Bringing an ad man’s optimism to the cynical world of journalism, the Boston Globe’s new CEO sees bright days ahead.
FOR SOMEONE RUNNING what many consider a dead-end business, Mike Sheehan is incredibly optimistic. The former Hill Holliday ad executive, who took over as the Boston Globe’s first-ever CEO in January, believes the newspaper can invest more in its journalism and come out ahead financially. He laid out his sunny philosophy at the unveiling of the Globe’s new political section in June at the Paramount Theatre in Boston. “You cannot cut your way to success,” he said. “You can only invest your way to success.”
Aaron Kushner followed a similar approach when he bought the Orange County Register, but he now finds himself scaling back his expansion ventures and laying off employees at the California paper. Most newspapers around the country are in the same boat. Sheehan thinks the Globe can buck the tide. He acknowledges the serious challenges ahead for the newspaper, but he embraces his optimism. He says the paper is profitable now and will become more profitable as time goes by.for someone running what many consider a dead-end business, Mike Sheehan is incredibly optimistic. The former Hill Holliday ad executive, who took over as the Boston Globe’s first-ever CEO in January, believes the newspaper can invest more in its journalism and come out ahead financially. He laid out his sunny philosophy at the unveiling of the Globe’s new political section in June at the Paramount Theatre in Boston. “You cannot cut your way to success,” he said. “You can only invest your way to success.”
John Henry, the billionaire owner of the Red Sox, the Liverpool Football Club, and Roush Fenway Racing, paid $70 million in cash last October for the Globe, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and affiliated properties. The 53-year-old Sheehan was brought aboard in January, initially as a consultant and quickly promoted to CEO. He and Henry are something of an odd couple. Henry seems shy and quirky, someone who’s content to stay out of the limelight. Sheehan, with his white hair and 6 foot 5 frame, is outgoing and comfortable in his role as the public face of the Globe’s business team. Sheehan and Brian McGrory, the Globe’s editor, both grew up in Weymouth, played CYO basketball together, and became almost family later in life, as McGrory’s mom and Sheehan’s uncle became romantically involved after their spouses passed away.
Sheehan’s resume is well suited for his current position. He says he was the sports editor of the Weymouth News at 15. He attended the US Naval Academy for a semester, shifted to Northeastern, and ended up somewhat by happenstance graduating from Saint Anselm College, a Catholic school in Manchester, New Hampshire. He says he rode along with a friend who was visiting the school and on a lark filled out an application. He ended up being admitted and later served 10 years on the board of trustees, four of them as chairman. All through college he worked weekends in the Globe’s library.
The Henry-owned Globe is moving rapidly to improve the news product, streamline operations, and launch new ventures. Henry unloaded the Telegram & Gazette in May to a Florida company. He is now trying to sell the Globe’s Morrissey Boulevard property and has plans to move the printing operations to a facility in Millbury and the newsroom to a downtown Boston location. Four new reporters have been hired. Along with the new weekly section on politics, the Globe has revamped its real estate section, beefed up its Beta Boston tech site, and assigned a reporter to the travel section. A new website devoted to the pope and Catholicism is in the works and a TV venture is under development.
The gloom and doom that pervaded the Globe newsroom for the last five years are gone and Sheehan would like to keep it that way. He says optimism is important to the success of the newspaper, which is important to Boston and the region as a whole. “Outside of government, I don’t think there’s anything more important to a city than its newspaper,” he says.
I interviewed Sheehan in the Globe’s boardroom. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
– BRUCE MOHL
COMMONWEALTH: Were you close friends with John Henry before you took this job?
SHEEHAN: I had never met him before. I got an email from him back in December, asking if I wanted to have breakfast.
CW: How did he come to contact you?
CW: Where did you and Henry have breakfast?
SHEEHAN: At the Mandarin Oriental.
CW: Was he just feeling you out, or did he immediately ask you to start working for the Globe?
SHEEHAN: He’s all business. And it was interesting because it’s certainly nothing I would have ever considered. You kind of watch from afar the whole process of people buying the Globe over a 10-year period. This was an epic drama, with ins and outs, fits and starts, threats. So you couldn’t help but watch it. I had friends inside the building, so I certainly cared about them as well. The two things that I wanted to check, No.1, did he buy the Globe as a trophy? And the other question was: Did he buy it with romantic notions of what newspapers used to be in the belief that he was going to be the one to bring them back to that golden era? And I knew within five minutes that neither of those were even remotely his motivation. I knew right away he bought this paper for every right reason. First of all, he was incredibly articulate and knowledgeable about where the business had to go and where it was going. He’s a student of media, and he had all the right motivations. He understands the importance of institutions to a city. There’s a certain sense of civic responsibility or, what’s the right word, civic duty? He knows the Globe is an important institution in the city.
CW: Did he contact you initially with an email in the middle of the night?
SHEEHAN: I don’t remember. You’re the second reporter that’s asked me about that. I also send emails at 2 in the morning when I wake up, but when I do it I’m not eccentric. I am probably his equal at sending emails between 1 and 4 in the morning. That’s when I’m up.
CW: Do you have a romantic notion of newspapers?
SHEEHAN: No, I worked here from 1978 to 1981. Those were glorious days for newspapers. The Boston Globe in New England was a utility. Every home got gas, electricity, water, and the Globe delivered every day. You could set your price for advertising. Now it’s a lot more fun because the Globe’s a business and there’s real competition and people don’t have to get it. So now you’ve got to earn the right to be on everyone’s doorstep every day. And that’s what makes it fun.
CW: What did you say at the meeting with Henry?
SHEEHAN: I had some ideas about advertising, some areas they could really get more aggressive in and get better at. And then we met for dinner the next Friday at Mistral. We talked about the business and what he was seeing. He said why don’t you come over and consult. I had so much on my schedule for January and February that it only made sense to do that. It’s funny. I planned to spend two days a week in here but it became five days a week right away.
CW: Why did your time here expand so rapidly?
SHEEHAN: Because there’s so much opportunity.
CW: What do you mean?
SHEEHAN: There’s so much here to leverage that hadn’t been leveraged. We have 170,000 subscribers on weekdays, 300,000 with pass-through [to family members and others]. Their household income is over $130,000 a year. The reason they’re reading great journalism is because they’re engaged in the community. So these people are more likely to go to movies, to buy stuff, to go places, to travel. They’re going to be better employees. But the No. 1 opportunity is to be here at a time when the ownership issue is finally settled. And the owner’s local. That’s a real important dynamic. I’m not being critical of the New York Times at all, but there is something fundamentally different about remote ownership by a publicly traded company that’s not based here versus privately held ownership based in Boston. There’s no comparison.
CW: What is that difference?
SHEEHAN: Once you reach a decision, you go. You also don’t have to disclose everything you do. You can experiment without having to be public about it. You don’t have to make decisions based on what the quarterly numbers are going to be. We can make long-term, prudent decisions here.
CW: What did you do when you first arrived at the Globe as a consultant?
SHEEHAN: I got to know the team. I stuck my office in the back of the ad sales department, so I got to know how people worked. It kind of helped, because my background is advertising. I focused on how we could become more relevant to advertisers and how do we tell our story better to advertisers. They had been working on a new Sunday real estate section called Address. It’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. We started working right away on a section called Capital. You know I’ve always thought we have a great sports section, but the other sport in Boston is politics, and it’s time we had a weekly sports section for politics. As an advertising space, if you’re a campaign, a referendum question, a casino, or you advocate on Beacon Hill, this is going to be a great place for you to reach influential people every Friday. These are ideas you bring to John Henry and they’re approved in five minutes.
CW: Are you the Globe’s first CEO?
SHEEHAN: I think so. I’m in charge of the day-to-day oversight of the company. I know how to run a business, maintaining a constant eye on profitability, sustainability, and viability, but also bringing ideas for the future to the business. My background in the agency business was through the creative side, so I have just an inherent belief that the better the creative product, or content, the bigger the audience. And the bigger the audience, the more appealing it is to advertisers and then you generate more revenue. And then you take that money and pour it back into the content, pour it back into the newsroom. That’s the only way it works.
CW: It’s hard to believe, since the Globe has been shrinking for a long time.
SHEEHAN: A 360-person newsroom is still a very solid-size staff. It certainly covers less outside the region, but I think people buy the Globe for information about Boston. The trust that the public has in the Globe’s journalism is important. It’s the core. What we have to do is invest in the newsroom to do more, to go deeper.
CW: You’re obviously a big fan of Brian McGrory.
SHEEHAN: He was put on the face of the earth to be the editor-in-chief of the Boston Globe. This is his destiny. He’s in the third inning of what he’s going to do here. There was a quote when I went to the Naval Academy. There are two types of leaders: those you would follow into fire and those you would push into fire. The newsroom would follow Brian into fire. That’s what you need, because we’re walking into fire.
CW: Everyone I talk to at the Globe seems fairly optimistic, as if they’ve cleared a major hurdle. Is that because John Henry is putting money into the paper?
SHEEHAN: We’re doing better financially. Our revenue is well ahead of plan for the first six months of the year, which allows us to release the pressure valve. I’m responsible for helping to create a culture. Pessimism and optimism are self-fulfilling prophecies. If you have a culture of pessimism, I can tell you how that book ends, and it’s not going to end well. If you can develop a culture of optimism, of people just believing, that can be really important.
CW: What is creating that optimism?
SHEEHAN: It starts with a company doing better than its forecast.
CW: Was that forecast optimistic or conservative?
SHEEHAN: It’s a forecast that was realistic and based on the industry, and we’re way ahead of the industry. When an organism is growing-and we can get there very soon-everything’s good. When an organism is shrinking, everything sucks. I sound like Chauncey Gardiner in Being There.
CW: Is being in line with the industry good enough?
SHEEHAN: It’s not good enough for me. From Day One, I said that’s unacceptable. We’re better than that. We’re in a better market. We’re going to get the swagger back and do much better than that. If they’re predicting a decline in the industry, my goal is to be even, and then grow next year, and we can do that.
CW: What does growing mean?
SHEEHAN: We added 2,000 home delivery subscribers last week. I don’t know why yet, but we’re working on that. The first quarter, we were one of the top performers in the ad revenue space in the country among major metro dailies. John brings a business sensibility to this place and when you start performing better financially, people can sense it. If there is money to invest, you start doing new sections, taking risks.
CW: What accounts for this turnaround you’re describing?
SHEEHAN: It’s probably a hierarchy of change that begins with local ownership and I think leadership across the board. You can’t describe what it’s like with distant ownership but it makes a difference.
CW: Did Henry give you an ownership stake in the newspaper?
SHEEHAN: No, John owns 100 percent.
CW: Is he putting money into the paper?
SHEEHAN: He bought it and it’s profitable. The Boston Globe is a profitable enterprise. I think it can be more profitable, but it’s a profitable enterprise. Look, we’re not going to run this like a hedge fund trying to raise crazy EBITDA. You could do that. You could cut. John’s objective is to make the Globe sustainable, to come up with a model that makes it sustainable forever. The better we do on the revenue side, the more we’re going to pump into the content side.
CW: You’re here every day. Is John Henry here every day?
SHEEHAN: No, but he’s here, certainly regularly. Regularly is the wrong term. Irregularly but consistently.
CW: And you trade emails in the middle of the night?
CW: Linda Pizzuti, John Henry’s wife, is listed on the paper’s masthead as the managing director. What does she do?
SHEEHAN: Linda’s here when John’s here and when he’s not here. She’s taken on some special projects. She’s certainly involved in the real estate move because she’s got a lot of expertise in that area. There’s different initiatives that are important to her. She’s terrific to work with. She’s great.
CW: As CEO, can you summarize the challenge facing the Globe?
