Q & A with Boston Globe Editor, Marty Baron

On serving online "snackers" and "deep readers," and Whitey Bulger coverage

The Boston Globe is set to implement its new subscription model, which will cost $3.99 a week for a digital-only subscription, and all print subscribers will get full digital access. The editor of the Globe, Marty Baron, made a visit to Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism this week to discuss with students the changing newspaper industry, but first he sat down with CJR’s Alysia Santo for a brief discussion.

Did you ever anticipate, as an editor, that your role would be so focused on the business side?

When I was writing my remarks for my presentation today, I was struck when I finished: it’s almost all about business strategy. That’s kind of a new role for editors, and now it’s a huge part of our job. We work with all the other operations of the company—digital, circulation, advertising. But the most important part of our job is the actual quality of the journalism that we do because the success of our operation depends entirely on the quality of our journalism.

Just before I walked in, I looked into the cafĂ© that’s right next to the journalism school, and there was not one newspaper in sight. Everybody was on a laptop or iPod or cell phone. That was very telling about the industry and the direction that we have to go.

Our aim is to be at the leading edge of what’s happening in the digital transformation, while putting out a very high quality print product. We have made video a very big part of our operation, and we’re actually a finalist for an Emmy award for online video. Three years ago I would never have anticipated anything like that.

How do you convince a reader who is used to getting something for free that he should pay? How do you affix a monetary value to the journalism?

There are going to be some people who won’t pay, and we recognize that. The core of our strategy is that we intend to be two brands, with two sites. Boston.com will be free and BostonGlobe.com will be subscription.

We were evaluating the possibility of some sort of pay model for Boston.com and in analyzing our user base we saw that there were two different kinds of users. One was a group of very casual users, essentially snackers, people who looked at headlines—they may have looked at classified, they looked through photo galleries. They were very cursory readers of the site but they checked in a lot throughout the day.

There was this other group, and they were people who went to the site to really read the Boston Globe’s journalism. And when you analyze them, they were essentially two different kinds of people, with two different sets of inclinations or willingness to pay. So people who were snackers were pretty much not willing to pay. And people who were deeper readers understood that this required an investment on our part, that there was real value there, and that somehow it needed to be paid for, and they were more receptive to the idea of paying for that information.

In fact about half the people who were using Boston.com didn’t even know it was owned by the Boston Globe. So based on that observation, and research, and internal testing of that concept, we launched this strategy.

The other thing we’re offering is the experience you’re going to have. One of the things I point out to people is, when they buy a car they don’t just buy it to get them safely from point A to B. They might buy one over another because it’s more luxurious, it’s smoother, it’s more comfortable, it conforms to their self-image. We as an industry have tended to treat everybody essentially as if they’re all the same, as if they all have the same experience. That may be unique to our industry, I’m not sure, but that’s certainly not common in industry as a whole. If we can provide a superior experience, we think that will be a major attraction.

We’re implementing a new technology called responsive design. It detects what size screen you have and so the presentation is customized for that size screen, the entire presentation adjusts. In fact, if you take a browser and you start to shrink the browser size you’ll watch it change. We don’t have to create an app for every different device, an app for the iPad, the iPhone, the android device, we can create one website and it will adapt and be the same experience no matter how you access it.

Will Boston.com and the Boston Globe be sharing any content?

Boston.com will have all of our seasonal and post-season sports coverage available. We will have most of our hyperlocal coverage, and we will have all the breaking news thorough the course of the day that’s produced by our newsroom. In addition, Boston.com editors will have the option of picking five stories from the Globe that they believe would be of most interest to Boston.com and that are most likely to drive traffic on Boston.com.

So now we put it out there for the ultimate test: does it work in the consumer market place? There are no guarantees in this business these days, and we shouldn’t expect them. So what we have to do is innovate and experiment and try new things, and that’s what we’re doing.

I was reading about the outing of the Whitey Bulger tipster, so while I have you here, I have to ask, why did you make the decision that you did? And were you expecting the criticism?

We knew this was a tricky decision and we spent a lot of time on it. We’ve had this tipster’s identity for months, and we’ve been sitting on it. We didn’t rush into publication. In fact we made two trips to Iceland to try and speak with her, we contacted her any number of times via email, and her husband as well. We talked to law enforcement to determine whether there were any safety issues that we should be concerned about. In doing our homework we knew that there would be people who would take issue with the decision that we made, but we made it because this has been a long-running issue in Boston—the credibility of the FBI, in particular. It’s a long and tortured case in Boston, whether the FBI has been corrupt and engaged in a cover-up. There were many people who believed that there was no tipster whatsoever, and the reason that the tipster had not been identified by the FBI was because there was no tipster. So in order to document that there was a tipster, and to address the question to whether the FBI was engaging in a cover-up, we felt that we had to identify the tipster.

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , ,