Hard Pressed: Will the Boston Herald Survive?

For decades, the Herald has delighted in pissing off liberals in their own backyard. But how long can Boston’s other newspaper hang on?

By | Boston Magazine |

boston herald hard pressed

As longtime Herald owner and publisher Pat Purcell pushes 70, the future of his tabloid is uncertain. / Photo illustration by Toan Trinh, portrait by Eric Antoniou

I’m hunting for Herald readers.

It’s 8 a.m. on a dreary Friday in late March, and a stream of commuters is pouring through South Station. The first target to land in my cross hairs looks to be in his sixties and stands well over 6 feet, with a mop of unruly white hair and a face full of busted blood vessels. Peeking out from the papers stuffed under his left arm is the blue Boston Herald masthead. Splashed on the right side of the front page is the headline: “Beware ‘Felony Lane Gang,’” with a short teaser about a crew of checkbook snatchers. On the left side is a portrait of a Mission Hill college-hoops fan who dresses like Flavor Flav and suddenly found fame when his March Madness celebratory antics went viral.

“Excuse me, sir,” I say, approaching my mark. My voice jumps an octave in hopes of softening the ask: “I’m a reporter with Boston magazine looking to—” Before I can finish, he scowls, “Not interested” and uses the folded tabloid like a nightstick to shoo me away. It’s exactly what I expected of a Herald devotee—old, white, and pissed off, a lumbering relic from an era of Boston that’s heading to the grave and seemingly taking the city’s second paper with it.

Now, it is true that the Herald still regularly scoops the Boston Globe and remains an ink-stained thorn in the side of City Hall, calling Mayor Marty Walsh a “union thug” and poking holes in the city’s plans to host an IndyCar race. And the company’s in-house Internet radio station has been roundly praised by the industry as a digital disruptor, while its website typically pulls in more than 700,000 page views a day. But with the ascent of plush condos, moneyed millennials, and a daily level of political correctness that would make George Orwell’s worst fears seem like an episode of Peppa Pig, the city now more than ever is at odds with the very soul of the conservative tabloid, a newspaper that uses the word “illegals” like it’s a sport and was trolling before trolling was even a thing. How the paper has survived this long seems like a mystery.

What’s crystal clear about the Herald, however, is that no one in charge is interested in answering my questions. Owner and publisher Pat Purcell declined an interview through a company spokeswoman, as did editor Joe Sciacca, who spent more than 25 years burning shoe leather before taking over the top post. More than a dozen other employees told me to go screw or simply didn’t respond to voice messages and emails. “I can’t have my nose near this shit,” one reporter grumbled before hanging up. Some, however, were kind and desperate enough to send bleak dispatches from the Herald’s newsroom and meet for drinks to spill the beans, but more on that later.

Since no one at the Herald welcomed me through the front door, I decided to head over to South Station looking for folks who are spending $1.50 on the dead-tree daily. Seated near the food court is Gidget Gaines, a 48-year-old MBTA conductor with a pierced nose who says she’s been reading the Herald for three decades. For Gaines, it’s not about the right-wing ramblings of the op-ed page or the crime scoops—it’s about the shape. The unwieldy broadsheets of the Globe, which she also peruses daily, are a hassle in crowded train cars and cramped conductor booths. The Herald is “fast and easy,” Gaines says. Half a dozen other readers echo this same sentiment, including a fiftysomething redhead who looks like she could be Julianne Moore’s sister. “Easy to hold, easy to read,” she says.

As the stream of commuters slows to a trickle, I meet Robert Johnson, a 72-year-old attorney who identifies as left of center. He applauds the Herald’s sports page and takes in Howie Carr for a laugh. “I find the Herald to be sometimes crass and harsh,” Johnson admits to me. So why buy it? “It’s important to know what the other side is thinking—you know, to understand the opposition.”

