The Boston Globe bungled its delivery switch. Chaos ensued.

January 5, 2016

Producing newspapers that go undelivered seems like a task of journalistic purgatory. But The Boston Globe, which rode a Spotlight-backed wave of goodwill throughout the final months of 2015, finds itself in a mess of its own doing. 

Since the Globe last week changed the company it uses to deliver papers, its print product has failed to reach thousands of loyal and paying subscribers. The new vendor, the California-based ACI Media Group, not only failed to hire enough carriers in time for the handoff, but also saw its routing software initially spit out highly inefficient delivery routes.

The newspaper publisher was conspicuously mum on the scale of disruption for almost a week after problems arose—the Globe itself ran just one story. But after a front-page piece Monday morning reported that a complete fix could be several months away, Globe chief executive Mike Sheehan hopped on the damage-control carousel, promising improvements within the next week and a return to normalcy in 30 to 45 days.

“First of all, ACI is starting with new software [on Tuesday],” Sheehan says in an interview. “They’re hiring people. New people are going to learn their routes…ACI is going to be a valued partner.”

Though Globe brass were warned of service disruptions before the switch, Sheehan says they had no idea how severe the problems might be. Globe officials have put the frequency of missing dead-tree editions at up to 10 percent of print subscribers—about 115,000 on weekdays and more than 200,000 on Sundays. Disgruntled subscribers have flooded the Globe’s call center and blared their dismay on social media.

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The mishap is staggering considering that print still provides a large chunk of news organizations’ revenue. Sheehan insists the service change was in fact an effort to preserve the print subscriber base, citing internal analyses that pegged delivery problems as a leading cause for cancellations.

But Globe management is being battered with accusations that the switch to a new carrier was more about saving money than saving subscribers. Sheehan says that wasn’t the primary motivator but he does say this: “There were also more costs savings overall because [ACI works] at a lower margin, enough for us to save a few million dollars overall.”

Sheehan declined to provide a more specific number regarding savings with ACI Media Group. He also declined to elaborate on the scale of delivery problems under the previous carrier, Publishers Circulation Fulfillment. A representative for that company did not respond to a request for comment.

Globe staff provided some PR cover Sunday morning by moonlighting as home-delivery reinforcements—a feel-good story for a newspaper company failing to provide a fundamental service. But it, too, highlighted poor planning and execution of the handoff. “The routes were repetitive,” reporter Beth Healy says. “They were not efficient. Clearly that has to be fixed for the real drivers.” Fellow reporter David Abel described the chaotic distribution as “journalistic apocalypse” in a blog post on Sunday.

Bewilderment among Globe journalists has mounted, with staffers airing their frustrations on social media or directly to subscribers. “In politics or business, you should never take your base for granted,” columnist Joan Vennochi wrote Tuesday. “The Globe’s decision to switch carriers did so by accepting there would be ‘some’ service disruption…Our subscribers are the victims.”  

Despite Sheehan’s slew of mea culpas in recent days, a few important questions haven’t been sufficiently explained. ACI Media Group President Jack Klunder did not respond to multiple requests for comment on what went wrong under his company’s watch. Here’s what I’m still scratching my head about:

Why is the new carrier better?

Sheehan cites improvements to home delivery as the ultimate driver for switching vendors but offers few specifics on why ACI Media Group’s service is superior. The Globe is saving millions by changing companies. So make a compelling case that the change was really about improving service.

Why couldn’t the new carrier hire enough drivers in time?

The Globe reported Sunday that roughly 150 delivery routes lacked drivers. Speculation has abounded that the labor shortage stems from ACI offering lower pay rates than other carriers. But ACI and Globe management have both denied that claim. Regardless, the deal between the two companies was inked weeks ahead of when papers were to be delivered. Isn’t that enough time to hire the delivery crews you knew you’d need? 

What happened with the new carrier’s routing software?

After he finished his paper route Sunday, Globe columnist Kevin Cullen wrote that the routes he followed looked as “if you handed an Etch-a-Sketch to a really drunk guy and told him to turn the knobs.”

“Sound stupid?” Cullen continued. “Here we were, 4 in the morning, stumbling around the winter lawns of Hingham like three blind mice. That doesn’t sound stupid. That is stupid.”

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.