The Boston Phoenix
May 25 - June 1, 2000

[Don't Quote Me]

Banned by Boston

Behind the sudden departure of editor Craig Unger. Plus, the Ledger goes on the block (again); Herald publisher Pat Purcell says he's interested.

by Dan Kennedy

Strahinich to leave Boston

Updated May 30, 2000 5:15 PM EST

Boston magazine's executive editor, John Strahinich, is following Craig Unger out the door. On Tuesday morning, Strahinich -- the monthly magazine's number-two editor -- told associate publisher and managing partner Dan Scully that he would leave after it became clear that he would not be named to replace Unger. Strahinich's last day will be Friday, June 16.

"It was up or out for me. I've done everything I wanted to do at Boston magazine except become editor," Strahinich, 51, told the Phoenix on Tuesday afternoon. He adds that he has no job prospects at the moment.

Responds Scully: "What I told him is that he is encouraged to apply. If he is reading tea leaves or handwriting on the wall, that's up to him." He adds, "I would have preferred that he stay."

In recent months, as Unger had battled with owner Herb Lipson, sources say Strahinich had shouldered an increasingly greater share of the workload. A Chicago native who has worked in Boston since the 1970s, Strahinich was seen by some insiders as precisely what the magazine needed at the top of the masthead: a veteran journalist who knows where the bodies are buried, both in the city and at the magazine.

Indeed, though Strahinich won praise inside the building for stepping into the breach even while remaining loyal to Unger, his departure clearly has little to do with solidarity and everything to do with his not being given his own chance to run the show -- especially after 13 1/2 years with the magazine in two stints, from 1984 to '93 and then since 1995. Still, Strahinich is philosophical about his departure, saying, "There are no hard feelings. They're not being mean to me. They've been nice to me."

One Boston contributor, told of Strahinich's departure, reacted with a mixture of surprise and sympathy. "Even when Unger was chugging at top speed, I was getting messages from Strahinich all hours of the day and night," this source says. "He really must have been busting his ass."

Scully praised Strahinich for leaving with the July, August, and September issues essentially done. Until a new editor is named, he says, editorial decisions will likely be made by consensus among senior staff members. If need be, Scully adds, Stephen Fried, who edits Lipson's flagship magazine, Philadelphia, will be consulted.

And who might the next editor be? "We're interested in finding a Boston person -- someone with strong Boston ties," Scully says.

-- DK

Among insiders at Boston magazine, it was well-known that editor Craig Unger's tenure was drawing to a close. He'd served five years, an unusually long time to work for the mercurial, Philadelphia-based owner, Herb Lipson. Credited with bringing stability and higher professional standards to a magazine that had previously been short on both, Unger, sources say, had appeared disengaged and ready to move on in recent months, reportedly considering a return to New York, and/or a foray into the dot-com world. Still, the end, coming as suddenly as it did, was something of a surprise.

"I don't think there was any one thing that brought things to a head," says a source.

The Boston Globe reported in its "Names & Faces" column on Tuesday that Unger, 51, was shown the door after he refused a demand to fire four columnists, and the Globe continued to push that theme in a follow-up on Wednesday. But associate publisher and managing partner Dan Scully says, "That's flat-out wrong. All of our columnists are in our line-up, and there are no plans to change any columnists." Unger himself, reached at his Cambridge home, would neither confirm nor deny the report. In a statement released by the magazine, Unger said that although he didn't always see eye to eye with management, he always had final editorial control. Indeed, no one close to the situation believes the issue of the columnists had anything to do with Unger's departure; the guessing is that they were either a smoke screen to hide the real reason for his resignation or simply the last of many straws. Sources say that it is not unusual for Lipson to demand that a writer be canned or a story be killed. The standard operating procedure is to ignore him and hope he forgets, which he usually does. Still, the Globe item reportedly spooked several columnists enough for them to make panicked calls to Boston's offices to see if they still had their gigs.

