Headlines of the Damned

The Herald‘s latest death rattles are enough to make you imagine a city without its preeminent fear-mongerer—a terrifying thought, indeed.


I see pervs. Packs of them, roaming the streets with teeth bared and cheap overcoats flung open to reveal nothing but black socks, wife-beaters stained with Beefaroni, and knotty, horrible genitalia darting out every which way in search of a victim (presumably a cute child). I see legions of state employees, hoisting dozens of their cretinous second cousins into the cubicles next to theirs, the whole gang later marching—slowly—on Beacon Hill to convince water-headed reps to bring back the MDC and push through legislation allowing workers to retire after six months on the job with full health benefits for the rest of time. I see city streets running with blood (belonging largely to cute children), and the skies darkening with the slugs that punks and thugs fire at each other to satisfy their inscrutable beefs. I see activist judges applauding the violence (and the pervs) with impunity. I see a mayor speaking extemporaneously without fear of being ridiculed, and city councilors proffering harebrained ideas without fear of being ridiculed. I hear the words "I, William Bulger, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."

When people scoff at the Herald, suggesting it’s a rag suited only for fascists and morons, and deserves to die for its sins and excesses, I say: Folks, these are the stakes.

Aught-eight promises to be a turning point in the history of our local tabloid. Circulation dropped by 9 percent between September 2006 and September 2007, to about 186,000, and last November the paper ignominiously fell behind the commuter-pacifying Metro, which, when it launched in 2001, was putting out 100,000 copies to the Herald‘s 260,000. While the back room at J. J. Foley’s on East Berkeley, once the epicenter of Herald-related debauchery, is no longer playing host to an unending series of boozy going-away parties, the news staff is down to a skeleton crew of eight reporters, and they haven’t gotten a raise in two years. The fabled headquarters at Herald Square have been sold off to a company that specializes in shopping malls and chain hotels, which plans to erect more odious luxury condos in the tab’s once unabashedly sordid footprint. Management is scouring for new digs, maybe in Allston or Roxbury, or anywhere cheaper than downtown, to complete the marginalization metaphor.

But the factors at play here aren’t only economic. Newspapers everywhere are down, after all: People are turning to the Web for their news (or, I suspect, just saying they’re turning to the Web, so they feel less guilty about not following the news), and traditional wellsprings of ad revenue—classifieds and department stores—are drying up. No, there’s a more troubling trend discernible in the Herald‘s recent fortunes. It’s almost as if Boston doesn’t have a place for its second daily anymore. And frankly, a Boston that can’t support the Herald is a city that’s not really worth living in.

In 1982, the cash-strapped, layoff-rocked Herald was saved from the big recycling bin in the sky when it was acquired by Rupert Murdoch. Last December 3, on the 25th anniversary of that deal, owner and publisher Pat Purcell wrote a front-page column commemorating the occasion. In it, he invoked the headline with which the paper had reported its earlier salvation: "The paper that declared, ‘YOU BET WE’RE ALIVE!’" Purcell crowed, "is more alive than ever."

Of course, when you use the front page of your paper to remind people, vehemently and without prompting, that you’re still alive, it can only be taken to mean one thing: You’re done for. The day after Purcell’s column ran, the news broke (on this magazine’s blog…plug plug plug) that Herald police bureau chief/columnist Michele McPhee was leaving to take a full-time radio gig. That kicked off a week of rumors about how she left in protest, how she was fired, and how the Herald is doomed. The first two were false, the third more plausible, but in any case, that rocky stretch had the effect of reminding me of the fragility of existence. It was like seeing an aging relative take a spill, or start talking gibberish for a few seconds. It made me appreciate what I have.


So, in a fit of premature nostalgia, I began going through old Herald clips, and came upon (sorry) the tab’s series on the Quincy dominatrix who was accused of chopping up and disposing of a client who had expired midsession. It was classic Herald coverage, exemplified by headlines like these: "DOMINATRIX CHARGED IN DUNGEON DEATH," "DECEASED’S KIN SLAPS DOMINATRIX WITH SUIT," "DOMINATRIX: NO DICE ON CHOP CONFESSION." A sample lead from the series reads as follows: "A New Hampshire father believed to have perished in a Quincy dominatrix’s torture chamber might have been incinerated at a Granite State dump rather than buried in a Maine trash heap as originally thought, a source said."

