Reporting from the Inside

For years, Globe exec Al Larkin has been the paper’s consigliere to local power brokers and its staunchest defender. His bosses in New York haven’t made the job easy—and these days, with talk of a sale swirling, it may be the most daunting in town.

When historians sit down someday to record just where and how the New York Times Company got it wrong with the Boston Globe, they’ll want to pore over one key thing that didn’t happen the day it installed Richard Gilman as the paper’s publisher. As the first outsider to step into the post, Gilman, who’d been the Times Company’s senior vice president of operations, no doubt had a lot of well-wishers to attend to that July day in 1999. But—perhaps fatefully—he never got around to calling Jack Connors.

Nor did Gilman call Connors, head of Hill, Holliday and the consummate Boston insider, the following week, or the following month. Even under ordinary circumstances, you would expect the incoming chief executive of the city’s most important newspaper to reach out to the leader of the city’s most important advertising firm (the ultimate job of the publisher being, after all, to sell ads). Yet in this case the stakes were even higher. By tapping Gilman, the Times Company, which had bought the Globe in 1993 for $1.1 billion, put an end to the Taylor family’s century-and-a-quarter stewardship of the paper. If ever local decision-makers needed someone to allay their anxieties about out-of-town ownership of their daily broadsheet, it was now.

This being Boston, where we remember slights over almost anything else, Gilman’s oversight has not been forgotten. And when the Times Company jettisoned him in September in favor of P. Steven Ainsley, president of the company’s regional newspaper group, his successor seemed determined not to repeat the misstep: One of Ainsley’s first tasks was to place a call to Connors, along with other prominent Bostonians (including my former boss, the mayor). Soon afterward, Ainsley also met with business executives brought together by Larry Fish of Citizens Bank, and dined with another group orchestrated by New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft.

But by then, as we now know, it was too late: Connors, along with Jack Welch and other Boston businessmen such as Joe O’Donnell (as well as former Globe columnist Mike Barnicle, who got the men together), is no longer content to just work with the paper’s publisher—he wants to buy the Globe outright, and choose its publisher himself. While it’s far from clear he and his partners will succeed, their very interest in such a deal serves as a referendum on the Times era at the Globe. With the move, some of Boston’s biggest names are saying to the Times Company’s controlling family, the Sulzbergers: You don’t get us, and you don’t care about us. And we don’t want you.

During their time at the Globe, the Yankee Taylors (who had their own sometimes strained relationship with the city’s powers that be) had a propensity for plucking level-headed, politically minded, typically Irish editors out of the newsroom to help them man the front office. The last product of that system is Al Larkin, a 34-year veteran of the paper who today serves as its executive vice president, and the highest-ranking holdover from the old regime. Over the past several years, he’s become the guy local executives and foundation bosses know to contact if they want to work with the paper. He is an adviser, a behind-the-scenes presence, a fixer. And he’s someone smart observers will be watching as this latest tumultuous chapter unfolds at the Globe.

“He’s invaluable—maybe the most valuable player,” says former Globe editor Matt Storin, who now teaches journalism at Notre Dame. “He knows Boston, knows the players, and keeps up relationships very well. He’s a survivor because he understands power, he understands tribal forces. He has a good memory.” Larkin’s going to need all those skills in the coming months. One of his unofficial duties, as it happens, is to get important people to not give up on the Globe. And that just got a lot more complicated.

One of the oldest rules of communication is that a general speaks to a general, a private speaks to a private, and staffers speak to other staffers. In this city, due to its guarded nature, things are a little different: A Boston CEO wants to talk only to other CEOs he already knows. “Boston is a strange place that way,” says Storin, who also served as executive editor of the New York Daily News. “When I worked in New York, whether it was Donald Trump or the mayor, they would call me up like I was their old buddy. Boston is a town where people will say, ‘I can’t call him up—I don’t know him.’”

When a local leader shies away from making those initial contacts, as the reticent Gilman did, other Boston power brokers don’t know where to turn. During the past seven years at the Globe, that void has been filled by Larkin, who’s naturally suited to the task. His personal story is the kind of quintessential Boston tale that reaffirms the town’s image of itself.

The son of a Charlestown Navy Yard ship fitter, Larkin grew up on Metropolitan Hill in Roslindale. He attended Catholic Memorial high school and Northeastern, but never got his college degree. With long hair that helped him fit in with the antiwar crowd, he took a job covering Vietnam protests and the police department as a city reporter for the Boston Herald Traveler, itself dominated by World War II vets. Larkin joined the Globe in 1972, rising through the ranks to assistant managing editor for local news, then to deputy managing editor and Sunday managing editor, doing a stint at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow along the way. (While heading up the paper’s metro coverage, he played a central role in outmaneuvering the Herald the night it went with its infamously bogus “White Will Run” scoop, doggedly working the phones to determine that Mayor Kevin White would not in fact seek a fifth term—making the Globe look smart, and its tabloid rival embarrassingly wrong.) A move to managing editor in charge of administration pushed Larkin in the direction of the front office, where he settled permanently in 1998 when tapped as a vice president and assistant to the publisher.