If this were any magazine other than Boston, the editor's departure would be a surprise. During Unger's tenure, paid circulation, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, has stayed right around 120,000 at a time when many magazines are losing readers; newsstand sales, a direct measure of an editor's ability to generate buzz, are up 40 percent. Revenues have increased by 43 percent and profits have more than doubled under Unger, according to Scully. And by any measure Unger has also been an editorial success. He upgraded the magazine's traditional coverage of restaurants, fashion, and which-suburban-school-system-has-the-highest
-SAT-scores while at the same time delving into such subjects as political consultant Arthur Finkelstein's gay relationship (relevant because of Finkelstein's work for homophobic right-wingers such as Jesse Helms) and Harvard African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. (a smart piece marred by the dumb cover line HEAD NEGRO IN CHARGE). The magazine also won a slew of awards, with both the City and Regional Magazine Association and Folio magazine naming it the best city magazine in the country.

Still, the Unger who's been editing the magazine for the past year is, insiders say, a different man. For reasons known only to the principals, he and Lipson had a serious falling-out. One ex-staffer goes so far as to speculate that after Lipson got rid of Eliot Kaplan, the editor of his flagship Philadelphia magazine, in March 1999, he then turned on Unger, who had previously been his favored child. "Herb never seemed willing to like two editors at the same time," this source says. And though Unger continued to show up each day at 9 a.m. and work long hours, he struck staff members as distracted and unavailable, caught up in managing his difficult boss, personal problems, and career angst. With some members of the staff growing increasingly restless and unhappy over the situation (including one writer who reportedly boasted of complaining to Boston's business side, thus incurring a lecture from Unger), something, inevitably, had to give. Hence Unger's resignation, formally announced late Tuesday afternoon.

Unger, who'd been deputy editor at the New York Observer before coming to Boston, says he's exploring an Internet venture and may move back to New York. Beyond that, he resolutely refuses to comment on his time at Boston and why it's come to such a sudden end. Sources say Unger's contract does not expire until the end of the year, and that the severance package Unger negotiated involves a buyout of that contract. Given that Unger's salary was thought to be in the vicinity of $200,000, the settlement must have been substantial, but Lipson has evidently decided it's worth it.

The next question is who will take Unger's place. An obvious candidate is executive editor John Strahinich, Unger's number two, who has been with Boston since the 1980s except for one brief interlude. Indeed, several sources say that Strahinich, 51, has been shouldering much of Unger's workload, and has won plaudits for doing it while staying loyal to Unger. Strahinich himself wouldn't comment, but several sources -- Strahinich supporters -- say that not only should he get the job, but that they wouldn't be surprised to see him leave if he's passed over.

But even Strahinich's partisans know he may not be Lipson's type. Lipson has always shown a preference for outside flash. Previous Boston editors, for instance, include former Boston Herald American editor Don Forst (now the editor of the Village Voice) and well-known newspaperman/novelist Ken Hartnett (now the editor of the New Bedford Standard-Times). Unger himself is Harvard-educated, and had worked as a senior editor at the ur-city magazine, New York, before his stint at the Observer. Indeed, no less a figure than Clay Felker, credited with virtually inventing the genre at New York in the 1960s and '70s, was among those who recommended Unger to Lipson. (Unger also wrote for the Boston Phoenix and the now-defunct Real Paper in the 1970s.)

Strahinich graduated from the University of Illinois and received his masters from the Columbia School of Journalism. He worked as a writer for the Real Paper and as executive editor for the Boston Business Journal before moving to Boston. Known as a hard-news guy, in the mid-1990s he helped break some important stories on financial mismanagement of the Big Dig, stories that now seem prescient. Sources say that as he's taken on more work during the past year, he's broadened his portfolio to include much of the magazine's softer coverage. But as for who Lipson -- reportedly traveling in Europe -- might have in mind, no one has a clue.

One long-time Lipson observer, who criticizes the owner's penchant for bringing in out-of-towners and then getting rid of them as soon as they're up to speed, puts it this way: "It has to do with the starfucker syndrome."

