Reboot?

The Boston Globe is up for sale. What does that mean for its future—and the city’s?

The political affiliations don’t necessarily matter. What’s troubling is that instead of being the scourge of the local power structure, Philly’s dailies now depend on that power structure for their very existence. And that’s a recipe for conflicts of interest and censorship, self-imposed or otherwise. Imagine if the Globe were owned by the construction magnate Jay Cashman: Would the paper have pursued his good friend, Sal DiMasi, so aggressively?

Then there’s the issue of the repeated ownership changes, which, given the newspaper industry’s shaky present and murky future, are especially unhelpful. “Stability is important—that is what we have not had so far in Philadelphia,” says the Daily News senior writer Will Bunch. “Finding and implementing a vision for survival in the 21st century takes time, and the constant ownership changes have made that impossible…so far.”

Chicago is another city that offers warning signs for anyone in Boston who believes that local ownership would guarantee a bright future for our hometown paper. When the Chicago real estate mogul Sam Zell acquired the Tribune Company and its flagship paper, the Chicago Tribune, he cast himself as a savior. But as Zell immediately set about trying to revive what he considered to be a hidebound newsroom culture, he managed, instead, to repeatedly offend and alienate his employees. He also took the Tribune Company into bankruptcy, where it languished for four long years before emerging in 2012 worth about half what it had been when Zell purchased it in 2007. For now, the Chicago Tribune and other assets are owned by creditors. Whether the Tribune and its corporate parent would have thrived absent Zell’s maladroit management is debatable. But it’s clear that, while Zell owned the paper, Tribune employees were battling on two fronts—to do good journalism, and to outlast a boss who may have been a local, but who seemed downright antagonistic anyway.

Chicago’s other daily, the Sun-Times, has had a rough stretch of its own, complete with bankruptcy and a rotating cast of owners. Despite the drama, the paper recently won its first Pulitzer in 22 years, for a series on violence in the city. Yet today’s Sun-Times also gives Jenny McCarthy—the Playboy Playmate turned autism advocate and anti-vaccine agitator—a prime perch as a blogger and columnist.

As the media critic for the alt weekly Chicago Reader, which was recently acquired by the corporate parent of the Sun-Times, Michael Miner is keenly aware of how absurd it seems from the outside to have 1994’s Playmate of the Year representing Chicago’s oldest continuously published daily. “The mind reels,” Miner says with a sigh. Yet his outrage is tempered by the fact that, as he sees it, the Sun-Times is lucky to be alive at all. “This is a paper on the verge of nonexistence that by rights probably should be dead,” Miner says. “If the price of having a job and a living wage is that you share space with Jenny McCarthy, so be it.”

Until now, the Globe newsroom has been mercifully shielded from that type of calculus. While the Times Company may be aloof to a fault, its sense of journalistic decorum and integrity is unimpeachable. The next owners may not be so high-minded.

 

Since news of the plans to unload the Globe first broke, there have been whispers about a number of potential buyers, some familiar and some not. There’s the former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, whose penchant for layoffs earned him the sobriquet “Neutron Jack,” and who, more recently, parted ways with Reuters and Fortune after some embarrassing conspiracy-theorizing that involved President Obama’s reelection campaign and the computation of federal employment statistics. There’s also Ernie Boch Jr., the guitar-playing auto dealer who’s never met a photo op he didn’t like. There’s the Taylor family, an intriguing possibility for obvious sentimental reasons: They owned and published the paper for more than a century. And there’s the Wellesley greeting-card executive Aaron Kushner, who tried to buy the Globe a couple of years ago, and who purchased the Orange County Register in 2012.

It’s tempting to romanticize some of these suitors and to demonize others. But the truth is that no new owner is likely to usher in another golden age at the Globe. Take Kushner, for instance. He’s added to the page count at the Register and increased its newsroom staff at a time when papers elsewhere seem to be doing nothing but cutting. But Alan Mutter—a media consultant and former San Francisco Chronicle editor who writes the blog Reflections of a Newsosaur—says Kushner’s throwback zeal for print has a downside: Namely, he’s just not that interested in new media. Among other things, Mutter notes, Kushner cut the interactive department at the Register and killed the paper’s heralded iPad app.

“The Globe has been on the cutting edge of digital newspapering,” Mutter says. “[Boston] is a highly sophisticated, highly wired community…. If a guy like Kushner comes in and says, ‘That’s something I don’t care about,’ I think he’ll be making a huge mistake.”

Kushner also raised eyebrows by recently telling the Register’s newsroom that he doesn’t believe newspapers should be “afflicting the comfortable”—a task many journalists see as essential. So it’s not too far-fetched to imagine a Kushner-owned Globe pulling back from Web experimentation and aggressive reporting. As for the other prospective owners, maybe they’d scrap the esoteric “Ideas” section, or ditch the Sunday magazine, or push the editorial page to the right on the political spectrum.

 

Barring an unexpected change of plans, Globe staffers and Globe readers will soon learn the identity of the new regime and what its plans are. Which makes now as good a time as any to give the Times Company its due for how it’s run the newspaper these past two decades.

“I’ve worked at other papers, and seen just absolute devastation,” says Noah Bierman, who recently joined the Globe’s DC bureau after coming to the paper five and a half years ago from the Miami Herald. “In comparison with those other places, the Globe is just so much deeper, and is able to do so much more across the board.” Bierman recalls preparing for his first job interview in Boston. “I was reading the Sunday paper with my mouth wide open when I saw there was still a magazine,” he says. “Magazines went away everywhere else years ago.”

Bierman’s take on the present-day Globe comes with an asterisk: He wasn’t here when the paper was a family-run operation—an era that many still regard as a golden age. But Frank Phillips, the paper’s veteran State House bureau chief, was around back then, and he’s not so eager to bid the Times Company farewell.

“I know some of my colleagues think it’ll be interesting, but I like certainty,” Phillips says. “The Times Company is a real news organization. They knew how to run a paper, and they left us alone—they said, ‘Just do your journalism.’ And that’s what we’ve been doing.” Change, he says, is a scary thought: “Just the idea of somebody coming along—a billionaire wanting to have a toy, and thinking this is going to gain him respectability and some influence in Boston—it could be ruinous.” Indeed it could. We’ll know for sure when the Times Company cuts the cord once and for all.

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Correction:
03-27-2013 5:30 p.m.: A previous version of this article, which also appears in the print edition of this magazine, stated incorrectly that the Globe had 450 newsroom employees when Marty Baron took over as the paper’s editor in 2001. While that figure was cited in a 2001 New York Times story, the correct number is 513, although the number rose to 547 not long after Baron’s arrival.