Top of Mind: Mike Barnicle

Is it possible Mike Barnicle is still the most obsessed-about journalist in town? One could make the case: Consider the fuss when he joined Jack Connors and Jack Welch in trying to buy the Globe, and the further fuss that followed his rumored job talks with WBUR. Meanwhile, more than a decade after losing his marquee Globe column for sins against journalism, Barnicle is a fixture on NBC and MSNBC, and fields assignments from Newsweek and Time. On 12/5 at the Charles Hotel, he talked with Boston about those projects—and shared his thoughts on a few other topics, too.

By James Burnett | Boston Magazine |

Here are some of the best quotes pulled from his interview with Boston editor James Burnett. 
-I am constantly amazed at the number of people who think I’m just on vacation. People who call me with story ideas, something that happened to them. No exaggeration, four or five times a week.

-Yes, I do miss it. I miss what the business used to be. I’m glad it’s still around. I hope it’s around forever. I sometimes have my doubts.

-I could do it seven days a week. Still today.

-I never sat there and thought, “I’ll show ‘em,” or, “I’ll change things.” You can make people laugh, you can make people cry, but it’s a bridge too far to make people think.

-They [the New York Times Company] should have sold the Globe to us. There was an offer on the table. A pretty good one, too—I think it was around $600 million. It was a different economy then. It was a different world then. You can’t tell me they wouldn’t love to have the same offer now.

-I’m a Catholic. We’re in the forgiveness business. That’s probably been heightened over the past decade or so. Doesn’t make you any more insightful, but it might give you the appearance of being more thoughtful.

-I see Alan [Dershowitz, Harvard Law professor and one-time foe] a lot. I see him at Fenway Park. As a matter of fact, I got him a couple of tickets to a playoff game a couple of years ago. Alan’s a good guy. The sun comes up every day, you know. Every day is new.

-I have 10 Red Sox season tickets. People were buying beachfront property; I was buying season tickets.

-I don’t speak to my wife [Bank of America marketing chief Anne Finucane] about her business. I don’t understand her business. My wife is so much smarter than I am that I don’t go there. She gives me an allowance every week that I’m very grateful for, and that’s about it.

-[Quitting] the Herald column was a case of me having too many other things to do. They were paying me an awful lot of money, and they don’t have an awful lot of money. After a while, it wasn’t a very good fit. Largely because of me, not them.

-I’m not a romantic about print. Maybe once was, but not anymore.

-Apparently huge numbers of people in the Boston media establishment are so insecure in their own positions that they fear me coming in to see Paul La Camera at WBUR for lunch, which I guess is sort of flattering.

-The thing with media criticism is that if someone who has never met you, has never shaken your hand, never looked you in the eye, is then going to spend a good portion of their life critiquing what you write, or what you do, in the larger sense of the meaning of “do,” you should pay no attention to them. I never gave a shit about that stuff. You know why? I never read it. I never read it.

-Why were you surprised that I said yes to this interview?

-I do still smoke cigars. Cohiba Robustos. Just maybe two or three a month, ’cause they’re so expensive.

Go on to the next page to see an extended version of this Q+A from which these quotes were excerpted. 

THE BARNICLE INTERVIEW: FULL VERSION

James Burnett: For a Boston guy, you spend a lot time in New York.

Mike Barnicle: New York is about success. Boston is about resentment. In New York, there is only one question asked, “Can you get it done?” Then it’s up to you. But it’s a magnificent city. Just walking around Central Park, which I try to do every day that I’m down there, do 4 or 5 miles in the park, walking briskly, and the treasure that is Central Park—lots of cities have different treasures. Boston has its own treasures, but it’s pretty hard to beat Central Park.

Burnett: There’s an emerging debate about what to do with the Common, what role it should serve…Seems to me it’s good that people are talking about it at all. We take it for granted, but it seems like a good comparison.

Barnicle: Well yeah, if you look at the Common, that’s a good comparison. If you look at the Common, I think you’d find a lot of people that say the problem with the Common isn’t the Common, it’s downtown. Specifically Downtown Crossing, which despite every effort that’s been made over 30 or 40 years, has never really clicked. So you have one end, the Commonwealth Avenue, Newbury Street, Boylston Street end, that is attractive and has enormous appeal, both for people with money, looking to live in town as well as commercial appeal for people looking to shop. You look at the other end, and it’s pretty tough to look at, despite years of spending money and thinking the big thoughts about it. It’s not the Common’s fault. It’s that area of Downtown Crossing.

Burnett: One thing I found surprising…. Is how hard it is to get anything done.

Barnicle: Yeah, it’s a unique area. I mean, I’ve lived here all my life. I love it. I don’t want to “live,” in quotation marks, anywhere else, but it’s nearly impossible to get anything done as quickly as things ought to go get done in this particular state, in this particular area. There’s always another obstacle. There’s always someone with another obstacle once you’ve made that hurdle.