All in all, a not atypical chapter in the life of an often roiled magazine. "Some people own magazines to make money, and some people own magazines as a public trust," says one insider. "Herb Lipson owns magazines to hire and fire editors, as far as I can tell."

Two years after being sold for a reported $90 million, the Quincy Patriot Ledger is on the block once again. Citing health problems, president/CEO Jim Plugh told his staff on Tuesday that his company would sell all of its properties -- the daily Ledger and Brockton Enterprise, and a string of weeklies -- by the end of the year.

The potential buyers are essentially the same as they were two years ago. Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell says he would definitely take another look at the papers, saying, "I think that would be a nice complement to the Herald." Kirk Davis, president of Fidelity's Community Newspaper Company, says his operation is "very interested" in the papers, calling them "very complementary" to CNC's 100-plus papers in Greater Boston and on Cape Cod.

Denver Post owner Dean Singleton, who already owns the Lowell Sun and several other Massachusetts properties, is thought to be a strong contender, but he could not be reached for comment. Nor could officials from Dow Jones's Ottaway division, whose nearby New Bedford Standard-Times and Cape Cod Times would presumably also complement the Quincy and Brockton papers. Other possible candidates include the New Jersey-based Journal Register Company, which owns a number of small and medium-size dailies in Massachusetts, and possibly even the New York Times Company, which owns the Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

At the Ledger -- with a daily circulation of 70,000, the state's largest evening paper -- the past two years have been marked by stringent downsizing. Even so, a source says the staff greeted Plugh's announcement with some trepidation -- especially at the prospect of Singleton, who battled with the union at the Sun.

"People are nervous," this source says. "It's a little too close to the sale two years ago."

FUSION CANDIDATE? Libertarian Senate candidate Carla Howell's "small government is beautiful" agenda meshes well with the Republicans' tax-cutting philosophy

For the beleaguered Massachusetts Republican Party, the US Senate candidacy of Jack Robinson is a classic lose-lose situation. Either he stays on the ballot, thus subjecting the GOP to six months' worth of "Robinson Report"-style jokes about "The Tongue," plagiarism, and cell-phone-induced car accidents. Or he gets dropped after a drawn-out signature challenge, leaving the party with no one to run even a symbolic campaign against Ted Kennedy.

Here, then, a modest proposal: the Republicans should nominate Carla Howell, the Libertarian Party's candidate for the Senate. She's as smart and articulate as Robinson, but she lacks his personal baggage. And her "small government is beautiful" agenda meshes well with the Republicans' tax-cutting philosophy.

Too bad the beleaguered Massachusetts Republicans don't see it that way. Party chairman Brian Cresta immediately ruled out such a move, saying the Libertarians' support for such controversial measures as drug legalization makes Howell and the Republicans "complete polar opposites" on some issues. "For those and other reasons, I could not see the Republican Party supporting Carla Howell's candidacy," Cresta says.

That's an unfortunate failure of the imagination given the desperate straits in which the Republicans find themselves. Cresta appears to have forgotten the secret of the GOP's modest success 10 years ago, when William Weld won the governor's office: the candidate's conservative stand on taxes and spending, combined with an un-Republican-like libertarian approach to social issues such as choice and gay rights.

Republican political consultant Jim Nuzzo remembers, though. "Since I come from the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, I love that idea," he says of a GOP alliance with Howell. "It's how we won with Bill Weld. Bill Weld was a libertarian Republican. It would give her some credibility, and it would give us a respectable candidate who could engage in a real debate with Ted Kennedy."

Such a move would solve the media's problem as well. Though the Libertarians have been a persistent presence on the Massachusetts political scene, the media have never quite known what to do about them. Two years ago, for instance, the Boston Herald refused to include Howell, who was then running for state auditor, in its candidates' forum, arguing that she had no realistic chance of winning. Yet the paper's editorial page then turned around and endorsed her.