SHEEHAN: The opportunity I see is to take the Globe, as a pillar of olde Boston, and the old has an “e” at the end of it, and make it a catalyst of a new community. It’s not something where we strictly report what’s going on here, but we become an active participant in helping Boston become a new Boston. That’s things like Beta Boston, like hiring John Allen [who writes about the Catholic Church]. Becoming a catalyst for the new Boston, that’s where the opportunity is.
CW: I thought you were going to answer that question by talking about finances and economic challenges.
SHEEHAN: Don’t forget I came from the creative side. That’s how we build our audience. That’s how we connect with millions of people.
CW: And that audience will pay to get the content and advertise?
SHEEHAN: I think so, but we have to figure that out. I view it like coffee. I worked on the Dunkin’ account all those years, right? Dunkin’ is a morning ritual. And part of that is because caffeine is addictive. I believe, and I’ll go to my grave believing, that great journalism is addictive. If you feed people enough and regularly, they’ll keep coming back for more.
CW: How do you personally read the Globe?
SHEEHAN: I read the e-reader on my 30-inch Apple monitor. I love the e-reader.
CW: I’ve heard some negative rumblings about the Boston.com redesign. How’s that going?
SHEEHAN: It may be an age thing, which is not unintentional. I think Boston.com is going to have a little more edge to it. It’ll be quicker, breezier. It’s going to refresh every five minutes. We’ll take stuff from the BBJ and refer people to the BBJ to see it, but we’ll often refer people to the Globe. Back to my nutrition analogy, for snacking, Boston.com is great five times a day, 10 times a day, 20 times a day. But it should lead you to the Globe where you go for nutrition. That’s where you go for your meals, but you’ve got to pay for it. You’ve got to pay for journalism.
CW: And the metered approach at BostonGlobe.com, how’s that working?
SHEEHAN: That’s starting to work. That’s starting to get some traction, as far as subscriptions go. As a reformed creative person, I was deeply offended that the Globe used to give away its product. It offended me and I didn’t even work here. Newspapers giving away their product, it was just a bad idea from the start. You’ve got to pay for journalism.
CW: Coming in today, there was a group outside the building scoping out what would go where when they buy the property. How’s the sale coming along?
SHEEHAN: The interest has been overwhelming. It’s a pretty unique site in Boston. It’s a building that was built for the way media properties operated in 1958. It’s not efficient today. When I want to go see Brian, I need to put on my running shoes.
CW: Once you sell the property, the word is you’re going to move the offices downtown and shift the printing operation to a Millbury printing plant acquired in the Telegram & Gazette purchase. Is that right? [In addition to printing the Globe, the Globe also prints the Boston Herald, the Telegram & Gazette, the Patriot Ledger, Brockton Enterprise, and the northeast edition of the New York Times.]
SHEEHAN: That’s a very high likelihood. There will be a plan to have a transition where we would expand Millbury for printing. It could mean buying a used press and ultimately moving this stuff out there. There’s a high likelihood that we’d keep distribution and inserting in Boston. So a truck would bring the papers from Millbury here and then the papers would be put on trucks and sent out for distribution. There would be a plan where we wouldn’t miss a beat, but it’s not an inexpensive capital expenditure to do that.
CW: What’s the timetable on this?
SHEEHAN: The high concept is we sell to someone who leases it back to us for three years while we figure out what to do. Most people like that three-year leaseback until they figure out what they’re going to do. It’s a perfect site for mixed use, for an urban Legacy Place, like in Dedham.
CW: Where do you want the Globe newsroom to be located?
SHEEHAN: I want the Globe to be closer to Boston.
CW: Aren’t you close now?
SHEEHAN: Not really, we’re close to Quincy. I’d love to be in the Seaport area. If we were within walking distance of South Station, that would be ideal.
CW: Is Linda Pizzuti handling the sale?
SHEEHAN: We have a team of people working on it and she’s part of the team. She knows her stuff.
CW: Do you plan to build or lease space for the new newsroom?
SHEEHAN: We’re not sure, but it’s an unbelievable opportunity. To have the opportunity to redefine the brand and the culture and to work with a great space planner to do that would be transformational. I’d love to have digital signage outside the building that says what we do, that has headlines on it.
