Boston Globe Brings Back Distributor

After a disastrous switchover of home-delivery companies that led to thousands of Boston Globe readers not getting their newspapers for days, the Globe's CEO said Tuesday the paper will reverse course and bring back the company it fired to handle about half its distribution area.

"First and foremost, what I want subscribers to hear is how profoundly sorry we are," Boston Globe CEO Mike Sheehan said in an interview Tuesday afternoon at the Globe's headquarters in Dorchester.

Beyond that, Sheehan said, starting Monday about half the paper’s home-delivery subscribers will get moved back to being served by the old company, Publishers Circulation Fulfillment, that the Globe had terminated as of Dec. 28.

"They will take over the most problematic distribution centers" from ACI, a California-based delivery company the Globe hired to replace PCF. Sheehan said. "It will result in a really rapid return of dependable home delivery," Sheehan added, but would not commit to a specific date. The areas where PCF will resume delivering the paper cover metropolitan Boston down to Plymouth and parts of eastern Essex County and the North Shore.

ACI will continue to handle paper deliveries, Sheehan said, in areas where the transition has gone most smoothly, basically the rest of eastern Massachusetts where the Globe offers home delivery.

For several days after the switchover Dec. 28, thousands of subscribers reported getting no paper or a delivery hours late. Customers like Wes Besser of the West Roxbury section of Boston also struggled to even register a complaint.

"You could never get through on the compute, on the phone, email," Besser said. "What I don't understand is, we saw the movie 'Spotlight,' where they have this huge investigative arm of The Boston Globe, and they couldn't do some investigation into their delivery people?" before dumping PCF for ACI.

"We know we've disappointed our customers, and we'll do our best to make it up to them but we have to get moving fast to do that," Sheehan said, "and we know that."

Both companies use people to deliver the paper they describe as independent contractors, who are paid an amount per newspaper delivered the Globe doesn’t disclose. Sheehan said the Globe's motivation was not to cut pay to any of the contractors, but switch to a service that would yield fewer delivery complaints, fewer cancelled subscriptions, and some cost savings (through reduced overhead and more efficient operations) that could be invested in better journalism.

Speaking of contractor ACI, Sheehan said, "They ran into a unique challenge here, and I think it came down to their routing software that they used for their drivers, which did not work particularly well in this market, and that is the key to success for a distribution company, because the drivers get paid per paper delivered. So if it takes them an hour longer to do a route than it should, then they're not going to stay, and so that's why we saw the erosion last week of deliveries: Drivers just quit, because it took them too long to do it."

Compared to PFC, Sheehan said of ACI, "They pay competitive compensation, but it comes down to efficient routes and how much, how many papers you can deliver in a certain amount of time … ACI has since introduced new routing software that works, and we're seeing improvement already."

Sheehan added that from the perspective of Globe publisher John W. Henry, "When John bought the newspaper, he bought it with one sole purpose, and that is to invest in journalism in Boston. He's not trying to line his pockets, as I've read. He's not looking to get rich off the Globe. He is looking to invest in journalism. And so we look at every corner of this place to work most efficiently with every supplier, every vendor, every partner, and this was an attempt to reduce the cost of delivery ... All the savings that we have here go into the newsroom."

What the fiasco has also underscored to Sheehan and other Globe executives: How many people, even in the smartphone and tablet era, still value getting a printed copy of the newspaper at home, to the point of being willing to pay upwards of $700 a year for home delivery. (The Globe says it has 115,000 subscribers for the daily newspaper and 205,000 for the Sunday. The paper last year bought a building in Taunton for about $20 million and is moving its printing operations there in 2017, including its contracts to print several other newspapers’ editions, and upgrading the presses to full-color and higher-quality output.)

"I like reading the paper when I have coffee in the morning, so it's missing an old friend" when it was not there for several days, said Steve Weiss of Jamaica Plain, one of several readers we interviewed outside the Roche Brothers supermarket in West Roxbury.

Chris Martin of the Waban section of Newton has subscribed for years, and counted herself lucky her deliveries didn’t get disrupted these past two weeks.

"Every morning, the first thing I do is go out to get it and hope it's there," Martin said. She's tried reading online, but said, "I just like the feel of the newspaper, and holding it in my hand."

Media analysts have long said the days of the printed newspaper are numbered and the Globe's destiny is to become an online-only product.

"We learned how important the print edition of The Boston Globe is to people," Sheehan said. "It is for a lot of people their lifeline to the outside world."

And what this outcry means for the day the paper Globe goes extinct and it becomes strictly digital?

"It tells me it's farther off than I would have thought," Sheehan said, "because I think there is an incredible connection between hundreds of thousands of people and the print product ... If we can reduce that [subscription] churn level and we can stabilize and grow circulation, then we're going to be printing for a long, long time."

With videographer Justin Mintzes

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