you’re contracting is paying a lot less to the delivery people, he said they’re paying comparable rates. If Sheehan is right, why would it be substantially cheaper?

My understanding is, it’s an entirely different business model. the new company came in with a model of pure distribution centers around the region, the old company had something like 17 or 19, the new company has seven. Lower overhead with management, a lower profit margin by the company, the carriers would carry more papers and be able to make more money by carrying more papers, from what I’m hearing here internally, anyways, the per-paper cost is going to be, for the carrier, was going to be about the same, but it was an entirely different, more entrepreneurial model that would cost the Globe less money to implement.

JIM: So your belief is Sheehan’s belief, that the delivery people themselves—not the company— are not going to take home less money than they took home under the predecessor organization?

I’m not willing to say that’s my belief yet, Jim. It’s a vendor system, and the front office here believes that. We are actually probing that now from the newsroom to find out if that’s true or not.

It is my belief that the savings that the Globe was hoping to realize from this was not coming on the backs of the carriers.

MARGERY: One of the reports I got was that the drivers, under [the new company] would be charged for complaints, and they’d also be charged more for the use of the warehouse. Is that accurate?

That, I don’t know. But like I said, we’ve got a very good reporter looking into these issues right now, and we plan to report it out to the public as soon as we get it.

JIM: In the piece that John Henry wrote this morning, he said, “before I arrived, the Globe moved away from operating its own delivery service, that was a mistake.” Was that considered as a fix for this problem—not contracting out, but being responsible yourselves for the delivery of the newspaper?

I asked that exact question in a meeting on Sunday, and was told that there are labor laws that would get in the way of that, and that no major metropolitan newspapers do that anymore. It’s another thing we’re looking at out of the newsroom. I can’t imagine that the way that we’ve done this here for many many years is absurd, and that we should be blowing up the whole model, I can’t picture that. There were good people here for a long time who did many things the right way, so I don’t know the answer to it, but I do that a lot of big papers got out of the delivery business themselves, and I imagine there are a lot of good reasons behind that.

MARGERY: We got a lot of emails from people asking things to ask you, and there was a theme, a lot of people were upset about previous delivery people who were doing a good job, they’re upset that those people lost their jobs, and wondered why the globe would take away jobs from people who were doing them well.

 

It’s baffling to me that they lost their jobs, that I don’t understand. It’s not as if fewer papers are getting delivered in this region… Trust me, I’m not an expert on this stuff, I’m the editor, I’m not the circulation direction, but if we switch to a new vendor, that new vendor was desperately searching for new deliverers. I’m not quite sure why the people who were delivering with the old vendor, who might have lost their jobs, weren’t over with the new vendor, making the same kind of money. So that’s again, something that we’re looking at out of the newsroom.

Brian McGrory is the editor of the Boston Globe. To hear more from his interview with Boston Public Radio, click on the audio link above.