Reading Between the Lines

After the final slice of carved turkey had been polished off and the last guests had straggled out, some Boston Globe news staffers would recall their 2005 holiday party as an oddly spirited affair. Paid for with a combination of company money and personal donations by its hosts, including editor Marty Baron, the event at the University Club as usual featured an open bar, which no doubt had something to do with the vibe. For all the changes their profession and their newspaper had of late endured, these were still journalists, and a lot of them remained committed to the timeless journalistic obligation to avail themselves of free drinks. But there was something else, an air of camaraderie that pervaded the hall into which the attendees were crowded.

Nick King, the paper's soon-to-be ex�opinion page editor, would later say the feeling was like what shoppers experience when they're “running around buying candles before a big storm.” Another now former Globe staffer, having sensed the way his fellow partygoers “were expressing how much [they] were appreciating each other,” would reach for a different description: “This might be an extreme analogy, but it was a bit like a military unit that's lost a couple of members.” It felt, more simply, like a goodbye party, because in many ways that's what it was. And in this case “the people leaving,” one reveler says, “were the happiest people in the room.” 

Two and a half months before the holiday fete, the Globe 's corporate parent, the New York Times Company, had ordered it to trim three dozen positions from its editorial ranks. Measured in hard numbers, the reduction, which would be accomplished through voluntary buyouts, reflected a relatively minor decrease in the reporting strength of the paper's then-441-person editorial staff. The psychic blow, however, has been far greater, harsher even than the one that followed the Globe's purging of 67 newsroom jobs in 2001. “We picked up from the last round without missing a step,” King says. “This time really puts a dent in the workforce that's going to be tough to fill, and tough to compensate for. The cuts hit much closer to the bone.”

Baron insists that he and his deputies were able to steer the Globe through the buyouts without damaging what he frequently refers to as the “core mission,” that the paper will remain New England's most influential media outlet, a regional daily with national clout—that readers ultimately will not notice any difference. But many current and former Globe staffers say the cuts only intensified an existing identity crisis simmering inside the paper's Morrissey Boulevard newsroom. With the industry as a whole suffering through prolonged financial straits, they've seen their paper, long marked by its outsize ambitions, slowly stripped of reportorial firepower. At the same time, a shift toward more hands-on editing and an increased emphasis on straightforward coverage of the previous day's happenings have left reporters at the Globe —also long known as a writers' paper—with limited opportunities to pursue engaging, unexpected stories for the daily news mix. “It feels like the Globe doesn't quite know what it is anymore, like it's lost its sense of itself,” says an ex-editor. The result, insiders say, is that the printed product has been sapped of the vitality, the oomph, that distinguishes great papers from merely good ones. The Herald has always delighted in calling the Globe “the Boring Broadsheet.” Now some of the Globe 's own writers fear their tabloid rival may be right.

Instilling his troops with a renewed sense of purpose stands as Baron's most important challenge in the months ahead—maybe his most important since he got to Boston four and a half years ago. With the sting of last year's cuts still lingering, it won't be easy. “This is a morgue, dude,” a Globe staffer whispered into the phone in late December. “When you go through buyouts, which in a way are like deaths in the family, and you don't have a matriarch or patriarch who'll pat you on the back and say, 'We'll get through this,' it makes the mourning that more acute. We are limping along, emotionally and psychologically in tatters. The place has lost its soul.”

Rumors of pending cuts were already making the rounds of the Globe news-room when the Times Company revealed on Tuesday, September 20, that it was going ahead with staff reductions. The timing of the announcement, delivered by e-mail shortly after 4 o'clock, nonetheless caught some off-guard. “People were on deadline,” says ex� Globe pop culture writer Renée Graham, “but still, everything came to a stop.”

Marty Baron had started to prepare for the cuts as soon as it looked like they might be necessary. He had been through similar situations earlier

in his career, running the Los Angeles Times ' Orange County edition when that paper pruned its payroll and editing the Miami Herald when its owner, Knight Ridder, did the same. “I'm not a Pollyanna. I never thought I'd come here to the Boston Globe and the New York Times Company and never would have to reduce staff again,” he says. “Obviously, we've been feeling some pressures. You start thinking about if something has to give, what would it be?”

