From Boston hero to goat, billionaire John Henry takes on Globe challenge

BOSTON Sat Aug 3, 2013 6:18pm EDT

Boston Red Sox owner John Henry (R) with wife Linda Pizzuti arrives for the first session of annual Allen and Co. conference at the Sun Valley, Idaho Resort July 10, 2013. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Boston Red Sox owner John Henry (R) with wife Linda Pizzuti arrives for the first session of annual Allen and Co. conference at the Sun Valley, Idaho Resort July 10, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Rick Wilking

BOSTON (Reuters) - As recently as five years ago, billionaire John Henry, could do no wrong in Boston, but since then the image of the man who agreed to buy the Boston Globe on Saturday has taken a beating.

The principal owner of the city's beloved Boston Red Sox delivered not one, but two World Series championships (2004 and 2008) to a region that had endured an 86-year drought.

He remade the team's Fenway Park, now 101 years old, into a modern venue with sold-out attendance that stretched for years. He has bested the hated New York Yankees and shown marketing genius by using Fenway to host signature events that have nothing to do with baseball, such as having a Bruce Springsteen concert there or attracting some of European soccer's best teams for exhibition matches.

But the 63-year-old Henry, who becomes the largest employer of journalists in Boston with his purchase of the Boston Globe from the New York Times Co, has a somewhat tattered image in a city that once celebrated him as a hero. Some of his problems stem from columnists and reporters who will now call him boss.

He was born in Quincy, Illinois, the son of soybean farmers. He made his fortune trading soybeans and other commodities. One of his innovations was developing an automated way for managing a futures trading account in the late 1970s.

But in recent years, he has been called eccentric and aloof and even distracted by his purchase of England's Liverpool Football Club. Perhaps his greatest sin was allowing the Red Sox last year to slip into last place in their division. The return to the cellar came after a Boston Globe story revealed how some of the team's best pitchers drank beer and ate fried chicken in the clubhouse during one of the worst late-season collapses in Major League Baseball history during the 2011 season.

The bashing of Henry and the Red Sox got so bad in the fall of 2011 that he raced to the studios of a top Boston sports radio show to defend himself and his team. It made for riveting theater as the soft-spoken Henry distanced himself from some of the free-agent signings that led to the team's implosion.

Henry has agreed to buy the Globe newspaper and other properties for $70 million, a song compared to the $1 billion-plus the New York Times Co paid for them about 20 years ago. But like every other daily newspaper in a major American city, the Globe has lost advertising, readers and prestige.

"The first thing to note is that he paid more for his second baseman than for the Globe," said Lou Ureneck, a Boston University journalism professor. The Red Sox last month agreed to pay second baseman Dustin Pedroia at least $100 million over the next several years in a contract extension.

Ureneck, whose work includes a study of newspaper economics for the Nieman Foundation titled "The Business of News," said there was no easy way back for the Globe.

"Advertising - once a reliable source for print media - is a cheap commodity on the Internet," Ureneck said. "Classified advertising is a distant memory, ancient history. Maintaining newspapers - or more importantly the news organizations behind them - is going to be a long and difficult slog, requiring digital products strong enough to attract paying readers."

Boston attorney Robert Bertsche, who has helped the Globe gain access to sealed records, said Henry's rehabilitation of Fenway Park showed he was capable of putting community interests first.

"He's taking on the immense challenge of owning and operating a newspaper in this day and age," Bertsche said. "You have to have the ability to look forward and not look backward and really experiment even if it means putting money behind failed experiment."

In a statement on Saturday, Henry did not give any specifics about what he has planned for the paper. He said more details would emerge in the coming days.

"Financial success requires a strong news report, and a strong news report requires financial success," Ureneck said. "The big marketing challenge is getting readers to see the value in subscribing online. Can John Henry do this? If he can get them to buy expensive beer and peanuts, maybe he can get them to put down a few dollars a month for their local newspaper. There's a lot more at stake here than a ball game."

Bertsche could not agree more. For example, the newspaper blew the lid off a Roman Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal that continues to reverberate around the globe. The paper's reporting staff and management threw a lot of resources at getting impounded court cases unsealed. Those records shed light on how the Catholic Church was sheltering pedophile priests.

As Henry takes a new role as newspaper owner, he does have some good momentum.

After jettisoning the bad chemistry in the Red Sox clubhouse, the team is back on top with two months left in the season. The Red Sox have one of the best records in Major League Baseball.

"The Red Sox are doing pretty well right now. We like John Henry," Bertsche joked.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)