LAST FRIDAY, the Boston Herald was crowing. Preliminary figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations were in, and the tabloid reported that its weekday numbers were up by some 1400 compared with a year ago — and that the Boston Globe’s were down by about 17,000, a figure also cited by the trade magazine Editor & Publisher. As if to add to the Herald’s good news, the Globe — in an "Editor’s Note" that morning — had acknowledged running a story about the Canadian seal hunt that a freelancer had largely fabricated.
It was a rare positive day for the city’s number-two daily newspaper. And the circulation numbers, at least, showed that editorial director Ken Chandler’s two-year mission to tart up what had been a fairly stolid product may be paying some modest dividends.
Still, the obstacles facing the Herald are enormous. Publisher Pat Purcell is in the midst of a painful round of downsizing. He’s trying to identify $7 million in savings by the end of June, and he recently told the Newspaper Guild that he intends to eliminate 35 of about 140 union jobs in the newsroom. Insiders predict that cut will have devastating effects on the paper’s ability to cover the news — yet the move will only get Purcell $2 million of the way toward his goal.
Herald columnist Mike Barnicle — brought in amid controversy in March 2004 — quietly stepped away from his post as a regular columnist last week, telling his former employer, the Globe, that he hoped his salary would be used to save other people’s jobs. Barnicle’s departure came after months of buzz, both in and out of the newsroom, that he and his employer were less than thrilled with each other (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features, January 7).
As for long-term circulation trends, the Globe’s lead would appear to be insurmountable. Even after Friday, the Globe still sells an average of 435,000 papers per day on weekdays, compared with 250,000 for the Herald. According to Editor & Publisher, the Globe’s Sunday circulation is down by some 15,000, which would place the total somewhere around 683,000. By contrast, the Herald has long sold about 150,000 copies of its Sunday edition.
In considering the Herald’s future, though, the circulation numbers aren’t really all that important, as long as they can be stabilized — and, for the moment, they have been. The larger question is whether Boston can maintain its status as one of the few cities in the country with two daily newspapers. It can, but only if the Herald offers readers something they want that they can’t find in the Globe. Last week’s good news notwithstanding, the current formula isn’t likely to work as a long-term solution — especially after the downsizing has been carried out and the impact on daily coverage is felt.
For the sake of the city’s future, Boston needs to remain a two-daily town — and I don’t mean the Globe and the Metro, the free commuter tabloid. The Globe’s corporate parent, the New York Times Company, recently bought a 49 percent share of the Metro, and the freebie is now running some Globe content. That’s not exactly a newspaper war. The city and the state benefit from real competition for news, for advertising, even for sensibility in terms of the two very different views of the world you’ll find in the Globe and the Herald.
To be sure, Purcell denies that the Herald is on its last legs. In a recent appearance on Greater Boston with Emily Rooney, on WGBH-TV (Channel 2), Purcell said, "You’ve got a period of economic softness that you have to fight your way through. We’ve fought our way through for the last 20 years, and we’re going to fight our way through for the next 20 years" (see "Media Log," BostonPhoenix.com, April 6). (Disclosure: I was interviewed in the set-up piece.)
Let’s hope Purcell is right. There are still plenty of good people who work at the Herald, and there are stories worth reading and photos worth pondering every day. But without a radical change of direction, the Herald may just keep spinning toward oblivion. To prevent that from happening, here, at absolutely no charge, are a few ideas that just might restore the Herald to health — and guarantee that Boston remains a town not just with two daily newspapers, but two dailies that actually matter.
1) Get smart. Maybe 10 years ago, a former Herald staffer told me something he’d once said to Purcell. It went like this: You’ve already got all the stupid readers, Pat. You need to find a few smart ones as well. Under Chandler, the Herald for the past two years has traveled in the opposite direction, emulating the New York Post, of which Chandler was the editor and later the publisher during the ’90s. Oddly enough, when Chandler was the editor of the Herald during the ’80s, he restored it to respectability. This time around, his goal seems to be the reverse.
Fortunately, not every talented reporter and photographer has abandoned ship during the Chandler reign — although there has been a serious talent drain, with chief political reporter David Guarino’s departure for the office of state attorney general Tom Reilly the most recent loss. The remaining journalists should focus on a few areas that really matter to readers, most notably state and local politics and news from Boston’s neighborhoods, which are underserved by both the Herald and the Globe.
Crime? Well, a few of the more serious crimes, yes. But this is 2005, and police news these days is what local television news is for. Do the travails of Joan Kennedy — a recent favorite topic — really sell newspapers anymore? I find it hard to imagine, although no doubt Chandler would attribute that to my not knowing anything about tabloids.
The Herald’s strengths are in its business coverage, its sports section (perhaps the only part of the paper that can be said to compete on a more-or-less even footing with the Globe), and some strong critics in the arts-and-entertainment section. Combined with solid local-news coverage, the Herald would have the makings of a mandatory second read.
2) Upgrade the look. Newcomers to Boston no doubt are perplexed when they hear old-timers refer to the Herald as "the Record." That’s a reference to the Record American, a Hearst-owned tabloid from a bygone era that, along with several other papers, eventually morphed into the modern Herald. Trouble is, the Herald really does look like the Record, if the Record could be exhumed, updated a bit, and printed in color.
Moreover, stories in the Herald have shrunk to news-brief length, with a hyperkinetic layout that gives readers little guide to what they’re likely to encounter on any given page. That goes against modern trends in newspaper design. I would tone down the presentation, air out the story lengths somewhat, and turn the Herald into more of a writer’s paper. The idea is to appeal to intelligent readers looking for both an alternative (or, more likely, a supplement) to the Globe and for something more substantial than the Metro.
These changes cannot be accomplished without a significant redesign. The Herald underwent a dramatic makeover in 1998, an effort led by well-known design consultant Ron Reason. The result was an attractive, colorful paper that looked more like a compact version of USA Today than a traditional urban tabloid. These days, about all that’s left of that effort are the white-on-blue nameplate and the body type.
Returning to the 1998 look would be a considerable improvement. But if Purcell and Chandler were asking me (ha!), I would go for something more understated, in keeping with the audience I’d be trying to reach. I’d certainly keep the tabloid format, but not the sensibility. Long Island’s Newsday takes a magazine-like approach that might be effective. Locally, the Boston Business Journal is a good example of a graphically interesting, elegant-looking paper that just happens to be printed at tab size. The BBJ look may be too quiet for a paper that has to sell itself on the newsstand every day. So I’d go with Newsday — with the Reason design as my fallback position.page 1 page 2
Issue Date: April 22 - 28, 2005
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