The buyout package, extended to all union members and managers with at least seven years at the paper, reportedly offered three weeks' pay for every year of service, plus a “goodbye bonus” worth another 12 weeks' pay for the most senior staffers, with a cap at the equivalent of two years' salary. That money would come in a lump sum, providing a pretty nice cushion from which to launch a job search or new career. Graham was one of several prominent bylines to take the deal; others included obituary writer Tom Long, feature writer and former ombudsman Jack Thomas, economics writer Charles Stein, sports reporter Bill Griffith, Washington columnist Tom Oliphant, rock critic Steve Morse, classical music critic Richard Dyer, and theater critic Ed Siegel. The total of 32 staffers who signed up fell four shy of the mandate. But because the Globe had gone into the process with 12 newsroom slots unfilled, it was able to use some of those vacancies—rather than layoffs—to make up the shortfall.

As the deadline for the buyouts approached, Baron was already figuring out how to redeploy his remaining forces, holding strategy sessions with executive editor Helen Donovan and managing editor for administration Mary Jane Wilkinson around a small black conference table in his office overlooking the Southeast Expressway. Occasionally, department heads would be brought into these discussions. For the most part, though, the talks were held behind closed doors. “I didn't want to have a debate society in here,” Baron says now. “It was something we had to get done.”

Some of the solutions that resulted—such as moving the editorial page's copy editor over to the general newsroom desk—dealt with relatively mundane logistical details. Others led to the junking of the entire Life at Home section and its replacement by the new Thursday Style pages that debuted last month. All inevitably drew reactions from the news corps, none more so than Baron's decision to transfer coordination of national coverage from Boston to the Globe' s bureau in Washington, D.C., and do away with the positions of roving national correspondent, New York correspondent, and the three national editors to whom they reported. On paper, it was only five positions. Symbolically, it was akin to taking a wrecking crew into Fenway Park and lopping four feet off the Green Monster.

“The roving national job is not only one of the best jobs at the newspaper, but one of the most fun,” says metro columnist Brian McGrory, who did a tour as rover in the mid-1990s. More than just a prize to motivate the paper's up-and-comers and a showcase for its best writers, the position benefited readers. The rover's dispatches, in McGrory's words, “gave the front page a splash of color” while providing distinctive, Boston-

centric takes on big issues, precisely the kind of content lesser dailies have largely abandoned in favor of homogenized wire-service copy.

The Globe had previously recalled its West Coast and southern correspondents. Now that it was scrapping the rover job along with the rest of the national desk, “there was a sense that we were downsizing our ambitions as well as our manpower,” says a staffer. In fact, that isn't exactly the case: Baron has given Washington bureau chief Peter Canellos not only instructions to produce enterprising, broad-ranging articles with his 10-member staff but “enough money to travel every week or two to do a national story, which is as much as the rover did,” Canellos says. (To ensure the D.C. unit's coffers won't be used up by another Hurricane Katrina, events requiring teams of reporters to put in long stays on the road will continue to be treated separately on the paper's balance sheet.) Having Washington reporters “get the hell out of D.C. is a really good thing,” says McGrory; it will give them a break from the stultifying culture of the Beltway and bring perspective to their beat reporting. “You'll invariably miss having one person poring over the country deciding what's interesting. But to have a bureau of 10 people realizing they have more freedom to go out and travel, that's a good tradeoff.”

During the week of October 10, Baron gathered the editors and reporters on the national desk to inform them of his plan for their section. But according to an ex-staffer who was then still at the Globe, he never sent out an internal announcement to ensure that all the paper's journalists understood it, and the rationale behind it. Some of them were consequently still in the dark when bloggers and other media outlets picked up the “dismantling” of the national desk the following week, lumping it in with reports that the Globe 's steadily eroding circulation had dropped another 8 percent during the previous six months, to 416,000 on weekdays and 667,000 on Sundays—the third-sharpest decrease among the nation's 20 largest newspapers. (That about half of the decline could be explained by a move away from advertiser-disdained bulk sales to schools, hotels, and the like did little to brighten the picture.) On October 20, after those articles appeared, Baron tapped out a pair of brief e-mails inviting employees to a series of sit-downs the following week “to discuss newsroom changes as a result of the job cuts and to answer your questions,” which were by then plentiful.

