In new model for media, Globe signs subscription and events deal with Biogen

The panelists include Health Care Without Harm director Eugenia Gibbons, Environmental League of Massachusetts president Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, Ceres CEO Mindy Lubber, Dr. Aaron Bernstein of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston Medical Center CEO Kate Walsh, and state Environmental Affairs Secretary Katie Theoharides. Governor Charlie Baker is providing opening remarks.

The event is aimed at Biogen employees but is open to anyone who preregisters. It follows Biogen’s announcement this week of a $250 million, 20-year initiative to eliminate fossil fuel use across its operations, and to collaborate with institutions such as Harvard and MIT to mitigate the impact of climate change on public health.

“By providing our employees with digital subscriptions to The Boston Globe and partnering on developing compelling virtual seminars on topics such as climate change and health, we can help support education and discourse about life-saving issues for the Massachusetts community and beyond,” Biogen spokesman David Caouette said in an e-mail. “We believe the urgency of the climate and air pollution crisis and its effect on human health requires action and leadership and we are committed to doing our part.”

Biogen’s one-year deal with the Globe was signed in April, and was in the works before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Boston, according to Kayvan Salmanpour, chief commercial officer at the Globe. He said it is the first time the Globe has signed such a deal. He is starting to pitch the concept, called a “company membership program,” to other major businesses in the area as a benefit to offer their employees, and is hoping the partnership with Biogen can be a catalyst for similar deals.

“It’s like Amazon Prime,” Salmanpour said. “Your company becomes a member of the media company. … It’s an HR tool and it’s an employee engagement tool.” He stressed that members will have no influence over the Globe’s editorial decisions.

Salmanpour noted that Biogen executives have said they have found the comprehensiveness of the newspaper’s COVID-19 coverage to be of particular importance for their employees. He hopes to offer other features to companies that participate in the program, including free access to Globe-affiliated events such as those at HubWeek, once in-person events resume in Boston.

He declined to disclose how much Biogen is paying for its local employees to subscribe, other than to say it’s a “six-figure deal.” The Biogen deal does not include a subscription to STAT, the life sciences news organization affiliated with the Globe.

The program reflects a broader trend among daily newspapers toward relying more heavily on subscriber revenue and less on traditional ad sales. The shift was already well underway before the pandemic, amid a decline in print ad revenue for the industry that began about 15 years ago. But the dependence on subscribers has become more pronounced because of the pandemic, particularly as advertising has plunged in key categories such as travel and restaurants.

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, said these types of bulk corporate sales of subscriptions are unusual among metro papers in the United States.

“I have not seen that at other American newspapers in the current crisis,” Edmonds said in an e-mail. “However, the practice has not been uncommon abroad, especially for business papers like The Financial Times. Of course, organizations like the Globe and many others can use the help. As with potential federal assistance, though, [the] potential conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict needs to be considered.”

Jon Chesto can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.

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