On my last day of work as a reporter at the newspaper where I wanted to work my whole life, the rolls of newsprint were being loaded off the trucks down in the pressroom as they always were at the end of the week just before the big Sunday run.
I've always loved that sound. It is a glorious thud made by the massive paper rolls. If those rolls were stretched out, they would go for more than three miles. And when they come off the trucks onto the loading docks, they shake the foundation of The Boston Globe. And, to me, that was always the sound of the institutional weight of a big city newspaper.
I worked as a reporter for my hometown newspaper for 14 years and spent a total of 22 years in daily newspapers, including stints at the New York Daily News and the Bergen Record of Hackensack, New Jersey. And every day of every one of those years I felt like I had one of the greatest jobs you can have. It was a great ride.
The Addiction of Foreign News
For the majority of my years in newspapers, I was a foreign correspondent. I served as a bureau chief in London and Jerusalem and covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and at least a dozen insurgencies and conflicts in Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Colombia, Nicaragua, Northern Ireland, Algeria and elsewhere.
Two years ago, I returned to the newsroom after nearly a decade of being based abroad for the Globe. The corporate side pulled the plug on the Globe's entire foreign operation. Like The (Baltimore) Sun, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and a host of other once big city dailies, the Globe has turned its attention inward to its core mission of local news.
But the paper gave me an education in and a serious jones for foreign news, and I couldn't shake the addiction. So I am taking on a new challenge as the executive editor and cofounder of Global News Enterprises, a Boston-based startup where we will launch the first fully Web-based news organization with its own team of correspondents assigned all over the world and dedicated solely to the daily coverage of international news.
The abandonment of the mission to cover the world by so many mainstream newspapers and television networks has created what we at Global News see as a great opportunity. And so we are moving as fast as we can to fill that space with online coverage.
We are set to launch the site in early 2009. At Global News (we are not announcing the domain name of the site until we are closer to the launch) Philip Balboni, the chief executive officer, and I are in the process of hiring 70 foreign correspondents in 53 countries and pulling together a team of Web designers and developers and a support staff of editors and advertising sales force. I am excited about the challenges ahead and sad about the state of the world of newspapers that I left behind.
Leaving the Globe
On that final day at the Globe when I was trying to take in the feel of the newsroom for one last time, it struck me that that rumbling sound of the press rolls hitting the cement of the loading docks seemed different, less weighty and more ominous, like a clap of distant thunder. And in the newspaper industry there are indeed dark clouds on the horizon.
There are far too many goodbye parties in newsrooms like The Boston Globe for employees like me who are taking buyouts, the severance packages offered by management to reduce labor costs amid plummeting ad revenues. Brian McGrory, a friend and the Globe's managing editor for local news, remarked that the rectangular sheet cake sliced and served at these maudlin affairs for the departed are "starting to look like little coffins."
I had one request for my party: no sheet cake. Instead, we gathered at Doyle's, a storied Irish pub in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston where the walls are plastered with black and white photos of the Kennedys and recolored images of Mayor James Curley.
There were a lot of good laughs, mostly at my expense. Editors and reporters gave a spirited roasting of the considerable management challenge I had come to represent and the extravagant expense accounts I had racked up in my years of travel in distant lands. One editor told of how I had hung up on him across several continents. Someone else pointed out that I had expensed a horse in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led attacks after September 11th and once scribbled the word "fixer" on a receipt for several bottles of Jameson's Irish Whiskey at the duty free store in Amman International Airport.
It was all true, or at least most of it. The tales were funny and from the heart, and I felt honored to be there with a group of people who are in the business of telling great stories. And you don't have to be in their company long to realize that they have developed a craft that is never going to die. It has been said, "The truth will never go out of business," and that is why I believe institutions like The Boston Globe will endure.
But the Globe will be in full sail again when it realizes it is not in the business of selling newspapers. Not any more than the great clipper ships of the 19th century were in the business of sailing. The Globe is in the business of delivering truths, or at least trying like hell to, just as clipper ships were in the business of delivering freight.
Embracing the Future
The Globe should be the first news organization to refuse to call itself a newspaper. They are a news forum, and their printed edition is only one product they offer for delivering the valuable commodity of insight and enlightenment on the community of their readership. And killing lots of trees to deliver that information with gas guzzling trucks is getting pretty outdated.
The Internet will be the newer method of delivery, with expanding platforms of video, audio and interactive media. And the bells and whistles of this new technology will be alluring, but the brand that is The Boston Globe is still built on the storytelling. And that should be its core mission: how to tell great stories in the digital age.
What newspapers were intended to be — a community where people come together and take in the news around them — is still very much in demand.
In the sea change that is occurring right now in how we receive information, businesses like the Globe are too saddled with the encumbrances of printing presses, fleets of trucks, an uninspired management that takes bonuses while the bottom line falls, and resistant labor unions unwilling to embrace the future.
Finding the advertising revenue during this time of transition will be a challenge, but not impossible. There will be years of tumult and hard choices, but The Boston Globe and the people who work there, and the community it serves, should realize how important it is that they succeed in making this transition.
They will get there. They just need to get out from under the clouds and look to the horizon to find there are blue skies ahead as long as they get the ship turned in the right direction.
Charles M. Sennott, a 2006 Nieman Fellow, is executive editor, vice president, and cofounder of Global News Enterprises, based in Boston, Massachusetts. Information about the site can be found at www.globalnewsenterprises.com.