Burnett: Going back to the various things you’re working on these days. Which of them is most gratifying for you?

Barnicle: Writing. I’m working on a piece for Time magazine. I write occasionally for the Herald. Newsweek, written some stuff for them. Huffington Post, they call and ask for stuff. The writing is obviously the most rewarding.

Burnett: Given your background, and the work you did early in your career, tell us something most people miss, or misperceive, or get wrong about Obama’s speeches, as he’s considered the great orator of this moment.

Barnicle: I don’t know that they get anything wrong about his speeches. I think, you know, perhaps, given the past eight years in this country, they might have a little too much optimism when they hear him, which is not a bad thing. I mean, when you hear him speak, when you see him in person, when you see the crowds, he sort of puts a smile on the face of the country that hasn’t been there for quite some time.

I first noticed it in Iowa last summer, not the summer of ’08, the summer of ’07. When you would see people who would show up at his rallies, and if you looked at their feet, they’re all leaning forward, even though some of them were quite close to him. They didn’t have huge Secret Service protection. But people were leaning forward, and the metaphor back then would be: they’re leaning into this change; they’re looking for the door to open. The sense of optimism that that he brought to the campaign, the sense of promise, the sense of potential, I don’t think those are bad things, but we live in a culture that is so geared toward instant gratification. I mean, the TV clickers, and the drive-thru windows.

We teach history so poorly in this country, I just hope that a lot of people aren’t disappointed that the stock market isn’t up around 12,000 by Valentine’s Day. Oh my God, you know he’s a failure. What’s this thing about change? You know, he hasn’t changed it. Change will come, but it’s going to take a while, and I don’t know that enough people in this country, especially young people, are prepared to wait for the change.

Burnett: Are you going to the inaugural?

Barnicle: Yeah.

Burnett: Working?

Barnicle: Yeah, as one of 500 million people.

Burnett: You mention the Dow and the financial crisis. What are your conversations about that topic like with your wife [Bank of America marketing chief Anne Finucane], given your role and perspective, and person ideology, if you will.

Barnicle: I don’t speak to my wife about her business. I don’t understand her business. My wife is so much smarter than I am that, you know, I don’t go there. She gives me an allowance every week that I’m very grateful for, and that’s about it. I think I might understand a bit of the social and cultural appendages that spring off of the financial system, but everything else is way beyond me.

Burnett: You combine some of your comments on Obama, and the thought there… It doesn’t sound like you’re particularly hopeful for a quick or easy turnaround.

Barnicle: Actually, I kind of am. I am, if nothing else, an optimist. I think my optimism, along with a lot of other people’s optimism has already been rewarded, you know, in the sense that here we have a President of the United States, who, four years ago, the day after he gave his speech at the Democratic National Convention here in Boston, was pulled out of the line over at Logan Airport, going back to Chicago to continue his campaign for re-election, because of what he looked like and his name. Barack Hussein Obama. And now he’s President of the United States. And that’s a hell of a tribute to this country. It’s an amazing statement both about him and about us as voters. So I am optimistic. I’m not entirely optimistic that things are going to be terrific by Memorial Day, but I think he’ll slowly but surely, and the people around him, will turn the country in a direction that it needed to be turned for quite some time.

Burnett: Interesting contrast, perhaps, with some of the things in the headlines here locally. Couple of questions about local political scene. Who impresses you right now at the state or local level?

Barnicle: Sam Yoon, he impresses me. He’s young. He’s got energy. He’s smart. He looks to me not to be a career guy, in terms of, among the City Council, “What else can I run for?”, although I’m sure that’s within him. I met him once or twice. I like Michael Flaherty. I think he’s bigger than a lot of people think he is, and this is in no way to diminish Tommy Menino, who I think has done a pretty good job, given the increasingly meager circumstances that he has to deal with.

At the state level, I don’t see a whole lot there. Something has happened slowly of the course of 25-30 years to diminish the industry, if you will, of politics. It’s no longer the profession that it used to be. You’d have to be out of your mind to run for public office today. Say you’re 32, 35 years of age. Say you were fortunate, you lucked out, you made a little money, or maybe not, but you have this great interest in public service. You want to be able to get a fire hydrant or a crosswalk, or a little league field in your neighborhood. So you run for City Council or State Rep., you know, but then two or three months over the course of your campaign or maybe after you win, someone like me, or someone like you, is going to come knock at your door, and say “James, we heard you smoked a joint when you were 19 years of age down at Duke University. Can you explain that?” And instead of having the wherewithal to tell people like us, “Hey, go fuck yourself, it’s none of your business,” you know, these poor people stand there and get hounded by us.

