BOSTON Aug 3 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
"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
"The Red Sox are doing pretty well right now. We like John
Henry," Bertsche joked.