John Henry, Annotated

I have taken the liberty of annotating Boston Globe publisher John Henry’s apology with my thoughts. Bolding is added by me. I will issue an apology to the Globe later for reproducing the text in full.

The Globe’s responsibility to this community is to bring it the news. I would like to share some news now about why we have failed to meet this objective for many readers over the past 10 days, how we are working to fix the problems, and a bit about the root causes.

First, I want to personally apologize to every Boston Globe subscriber who has been inconvenienced.

An op-ed is not a personal apology. A personal apology is done to, you know, one person. Directly. To an individual. Personalized.

We recognize that you depend on us, and that we’ve let you down. We’re working around the clock on a variety of fronts to solve this. To that end, I also want to thank everyone at the Globe who pitched in to get some 20,000 Sunday papers delivered last weekend.

First of all, the admirable devotion of the newsroom employees was not something that Globe management did “to that end” of solving anything. More importantly, how about thanking the actual delivery people who delivered the other 150,000 or so on Sunday, and 100,000 or so every other day, struggling through the botched routes they were given? Or the customer service people who tried to deal with the complaints? Why just the newsroom staff?

Getting a daily newspaper to your front door is a complicated exercise in logistics — this is something the Globe has been innovating in for more than 150 years.

Gosh, 150 years sounds like an awful lot of institutional experience. It would be awfully surprising if a company that’s been doing this exact task for so long would end up underestimating how difficult that task is.

Our region is full of old houses, curvy roads, and hidden cul-de-sacs. It takes resources, people, and technology to bring a paper from our presses to you every day. That last mile relies on a team of dedicated delivery professionals who know just the spot where you like your paper placed, what your house looks like, the name of your dog.

Yes, yes, that was the problem, people are cancelling their subscriptions because the delivery person wasn’t calling out their dog’s name. Listen Johnny, we know that getting a newspaper to subscribers is difficult; it didn’t become way more difficult last Monday. Please get to the point.

I don’t think any of us who receive our daily newspapers think enough about what servicing such a route entails. One single person generally takes responsibility to see that our papers — even amid record snowfall — are delivered (frequently in the dark) 365 days a year. 365 nights really. Your carrier is, in fact, often the public face of our company.

I think the last bit goes too far, but this and the preceding paragraph certainly do suggest that the billionaire owner of the Boston Globe believes that the performance and continuity of the individual carriers are very, very important to the customers’ experience with his company’s core product. This has not, however, led Mr. Henry to consider improving the wages, terms, or conditions for those critical individuals.

The importance of this role is why, since joining the Globe, we have been determined to improve our delivery systems and customer service.

Who is this “we,” Johnny-boy? Is this the royal first-person plural, or do you mean you and CEO Mike Sheehan, the unnamed co-conspirator in this essay, who you hired despite concerns that, as a newbie publisher, you might want a top guy with some daily newspaper experience?

When I purchased the Globe two years ago, more than half the subscribers who were not renewing their subscriptions told us it was due to delivery service issues. Week after week, I reiterated that fixing this had to be one of our highest priorities.

It sounds to me like the publisher/owner and the CEO were demanding an improvement in delivery services, but did not themselves have any experience or knowledge in that part of the business. It remains unclear who they relied on, or what process they used, to determine a proper course. Sheehan has acknowledged that he did not get involved in the delivery portion of the business. In recent media appearances he declined to say who was involved. Henry likewise makes no mention of anyone herein. I have to say, I am quite curious to know whether they availed themselves of any of the company’s 150 years of institutional knowledge of the delivery operation, as they set to the task of mucking it up.

Before I arrived, the Globe had moved away from operating its own delivery service. That was a mistake.

Aha! Blame the New York Times, who outsourced delivery right after the last of the Taylors left, in 2001. Well played. Also: Yankees suck.

Instead, the Globe instituted a somewhat expensive plan to try to remedy the reported problems. By the beginning of my second year it was apparent the service was not improving. So we began to look for an alternative delivery service.

So outsourcing was a mistake, but we didn’t consider bringing it back in-house.

We settled on ACI Media Group, generally recognized as the best in the business. The firm’s first bid not only contained the service improvements we were looking for but was substantially cheaper — more in line with other regions in the United States.

I’m more willing than some I’ve seen to cut the Globe some slack on the vendor selection. Problems ACI had with the Orange County Register, for example, were a special circumstance. I also believe that it is often possible — especially in a logistics-heavy operating center like delivery — to both improve service and cut costs. What sends up a warning flag for me, however, is the implication that Globe management expected the delivery of a vast regional newspaper, in one of the country’s most expensive metropolitan areas, with the inherent difficulties of Boston’s weather and road structures, to be in line with costs of delivering newspapers elsewhere.

We thought we’d found what we were looking for, but this overnight transition was much harder than anyone anticipated. Until Globe staffers embarked on an effort to save more than 20,000 subscribers from missing their Sunday paper, we had underestimated what it would take to make this change….