CW: The Globe’s former editor, Marty Baron, used to talk about leveraging the Globe news staff to offer news and entertainment on TV and radio. Is that what John Henry was talking about when he said he wanted to launch a Boston Globe TV station? What’s the concept?
SHEEHAN: We’re working on it. Marty said it absolutely correctly. The newsroom, I would say, is the best newsroom, the richest newsroom, in the region. People are looking for journalism and I don’t think they’re finding a whole lot of it on television. Look at where the local news has gone in the past 15 years. I think there’s space for having access to the Globe newsroom on television. We’re looking at that right now, how do we do that, how do we create a property and who do we partner with on that. We’re not going to start a Globe channel. But there are people we could partner with.
CW: Who’s leading that effort?
SHEEHAN: John, Andrew Perlmutter, executive vice president], Brian, me. We talk about it all the time. Brian is engaged in absolutely every initiative here. He is a business savvy editor. He’s got good business instincts.
CW: John Henry said he wanted to sell the Telegram & Gazette to a local owner, but that didn’t work out. Was that your decision?
SHEEHAN: No, that was John Henry. From my perspective, and I’m not speaking for John at all, I don’t see the Telegram & Gazette as being a strategic asset of the Globe. There was no local bidder, so what can you do?… It was certainly a very prudent business decision.
CW: There’s been a lot of talk about launching a stand-alone website devoted to the new pope and the Catholic Church. Is there really an audience for that?
SHEEHAN: Don’t think of this site as the place you go to buy statues you bury in the backyard. It’s going to be news and analysis of all things Catholic. It will be a website with contributions that will also be in the paper. You have a pope who is all about social inequality, social justice, feeding the poor. John Allen is the foremost middle-of-the-road journalist writing about what’s going on in the Vatican, what the pope’s doing, where he’s going, what it means. So for news and analysis, there’s no one in the world better informed than John Allen. Given the fact that there are so many Catholics here-Scituate has the highest per capita number of Roman Catholics of any zip code in the country, although the Globe does not do particularly well there-there is an audience to find out what’s going on. Being a Catholic, you’re obligated to go to Sunday Mass. Attendance is 14 percent in the Archdiocese of Boston, but there is a renewed interest in what’s going on in the Catholic Church. So there’s a real opportunity for us to do well with this. I look every day at what is being read digitally, and whatever John Allen writes is always in the top five, which means it’s relevant to people here but also people from around the country are coming in to read it, too.
CW: You can build a website around that?
SHEEHAN: Yes. It will have a global audience. There’s a natural audience for it.
CW: What’s the timetable for that?
CW: How much time are you spending meeting advertisers?
SHEEHAN: I usually lunch with an advertiser. I can meet with someone for an hour but every meeting goes two hours. Every advertiser wants to know what’s going on at the Globe. It’s of intense interest. Those advertisers that are of the community, they want the Globe to succeed. They need the Globe to succeed. But the Globe’s not going to succeed because advertisers want it. We’re going to succeed only if we deliver an audience that advertisers want.
CW: Hill Holliday used to do all those Globe ad jingles. Do you think we’ll ever see the Globe advertising like that again?
CW: What do you think the jingle would be?
SHEEHAN: I don’t know. Pillar of olde Boston.
CW: Will you share with the public how the Globe is doing financially?
SHEEHAN: No. We’re wonderfully private. Being private is just great. You can make decisions and say this is going to pay off two years from now but let’s do it. You can’t do that with a public company. We’re going to experiment with a lot of things and we’re going to talk about those things that succeed. What’s that look? What are you questioning?
CW: There’s so few details.SHEEHAN: It’s your job. When I was spending nights in the Ledger newsroom and days at the ad agency, people would ask me what’s the difference. I’d say as a journalist you’re paid to be cynical. The best reporters are really cynical. I’m a really optimistic person so I found the agency to be much better suited for me. At an ad agency, you’re paid to be optimistic, to believe. If we can get a little bit of belief into the cynicism of the newsroom, this place will take off.