RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In just a matter of days, we've learned about two billionaire entrepreneurs buying major U.S. newspapers. There was the surprise announcement that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is buying the Washington Post, and over the weekend, the news that the Boston Globe will be sold to the owner of the Boston Red Sox. NPR's Chris Arnold has a profile.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: If you want evidence of the desperate shape that local newspapers are in, just look at the price that John Henry is paying for the Boston Globe. Twenty years ago, the New York Times Company paid $1.1 billion for the Globe. The price tag today is off by more than 90 percent.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Seventy million bucks. The Boston Globe is confirming the news Red Sox owner John Henry will buy the paper.
ARNOLD: John Henry is a slender, soft-spoken billionaire, and the Globe may be fortunate, because he's got a track record of spinning straw into gold - or in his case, soybeans into gold. Henry grew up on a farm in Illinois. He went off to college, became a philosophy major, was playing in a rock band and traveling around. He never actually finished college. But then when Henry was 25, his father died, and he moved back to run the family farm. The thing is, he wasn't that interested in being a farmer, but Henry was really good with numbers. At one point, he got banned from Las Vegas blackjack tables for counting cards. And back on the farm, he started playing around with the way to predict the probable future prices of soybeans and corn. And it worked.
SETH MNOOKIN: He made his fortune in commodities.
ARNOLD: That's Seth Mnookin. He's an assistant professor at MIT who wrote a book about the Red Sox called "Feeding the Monster" in 2006. And he spent a year traveling with the team and its owner, John Henry.
MNOOKIN: A lot of very rich guys buy sports teams and assume that they know what they're doing, and either screw it up enormously, or just sort of keep it as a vanity acquisition.
ARNOLD: But Mnookin says John Henry and his partners did something way more interesting: Henry became a billionaire trading commodities because he used statistics in a new way, and that enabled him to predict things better. And that's essentially what he did with the Red Sox. Henry was part of a movement in baseball that used a bunch of new metrics to try to predict which players were undervalued and who really helped their teams to win. And - at least in 2004 - it apparently worked.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...by Faulk, he has it. He underhands to first, and the Boston Red Sox are the world champions for the first time in 86 years.
ARNOLD: And there may be a parallel here for newspapers. The Internet has all but destroyed their business model by stealing classified ad revenue. Many people think that newspapers are dinosaurs now, unable to survive in this new environment. When John Henry bought the Red Sox, that's the same thing a lot of experts were saying about Fenway Park, the great, old, historic Boston ballpark.
MNOOKIN: Everyone was saying that there's no way a modern baseball team could continue in Fenway Park. You know, it didn't have the luxury boxes. You couldn't expand it, and so it was always going to be a very small park.
ARNOLD: But John Henry and his partners saved Fenway from the wrecking ball by boosting revenue. They fit more advertising in, and they found creative ways to add more seats and sell tickets. Of course, innovative ways to make money are exactly what struggling newspapers need. And, at least with the Red Sox, Henry doesn't want to appear to want to maximize profit above all else. In February, in a TV interview, John Henry was asked if he and co-owner Tom Werner were looking to cash out and sell the team.
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JOHN HENRY: Tom and I have made a lot of money over the years, so that doesn't drive us. But the quality of our lives is what drives us, and our competitive spirit, and we're determined to be successful.
ARNOLD: Henry is also trying to be successful in other ventures. In recent years, he bought an English soccer team, a NASCAR team. He founded a car racing video game company, and now newspapers. This week, John Henry walked through the Boston Globe's newsroom and went desk by desk, talking to many of the reporters and other staff, asking questions. The Globe's top editor said that Henry told him he wants to boost revenue, not slash costs. And he said that he wasn't interested in trying to influence the news, including the baseball coverage. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.