So I’ve got to assume there are a lot of other people out there with reasonable IQs who say, “I don’t want any part of that. I don’t want my kids reading about me in the front page of the paper that I smoked a joint when I was at Duke University. What has that got to do with anything?” So I think for that and a lot of other reasons, the level of talent in government is much lower than it has been, for a while. I think in too many cases, both in the State House and in various city councils, not just Boston, various city councils, you have a bunch of people serving, and they are holding the best job they’ll ever have. They’re not going to leave the legislature or the council and take the vice presidency of Google. That ain’t going to happen. And you can see the results. I think some of the results are obvious. The histrionics that we go through to get things done, and the other aspect of it is, once you are in public life today… everything and everyone is part of an interest group. There’s nothing you can say that won’t offend someone. There’s nothing you can try doing that won’t be attempted to be blocked by someone.

Burnett: It’s interesting how much of it you lay at the feet of the people in your business, the press.

Barnicle: I think, listen, it’s still a great, but vastly diminished business, due to economics and everything like that. I don’t think we treat people very well in the media. Both as customers, and I call them customers, of newspapers and magazines, or TV news, and we don’t understand that the greatest story that we could tell each and every day, is the story of the people around us. The people who buy the product, who buy the papers, who buy the magazines. And there’s an attack mentality, especially in newspapers, TV is basically skywriting, especially in newspapers, that makes people uncomfortable. It just does. And to ignore that, to deny, that that’s the case, is foolish. You know, I’m not saying every edition you have to have all good news in the paper, that can’t happen. But the things that we fail at, I happen to think, my opinion, are the most critical aspects of our culture. We fail to cover public education in the country, the way we should. Whether we’re talking about the Boston public school system, the New York, or the Washington public school system.

We fail to cover it, and I’ve always believed that you can go into a third or a fourth grade class in this city or any other city and you are going to be looking at the face of the future of that particular city. And we have no frame of reference for it. There are very few people working at the New York Times, or the Boston Globe, or the Washington Post, who have a couple of kids in public schools who are just scraping to get by. We live a pretty comfortable life, comparatively speaking, members of the media. We get a paycheck, and we’ve lost—I think, for no other reason than the demographics of the business—we’ve lost the capacity to feel part of the community where we grew up. That’s obviously the result of a lot of different things.

When I first worked at the Boston Globe, everyone in the newsroom went to places like Boston University, where I went, or Boston College. There were several people from Harvard there. They could tell you all the stops on the Red Line. They grew up here. They lived here for long periods of time. Their family was from here. They would actually know people who were firefighters, or cops, of school teachers. It’s nobody’s fault, and that’s happened less and less. It’s happened all over. It’s become like a prized profession. You went to Duke University. You’re from Pennsylvania. What are you doing here for Boston magazine? It’s a bonus of a job.

Burnett: When you were doing the column, you certainly wrote a lot about the people who were the readers, the customers… Does this represent an evolution in your own thinking about the role, and the effect of that kind of coverage?

Barnicle: No. I’ve felt like this for years. For years. If you look back, I don’t know what you’d call me attacking someone. I used to go to the State House to the office of the late [Senate President] Kevin Harrington, and sit on his couch, and smoke a cigar. I mean, Bill Bulger didn’t speak to me for about 10 years, because I accused his brother of being the kingpin of the drug trade in South Boston in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but I have had relationship with these people. I liked them. I liked politicians.

It was obviously a different time, a different atmosphere. I think we do a lot better job today of investigative journalism, oddly enough. I think, like the Globe spends more time, more money on it, but you’d be hard put to find better pieces that the old Spotlight team used to do on no-show jobs in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but there was less antagonism, [between] the subject and the newspaper people doing it.

The no-show jobs thing, one of the big elements of that series — God I remember it like it was last week — was Sonny McDonough, former Governor’s councilor, from South Boston, and he used to spend most of the year in Marathon Beach, Florida. The night before the installment that features Sonny, I called him up down in Marathon Beach, it was about 10 o’clock at night. I said, “Hey, it’s Mike Barnicle from the Globe, sorry I have to be a pain in the ass.” “Mike,” he says, right away, “Why change now?” I said tomorrow they’re doing the thing in the paper, the no-show job. You haven’t been to a council meeting in seven months. I said, you know, do your constituents have your phone number down there? Can they get a hold of you? How much would it cost to get a hold of you if they have a problem? He says, right away, “Mike, all my constituents use slugs.” It was better back then. You sound like you’re 110 years old when you talk about it, but there was less antagonism in the air than there is now.

And that’s just not the fault of newspapers. The appetite for cable TV, they’ll tell you cable is conflict, that’s added to it as well. The explosion of the Internet, that plays a part in it. Cable is conflict.

Burnett: You said Bulger didn’t talk to you for 10 years… Did something happen to break the ice there?