In the bleeding heart of Greater Boston, the Herald has always been the opposition, the scrappy defender of Joe Sixpack that throws haymakers at bumbling bureaucrats. It famously submarined former Lieutenant Governor Evelyn Murphy’s political ambitions in 1989 by tracking her down in Florida and snapping pictures of her jogging on the beach while the city was being hammered by brutal winter weather and in financial distress. It ignited debate with a front page showing a photo of the lifeless Victoria Snelgrove, the Emerson College student who was accidentally killed by police while celebrating the Red Sox’s 2004 ALCS win over the Yankees. “Triumph and Tragedy,” the headline read.

Like so many newspapers, though, it’s a shell of its former self. Purcell sold off the Herald’s once spacious newsroom in the South End and downsized to tighter quarters in the Seaport District; the union is fielding an increasing number of complaints from reporters about management; and the Inside Track—a once-cherished house of gossip—has been slashed in half, to a single page. Recent Sunday editions have had fewer than 60 pages, while weekday circulation has dropped from 245,000 to 88,000 over the past decade.

A privately held company, the Herald’s finances are not public, but the hallmarks of decay are glaring. Make enough phone calls to media experts and to Herald staffers past and present, and you’ll hear the same thing: Purcell has cut every possible cost and made the paper debt-free. “I don’t know how Pat Purcell feels about unions,” Bill Brotherton, the editorial head of the Herald’s union and the current copy-desk chief for the features department, writes in an email. “I can guess that he’s not a big fan. Our union local and the company don’t always see eye to eye, but we all want the same thing. We want the Herald to thrive and be profitable. That’s good for us and it’s good for Boston.”

It is good for Boston—really good. Imagine a Boston where the only newspaper in town is owned by a nerdy billionaire who also owns the Red Sox and a European soccer team. Awful. Sadly, though, it’s no longer about competition; it’s about survival. Consider that the Herald is printed by the Globe and delivered on the same trucks. When I call the Globe’s CEO, Mike Sheehan, to get his thoughts on our two-newspaper town, the first thing he points out is how important a customer the Herald is for the Globe’s printing business. “They used to throw Molotov cocktails at each other,” quips Jonathan Klarfeld, an associate professor of journalism at Boston University. “Now the Globe prints the Herald’s first edition.”

Having lived much of its life on the ropes, the Herald is no stranger to tough times. The staff is socialized for scarcity and accustomed to shoestring budgets. There’s no doubting Purcell’s commitment to maintaining a voice and viewpoint that’s not John Henry’s. But as he pushes 70 and the prominence and profitability of conservative tabloids wane, the future looks bleak. After all, Klarfeld says, “I don’t know how much money Pat Purcell has stocked away under his bed, but it ain’t as much as John Henry.”

 

boston herald radio 2014 governor debate

Three 2014 gubernatorial candidates debate the issues inside the Herald radio booth. / Photograph by Ted Fitzgerald/AP Images

Here’s a glimpse of the modern Herald on a good day. It’s late last July and Donald Trump is on a roll. The presidential hopeful has called into Boston Herald Radio’s “Morning Meeting” and spent the first eight minutes of the interview trashing the NFL’s handling of Deflategate and praising his good buddy Tom Brady. He fawns over the quarterback’s incredible golf swing and sharp intellect. “He’s got a great brain,” Trump panders. “You folks are so lucky to have him up there.”

To steer Trump off Brady, Herald reporter Chris Villani brings up Mayor Walsh. In the previous weeks, Trump and Walsh had engaged in a war of words in the Herald’s own pages over the issue of immigration. Now Villani has the opportunity to squeeze another day of news from the pissing match. “We talked to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh yesterday,” Villani starts to say, before Trump snaps down on the bait like a great white. “I think he’s a lousy mayor,” Trump says, insisting that Walsh is bad to veterans and soft on immigration. Without missing a beat, the Donald insults Arizona Senator John McCain, plugs his book Trump: The Art of the Deal, and brags that he wasn’t even sure who Marty Walsh was a few weeks ago. “I’d never even heard of him, frankly,” Trump says.

boston herald ink block whole foods

For more than 50 years, the paper called this South End office building home. / Photograph by Boston Globe/Getty Images

