Hard Pressed: Will the Boston Herald Survive?
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.”