The Boston Phoenix
July 15 - 22, 1999

[Don't Quote Me]

Taylor unmade

The demise of the Globe's ruling family portends big changes at 135 Morrissey Boulevard

by Dan Kennedy

Richard Gilman When it comes to reaching potential readers, the Boston Globe's billboard on the Southeast Expressway, just a stone's throw from the paper's Dorchester headquarters, is as prime a piece of real estate as you can find. Every morning, tens of thousands of commuters see it on their way into the city. On particularly rough mornings, there's time enough to memorize the damn thing.

So what message has the Globe chosen to share with the public? A close-up of the Thursday "Calendar" supplement, along with this weirdly nonsensical message: FULL OF REASONS TO WHACK THE SNOOZE BAR THE NEXT DAY. Snorts a newsroom insider: "Nobody knows what the hell it means. We're just terrible at marketing ourselves."

In the absence of a more substantive explanation, the billboard stands as a reasonably apt metaphor for why the New York Times Company booted Ben Taylor out of the publisher's suite and into the largely ceremonial position of Globe Newspaper Company board chairman this past Monday, replacing him with Richard Gilman, one of its senior vice-presidents. According to several inside sources, Taylor, a laid-back Yankee whose family had run the Globe since 1873, simply didn't mesh with the hard-driving corporate culture of the Times Company.

It's not that Taylor didn't care. But it wasn't his style to get visibly bent out of shape over a drop in circulation, a decline in advertising revenues, or, for that matter, a stupid billboard campaign. As Taylor put it on Monday, in a 15-minute joint interview he and Gilman gave the Phoenix in a cavernous Globe conference room, "I would be disingenuous if I said this wasn't a sad day, but I'm basically an optimistic person and a positive person."

The message from New York was clear: from now on, optimism must be accompanied by results.

At a newspaper where there are few secrets, Taylor's downfall came as a shock. Sources say Times Company chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. flew to Boston two weeks ago to give Taylor the bad news. But with very few exceptions, no one at the Globe knew about it until Monday. "This place leaks like a sieve -- there are no secrets. But this really was a secret," says one source. Adds editorial-page editor David Greenway, "I was surprised. I didn't think the New York Times Company would make a change at the top unless things were going a great deal worse than they are."

In fact, from a financial point of view, things are not going all that badly. But they're not going all that well, either. Given that the Sulzberger family paid $1.1 billion for the Globe in 1993, roughly half of the Times Company's market value, it's not really surprising that New York decided finally to put an end to a situation that has allowed the Taylors to have their cake and eat it too. At the time of the sale, then-publisher William Taylor negotiated a provision that left the Taylors in charge for five years. When he retired two years ago, he was allowed to pass the baton to his younger second cousin, Ben Taylor. But with the expiration of the hands-off agreement -- what old foreign-policy hand Greenway jokingly refers to as "one country, two systems" -- late last year, Sulzberger's move was inevitable.

At a time when newspaper circulation is declining nationally, the Globe's has been falling at a particularly worrisome rate. The number of daily papers sold has gone from 505,000 to 469,000 since 1993, and Sunday circulation has dropped from 811,000 to 730,000 over the same time period. Within the Times Company itself, the Globe has gone from a leader to a laggard over the past several years. According to the company's first-quarter report for this year, the Globe's ad revenue was down 2.5 percent, and its circulation was down 1.6 percent compared to the first quarter of 1998. By contrast, the Times itself reported a 5.4 percent boost in ad revenue and a 3.8 percent increase in circulation; and its group of 21 smaller regional newspapers was up 6.7 percent in ad revenue and down just 0.9 percent in circulation.

The Globe's numbers are hardly disastrous, especially given Taylor's contention that, for three years in a row, the paper has had a 25 percent profit margin. But sources say Times Company president Russell Lewis, who is reportedly close to Sulzberger, demands clear plans, goals, and deadlines from those who report to him -- and that he had grown increasingly frustrated with Taylor, who simply didn't operate that way. Then, too, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., a more aggressive executive than his father, with whom the Taylors negotiated the 1993 sale, is increasingly determined to put his own stamp on the company.