Historically, the Herald has been a product that construction workers and cops picked up at the convenience store to thumb through on break. Lately, though, single-copy sales have taken a beating. In 2011, the paper averaged 83,955 weekday newsstand sales, according to data provided by the Alliance for Audited Media. In 2014, that number was down to 52,467. This should come as no surprise as the rise of conservative news sites such as Breitbart and team-specific sports verticals from the likes of Bleacher Report and SB Nation eat into the Herald’s bread and butter. The paper has gone from competing with the Globe to competing with infinite options for readers’ time. “The Herald is heavily reliant on single-copy readers, people who pick up a copy during the day to have something to read,” says Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab. “That’s a job that phones do really well now—whether you’re reading news or playing Candy Crush.”

In an era when newspapers have struggled to find multimedia footholds, Herald Radio is a last-ditch effort to remain relevant. The station debuted in the summer of 2013, not long after the paper moved to its current digs, on Fargo Street in the Seaport District. The nucleus of the new newsroom is the small radio booth.

On the surface, radio seems as anachronistic as newspapers, yet conservative talk radio has been a hit for years, and there are distinct advantages that come along with throwing loudmouth Herald personalities on the air. “While I don’t think anyone listens,” says Jim Braude, host of WGBH’s Greater Boston and Boston Public Radio, “I doubt that the paper cares.”

As Braude suggests, the commercial success of Herald Radio isn’t great. Scroll through Herald Radio’s SoundCloud page and you’ll see that most archived shows have been listened to only a few dozen times. But Herald Radio isn’t about numbers or dollars—it’s part of a much larger play for survival, a way to generate scoops that can be spread across multiple platforms on the cheap. The model is simple: Break it on the radio, tweet it out, slap a “just-in” banner on the homepage, bang out a blog post, and tweak it for the next day’s print edition. Not long after Trump’s appearance in July, for instance, the Herald’s Bulldog blog had a post headlined “Donald Trump Calls Handling of Brady Decision ‘Shocking.’” Plus, of course, the paper’s reporters had new ammunition to goad Walsh into a fresh comment and ample fodder to tantalize readers on social media.

The key to making this model work, of course, is luring in big names. Throughout this historically chaotic primary season, just about every major Republican candidate has called in to the station. Prominent locals—Walsh, Governor Charlie Baker, Senate President Stan Rosenberg, Police Commissioner William Evans—also regularly visit the studio. Herald Radio “gets public figures to talk to them that would not have otherwise,” Braude says. “I thought it was ridiculous at first, but it turns out to be the best thing they’ve done, and I think it’s kept them alive.”

 

boston herald sign whole foods ink block

The newspaper’s former home is now the site of luxury condos and a Whole Foods with a Herald motif. / Photograph by Sarah Fisher

To get a feel for the Herald in its heyday, I ask Larry Katz to give me a walking tour of the sprawling new Whole Foods just off Herald Street, flanked by three luxury condo buildings in which studios start at $489,000. The development is called Ink Block, and until only a few years ago this was the Herald’s headquarters, the spot where Katz spent some 30 years covering music before retiring in 2011.

Inside the store we stroll past a set of plush leather armchairs and pass under shimmering chandeliers before pausing to look up at a series of giant stainless steel letters reading, “The Boston Herald” that hang above a cooler stocked with imported beers, pierogies, and olives. “I think they came off the chimney,” Katz speculates of the letters’ origin. The Herald motif continues throughout the store, with stylized front pages of old issues serving as backdrops for aisle signs and cashier lights.

Standing in front of a display of chia seeds, Katz recalls editors stamping cigarettes into the carpet and dashing through the city to file copy late at night. Back then the paper had multiple editions, plenty of pages, and deep enough pockets to cover U2 shows in Las Vegas, New Kids on the Block concerts in Europe, and the Grammys in California. “A lot of memories,” Katz says. “A lot of blood, sweat, and tears at this spot; a lot of good times, bad times, happy times, sad times. It was intense.”