The Herald isn’t a great paper—sometimes it’s surprisingly good, and sometimes it’s downright awful—but it is nonetheless indispensable. Indispensable in the obvious sense that having two dailies in a city creates a spirit of competition that benefits readers, but also in the sense that being continually undermanned and cash-strapped tends to make for livelier writing. True, the underdog status that Herald reporters carry often devolves into an annoying victim complex, but just as often it inspires them to take some big swings at power and in general exhibit a slightly demented scrappiness that’s mostly missing in modern print media, to its detriment. Consider the tab’s coverage of Menino: Whereas the Globe tends to be pretty forgiving of the mayor, and even when criticizing him is inclined to be respectful, the Herald will flog him savagely, on the assumption that, well, that’s what mayors are for. Beyond that, there are the frequent beatings administered to bêtes noires like the aforementioned pervs, solons, swindlers, bums, and punks, which, to judge by the timbre of the paper’s reporting, are forever just a hair’s breadth from preying upon taxpayers and defenseless old people by the truckload. Lord, let that dam hold.

Unfortunately, the thing that’s great about the Herald is the same thing that makes it so easy for people to dismiss. At its best, it is permanently in the throes of a nervous breakdown, peddling the quasi-evangelical idea that the world has gone completely mad on sex, blood, and corruption, and the paper itself is the only thing holding back the flood. A good tabloid is like that—noisy, alarming, exhilarating. But then, in order to thrive, the city it covers needs to be similarly noisy, alarming, and exhilarating. And as we move past the messy urbanism of old into some rich, antiseptic DMZ somewhere between a city and a suburb, with neither the thrum of the former nor the schools of the latter, Bostonians are displaying a waning taste for that sort of thing. Even in the most optimistic scenarios—in which it stays in business—the Herald will be forced to change drastically to connect with modern readers (sorry—"users"). If, or when, the Herald passes, either into oblivion or re-invention, it will signal that so, too, has the side of the city it has always covered.

It’s not just a fading lust for mayhem that’s putting the hurt on our tab. Demographic shifts and the decline of the working class in Boston—traditionally the He
rald
‘s bread and butter—have taken a bite as well. And the paper in its present form will have a hard time replacing those readers, because our exploding population of white-collar types and wealthy empty-nesters takes pride in not reading the Herald, as if it’s a sign of character and refinement to never sully one’s manicured hands with it. Worse, beyond the general air of tawdriness, the Herald is also perceived as an archconservative rag for cheap, unreconstructed anger cases and goose-stepping Bush-humpers. This is mostly on account of the great gales of inanity that tend to emanate from its editorials, Joe Fitzgerald’s and Howie Carr’s columns, and the op-ed page, which now prominently features radio hosts Michael Graham and, since December, Jay Severin, both irritating gasbags whose services were enlisted presumably because the paper wanted them to mention it on-air to feed its circulation.

Since people don’t understand that a newspaper’s reporting staff and its opinion writers are two separate entities, they end up assuming that all the coverage is slanted to the right, and therefore propaganda. It’s not—if anything, it’s a refreshing blood lust, more than any partisan agenda, that drives the Herald‘s reporting, as evidenced by its repeated and gleefully vicious hits on "Slick Mitt" Romney—but the perception sticks, leading Boston’s many shrilling lefty partisans to believe they’d be doing a disservice to the cause of liberty merely by glancing at one of its articles.

So there’s the rub: Too few people around here read papers to begin with; those who do don’t want sensationalistic trash and muckraking, and they certainly don’t want anything right-wing. Meanwhile, Boston has become more moneyed, more stable. The outsize loudmouths who used to roam the corridors of power have been replaced by a generation of much more cautious pols who are far less likely to become embroiled in a heinous scandal involving bagmen, civil service exams, or, ideally, the Combat Zone (now all condos). Adding insult to injury, crime is down.

Some might argue these are positives, that it’s a good thing there doesn’t seem to be sufficient evil in post-gentrification Boston to sustain a full-throated tabloid. But you have to wonder what sad juncture we will have arrived at when Bostonians of all stripes, liberal and conservative, rich and poor, young and old, will no longer be able to delight in the simple, unifying joy that is a dominatrix (allegedly!) descending into her basement "pain palace" and chopping herself up a perv.

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