The Paper Lion

By James Burnett | Boston Magazine |

Every weekday at 3 o'clock, Ken Chandler, the top editor at the Boston Herald, sits down with his deputies to plot the contents of the next day's edition. His team resembles those at dailies everywhere, the men in proudly unfashionable ties, the women in dowdy turtlenecks and sweaters. The conference room they crowd into just off the paper's gloriously cluttered South End newsroom is decorated in standard media chic, with a bank of TVs resting atop jerry-built shelving and three forlorn maps hanging on the opposite wall. What distinguishes this outfit is the philosophy it applies to the task at hand. Most papers serve the news the old-fashioned way, soberly and in order of significance. Under Chandler's direction, the Herald assembles its pages according to a more subjective formula, valuing articles principally for their potential to sell copies and enlivening them whenever possible with jokey headlines, so that a piece about a Harvard study on alternative medicine, for instance, ends up on page 2 tagged “Take 2 soy & call me in the a.m.”

As the Herald 's editors lay out that story, they also weigh, with equal earnestness, where to put write-ups about a high-speed car chase in Roxbury and an Everett memorabilia dealer who acquired a ticket stub from the first game played at Fenway (pages 4 and 7, respectively). There's the E! network's plan to air re-creations of the Michael Jackson trial to consider (page 8), as well as the Bush administration's official acknowledgment of its failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (a brief on 26, just after the horoscopes). Leaning back in his chair, Chandler takes this all in thoughtfully. When an editor brings up an item about a bar fight involving the reigning Playboy Playmate of the Year, he whispers in his British accent, “Can't make this stuff up, can you?”

The story about the Playmate — she'd been accused of karate kicking the ex-girlfriend of her paramour at a dance club called Tramp — combines several topics Chandler loves: celebrity, scandal, silliness, a whiff of sex. As a bonus, it can be accompanied by a full-body portrait of the comely protagonist: “Ken says, 'If you print a picture of a female star, make sure you use the entire photo and leave in her feet,'” notes Laura Raposa, half of the paper's notorious Inside Track duo, “because women love to look at shoes.” Chandler also likes stories that have heroes, be they police officers, soldiers, swashbuckling corporate leaders, or blue-collar workers who have rescued fellow everymen from calamity. He believes health risks, scientific oddities, and sports triumphs make especially compelling copy, as do political snafus like the leaks in the Big Dig tunnels.

All of these preferences have been prominently displayed in the tabloid since Chandler was hired as a consultant two years ago. At first, he shared power — awkwardly — with editor Andy Costello and managing editor Andy Gully, hard-nosed newsmen who had been producing a much more buttoned-down paper. After the pair resigned under pressure last year, upsetting many Herald veterans, Chandler and his new number two, Kevin Convey, were freed to pursue a bolder, if less visible, change. Chandler now makes it clear that while he's in charge, the Herald will no longer combat the Globe head-to-head. “I thought we couldn't go on doing what we were doing in the past, which was being a mini- Globe, competing with them on their terms,” Chandler says. “If we were a broadcaster, we'd be talking about counterprogramming.”

It's a risky strategy, considering conventional wisdom holds that newspaper wars are zero-sum games. But with the Globe outmuscling the Herald in newsgathering strength — and the Globe' s parent, the New York Times Company, looking to invest in the freebie Boston Metro — that course may also be the Herald' s only option. As a publication that relies primarily on newsstand sales to bring in readers, it has no choice but to try to convince prospective customers that they'll get a take on the city not available anywhere else.

For Chandler's plan to succeed, he must first pull off a tricky task: He has to convince the grizzled journalists he inherited to function less like righteous Woodwards and Bernsteins and more like freewheeling disciples of Walter Winchell. He has to get them to view their jobs as un-seriously as he does.

When the Herald last reinvented itself, by introducing color and betting heavily on breaking news in 1998, the changes were brought about partly with the help of the respected Poynter Institute media think tank. But while it had a more modern feel, the overhauled paper failed to halt a circulation slide that cost the Herald 80,000 readers — a 25 percent decline — in 10 years. The research that went into the current makeover, by contrast, was far more cursory. It consisted pretty much of owner Pat Purcell checking to see whether his longtime friend Chandler was available to come to Boston.