Anyone who worked a day in the old Herald building seems to have a dozen stories. I’ve heard about a blood stain on the carpet that staffers didn’t want to get rid of because it was a legacy to a fallen colleague; I’ve been told of an alleged stabbing in the pressroom; and I’ve heard tales of canoodling coworkers whose rooftop romp imploded after an angry wife stormed into the office and threw a punch.

Timeline: A History of the Boston Herald (and Its Declining Circulation)

No day, however, seems as memorable as December 2, 1982. The Herald—then the Herald American—was hours away from shuttering. Its parent company, the Hearst Corporation, had tired of losing readers and money and announced that the paper would be closed or sold. Rupert Murdoch was the only hope, but negotiations had dragged on and were thought to be crumbling. Hearst told the employees to go home. Some staffers hung around the office, unsure if they should clean out their desks or get started on the next day’s edition. Others made their way down to J. J. Foley’s, the Herald’s unofficial watering hole. “We were on the brink of an abyss,” recalls Monica Collins, a former reporter who joined the Herald’s staff in the late ’70s.

After hours of anxious waiting, someone finally rushed into the newsroom and announced that Murdoch had saved the Herald. The next day’s front page exclaimed, “You Bet We’re Alive!”

As if on cue, “That day Rupert Murdoch came into the newsroom, and he was with his second wife, Anna [Torv], and she was wearing this incredible mink coat,” Collins says. She can’t remember the details of the pep talk Murdoch delivered, but when she closes her eyes, she can still envision Torv in her black, full-length status symbol.

Under Murdoch the paper went head-to-head with the Globe and ramped up its mudslinging in the Murdochian manner that has punctuated the tycoon’s tenure with newspapers. Most memorably, the paper unleashed Howie Carr, who through a blend of bulldog reporting and vicious commentary made life hell for elected officials.

Unsurprisingly, the Herald built a Rolodex of powerful enemies, perhaps none as formidable as Senator Ted Kennedy, whom Carr had nicknamed “Fat Boy.” In the late ’80s, when Murdoch was fighting to hold onto his local Fox affiliate, WFXT-TV, Kennedy pushed through legislation that blocked Murdoch from getting a waiver to own a TV station and a newspaper in the same market. To some, it smacked of sabotage. “Kennedy’s political agenda got in the way,” says Brent Baker, vice president for research and publications at the Media Research Center, a conservative-media watchdog organization. “He didn’t like Murdoch, and he didn’t want Murdoch to be a bigger player in Massachusetts politics.”

In response to Kennedy’s legislation—as Dan Kennedy, a Northeastern University associate professor of journalism, has chronicled—the paper sent reporter Wayne Woodlief chasing the senator around the campaign trail. At each stop Woodlief would ask, “Why are you trying to kill the Herald?”

Murdoch ended up selling WFXT. But in 1994, when TV proved a much wiser investment, he bought the station again, which meant having to give up the Herald. Rather than shutter it or sell it off to a stranger, Murdoch invited his mentee and longtime Herald publisher, Pat Purcell, to make an offer. A first-generation Irish American from New York, Purcell had fought his way through the newspaper world; at one point he served as publisher of both the Boston Herald and the New York Post.

The financial details of the deal Purcell and Murdoch struck for the Herald are not public. According to a 2006 article in the Boston Irish Reporter, Purcell recalled Murdoch’s pitch thusly: “I know you don’t have the money, and I understand you don’t want partners, but I would like you to have the paper.”

At last, Herald staffers could breathe easy knowing the paper was going to Purcell. “Pat, God love him, always fought for us,” says Laura Raposa, a former Inside Track columnist who worked for the paper from 1983 to 2013. “He was always on our side.”

Purcell didn’t meddle in editorial matters and had as much ink in his blood as anyone in the building. While the paper leaned unquestionably right, personal politics were left for the editorial page and reporters were expected to be equal opportunists in their muckraking. “The editorial slant has next to nothing to do with the people who worked there,” recalls Michael Gee, who wrote for the paper from 1987 through 2005. There was a running joke in the newsroom, Gee says, that anytime you saw services taking place at an Irish funeral home in West Roxbury, chances were the Herald had lost another reader.

