For Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory, newspapers, laptops, and phones are all just distribution platforms—the journalism is still what matters the most

For Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory, newspapers, laptops, and phones are all just distribution platforms—the journalism is still what matters the most

Brian McGrory, who has been a White House correspondent, columnist, and a deputy managing editor during his 25 years at The Boston Globe, has been editor of the paper since 2012. The following year The New York Times sold the Globe to John Henry, principal owner of the Red Sox, who named himself publisher. After speaking with the current class of fellows, McGrory sat down with Nieman Reports to discuss The Globe’s strategy on verticals, using metrics in the newsroom, and the inevitable transition to digital. Edited excerpts:

The Boston Globe has experimented with verticals like Crux, covering the Catholic Church, and BetaBoston, covering innovation in the city. Could you explain a bit how those fit into the editorial and commercial strategy of the Globe?

Brian McGrory: We began with the innovation vertical, BetaBoston. We’re off to a good start with that, but we think we can do even better, so we’ll be rebooting that soon. We think it’s covering some things really, really well with a really strong group of reporters but we want to add depth and breadth to that. We’re also really happy with Crux, covering the Catholic Church, nationally and internationally. We’ve hired six or seven people to do that. We’ve got a Vatican reporter, a national Catholicism reporter, a spirituality columnist. We’ve hired John Allen, who I think is the best Vatican reporter in the world. We think that these verticals are absolutely necessary. They’re not just experiments; they represent something of the future of this industry.

In my view, the verticals that work best are the ones where Boston is prominent in the country and in the world. Life sciences immediately comes to mind. I think we’re the national capital for life sciences, so it makes every bit of sense that the Globe would launch and lead a life sciences vertical. The other two areas that Boston is very well known for at the moment are innovation and higher education; innovation is BetaBoston, and higher education is something we’ll look at in the future. We think there is great, great journalism to be done on these verticals. If done right, some of that journalism can also feed into The Boston Globe and make it an even better newspaper. But the point of the verticals will be to stand alone, independent of the Globe.

Can you talk about the Globe’s experience with paywall and meter models at and And how do metrics inform your coverage?

In terms of the paywall meter model, we think it’s actually going really well. It’s far beyond experimentation; it’s part of our business strategy right now. We have more paid, digital-only subscribers than any other major metropolitan paper in the country. We’re adding more every week now that we’ve moved to a pay meter. In terms of how we let metrics inform what we do in the newsroom, we suddenly have at the Globe—and at every other paper in the country—this incredible stash of valuable information as to what people are reading everyday, how long they’re reading it, when they’re on our sites, how they arrive to our sites, when they leave our sites. We’re letting that inform how we go about our social media strategy, when we push on Facebook, what we push on Twitter, how we use Reddit. We let it inform. We don’t let it dictate the news that we cover, but we’d crazy not to take notice of what it is people are reading and why.

Could you talk about the transition away from print? Is there a time when it would be a small portion of the mix, or that the print frequency would be reduced?

Print is, right now, an overwhelmingly important part of the mix. Well over three-quarters of our revenue comes in through the print paper. As tempting as it is to go to a digital-only world right now, it’s not financially viable. For the near future, print will matter, and matter deeply, because of the revenue it brings in. But I think I share the same belief that most of the members of the Globe newsroom do: Whether it’s print or digital, whether it’s a laptop or desktop, or an iPhone or an iPad, that’s just the distribution. What matters most is the journalism that we do, and whether people choose to read us in print or online, that’s their choice. We just want to provide the best journalism possible where they’re seeing it.

Something unique about The Globe is the way it brings together the regional identity of New England. How does that enter your thinking about the paper?

I think that Boston feels an identity in New England. We’re a unique corner of America, and I don’t think there are a lot of other places that have this. Maybe Seattle does in the Northwest; maybe San Francisco does in central to northern California. But we are an unusual little corner of America that tends to think as a region rather than as a set of independent little states. I was metro editor from 2007 to 2009, and I really tried to make our New England coverage pop. Because I think that if you’re in Boston, the metropolis, you do want to know what’s going on in Maine or Vermont. Not necessarily Rhode Island as much, but maybe. [Laughter] But the interesting part is, we’d be crazy not to look at what’s going on at the newspapers that have been the cornerstones of the locations that you’re talking about. New Hampshire’s journalism has been savaged. The Providence Journal was for decades a phenomenal newspaper, and they have really suffered with cuts. So we are looking at these areas not just as interesting places to cover, but it’s also as interesting places to draw readership. This is still in play. No, we don’t have a New England section any more, but we tend to put a not insignificant amount of resources into our New England coverage.

How has the job of editor changed?
[Laughs] Well, I’ve only had it for a year and nine months now—not that I’m counting. I think it’s changed dramatically over the past 10 to 20 years. It used to be the main job of the editor was to put out a really great newspaper everyday and to oversee the journalism that went into that newspaper. That’s certainly one of the key components of the job now, but there’s another really key component. That is to help figure out, with the rest of the journalists on the staff and the front office, what the future of this business is and how to calibrate the great transition from print to, ultimately, digital. That’s something that I think about and dedicate a lot of my time to every single day. I think that part has changed significantly.

Nieman Reports interviewed McGrory about the Globe’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing as a part of its Spring 2013 issue

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