Barnicle: You know, I think what happened there was it had to be maybe the early ’80s when I wrote a couple of things about his brother, Jimmy, Whitey, basically saying you can’t move an ounce of cocaine in South Boston without his approval. Bill Bulger was furious, insisting to me that his brother was not a drug dealer, had nothing to do with drugs… In retrospect, clearly he believed that then. Somewhere along the line, I think he probably came to the realization that his brother was into a lot more than he wanted to believe. I don’t know how the relationship thawed, but it began to thaw, and I had lunch with him one day over in South Boston, probably a year before the 2004 gubernatorial election, and he was so very proud to take me out to the parking lot and show me his car, and the bumper sticker on his car, which was a “Deval Patrick For Governor” bumper sticker, and of course, part of the reason was, he hated Tommy Reilly, the then Attorney General. There’s a story to it all. But I think Bill Bulger probably went at least four or five years without talking to me because he was so offended by my inaccuracy about his brother.

Burnett: Ever any encounters with a guy like Dershowitz?

Barnicle: Alan! Sure! I see Alan a lot, I see him at Fenway Park a lot. As a matter of fact, I got him a couple of tickets to a play off game a couple of years ago… Alan’s a good guy.

Burnett: But famously someone that you sparred with.

Barnicle: Sure, yeah. The sun comes up every day, you know. Every day is new.

Burnett: So you guys have buried the hatchet?

Barnicle: Yeah, oh yeah.

Burnett: Where do you get your news from on a daily basis?

Barnicle: I read about four or five papers a day, the actual print product. Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, the Times, Globe, Herald, and then the gift of the Internet. I look at several more. I don’t really browse many blogs.

Burnett: In some ways, do you think blogs have taken the place of newspaper columnists?

Barnicle: I realize this is the view of someone who has been in the print business for a long time. But I think blogging, by and large, is basically therapy. And I’m sure, and I know, that there are some terrific bloggers, and some legitimate bloggers. But I think by and large, a huge percentage of people who are blogging, are doing it for self-therapy. They have a voice. Who reads that voice? Who listens to that voice, reads, pays attention to that voice, I have no idea. My larger issue with blogging, is I think what it does, when it comes to newspapers, and I understand the cutbacks, the economics of newspapers, but when you take gifted reporters out, covering anything from a baseball game to a city council meeting and say, “You need to blog something on this, we need to get it on the website…” I think what you do, what happens, the danger is that you don’t get the opportunity to think enough about what you just witnessed or what someone just said.

One of the big shortcomings of the American newspaper industry, not so much magazines, because you have time, is this tendency to rush everything on the website, because you have to blog about it. In addition to it being a lot of work, writing is a lot of work, and [blogging] doesn’t give you the time to stop and think. To frame it up. There’s some reference point to what you just saw or what you just heard. Years ago, you’d go out and do the reporting for a column, something that happened in the morning or someone you saw in the morning. You’d have time to get a cup of at coffee the Java House on East Broadway in South Boston, go down to the water, sit there in the car, and think about what you just witnessed. And what it meant in a larger context. Violence in the city. Murder on Humboldt Avenue. What did it mean? Wasn’t there some other murder that occurred two blocks over? What did that have to do with that? Are they linked? Why is it that all of these things occur within six blocks of one another? But if you’re going to blog it, it’s going to go out of your mind. You’re not going to think about it. We don’t think enough in this business. Slow down. Think about things.

Burnett: Any columnists you consider a must read?

Barnicle: My friend Steve Lopez at the L.A. Times. I think pound-for-pound, he is the single best newspaper columnist going—city columnist. I think Kevin [Cullen]’s doing a good job [at the Globe]. But I don’t know that a lot of publishers want columnists.

Burnett: Well, it’s part of the Globe’s DNA.

Barnicle: If you look around a lot of newspapers, they’re in such critical shape. I don’t think a lot of publishers are looking for city columnists, metro columnists, someone to mix it up.

Burnett: Why not? Purely financial, or something deeper?

Barnicle: I think it probably is something deeper, and I’m not smart enough to figure it out, or see that deep. Part of it is financial, part of it is, I think one of the problems with the newspaper industry is that it’s run by a bunch of old white guys, and they think like old white guys. They’re just getting over the fact that TV is here to stay. They haven’t even gotten to the Internet, and what that’s doing to their business. And you know, it’s jump ball every day at four o’clock. What are we going to be tomorrow? And I’m not just talking this city. Other than the Times and the Post, and the Wall Street Journal, it’s: What are we going to be tomorrow? Are we going to be a city paper? A regional paper? What are we going to do about Condoleezza Rice in Mumbai? Where do we put it? On page one? On three? We have that great story about a baby being born on the middle of the Mass Pike. That’s a reader.

