February 27 - March 6, 1 9 9 7
[Don't Quote Me]

The Don't Quote Me archive

The Times of Boston

The New England edition's debut raises hackles -- briefly. Plus, Will McDonough's ethics deficit, and the Herald readies a new look.

by Dan Kennedy

For a few days last week, the debut of the New York Times's New England edition was the talk of the town.

On WGBH-TV's Greater Boston, host Emily Rooney and Nieman Foundation curator Bill Kovach, a former Timesman, tried to figure out what it all meant. On the streets and in the coffee shops, transplanted New Yorkers complained about the dearth of city news. Others worried that the Times Company had decided to boost its flagship paper at the expense of the Boston Globe, its wholly owned subsidiary. Globe columnist John Ellis (a freelancer with a successful consulting business, it should be noted) went so far as to call the new edition part of "[t]he relentless dumbing-down of American journalism."

By the end of the week, though, gossip over the Times's intentions had pretty much run out of steam. And that's because it quickly became apparent that the move wasn't as dramatic as it first appeared.

To be sure, everyone except dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers should find the New England edition an improvement over the New York-oriented edition that had previously been trucked up here. The local weather, TV listings, expanded arts coverage, and later deadlines for news and sports all make for a more useful paper. More important, the new edition, which is being printed at the Globe's Billerica plant, can be delivered anywhere the Globe is delivered. Until now, home delivery of the Times was unavailable even in some of the Route 128 suburbs.

But the Times does not intend to expand its New England news coverage, according to Times Company spokeswoman Nancy Nielsen. That ought to quiet fears -- such as those expressed by one observer of the local media scene -- that the Times would be positioned up-market and the Globe down-market in an attempt to squeeze out the Boston Herald. Besides, the Times Company should be loath to do anything to hurt the Globe, which traditionally has produced bigger profit margins than the Times itself.

Not that it would be such a bad thing if the Times's higher local profile acted as a prod to local editors.

Take, for instance, Alison Arnett's February 18 page-one Globe feature on the new wave of Boston restaurants. It was a first-rate piece of work. And it reportedly came about because the Globe learned that the Times had dispatched one of its own food writers to Boston. (The Times story, which covered much of the same turf as Arnett's, finally popped up on February 26.)

But the real story behind the Times's strategy has more to do with the paper's problems back home. The Times's New York-area circulation has been flat for years, with most of its growth coming from its national and regional editions. Now that the Times Company no longer has to ship the paper to Boston and Washington (whose own regional edition also debuted on February 18), it can pay more attention to its own backyard.

Starting this September the New York edition will expand from four to six sections. And in a move that's sure to scandalize traditionalists, the paper's once-gray pages will be filled with color in order to attract more retail advertising.

Expanding in the face of adversity is an ingrained part of the Times's culture. Indeed, the paper's current dominance has its roots in then-publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger's decision to expand news coverage during World War II despite government-ordered paper shortages. Its chief rival, the New York Herald Tribune, cut its newshole, and it never recovered.

"The Times, unlike some newspaper companies, has always responded to changes by investing more in its market," says media-business analyst John Morton. "They've done it even when they couldn't afford it."

I suppose it's the business of Will McDonough's editors at the Boston Globe if they're willing to pay him to pal around with the owners and coaches of the sports franchises he covers.

By McDonough's own admission, though, he spent the better part of the past year not just hanging out with Patriots owner Bob Kraft and former coach Bill Parcells, but acting as a go-between, trying to salvage the deteriorating relationship between the two men. And not writing a hell of a lot about it -- until now.

The details were finally offered up in McDonough's epic February 16 opinion piece, a grandiose attempt at self-justification that took up nearly the entire top half of the Sunday sports section and two full pages inside. Headlined AN INSIDE LOOK AT PARCELLS-KRAFT, it came complete with excerpts of contract language, correspondence between the principals and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and a testy statement from Kraft.

Every reporter regularly faces the dilemma of whether to write a story and risk burning a source, or to hold off in the hopes of even better things to come. But most reporters have a firm enough grasp of professional ethics not to become a key player in a story they're purportedly covering.

The piece itself was vintage McDonough, portraying its hero -- himself, that is -- as a kind of two-fisted practitioner of shuttle diplomacy. Listening sympathetically as Parcells pours his heart out to him on the golf course. Lecturing Kraft during a summit at Castle Island for lying to him about the Pats' draft-day strategy. And above all, making sure you, the reader, know that Kraft and Parcells have each considered him "one of his best friends."

