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Compulsion, convergence and cash in the Boston Globe newsroom

Guy Berger's picture


My pal, the new media revolutionary Rosental Alves, (pictured left) invited me to join him on a visit to the newsroom of the troubled Boston Globe on 7 August, and the top two people showed us around – Marty Baron, the editor (pictured right), and David Beard who edits Boston.Com.

The paper’s been in big financial trouble, and the New York Times owners may try to sell it. There’s been a strike by reporters, but cuts in staffing and conditions went ahead anyway.

This financial spectre has been a force in the paper’s move towards multiple platforms. It’s meant that journalists there voluntarily agreed to multi-skill rather than resist convergence.

One result today is that the paper seems to be punching above its weight in terms of new media platforms. It’s in the top ten of US newspaper sites, and Nielsen figures apparently put it at the top of the table about the time that users spend on the site.

Some 10 000 subscribers have downloaded the Globe Reader application, which delivers a reading experience more akin to a paper than a webpage. There are some 60 blogs run by staffers. We were also told that most reporters also Twitter.

Editor Marty Baron doesn’t himself Twitter – but an imposter stole his identity and twittered in his name. Someone else in the blogosphere took it for real without checking, and so the editor moved to get Twitter to kill the culprit. Later a person claiming to be a female journalism student mailed him saying “she” had done the impersonation out of admiration, and would he meet up with “her”?

Answer: “Certainly not”.

The paper’s evolution to a multi-media newsroom involved these steps, we heard:

* The webteam from moved into the newsroom three years back, and were welcomed with a party which underlined that new and legacy media staffers had a lot they could learn from each other.

* Over time, the web desk was dispersed across the newsroom, with the home page desk now located next to the front page desk.

* Flip cameras were acquired and the “early adopter” reporters set the trend in capturing 2 minute video clips for the site. There are nine computer terminals set up for video editing.

* There’s a lot of online promotion of the site – an hour a day on culling top stories and tipping off editors at Drudge, Yahoo and Google. The result is being top of the links on these massive traffic-generating machines.

* The content management system (called Bonzai) provides pie-charts that aggregate traffic statistics into meaningful categories. Twitter feeds drove very high traffic (1.3 million unique visitors) on the controversy of the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Depending on the story, an enormous amount of web traffic comes from links elsewhere on the web. Then come users’ bookmarks, with search engine originations usually fairly low. Search-friendly meta-data is added by the copy-editors, rather than the reporters.

The Globe ventured into hyperlocal journalism by hiring several local blogger to each cover up to three local towns as well as promote the site at community events in these localities. On the cards is aggregating local pictures via Flickr tags.

However, it’s been hard to convert this traffic into local advertising – and small businesses find self-transaction ads too complicated to adopt.

The paper is wary of getting too much into the idea of becoming an online data-center where users could, for instance, access detail about salaries paid to local officials. The service doesn’t generate much traffic, and the paper anyway is short of staff with the technical skills to really push computer-assisted journalism.

One massive success is the “big picture” feature on the website, which is not only hugely popular but also brings in some revenue from sales.

Overall, the paper’s investment in web has paid off in terms of winning two Emmy awards recently. Now it just needs to generate the cash that can convert the compulsion of the market beyond the convergence effect ... and into sustaining the good stuff.