And the larger issue obviously is there is, and they’ll have to find a way to cope with it, is there’s no more news. You get it on your belt buckle. Fifteen seconds after it happens. Your toaster. Your blender. You’ve got 600 channels at home. That morning paper, the people who go out to the end of the driveway or to go into the variety store, to pick up that paper, they all look like Wilford Brimley. And these old white guys running these papers haven’t figured that out. They haven’t figured out that three blocks from here you have the Harvard Crimson, the Harvard Lampoon. And over there, hire some 23-year old kids, but bring them back into the building, show them a desk, take their phone away. Shut their phone off, and say “Hey kid, it’s 10 o’clock in the morning. Go out the door. Come back at five with a story.” And the kid will say, “What kind of a story?” Any fucking story. A story. Go get a story. Don’t sit here and call people up. Go get a story. Go ride the train. Go sit in the Boston Common. Watch people pass by. Try to imagine what they do for a living. Why is the guy wearing one brown shoe and one black shoe? Why is the 65-year old guy carrying a school bag? Why is the nurse crying sitting on the bench? Go write a story. People like to read about people. That’s never going to change.

Burnett: That’s something you obviously used to do. Collecting stuff. You’re still writing, but do you miss that stuff?

Barnicle: Yes, I do miss it. I was younger then, I like people. I still do it, I don’t write about it a whole lot, but I still do that sort of thing. I did it yesterday. I was in Greenwich Village, at a place called Viceroy, at 18th and 8th, sitting in there, having a cup of coffee with someone, just shooting the shit. Yeah, I miss the interaction that there used to be. I miss a lot of the people who are no longer in the business. I miss what the business used to be. I am glad it’s still around, I hope it’s around forever. I sometimes have my doubts. But the answer is yes. I don’t miss seeing my name in the paper.

Burnett: Why not?

Barnicle: I don’t know. I never really get a high out of it, the way some people do, I never sat there and thought, “I’ll show ‘em” or “I’ll change things” or “this will have an impact.” I never thought like that. In some ways I think I’m fortunate that I never thought like that.

Burnett: In some ways, the columns seem to be animated by that sort of thing, that there was an agenda. That you had something to say, things you wanted people to be aware of, powerful people you wanted to be held accountable. It wasn’t driven by that?

Barnicle: Not really, no, because I think one of the most difficult things to do. You can make people laugh. You can make people cry. But I think it’s a bridge too far to make people think. If they do, if they think about it, if they pause for a second, and think about something you’ve written, then that’s a real bonus. But to get into it, thinking, “I’m going to make them think about this one…” It never worked for me.

Burnett: Could you do it three times a week, if you had to?

Barnicle: I could do it seven days a week. Still today. I am constantly amazed at the number of people who think I’m on vacation. The people who call me with story ideas, or something that happened to them or some injustice, no exaggeration, on the average of four or five times a week, I’ll bump into someone at the airport, at the ballpark or wherever who says, “You know, you wrote a thing about my brother-in-law, or my father.” On the average of a couple of times a week, I’ll get calls from someone who says, “Hey, Mike, my kid’s having a tough time and something happened to him…”

Burnett: Giving you a tip, or pitching you for a piece. So the material would be there, clearly. Back to the newspaper industry, because you’ve got strong opinions about it, and I thought your comments were particularly relevant to the Globe… What should it be? If someone said to you, “Here’s the keys,” what do you do?

Barnicle: I don’t know if I would be doing a whole lot of things differently than what they’re doing right now. I think Marty Baron is a terrific newspaper editor. It’s a struggle each and every day to put that product out, given the diminishing resources, given the lack of energy that exists around the entire industry, given the cutbacks. I don’t know that I would be doing anything a whole lot differently. It’s still a pretty good looking paper. We get it in New York at 6 o’clock in the morning. Good-looking paper today. I have no idea how many people are in that newsroom today, but I’ll bet you it’s less than half the people who were in the newsroom 10 years ago. So, finding people who can write now, maybe a couple of stories a day, as opposed to a 10-15 years ago, people who would take 3-4 days to write one story. That’s tough. It’s a tough job.

I might try to beef it up with a little more humor. I might actually go over to the Lampoon and hire a couple of kids and have a “funny thing happened to me yesterday” page. Because at some point, if you don’t start attracting people your age to look at the paper, to buy the paper, then it is going to disappear, and it is going to only be online. So you have to keep thinking about ways to get new readers. And I’m not talking about 52-year-old guys who moved here from Battle Creek, Michigan. I’m talking about kids who go to school here, who might pick it up for the sports page, and eventually stay here, maybe live here, to get them to keep buying the printed product.

Burnett: I guess I’ll be honest and say I’m surprised that you went as easy as you did on the paper. Given, only a year or two ago, some serious talks about you, Jack Welch, Jack Connors [making an offer to buy the Globe]…

Barnicle: They [The New York Times Company] should have sold it to us.

Burnett: So, usually if you want to buy it, that means you think you could do a better job.

Barnicle: Well that has nothing to do with Marty Baron. That has to do with that the New York Times Company. To them, the Globe might as well be the St. Petersburg Times, or any other regional paper they own. There is nothing that instills more pride in a product than when it’s locally owned, and no matter what they say in Times Square, this is a step-child. It’s not their principal product. I understand that. If I were Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the thing I would be most interested in growing, would be The New York Times. So as a result, the Globe is treated like a step-child.

