I'm CEO of Newspeg.com, a social news-sharing platform. I've spent 20 years at the intersection of traditional and digital journalism. I've helped to invent ways to read and interact with the news and advertising on computer screens and iPads, and before that, I wrote news stories on typewriters and six-ply paper. I co-founded WashingtonPost.com and hyperlocal pioneers Backfence.com and GrowthSpur; served as editor of Philly.com; taught media entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland; and have done product-development and strategy consulting for all sorts of media and Internet companies. You can read more about me here.
One of the best things that can happen to a newspaper is when its readers start feeling like they own it. They become so bound up in the paper that they take offense at any effort to change it or reduce it. That's real customer loyalty.
One of the worst things that often happens to a newspaper is when its employees—especially in the newsroom—start feeling like they own it. They act like the paper is some sort of democracy in which they have a significant say in every aspect, and that they can defy management because, well, it's "our paper." The suits in the front office can pound sand, in this view, when the newsroom knows best what it thinks is good for the paper and its business.
Unfortunately, that's the kind of foolishness that's manifesting itself at the Boston Globe, where the Boston Newspaper Guild membership votes June 8 on a package of pay cuts that the paper's true owner, The New York Times Co., says is required to keep the Globe alive. The Guild's leadership, while not taking a formal position on these cuts—a tough 8.4 percent salary reduction, plus five days of unpaid furlough (bringing the cut closer to an actual 10 percent) and various benefit reductions—agreed to put them to a membership vote after some very contentious negotiations with the Times Co. During those talks, the Times bluntly threatened to close the money-hemorrhaging paper if it couldn't get the concessions it wanted.
Not so fast, says the Guild's rank and file, or at least some members of it. They're circulating a petition urging management to limit the cuts to 5 percent, with the clear threat that the concession package will be rejected by a majority of the Guild's 600 members if the Times Co. doesn't see it exactly the way the newsroom does. (Other Globe unions, incidentally, have agreed to the requested cuts.) Feeling possessive about the Globe, the newsroom crowd seems to think it has a right to dictate business terms to the true owner of the paper.
Well, good luck with that. Look, nobody wants a pay cut. That's totally understandable. And the Times' position has been made difficult by revelations like the New Yorker's report this week that Times columnist Tom Friedman (three Pulitzers, but never mind) enjoys what amounts to an unlimited expense account. That's further inflamed the Boston Guild members, unsurprisingly.
But the renegade Boston newsies are playing with fire. By all indications the Times is very serious about the need to make major cuts at the Globe—or the paper will be closed. Indeed, the Times and the Globe's management have indicated they'll implement an across-the-board 23 percent pay cut if the agreed-upon deal is rejected by the Guild membership. And nobody's ruling out the possibility that the Times could decide to simply close the door and walk away, especially if it feels like it's dealing with an intractable workforce. In the worst advertising economy in memory, with ad revenue plummeting and the Globe losing more than $1 million a week, the Times' request for major cuts is understandable. (Indeed, it appears that the planned cuts still won't cover the paper's losses.)
The Boston union members certainly have the right to decide their own future through collective bargaining. But they also need to understand what that future might be. They need to appreciate the realities of the situation, one of which is that the Globe is in dire financial straits, and another is that they're not in ultimate control of the paper–its corporate owners are, like it or not. The Guild members get to vote on the concessions, but this ain't a democracy, no matter how much they resent the Times ownership or feel like the Globe is "their" paper.
This is a very dangerous game of chicken to be playing. By rejecting a 10 percent cut in hopes of getting an idealized 5 percent cut, the Globe's Guild members may be setting themselves up for a 23 percent pay cut—or a 100 percent job cut. That doesn't seem like a smart trade-off.