By running under two party labels, Howell would be virtually guaranteed the 35 percent that goes to any anti-Kennedy candidate, and would win unprecedented visibility for the Libertarians. And the Republicans would be spared a major embarrassment.

The mechanics of actually delivering the Republican nomination to Howell are somewhat complicated. Because she's not a registered Republican, she cannot run as an official candidate in the September GOP primary. Instead, Howell would have to win at least 10,000 write-in or sticker votes. Walking a rhetorical fine line, Howell says she would accept the Republican nomination if that were to happen, but that it would be "improper" for her, as a non-Republican, to push for it. "We have support from lots of Republican individuals," she says. "I do welcome and encourage their support."

If all this seems more complex than it needs to be, well, it is. In contrast, consider New York, one of a handful of states that allow parties to nominate non-members. The arrangement has given the Liberal and Conservative Parties enough visibility to make them small but important players: if, say, the Democratic nominee for an office fails to get the Liberal endorsement as well, he'll find it hard to win, since the Liberals will field their own candidate who will pull left-leaning voters away from the Democrat in November.

Former Boston mayoral candidate Mel King and State Representative Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat, hoped to use a similar strategy when they proposed several years ago to launch a Rainbow Coalition Party. The best way to build the party, says Rushing, would have been to nominate its own candidates for some positions but to endorse like-minded major-party candidates -- liberal Democrats, in all probability -- for others. For that to work, though, the state's prohibition on cross-party nominations (also known as "fusion") would have had to be overturned. When the US Supreme Court, in a case involving the progressive New Party, refused to outlaw such prohibitions, King and Rushing abandoned their efforts.

"In order to do fusion you have to change the laws, and in order to change the laws you've got to get the Democratic Party to support you," says Rushing. "We couldn't figure out a way to do that."

Secretary of State Bill Galvin defends the rules prohibiting fusion, saying that restricting parties to nominating their own members is a simple matter of fairness. As for the argument that Massachusetts's laws make it unnecessarily difficult for minor parties to break through, Galvin notes that minor-party candidates need only get the same 10,000 signatures as major-party candidates to win a spot on the ballot. "That's remarkably liberal," he says. "Minor parties in Massachusetts are now extremely advantaged."

For the Libertarians, a major-party alliance would appear to be a risk worth taking. Whereas the Republicans claim a paltry 13 percent of the Massachusetts electorate, the Libertarians, at 0.3 percent, are almost nonexistent; a high-visibility Senate campaign featuring one of their own would presumably drive up that number considerably. For the Republicans, nominating Howell would be a far more palatable course than sending in Jack Robinson to do battle with Ted Kennedy, or not having any candidate at all.

As for the media, the most important player not on the ballot, a Libertarian-Republican alliance would give them an excuse to provide extensive coverage of the Kennedy-Howell match-up, a contest that would otherwise be almost completely ignored. That, in turn, would benefit the public. Which is what the campaign is supposed to be about.

Corrections are among the most important items a newspaper publishes. The Boston Globe puts them right on page A2, in the lower left corner. Sometimes they're minor. Sometimes they're not. And sometimes you gain some insight into the paper's institutional thinking, as was the case on May 15, when the Globe published an "editor's note" conceding that a story on a police officer's death had "focused inappropriately and at unnecessary length" on criminal charges of which he had been acquitted nine years earlier. (That story was also the subject of ombudsman Jack Thomas's column this past Monday.)

So why doesn't the Globe publish corrections in its online edition, at It can't be that there aren't enough readers to bother: according to its own statistics, the Globe's site has a "monthly audience" of one million people. Nor can it be a matter of corporate policy. Corrections are prominently displayed on the New York Times' "Page One Plus" Web site, which, like, is part of New York Times Digital.

Times Digital spokeswoman Lisa Carparelli, when asked for a comment, said she would try to find out why corrections aren't run and whether that policy might change. She did not provide any further details before the Phoenix's deadline.

No doubt this is one of the details that was simply overlooked. It can also be easily corrected.

Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site:

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here