In 2001, Purcell—ostensibly bullish on the future of print—acquired for a reported $150 million Community Newspaper Company, a chain that included 87 weeklies, four dailies, and 14 shoppers, mostly mom-and-pop papers. Not long after the acquisition, the U.S. economy began to slow, the digital age of free news blossomed, and the Herald withered. Five years after acquiring CNC, Purcell gave a speech at UMass Boston in which he spoke candidly of the struggles. “We’re being ruthlessly efficient behind the curtain,” he reportedly told the crowd. “It’s not a pretty picture for metro dailies. We are faced with challenges like never before.”

Weeks after the speech, Purcell conjured a miracle and unloaded the chain of community newspapers for a whopping $225 million. The timing couldn’t have been better. “Purcell sold the CNC papers at the perfect time, getting top dollar just before things went to hell in this industry,” notes Brotherton, the editorial union head. “He has said that deal made the Herald debt-free.”

The influx of capital was good, but by no means a cure. With the forecast for newspapers growing gloomier, Purcell brokered the sale of the 24-acre plot of real estate that the Herald had occupied for more than 50 years. As part of the deal with National Development, Purcell maintains a minority stake in the $200 million Ink Block development.

In came the bulldozers and construction crews to lay waste to One Herald Square and erect in its place the luxe-life condos and flagship Whole Foods that Katz and I are gawking at. “The Herald was a nitty-gritty operation,” Katz says while taking in a panoramic view of the 50,000-square-foot grocery store. “It had that feeling of history—that you were engaged in this noble enterprise. That’s gone.”

 

Forget declining circulation. Forget the death of classified pages. Forget every other nail in the coffin of newspapers. For the Herald, the biggest threat may well be the limits of the First Amendment.

In recent years, two high-profile defamation suits haven’t helped the paper’s reputation and finances. The first case traces back to a series of articles published in 2002 in which the jury found that the paper erroneously reported that Superior Court Judge Ernest Murphy had disparaged a young rape victim by saying, “She’s 14. She got raped. Tell her to get over it.” The story made national news and thrust Murphy into the spotlight for something he insisted he didn’t say. Murphy and his lawyers took the Herald before a judge and jury, and the paper was ordered to fork over $2 million. In 2007, the state Supreme Judicial Court confirmed the jury’s decision.

More recently, in 2014, a jury found that the Herald defamed Joanna Marinova, an advocate for better prison conditions. The lawsuit was about an article reporting that Marinova had been “previously bagged for engaging in ‘sexual acts’” with a “killer con” during a visit to a prison in Bridgewater. The jury awarded Marinova more than half a million bucks. Making matters worse, the Herald’s insurance company refused to pay the approximately $650,000 the paper owed to the law firm it retained for the case. In turn, the Herald filed a federal lawsuit against its insurer alleging breach of contract for failure to pay legal expenses, which has since been settled through private mediation.

Even when the Herald wins defamation cases, it still hurts the paper. Take, for example, when Tom Scholz, founder of the band Boston, sued the Herald for alleged defamation. He argued that the paper’s Inside Track—then helmed by Gayle Fee and Laura Raposa—implied he was responsible for singer Brad Delp’s suicide. The case and subsequent appeals lasted from 2010 until 2015, when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in the Herald’s favor. Though Scholz had to compensate the Herald for $132,000 in legal expenses, the case still dragged on for years, draining resources and distracting employees.

Raposa says the lawsuit was a distraction that softened the Inside Track’s bite, but it wasn’t the reason she left the Herald. For her, the paper’s move to South Boston signified the beginning of the end. There was nothing fun anymore about being a “Track Girl,” she says, and it was evident that editor Joe Sciacca and executive editor John Strahinich—who worked at this magazine before joining the Herald—were taking the paper in a different direction. Hackneyed political commentary from Howie Carr wannabees who have neither his talent nor his sources began to dominate the pages, and the Inside Track suffered. “It was always the conservative voice, but it became the conservative voice on steroids,” Raposa tells me. “We were being marginalized, and that hurt.”