From his post, Larkin oversees the paper’s human resources and communications and heads up the Globe Foundation, which gave out more than $1.2 million last year. But those responsibilities don’t really capture his true influence. Few other members of Globe brass are high-ranking or high-profile enough to represent the newspaper in civic affairs—among them, editor Martin Baron and editorial page editor Renee Loth—and none possesses the same intimate knowledge of the unique set of forces, web of loyalties, and tangled relationships that shape how things get done here. That’s why Larkin frequently finds himself being contacted by heavy hitters from business, political, and philanthropic circles. “Al is a real go-to guy on multiple levels,” says Mary Jo Meisner, vice president for communications at the Boston Foundation. For example, through Larkin, the foundation recently convinced the Globe to back its John LaWare Leadership Forum, which aims to rekindle the spirit that animated the Vault when that collective of Boston business and community titans was active. And last winter, after the Times Company compromised financial information of as many as 240,000 of its customers (including me!), it was Larkin who led a delegation to the attorney general’s office to map out what had happened and every step the newspaper had taken in response to the crisis. He knew the details well: Early on, he’d helped fellow execs reach consensus on making the public aware of the mistake.

Larkin has also used his sway proactively, pushing the Globe to sponsor the big media party at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center before the 2004 Democratic National Convention, for which the paper put in $500,000 plus a $250,000 in-kind donation from its website, That same year, Larkin also helped organize the Globe’s first Ideas conference. He says he got the notion for it while on a tour of the nascent Greenway, during which he paused at the end of State Street and gazed out on the harbor—a view that for decades had been obstructed by the Central Artery. With the city starting a new chapter, he realized, there was opportunity to parlay the energy from the convention into promoting Boston as a place of innovation. (That such promotion might spawn new advertisers was an additional benefit.) The Globe held another Ideas conference in 2005, and Larkin hopes to make the gathering an annual thing. So far, though, the paper hasn’t secured enough sponsorship commitments to do that.

Like any smart behind-the-scenes player, Larkin isn’t interested in attention. After reluctantly agreeing to speak with me, he instinctively downplayed his clout. “Publishers and top people are pretty smart. They know the lay of the land. They know how to operate. They could probably do all of that without me,” he says. “I think just because I’ve been here so long, grew up in this city, have been in the newspaper business for something like 40 years now, they use me as a resource.”

Before Ainsley got the job, a rumor made its way around the chattering class late this summer: The next publisher will be Larkin. And for a while, even the possibility that the Times Company would look to a local guy seemed to help quell many of the concerns afoot about the Globe. If he’s bitter about being passed over, Larkin’s certainly not showing it. Indeed, he has high praise for Ainsley, and puts forward a pretty convincing articulation of New York’s dedication to the paper, invoking the parent company’s hefty investments in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, the Metro, and the Red Sox—all of which, he stresses, buttress the Globe brand. He mentions how Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the Times Company chairman, hosted a dinner to welcome the new publisher in late September; he adds that site visits like the one Janet Robinson, the president, undertook that month, are also common. “A lot of people think that they’re strangers to this place, but they’re not. They walk around and sit in people’s offices and ask them how things are going and what’s important to the paper,” says Larkin, noting that part of his job involves frequent phone calls and visits to the company’s headquarters in Times Square.

In vouching for the Times Company like this, Larkin is putting himself—and his decades of goodwill and connections—on the line. And that’s risky, because increasingly the likes of Connors aren’t buying it. Partly, it’s little but lethal snubs that are fueling the disenchantment: Given the value Boston leaders put on face-to-face contact, it’s remarkable Sulzberger hasn’t been much of a visible presence here. Memories of the Times Company chairman’s engaging in fact-finding and meet-and-greet functions with city bigwigs are scant, and you hear how he’s never keynoted a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast, the typical way an out-of-town CEO makes himself known to the in crowd—as was done by the Red Sox’s Larry Lucchino (with great success) and Ken Lewis of Bank of America (likely a tougher sell). But it’s also the more significant and harder-to-shake sense that the leadership down on 43rd Street views Boston as no different from Sarasota, Florida, or its other branch towns. Says one person familiar with the potential deal Connors and company are pursuing: “As far as Al goes, he’s a great guy. But he works for people in New York. I understand the new publisher is a terrific guy. The value that the Times has for the Globe is they had one guy here for several years, Gilman, who no one knew.”

While going out of his way to praise Baron’s editorial leadership, former John Hancock head Dave D’Alessandro makes a similar point. “In the Times Company, there’s only one newspaper. Everything else is a subsidiary,” he says. He feels that no matter who the Globe’s publisher is, Larkin is in a diminished position. “I don’t care if they call him grand wizard—his orders come out of New York.” Those kinds of statements reflect psychic, not monetary, damage. And while Larkin’s doing the best he can, that’s something somebody above his pay grade has to fix.