Globe delivery fiasco illustrates challenges of digital era

January 7, 2016
Category: Newsletters

Diary of a Boston Globe subscriber, 2016:

After a week of late and missed deliveries, the paper’s band of midnight-riding staffers provided me with not one but two copies of the Sunday paper.

By Monday morning, though, things were back to the new normal: No Globe awaiting me in the lobby of our apartment building near Coolidge Corner in Brookline, a close-in suburb.

Same story first thing Tuesday – no paper. But before the morning was out, this “new normal” was morphing in ways that suggest important lessons for newspapers still struggling to satisfy shifting consumer demands.

Visiting, I noticed a Twitter feed in the right rail that included an invitation from the Globe’s customer support team to request a paper if none had been delivered. Then I spotted a tweet from a Globe editor offering her help.

Next I saw a tweet from a friend who, thanks to Kingsbury, received Tuesday’s paper in time for his 6 a.m. coffee. Seemed like pretty good deal to me, especially since it involved home delivery courtesy of a Pulitzer winner. So I followed up with Kingsbury and within a few hours had a couple of Globes in my lobby delivered by Ellen Clegg, editor of the paper’s editorial page.

None of this is sustainable, of course. Kingsbury, Clegg and those 200 staffers who delivered papers over the weekend all have day jobs.

But I find the enterprise they demonstrated to be an encouraging response to the “new normal” summed up so well last month by Bill Keller in a brief post for NiemanLab’s year-end predictions.

Keller, the former executive editor of The New York Times who now heads The Marshall Project, argues that the chaotic transition that journalism has been wrestling with is no transition at all. It’s our destination.

“The train,” Keller wrote, “stops here.”

In practical terms, that means viewing the Globe’s efforts to fix its delivery fiasco not simply as an effort to salvage the still-dominant revenue from its legacy print product. Just as importantly, this is a test of the organization’s ability to survive journalism’s new reality.

It turns out that the main challenge for journalists in the digital era is not what we thought it was.

When we launched the Mercury Center at the San Jose Mercury News in 1993, I remember standing in front of various “new media” conferences describing our situation with one of my hands moving up and the other down.

Journalism has begun the transition from analog to digital, I’d explain confidently, with one hand moving down (analog) and the other moving up (digital). All we have to do, I’d add reassuringly, is manage the decline of one while we lead the growth of the other.

Ah, if only it had been so simple.

In fact, the core journalistic challenge of the digital era requires making a business of providing news to people in whatever ways they want it: print, digital, in-person, who knows what else.

That’s because the core customer benefit of the digital era has nothing to do with platforms themselves; it’s all about customers exercising their power to choose exactly how they’ll get their news.

What impressed me most about the dozens of staffers who stayed up all night delivering the Sunday paper was their implicit recognition of that power shift: As attractive as the Globe’s digital offerings may be at this point, more than two decades into the digital era, some 205,000 households still want to pay for a print edition delivered to their doorsteps on Sunday.

The newsroom’s response of shoe leather oiled with Twitter gives me hope for its capacity to survive the chaos that still surely awaits.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Jeffrey Seglin, a lecturer of public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, contacted the Globe seeking copies of the newspaper. In fact, a Globe staffer delivered the newspaper without prompting.