Raposa isn’t the only one who felt marginalized by the current leadership. Multiple former and current employees say that Sciacca and Strahinich made them feel humiliated and bullied in front of their peers. “They ruled by fear and intimidation,” says Megan Johnson, who worked for the paper from 2010 through 2012 before quitting. (She has since contributed to this publication as a freelancer. )

Over a beer one night a few weeks ago, Brotherton, the editorial head of the Herald’s union, confirmed that a series of unofficial complaints have been brought to the company’s attention regarding the editorial leadership, but refused to disclose any details. However, he offered up one telling anecdote. Before heading into negotiations in 2015, he handed out a survey to editorial guild members asking what was most important to them. He expected pay raises to top the list. But almost unanimously the members asked for a better work/life balance and to “stop the bullying.” Brotherton took a sip of his IPA and shook his head. “We knew it was an issue, but we never expected people would put it in front of pay raises.”

If there’s a litany of complaints filed with the union concerning poor treatment, I asked, why hasn’t anything been done?

“You’re asking the wrong guy,” Brotherton said.

In hopes of getting comment from Sciacca or Strahinich, I spent three and a half hours hanging around outside the Herald’s office one day this spring. Both men are known as avid smokers who sometimes duck into a nearby alley for butts. A few minutes before 3:30, Strahinich stepped out of the doorway, sat on a concrete slab, and slipped a cigarette between his teeth. He barely looked up from his cell phone when I approached and introduced myself. He politely told me he didn’t have time to talk and continued staring at his phone. I told him I had emailed and tried calling and hadn’t heard back. He said he’d consider talking to me but was too busy at the moment, and gave me a number to call. When I called the next day, the number was to the Herald’s main switchboard. His name wasn’t listed in the dial-by-name directory, and when I finally got a receptionist in editorial, she said she wasn’t sure if Strahinich’s voicemail was full or if it was even set up. She took my name and number and said she’d leave a sticky note on his computer. He never called back.

It is unclear if there’s a difference between the “ruthlessly efficient” manner Purcell said the Herald was operating under back in 2006 and the scorched-earth policy of recent years. Some Herald employees are baffled that Purcell has not responded to employee concerns the way they’d have liked while the paper continues its downward spiral. “Sciacca and Strahinich have presided over the biggest declines in the paper’s history in terms of revenue, subscribers, and content, which has shrunk in quantity and quality,” says a current employee who asked to remain nameless. “To those of us in the trenches it seems like we are at war with the editors instead of at war with the Globe.”

War is never pretty, especially when there’s so much at stake. For most newspapers that have hung on this long, there is no great revival or rebirth on the horizon. The Herald’s conservative bent is less an ideology than a business model that has allowed it to consistently court the blue-collar populace of Massachusetts. “Being contrarian means you’re always going to be in the minority, but it means you also have a loyal following,” says the Media Research Center’s Brent Baker. Of course, relying on a loyal minority that’s dying off is an inherently flawed strategy. “I don’t know how the Herald survives long term,” Baker concedes.

The only person who does know is Purcell, who from the looks of it has played all of his cards right and struck gold in a real estate venture that could keep his family’s coffers filled for generations. Unlike his firebrand mentor from Down Under, Purcell stays out of the spotlight. He isn’t prone to making prophetic statements on the state of the media, and he rarely talks about the health of his printed bully pulpit.

Earlier this year, though, he led a conference at Babson College, the focus of which was how to acquire, revive, and sell companies. After explaining how he made a killing on the community newspaper chain, Purcell briefly turned his attention to the Herald. “We don’t know what the future holds. But I do know one thing, and that is we want to continue to serve our readers and our advertisers and, um.” He paused momentarily, put his hands into the air, and cocked his head. “We’ll see where the chips fall. But it’s been a great ride.”

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