This entire two-sentence passage is mind-blowing to me, and suggests a level of utter incompetence that should truly frighten anybody who, like me, dearly hopes that the Globe survives the denouement of the great age of newspapers. Globe management embarked upon a huge reboot of one of its central operating functions — not just a new contractor, but new routing software, new distribution nodes, new carriers, and new routes. They planned it as a one-time full switch-over, directly affecting all of the print paper’s paying customers. When the time came for the switch, the operation was reportedly without carriers for some 150 routes, and the routes were so badly drawn it was, from what I hear, one of the reasons carriers cited for staying with PCF. That much should have been known even before the first of thousands of customers began overwhelming the customer-service lines with complaints; carriers began quitting over the insane routes (as Henry notes below); and the carriers and their supervisors began reporting the late or incomplete routes. The idea that management was still unaware of the scope of the problem five days into it, with the critical Sunday edition already rolling off the presses, is just a stunning admission of mismanagement. The implication that they might have remained oblivious had the newsroom staff not experienced it first-hand is jaw-dropping.

…. People want their paper every day in a particular place at a particular time. It might be 6 inches to the right of the first step.

Wait wait wait wait wait — this is what Henry thinks they underestimated??? Holy sweet Yeezus. I mean, what the serious everloving fuck. First of all: yes, Mr. Newspaper Owner/Publisher, the people who have paid to have your product delivered to their house before they leave for work in fact want your product delivered to their house before they leave for work, the crazy bastards. (I would have thought somebody at the Globe would have made a note about this bizarre expectation at some point in the past 150 years.) Secondly: I am fairly confident that the people who sat on hold trying to get through to your customer service line were not waiting to tell you how many inches the paper was from their step.

One thing we did not underestimate, however, is the importance of routing. The new company initially used software that simply could not do the job. The routes that software plotted were so circuitous and inefficient that newly hired drivers quit after only one or two days — our staff ultimately volunteered to jump in to help. ACI has already begun the process to replace that software.

If the Globe’s management did not underestimate the importance of routing, then how did they not know by December 28 that the software could not do the job? Vendor management at Boston Globe Media Partners sounds stellar. “Routing is very important!” “Shall we test the new routing software before implementation?” “No thanks.” Boy, I’m sure the staff must be feeling mighty confident that next January’s move of the entire newspaper operation will go without a hitch. (Speaking of the staff, this is the third mention of their pitching in. Meaning no disrespect to the very skilled and dedicated people over there, A) I’m tired of hearing about it, and B) I hope Henry’s giving them bonuses along with all this acclamation.)

So where do we stand at this point? We have worked with both ACI and our former distributor to reestablish service in the fastest possible way by dividing the entire region between them. The firms are at this moment working together to manage routes and will have a roughly equivalent number of newspapers to deliver over the next three years.

So, not a full retreat, but a half-retreat, to the inadequate previous vendor.

While it has been very painful to have daily service interrupted, I do believe this hurdle will ultimately reward everyone because there will be two newspaper distribution firms in the region.

With only one service provider in any industry, often services and costs are far from ideal for customers. In this case the customers are The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other newspapers. These papers will now have competitive services to choose from that will decrease costs and improve service.

I think what’s more accurate is that when there was one major service provider, that provider could hold down carrier costs; when there were suddenly two carriers, some areas lacked a sufficient number of drivers willing to work at the crappy low wage structure to staff both; the competition to fix the shortage of carriers would have driven up costs. Instead, we’ve gone back to a carrier monopoly in the regions where that shortage manifested.

Subscription revenue is going to be the primary source of revenue in the future for newspapers. It will make or break journalism in this country as we know it. That’s what makes this past week so frustrating.

I’m not going to get into a debate over the future of newspapers here. But I have seen an awful lot of frustration, from customers and from those precious newsroom staffers you keep mentioning, and for them it had nothing whatsoeverto do with the future source of newspaper revenue. It was frustrating because people couldn’t read the damn newspaper. So if, for you personally John-John, it was frustrating for a different, monetary reason, that’s something you might want to keep to yourself in the text of your apology to those people.

Many of the people who support journalism in this region have been slapped in the face simply trying to get their daily newspaper. Some will give up on us a result.

I’ve also seen, however, a New England spirit here in the past 15 years of steely resolve no matter the wait. I hope you will have the patience now to bear with us as we iron out this integral part of our business.

Look, I doubt the Globe is going to lose a huge number of subscribers over this, but it’s not because of some great New England steely resolve; it’s because the Globe is all they’ve got. The Globe is it. Some of the small locals and regionals are doing good work, but they’ve been killed by market forces. The Herald is a joke; its newsroom staff should pitch in to go door-to-door preventing their paper from getting delivered. If you want a decent local newspaper — and especially if you want one in print — you have to get the Globe delivered. And, by the way, people absolutely should: my many and frequent critiques notwithstanding, it’s a very, very good newspaper, staffed with a really impressive batch of writers and editors. It is also incredibly vital to the region’s civic health — which is why so many of us worry and fret about whether its current management is capable of steering the Globe through a very tenuous-looking future. I have said many, many times that I am convinced that even total mismanagement will not be able to actually kill the Globe. I am suddenly a little less certain of that assessment, and this apology doesn’t exactly help.



11 thoughts on “John Henry, Annotated

  1. Josh Weiss

    As a subscriber, the part that pissed me off the most was the ” 6 inches to the right of the first step” comment. Like it’s the subscribers’ fault that this is so hard because we’re so picky. The particular place I want my paper is at my goddamn house and the particular time I want it is the time the Globe guarantees. Although right now I’d settle for ever.


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