Reboot?

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

By | Boston Magazine |
boston globe sale

Photo by jtu/Flickr

Twenty years after buying the Boston Globe for $1.1 billion, the New York Times Company has announced that it will sell the paper. Globe journalists learned of the news the same way the rest of us did, via a tweet from Bloomberg News: “BREAKING: New York Times Company said to put Boston Globe up for sale.”

The move itself wasn’t exactly a surprise. Four years ago, the Times Company explored a sale before finally deciding against it. What’s more, Janet Robinson—the Times Company’s former president and CEO, and a one-time Somerset schoolteacher—had been one of the Globe’s staunchest defenders in New York, but she left the company in 2011. Staffers have understood since then that their days in the Times fold were probably numbered. Still, the way the news broke was jarring.

“We had heard the rumors for years, and strongly suspected that at some point there would be something to them,” says the Globe columnist Adrian Walker. “But we certainly didn’t think anything was imminent. We were also taken aback by the way we found out…. [It] was a shock.”

It shouldn’t have been. In 2009, when the Times Company threatened to shut down the Globe unless it received $20 million in union concessions, the story was broken not by the paper itself, but by WBUR and the Boston Phoenix. (I worked at the Phoenix at the time, and got a tip from an incredulous staffer who’d discovered the ultimatum.) Making matters worse, while members of the Boston Newspaper Guild waged a bitter internecine battle over whether to give in to the threat, the chairman of the Times Company, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and his colleagues in New York floated above the fray, keeping their distance instead of traveling to Boston to make the case for sacrifice. When it came to the Globe, Sulzberger and friends didn’t seem to see frank, respectful communication as a big priority.

Consequently, it’s no surprise that some Globe reporters and editors are welcoming the prospect of life after the sale—especially if it means restoring the paper to local stewardship. “Being owned by somebody who actually wants to own us would not be a bad thing,” Walker says. “And I think people who’d be most passionate about the Globe—who would see us as something more than a property in their portfolio—would be local owners. So hopefully that will happen.”

As the Globe saga plays out over the next few months, however, all of that optimism should be tempered with a healthy dash of realism. It’s true that the next owners of the paper, whoever they wind up being and wherever they happen to live, may have a greater emotional stake in its success than the Times Company ever did—and that, as a result, they’ll treat the paper’s employees with a greater degree of respect. That said, one uncomfortable fact should be acknowledged: During an absolutely brutal period for daily newspapers, the Times Company shielded the Globe from the worst ravages of the industry. The new ownership may not be so accommodating. It may be hard to believe this right now, but in five years we may all remember the Times years as the good old days for the Globe.

 

In 2001, when Marty Baron arrived from Miami to become the paper’s new editor, the Globe had 513 newsroom employees—a number that soon after rose to 547. Today, it has 360. That’s a big reduction, to be sure, but it’s nothing compared with the cutbacks seen by similar papers over roughly the same span. Ken Doctor, who was an executive with Knight Ridder back when that chain of newspapers was one of the most respected in the country, and who today is a newspaper-industry analyst, calls the past decade a “carnage.” The Los Angeles Times, Doctor says, has gone from roughly 1,300 editorial staffers at its height to 500 today. It’s the same story across the country. According to Doctor, staffing at the Baltimore Sun has dropped from roughly 400 journalists to fewer than 140; at the Hartford Courant, from 475 to 135; at the Tampa Tribune, from more than 200 to 90; and at the San Jose Mercury News, from 425 to fewer than 150.

But the Globe’s relatively robust staffing tells only part of the story. Newspapers are struggling today in large part because they were so slow to adapt to the Internet, and many of them now lack the resources to catch up. Under the Times Company, though, the Globe has been able to make smart, aggressive investments in digital distribution.

Doctor says Times Company money has also helped the Globe adhere to its core mission. “They were able to keep their accountability journalism going,” he says. “Not just long investigative pieces, but the sense the paper has that it’s responsible for the citizenry—that it’ll delve into what’s going wrong, and shine a light on it.” Given the paper’s recent achievements—among them its takedown of the former House Speaker Sal DiMasi, its scathing look at patronage in the Massachusetts probation department, and its massive multimedia series on Boston’s troubled Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood—that assessment rings true.

But it’s not just what the Times Company has allowed the Globe to do—it’s also what New York has protected the paper from. The past decade has seen more than just massive attrition at the nation’s daily newspapers. It’s also been full of plot twists that teeter somewhere between tragedy and farce.

Take what’s happened in Philadelphia, where that city’s analogs to the Globe and Herald—the Inquirer and Daily News, respectively—have been jointly owned for decades. In the past seven years, the papers have had a total of five different owners. One group was led by Brian Tierney, a Republican operative turned PR executive known, among other things, for aggressively battling the Inquirer on behalf of the Philadelphia Archdiocese. (Under his watch, the Inquirer added both Rick Santorum and John Yoo, President George W. Bush’s torture theorist, to its stable of columnists.) The current owners, meanwhile, include the influential local businessman Lewis Katz as well as George Norcross, an insurance executive described by the Inquirer—before Norcross became a partial owner—as a “South Jersey Democratic boss.”

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.

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.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2013/03/26/boston-globe-sale-future/