Burnett: You said they should have sold it to us…

Barnicle: Just economically.

Burnett: How serious was it?

Barnicle: Very serious. There was an offer on the table. A pretty good one too.

Burnett: It’s a big number, for most people, but it’s not the crazy number you might think it would be.

Barnicle: Well it wasn’t then. It was a different economy then. It was a different world then. They couldn’t get one third of what that offer was today.

Burnett: Of what you wanted for it. How much was it?

Barnicle: I think it was around $600 million.

Burnett: Where was that… did you have bankers lined up?

Barnicle: You’d have to talk to Welch and Connors about that, because as I said initially, finance is not my strong suit. I exist on an allowance. But I mean, it was an entirely different world. The economics of that time, five years ago, it was a totally different time. You could get money like that. [snaps his fingers] It was a money party.

Burnett: Whose idea was it originally?

Barnicle: Jack Connors. Jack Connors wanted to buy it. He wanted to have a locally owned newspaper. He wanted to try to restore the impact and influence that a locally owned newspaper once had in this market. I got him together with Jack Welch, and the two of them had a pretty good financial plan put together. And after a few months, the Times Company decided to turn them down. You can’t tell me they wouldn’t love to have the offer on the table today. Think of it this way: In 1993, the New York Times Company purchased the Globe for $1.1 billion. Today the market cap of the New York Times Company is just about a billion. So the market cap, the value of their company, is less than what they paid for the Globe.

Burnett: I knew those numbers, but hadn’t thought of it that way.

Barnicle: Would have been good for them. Would have been good for the city. Would have been good for the paper.

Burnett: What kind of role did you imagine having?

Barnicle: No managing role, I can tell you that. One thing I’m not is a manager.

Burnett: Did you guys talk about it? Was that part of the process for you?

Barnicle: No. It never got to the stage, “You do this, and we’ll do that.” No.

Burnett: You think about that now and it’s a little bit of an albatross. They need to cut costs, but they can’t sell anything. Can’t get the money.

Barnicle: Who would want to buy it today? Who would want to invest in the newspaper business today? Right after you invest in Chrysler?

Burnett: It would have to be someone with a lot of local pride, someone with a real interest in the city…

Barnicle: That’s what it would have to be.

Burnett: The question that’s relevant here I guess is how you feel about it. Is it the Times Company coming in and being corporate raiders of a kind? The Taylor family [the Globe's founding owners] being greedy at the time, not anticipating where this would go? How it’s been diminished, now it’s a satellite.

Barnicle: I never sat around the table with the Taylor family and the [then co-owning] Jordan Trust, so I don’t know what pressures were brought to bear upon [former publisher] Bill Taylor to sell that paper. I understand it was pretty complex, with certain members of the family wanting to get out of the newspaper business. I think the Times bought the paper with the best of intentions, obviously. They’re a great newspaper company. Think about it, it was 1993, we might as well be talking about.

Burnett: It certainly feels that way: different era, different era. Do you have a relationship with the family at all?

Barnicle: With the Taylors? Yeah. I used to see [former publisher] Ben Taylor. I haven’t seen him in several months. Bill Taylor I never see.

Burnett: Is it possible today for someone to have the influence, the readership and the audience that you once had?

Barnicle: I don’t think so. I think, in a 10-year span, when you think about the power and the reach of the Internet, basically it didn’t exist 10 years ago. When you think about the influence of the cable news channels: it was CNN, and Fox had just started, MSNBC had just started. They basically were not relevant in terms of news gathering, news dispensing, news devouring, ten years ago. BlackBerrys basically weren’t around. Cell phone news was in its very early stages. If you had 15 channels on your cable, you were thrilled.

Burnett: I guess I’m wondering, for columnists, someone to sort it all out for you, someone to bring a singular voice, that’s a different thing. Seems to me. at least, none of those things compete exactly with what a columnist can do.

Barnicle: Well yeah, but you have to break through all of that clutter, and there’s a whole lot more clutter now then there was then. A whole lot more clutter. Just look at the numbers. The Sunday paper was doing around 800,000. What does it do today? 500,000 maybe? The daily paper was doing 500,000 then, what does it do today, 300,000? Just the numbers alone would tell you that it’s going to be tougher today to do it. I still think the biggest obstacle to that is all of the other things that are out there competing for people’s attention. It was far easier to get people’s attention for something you wrote or something that happened years ago, than it is today.

Burnett: Kevin Cullen….

Barnicle: I helped him get his gig at the paper. He was at UMass. Curtis Wilkie and I were out there talking. Cullen was there. It was Ralph Whitehead’s class. Kevin had graduated, and he basically stood up and asked us, “How come [former editor] Tom Winship won’t hire Irish-Catholic kids that didn’t to go Harvard?” And we sort of said, “Fuck you. He does.” But we did mention it to Winship, Kevin came in, had a couple of interviews, and they hired him.