The Boston Herald's Howie Carr lampooned it perfectly on February 19. "Is column-writing nothing more than bloated egos, score-settling, golf and name-dropping? That was the question Bill Cosby asked me. Or was it David Letterman?" wrote Carr.

McDonough, a 61-year-old veteran sportswriter and network-television football analyst, is a man with substantial political connections -- he grew up with Bill and Whitey Bulger in working-class South Boston -- who still plays at politics. Indeed, though McDonough's friendship with Kraft now appears to be in ruins, as recently as December he helped put together a meeting with South Boston's political leaders so that Kraft could pitch his now-defunct plan for a new stadium ("Don't Quote Me," News, December 20).

The Kraft-Parcells-McDonough controversy broke on January 20, six days before the Super Bowl, when McDonough dropped a bombshell: Parcells would quit, and would fight Kraft over any attempt to extract compensation from Parcells's new team.

What McDonough didn't reveal at that time was that his source -- Parcells's agent, Robert Fraley -- for many years had been McDonough's TV agent, a fact that was reported the next day by the Globe's Dan Shaughnessy.

McDonough's omission led to sniping in the gossip columns that McDonough was simply carrying Fraley's water, and to a February 10 rebuke from Globe ombudsman Mark Jurkowitz, who wrote, "One line in the Jan. 20 story on the McDonough-Fraley relationship could have staved off a lot of public anger and doubts about the Globe's integrity."

No doubt that had something to do with the defensiveness of McDonough's lead in his February 16 saga: "This is my story and I'm sticking to it because I lived it and I know it is right."

The McDonough piece provided plenty of grist for WEEI Radio (AM 850), the city's all-sports station. Providence Journal-Bulletin columnist Jim Donaldson, who hosted four hours of McDonough-bashing on February 17, told the Phoenix that in his mind the issue is simple. "Reporters should not be the story," he says. "We all have sources. But when I write columns, they are my honest opinion. I don't have an agenda on a personal level. And I would question why a lot of this material wasn't published before."

McDonough, who was vacationing in the Caribbean, couldn't be reached for comment, but Globe sports editor Don Skwar defended him vigorously. "Will made judgments, as anyone would, as to what information he had and what information he felt comfortable writing," says Skwar, asserting that McDonough held off until he had something definitive to report. Skwar calls McDonough's personal relationships with the principals a "unique" situation, adding that "when he's in the middle of these things, what he was doing was trying to have two friends of his talk things out."

For all the verbiage in McDonough's February 16 piece, there was one curious omission -- an account of what contact Parcells may have had with his new team, the New York Jets, before the season ended. If there was any such contact, the Jets would be guilty of tampering. Does McDonough know something his readers don't know?

"I don't think Bill Parcells is that dumb that he would say to Will McDonough what's going on as far as tampering is concerned," Skwar replies. "Maybe he would, but I think not."

The Boston Herald is about to get its first major face-lift since Rupert Murdoch rescued it nearly two decades ago. The redesign, to be unveiled later this spring, is aimed at modernizing the look while maintaining its identity as a gritty urban tabloid. In other words, don't expect the magazine-like appearance of Long Island's Newsday.

"It will clearly be a tabloid. We don't want to get away from that, because we are what we are," says Kevin Convey, managing editor for features.

Heading up the effort is Ron Reason, director of the visual-journalism program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and a former award-winning design director for the St. Petersburg Times. Reason says what drew him to the project was the chance to reshape a paper that is not trying to make the same kind of upscale appeal as most papers.

"There really is a kind of cookie-cutter mentality for a lot of papers, and for better or worse these guys are charting their own course," Reason says.

In the newsroom, though, some staffers are voicing concerns. Some are simply unimpressed by the prototypes they've seen, with one calling it "a cross between the New York Post and USA Today." Others say the redesign places a lot of emphasis on telling stories with graphics, a labor-intensive process involving reporters, copy editors, and designers. Trouble is, there are no signs that Pat Purcell, the owner of the marginally profitable Herald, will invest in the people power needed to pull it off.

Convey says that Purcell, assistant managing editor for design Linda Kincaid, and the top editors are working both on the redesign and on ways to get more color in the paper.

As for whether the Herald will update its nameplate and dump the old-fashioned newsboy who adorns it, Convey replies: "You're going to have to wait and see about that."

Whitewater sleuth James B. Stewart was able to explain in five minutes on Imus why Susan McDougal's testimony is crucial to Bill Clinton's future. So why was he unable to do so in the nearly 10,000 words that the New Yorker cleared space for in its February 17 edition?

The Don't Quote Me archive

Dan Kennedy's work can also be accessed from his Web site: http://www1.shore.net/~dkennedy/

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com

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