For those unsettled by the tumult inside Globe headquarters, the last few months of 2005 also brought distressing updates from other precincts of the embattled newspaper industry: of staff cuts at big urban dailies elsewhere, of the Times Company's nose-diving stock price (down by a third over the course of the year), of sagging ad revenues in the Times Company's New England Media Group, of which the Globe is the principal component (making it “the worst-performing division of the stock market's worst-performing newspaper company,” Herald business columnist Brett Arends has gleefully noted). On November 30, Globe publisher Richard Gilman delivered more bad news. While the Globe 's editorial ranks had met their target for staff reductions, the New England division as a whole had fallen short of its mandated goal of cutting 160 positions. “Beginning in February 2006,” he wrote in an internal memo, “we will contract with a vendor to provide our custodial services.” They were axing the janitors. (Three weeks later, the Times Company gave Gilman a heretofore unreported bonus worth, at the time, more than $1.55 million in shares and stock options.)

Baron wrote his staff again on December 2, this time sending out a longer e-mail addressing the anxiety the buyouts had stirred up. “News organizations, including our own, have struggled through tough times before. We have always found the strength and inspiration to remain a relevant, enjoyable, and essential part of so many people's lives,” his note concluded. “We'll need some of that resilience as we deal with the ripple effects of job reductions. We have had to modify the things we do and how we do them, and that has meant new roles for many. Abrupt changes like these are unsettling, of course. It may take months to fully adjust. But we will adjust, and because of your commitment, the Globe can face its current challenges with confidence of success.” Still, staffers complain he didn't follow that up with the kind of rousing pep talk, the come-to-Jesus meeting, that might have made his message more convincing.

In May 2004, not entirely humbled former New York Times executive editor Howell Raines provided his take on his rocky, scandal-plagued stint atop the Times in a long Atlantic Monthly essay, at one point comparing his own hard-charging style with Baron's stated management philosophy of “more, better, faster.” After reading the passage, Baron sat down at his computer and fired off an icy letter to the editor, refuting Raines's assessment of their similarities and scolding the ex� Times boss for using the Atlantic article to tar his predecessor, Joe Lelyveld, “my model (and mentor).” Baron's missive, first flagged by the Phoenix, was revealing in several ways. Pugnacious, prickly, unfailingly punctilious, Baron relishes proving others wrong and rarely lets a mistake slide, whether committed by a contemporary or an underling. And like the man he emulates, his sharp intellect comes with an aloofness and brusque mien. He is the journalistic equivalent of the brilliant surgeon with a frosty bedside manner.

To those who labor under him, Baron is an endlessly complex figure. But their view of the boss can be conveyed through a simple formulation: “Everybody respects Marty,” says a Globe reporter, “and everybody's a little bit afraid of Marty.” (This explains why so few of the insiders contacted for this story would speak on the record.) In his post just eight weeks when 9/11 hit, Baron earned the admiration of writers and editors with his masterful quarterbacking of the Globe 's top-notch coverage of the attacks, an approbation that only increased after he jump-started the paper's Pulitzer Prize�winning investigation of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. He is regarded as fair-minded, and gets credit from one newsroom source for trying not to play favorites. And in contrast with Matt Storin, the editor he succeeded, Baron is not prone to yelling and screaming. But in an office culture shaped in part by the more expressive personalities of Storin and the legendary Tom Winship, “that's even a little more scary, because you don't know what he's thinking,” a reporter says.

Globe staffers say Baron spends little time chatting with reporters in the newsroom, the type of casual one-on-one interaction that might make him come across as more approachable. Baron feels that charge is unfair. “Frankly, I'd like to be out more myself. But there are certain obligations for an editor that I don't think everybody on the staff is aware of,” he says. “People in the community want me to be out in the community. People on the business side want to meet with me. And people in the newsroom want me to be out on the floor. And there's only one of me. And then there's this little sliver of me that would like to have a private life. So I do the best I can.” Greg Moore, the Globe 's gregarious ex�managing editor, could once be counted on to do the backslapping and ego stroking left unattended to by Baron's schedule and demeanor. When Moore bolted the paper to take the helm of the Denver Post in June 2002, Baron chose to let the managing editor slot sit empty and to rely more heavily on executive editor Helen Donovan, who is as shy as Baron is stern. “Most newspapers have two people in the top two positions, and that's basically it,” Baron says. “We had three here.” While the new setup is more cost-effective and arguably more efficient, it also leaves the paper's masthead without an editor naturally adept at lifting moods. “I have a role to play” in boosting morale, Baron says. “But you know, what boosts morale the most is not just general cheerleading. I think it's also producing good journalism that we can all be proud of.”