Burnett: Have you talked to him since he got the column? Has he come to you for advice?

Barnicle: I’m not in the advice business. I am not in the mentoring business. But I talk to him a lot.

Burnett: The thing with him.. it seemed at least, it’s too easy, admittedly, I always have reservations about journalists passing judgment, but we do. But he had a voice and has almost had to grow comfortable with this media and platform that he now has, as well as the power that comes along with it.

Barnicle: Well, that’s the way it is with anything. You could sign for $10 million a year to play over at the ballpark, and every day you go over there and say, “Jesus, I better go 2 for 3 today.”

The thing with media criticism is that if someone is criticizing you, who has never met you, has never shaken your hand, never looked you in the eye, never looked you in the eye, never introduced themselves in person, and they are going to spend a good portion of their life critiquing what your write, or what you do, in the larger sense of the meaning “do,” you should pay no attention to them. What would they ever be able to tell you about yourself and your work if they don’t know you, if they’ve never met you? There’s criticism, there’s book reviews, and there’s movie reviews. But the intensely personal outlook that a lot of these critics bring to the day, whether it’s Kevin Cullen, or whether me, or whether it’s anyone…

Burnett: And you’ve been on the other end of that.

Barnicle: I never gave a shit about that stuff. You know why? I never read it. Call me thickheaded or whatever, but I always came to it with exactly that point of view. How could they, anyone, sit there and say, “Oh, he did this because of this,” when I never met them? Never spoke to them. Was never in the same room with them. Call me up and ask me. So, I think Kevin probably feels a little similarly.

Burnett: Did you hold yourself to the same standards when you were critiquing the work of a public figure?

Barnicle: No. There were very many times, depending on the time of the day, when I would just bang a cheap shot at quarter of five. Boom. Many, many times.

Burnett: Regret any of those?

Barnicle: Oh, God. I can’t think of any one when it comes to elected officials. I can remember feeling little badly, this is years ago, writing something about Ken Harrelson, who was doing the commentary on Red Sox games [on Channel 38], and I wrote something particularly snarky about him. And you know, back to what I was just saying, I bumped into him at the ballpark a couple of days later, and he was pissed and said, “Why don’t you call me? Why don’t you ask me why I do this stuff, how I made that mistake? Jesus.” And he was right, and I am sure there other people who got lit up briefly by me or others who think the same thing.

Burnett: Is that as big a part of what you do now?

Barnicle: I might be delusional; I don’t think it was a big part of anything I ever did. I don’t think I was in it to light a lot of people up on a daily basis. I choose to think, and I’ve never done this, but if you go back and look at the body of work, a lot of it was about ordinary people you could go find today.

Burnett: I wasn’t suggesting it was the dominant theme. I was more getting at how you involved as a writer, with time, and how if you were doing it three times a week, or seven, How, if at all, it would it be different today?

Barnicle: It would be different today. Because of my age and what you accumulate during your life, your experiences, things you’ve witnessed, things that have happened to you, things that have happened to other people, I think today it would be a more personal column. I very rarely used the words “I” or “should.” I think I would inject myself more into the piece today than I ever did then.

Burnett: That’s something some of us have noticed in your TV commentary. A tonal shift that put you more in the—I don’t know how you feel about the term “elder statesman.” Is there a little bit of that in what you’re providing?

Barnicle: I think, as with some people, I’m probably more reflective today than what I used to be. I’m not as quick to jump the gun as I used to be. Hopefully because I’m older and I’ve had a few more experiences. I’ll throw that into the hopper and bring it to the table, hopefully, I don’t know whether that’s the case or not. I am more reflective than I used to be. I am certainly more aware of the shortcomings that everyone has.

Burnett: Aware and more forgiving?

Barnicle: Much more forgiving. Much more forgiving. I’m a Catholic. We’re in the forgiveness business. So, I think that’s probably been heightened over the past 10 or 15 years. Doesn’t make you anymore insightful. But it might give you the appearance of being more thoughtful.

Burnett: Wondering if there’s another word you might throw in there, more humble?

Barnicle: Well that’s an interesting adjective. Humble, humility. I think if you talk to people who know me, and who’ve known me all my life, I would like to think they would say I’ve always been humble. I’ve got a lot to be humble about. I’ve got a lot to be grateful about. But there’s this persona you can acquire by doing nothing, other than having people who dont know you, write about you or talk about you. I guess you could be given a coat of boastfulness, or seem a tough guy.

Burnett: With the Herald, it seems it didn’t play out exactly as promoted on their side?