Based on appearance alone, he was a peculiar choice. Chandler wears his smartly fitting suits with the kind of French-cuffed, broad-collared shirts long fashionable among his fellow Brits and now in vogue with American men hoping to affect a British air. Thatches of white hair near his temples frame an oblong face that droops a bit about the mouth. Barbara Hoffman, a former colleague at the New York Post, remembers him as “an affable sea captain.” She didn't specify of what type of boat, but it was more likely a luxury yacht than a scallop trawler.

Chandler gives the appearance, in other words, of a journalist who should look down on tabloids like the Herald. That he doesn't owes to his introduction to the trade in England, where he dropped out of high school to take a job covering the cops and courts for his local weekly. When he was 26, he landed at the Sun, one of his native country's hypercompetitive national tabloids. The lessons Chandler learned there were as much about salesmanship as story structure. “The thing with Ken, he's not a journalist in the sense that most American newspaper people think of themselves,” says an ex-colleague. “He takes the view that this is a business, and you need to do what you need to do to make it work as a business. This isn't a divine calling from God.”

In 1974, Chandler moved to New York to join Rupert Murdoch's Star magazine. He jumped to the Post four years later in a midlevel position, rose quickly to managing editor, then in 1986 was tapped to become editor of the Herald, a perch he held until 1992. According to a former employee, the mandate Chandler issued during that first tour in Boston was “to beat the Globe, to cause pain on Morrissey Boulevard.” The paper he produced was as different from the brash, bawdy Herald Chandler is putting out now as Picasso's Blue Period was from his cubist years. “You could say there's a lack of principle there,” says Chandler's ex-colleague. “But I don't think he'd apologize for that: 'We're here to sell newspapers, or people won't have jobs.'”

Chandler cribbed his new blueprint for the Herald from the one he developed during nine years as editor in chief and then publisher of the Post, where he helped goose daily circulation by nearly 200,000 copies. Partly, that was achieved by halving the paper's newsstand price from 50 cents to a quarter, a step Chandler and Purcell say the Herald cannot afford. But it was also realized by instructing reporters to focus on stories serving a distinct sensibility — a distinctly lowbrow sensibility, to be sure, but one that appealed both to the Post 's core blue-collar audience and the Manhattan sophisticates who came to regard the tabloid as a guilty pleasure, a double caramel latte consumed after the more nourishing fare in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times.

For an underfunded tabloid, there's an added appeal to such a tactic: It can be executed on the cheap. “It's the classic thing for a newspaper to say, 'Yes, but they've got 100 reporters and we've only got 50,'” says Fortune executive editor Xana Antunes, who succeeded Chandler as editor of the Post. “But if you're smart about how you use the 50, you can beat the 100 every day.” One of Chandler's early moves at the Herald was dismantling a special investigative unit that regularly scooped the Globe and turning reporters loose on quick-strike probes, such as the paper's January 30 package on the mild punishments handed to area college students arrested during the Red Sox riots. He put respected columnist Cosmo Macero Jr. in charge of a
beefed-up business section that has sought to mirror the Post' s by zeroing in on a few key local industries. While vacancies on the news desks sat unfilled, the Track gals got an extra page in each edition and a new cub reporter to help them fill it. “I think Chandler looked around the room and said, 'I don't need this,'” says a former Herald employee. “'This is a newsgathering operation. This is like an army set up to fight a conventional war. I'm not fighting a conventional war, so I don't need a conventional army.'”

Some Herald staffers find the paper's new setup liberating. “In the old days, if there was a story on page 1 of the Globe and we didn't have that story, we had lost that day,” says political editor Joe Sciacca, a 21-year Herald veteran. “It's sort of freeing not to have to chase the Globe and match them every day.” Meanwhile, Chandler has discovered that badmouthing the broadsheet can still be an effective morale booster. “The Globe isn't the first paper I read,” he says. “And I can tell you it ain't the second or third, either. I regard reading it as one big chore.” Later, holding up a copy of the erstwhile rival between his thumb and forefinger, as if it were a wet piece of litter, he says, “You get the feeling that if they cover a local story and they have to go into the neighborhoods, they're holding their noses.” Those statements actually reflect a measure of restraint. During the Democratic National Convention last summer, Chandler told the New Yorker, “If I produced a newspaper as boring as the Globe, I'd kill myself.” The quote, blown up on an 11-by-17 printout, now hangs just outside the Herald men's room.