In order for that approach to be fully effective, though, individual journalists need to feel empowered to do their best work—and here is where the disconnect between the Globe editor and the newsroom rank and file seems most apparent. For all the improvements Baron has made, for all the awards reporters have collected during his time there, some of his own staffers argue that the Globe is failing to consistently deliver the lively mix of stories crucial to preserving its status as a must-read. “When you can barely get through the paper yourself,” says one, “you say to yourself, 'What's wrong with this picture?'”

When it comes to the overall makeup of the Globe, Baron has exhibited an eagerness to challenge convention, beefing up the paper's Sunday magazine in an era when most dailies have given up on theirs, and investing in an unabashedly highbrow Ideas section that thumbs its upturned nose at the dumbing-down of the media. He gives writers room to produce sprawling packages, like the four-part series on the making of an ICU nurse that ran in October and the three-part profile of a disabled Harvard freshman published last June. But on a day-to-day basis, Baron also wants the Globe to beat the national papers on stories about fields in which Boston plays a central role (medicine, technology, higher ed). He puts a high priority on covering breaking local news, too, making his displeasure clear when his reporters are outhustled on a story.

Baron's staffers say what's missing from the mix are the pieces that fall in between—the kind that can keep a reporter from rushing out to cover daily events, but that ultimately bring needed perspective to an unfolding story or provide a vivid look at topics that, while smalltime on the surface, tap into the Boston zeitgeist. So what readers often see on the front page and in the City & Region section are a lot of just-the-facts-ma'am digests of the previous day's events, heavy on politics and crime. The Globe may do these stories better than its competitors. But the point is that these are not stories you won't find anywhere else. “That seems a mistake to me,” says a reporter, “when newspapers should be playing up their uniqueness.” It may sound odd to suggest that the Globe, or any paper, could have too much hard news. But when that hard news crowds out analysis, insight, and playful writing, it risks making a paper interchangeable with the antiseptic headline aggregators on search engines like Yahoo and Google.

Baron allows “it's possible that there are fewer idiosyncratic stories now” in the Globe. But he bristles at the suggestion that the paper he's putting out is any less compelling than its prior incarnations. “I would suggest that people actually look at what's in the newspaper. If people have innovative story ideas, if people think that these kinds of innovative story ideas aren't wanted, they're wrong.” Indeed, it's tough to get Globe insiders to point to specific rejected or underplayed pieces. Partly that's because none want to identify themselves as the source of the gripes. But it also seems that, in the absence of encouragement from the higher-ups, the paper's stretched-thin editorial team is less frequently proposing such articles in the first place. “Newspaper people are smart. They respond to stimuli,” says one ex� Globe reporter. “If the people who are being promoted and the stories being promoted are hard news, that's what they're going to focus on.”

In January 1995, while tracking a major organized-crime indictment, Globe reporter Kevin Cullen spied a related story: the demise of great mobster nicknames. The 700-word piece he spun from that observation—”Nicknames to Die For”—would now have trouble seeing print, Cullen believes. Likewise, “the kind of voice I wrote with in objective news stories, I don't know if I could get that stuff in here today.” Cullen, who takes a pragmatic view of the changes at the Globe, attributes the shift to the risk-averseness that's arisen in the industry in the wake of its assorted credibility-damaging scandals. But other papers continue to let their reporters write with personality—for better or worse, you'll find plenty of personality in the Herald every day—and its absence is sometimes conspicuous in the pages of the Globe.

Some readers may have thought Cullen's mobster nickname story was clever. Others may have dismissed it as silly. But at least it had the ability to strike a chord with them. “It used to be that either they loved us or they hated us, but at least people felt something for us,” says a Globe staffer. “I don't know if they feel anything for us now.”