Barnicle: That was a case of me having to many other things to do. If I didn’t have all the other stuff to do, that I still have, it probably would have been better for the Herald. I just couldn’t do it. I could do it. I could mail it in. But I didn’t want to do that. They were paying me an awful lot of money, and they don’t have an awful lot of money. I’m having dinner with [publisher] Pat Purcell tonight actually. It seemed to me after a while, it wasn’t a very good fit. Largely because of me, not them.

Burnett: In making the choice that you made then, you had a lot of other things going on, and chose to stay with those, rather than drop those. Why did you go that way?

Barnicle: Because I knew most of the people I was working with at NBC, and I’m like a pack animal. I am comfortable with the familiar. I didn’t want to give up that comfort. I didn’t want to drop the things I was doing, and start doing things with a whole new group of people—many of whom I did not know. I didn’t want to end up screwing my two employers, the Herald and NBC, so I said, “See you later.” And I still enjoy the option of writing when I want to write. The main reason I went the other way is because I knew everybody, in Washington and New York.

Burnett: I guess the reason for my own fascination—the perception was that you were back as a Boston columnist. It would be such a priority, and pack animal or not…

Barnicle: The business is not what it used to be, for all the reasons we discussed previously. It just isn’t. So 15 years ago, I probably would have invested much more energy into it than I did, but it’s the change in the business was such that, we talked just a few minutes ago about impact, influence. You would want to feel you have a little impact, and if that’s not there, then, you know, Why am I doing this?

Burnett: You’re not a romantic about, you know, for print’s sake, which I might have walked in here thinking you might have been for some reason.

Barnicle: No. Maybe once was, but not anymore.

Burnett: The WBUR thing. [There were rumors] you might have some kind of recurring role there. What was that all about?

Barnicle: I have no idea.

Burnett: Serious job talks?

Barnicle: No. Apparently, apparently, there are huge numbers of people in the Boston media establishment who are so insecure in their own positions that they fear me coming in to see Paul La Camera for lunch, which I guess is sort of flattering, in a sense. But other than that…It is what it is.

Burnett: And it is a curious thing. None of the issues you get locally translates with these folks that you know on the national level or in New York or outside of 128. There’s a gulf there, or a disparity.

Barnicle: We live in perhaps the most parochial area of the United States. And clearly off the reaction of the WBUR thing, there obviously must be more than several people in the local media who think Lake Persimmon is the Pacific Ocean, that this is the entire media world here. And apparently some of them feel very threatened by anyone coming in the door. Not just me, but especially me. I have no explanation for that. I don’t know them. No one ever called me, from WBUR or anywhere else and said, “What are you doing? How can you think of coming over here? We’re better than you.” I never heard that. I never spoke to Paul La Camera about “I’ll do this three days a week, and you’ll pay me this, and I’ll do that.”

Burnett: How does all of that hit you on a personal level?

Barnicle: It doesn’t. I get amused by it when it happens. But I am extraordinarily lucky. I live a marvelously ordinary life. Most of the people I see over the course of the week are people I’ve known for years. We have seven children. We’re invested in all of our kids. They keep us very busy, and they keep us very happy. I have a wonderful marriage. So, if someone is going to get bent out of shape at WBUR because I show up there one day, I don’t really give a shit, and I don’t really think about it. I am sure maybe some of them, and not necessarily just at that particular place, and there are an awful lot of really small people in this life of ours. We all meet them, but I have no time for them.

Burnett: I was going to ask if you have any thoughts about semi-retiring?

Barnicle: When you retire, you’re dead.

Burnett: What’s something else that would surprise people about you?

Barnicle: I don’t know. I’m not cute or whatever. Maybe how ordinary my life is. Maybe that.

Burnett: You talked about your kids, your work. What’s it filled with, other than family?

Barnicle: Baseball. I have 10 season tickets. People were buying beachfront property. I was buying season tickets.

Burnett: How many games do you get to?

Barnicle: About 60. I usually arrange the work schedule around the baseball schedule. My work schedule is altered drastically from April through early October.

Burnett: How do you feel about the team? Any one player that fascinates you?

Barnicle: What do they need? They need a bat. They need a stick.

Burnett: I was surprised you agreed to this. Should I have been?

Barnicle: No. Why were you surprised that I agreed to do this interview?

Burnett: Because of the magazine’s history.

Barnicle: It gets to what we were talking earlier, and this is the truth, on my children. On my children… I guess on the average of 10 out of 12 issues a year, for a period of several years, I understand, you’d have one thing or another on the magazine, touching me up. On what? I don’t know. No insult intended, I never read it, never looked at it, and on my children, in the course of how many years it went on, I never had, I don’t think, more than three people mention it to me. And that’s no reflection on your magazine or your ability as an editor, and you probably weren’t even there then. So on my children, that’s an honest answer.

Burnett: Do you still smoke cigars?

Barnicle: I do. Cubans. Cohiba Robustos.

Burnett: Your doctor cannot like that.

Barnicle: I smoke maybe two or three a month ’cause they’re so expensive.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2008/12/barnicle/