“I think that did a lot to get the staff on his side, to make them realize, 'Hey, he's one of us,'” says Herald City Hall bureau chief Dave Wedge. Soon after Wedge relayed that sentiment to me, Chandler went to court to sit beside him throughout the opening proceedings of Wedge's libel trial, another gesture doubtlessly noted in the newsroom.

Five hours or so after the 3 o'clock news meeting, Chandler huddles with some of his lieutenants to prepare the paper for the presses. For the third straight day, the Herald is leading with the obvious choice, the alleged racism in the Metro 's corporate hierarchy. It's a journalistic crusade rendered all the more plucky — or dubious, depending on how you look at it — by its obvious ties to the Herald 's business interests and the paper's own woeful record in minority hiring, one of the worst among the nation's 50 largest newspapers.

On the bottom of the front page, below the Metro headline, are three small boxes set aside to promote other stories. One is still blank. A deputy editor named Jim Potter votes for using it to push an article on a 12-year-old boy accused of raping and murdering a toddler. “That's the Springfield one?” Chandler asks, puckering his face in thought. Potter concedes that, yeah, the location of the crime falls well beyond the paper's distribution area. Then he mentions the latest wrinkle: The boy's mother has just been charged as an accessory. “But TV's going to have that.” Right. “So we don't have an angle,” Chandler says, and with that the spot goes to a teaser for a piece on school districts contemplating banning cell phones.

That Socratic style is Chandler's default setting as a manager. He is neither a memo writer nor a yeller, not at all in the model of J. Jonah Jameson, the barking despot who runs the Daily Bugle in the Spider-Man comics. “Ken is very good,” Antunes says, “at nudging people into arriving at their own conclusions.” Adds a former Herald staffer who opposes Chandler's business strategy, “He's a nice guy, a smooth guy with a good sense of humor. Even if you disagree with what he's doing or where he thinks the paper should go, it doesn't translate into personal dislike.”

None of those qualities, however, have squelched the steady, furtive grumblings of Chandler's in-house critics. Among the Herald' s rank and file, his fetish for brevity has become a particular sore point. “There's a lot of frustration about how little space there is to tell stories,” says a staffer. “A lot of research gets left on the cutting-room floor or warped in the condensation process. The results wind up sort of cartoonish.” While those complaints are not unwarranted, a bigger problem is missing stories altogether. The Herald was a day late on the news that three Boston University researchers had been accidentally infected with a rare bacterium, and it was mostly mum, save for two tardy opinion columns, on Harvard President Larry Summers's contentious remarks about women and their scientific aptitude. Both developments fell in made-for-tabloid genres — freaky health scares and powerful people behaving foolishly — that the Herald seeks to dominate.

The week before those stories broke, Kevin Convey assembled the Herald troops in the newsroom. One of his messages, says one staffer, was, “The bus is leaving. Get on or get left behind.” Pulling those holdouts on board — or pushing them out — may prove even more critical to the paper's prospects than the jazzier packaging and snappier fonts it's preparing to unveil. Disgruntled reporters and editors won't turn out a gleeful publication. And gleeful is what Chandler needs the Herald to be.

On election night in November, while John Kerry was comfortably carrying his home state, more Bostonians watched the returns on FOX News than on CNN or MSNBC. Presumably, that was more for the channel's entertaining style than its conservative leanings. It's too early to tell whether there will be similar enthusiasm for Chandler's tarted-up Herald. Though circulation hasn't come roaring back, it appears to have stabilized at around 250,000; Coach has taken out ads for its high-end handbags, but most of the influx of upscale accounts the paper hoped to lure with its helpings of pop culture and celebrity fashion has yet to materialize.

As Chandler's likely successor, Convey seems willing to let his boss's gambit play out. “The bottom line is that you see the Globe changing with the times, too. They're slower than shit. But they're still reacting,” he says. “A dead newspaper doesn't do anybody any good, however noble its aspirations.”

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