"My guess is that he is going to be more assertive than his father was, and that he's going to reach in and make some management changes at the Globe," says New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta.

Indeed, despite Rich Gilman's assurances to the staff and the press on Monday that his arrival does not portend wholesale changes, precisely no one expects him to be a passive publisher. The Times Company, in its announcement, emphasized the 48-year-old Gilman's expertise in circulation and advertising technology. And despite a brief stint as a journalist early in his career (he was a reporter and assistant managing editor at the Arizona Daily Star), the Harvard MBA may actually prove to be a more traditional, hands-off-the-newsroom publisher than Ben Taylor, a reporter who rose to be the Globe's executive editor before moving to the business side some years ago. But obviously Gilman has a mandate to evaluate every aspect of the Globe. And that has a lot of people wondering about the fate of editor Matt Storin, who enjoys a close relationship with Taylor.

Gilman's answer: "We have complete confidence in him as the editor of the newspaper. Nothing is changing here in terms of the editorial autonomy of the newspaper." There have been times, though, when New York's confidence has seemed less than absolute -- such as a year ago, when Times editorial-page editor Howell Raines wrote a stinging commentary about Taylor's and Storin's actions regarding former Globe columnists Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle, who resigned amid charges that they had fabricated characters and quotes. Gilman says that "a controversy from a year ago is not one of the things on the radar screen at the moment."

Storin, for his part, isn't reading too much into Gilman's vote of confidence, making it clear that he sees the change as nothing more than an opportunity to prove himself to a new boss. "I'm sure he's evaluating me," Storin says. "I want to work at a place where I'm evaluated. I don't want to work at a place where there's guaranteed tenure. If it doesn't work out, I'll leave and I'll go on." And he says of Gilman: "I feel very comfortable with him. The chemistry is good."

Among those who believe Storin deserves to survive the change in publishers is Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, who notes that the paper floundered between 1985, when Tom Winship retired, and 1992, when the Taylors brought Storin back to 135 Morrissey Boulevard. (Storin had left the Globe and become a top editor at the New York Daily News.) "Matt brought a lot to that paper, simply in sort of righting the ship," says Rosenstiel. But though the Globe has clearly improved under Storin, he is also an occasionally mercurial presence, with people-management skills that don't always match his editing skills. The best guess is that it will take Gilman some time to decide whether Storin is the right editor for the long haul.

Then again, speculation is something of a fool's game, especially when the principals are being so close-mouthed about why Ben Taylor is being shoved aside. At an hour-long staff meeting on Monday, sources say, Taylor and Gilman were asked repeatedly why the change had been made, only to receive the same non-answers. "Mr. Gilman talked about how much he respected the Globe staff and the newspaper," says transportation reporter Tom Palmer. "I'd have liked to see the new management show some of that respect by providing some answers as to why this happened." Adds op-ed-page columnist Jeff Jacoby: "My own view is that that meeting did not get things off on the right foot. And I couldn't understand why they would put 150 journalists in a room and not tell them anything." Counters Storin: "It was wise to have the staff meeting,
but I think they were in an impossible position there."

Perhaps the most pressing question, though, isn't why Taylor is leaving, or whether Storin is staying. Rather, it's whether the Globe's mission will change under Gilman -- whether the Globe will downsize from a paper that more or less competes with the Times to one that, as Rosenstiel puts it, functions more as a "complement," cutting back on its own coverage of national and foreign affairs and substituting stories from the Times instead.

When asked about that by the Phoenix, Gilman wasn't entirely reassuring. His goal, he says, is to "maintain or even improve upon the editorial quality of the newspaper and maintain the independence of the editorial voice." But when pressed about the possibility of cuts in national and international coverage, he replies, "I can't see us addressing a major change like that anytime in the near future." In part, he says, such a move would depend on what Boston, with its "huge intellectual community," expects from the Globe. "What might seem like an expense might make great business sense," he says. The bottom line, in other words, is the bottom line.

As for Ben Taylor, Monday truly marked the end of an era. The Globe was founded in 1872, and within a year General Charles H. Taylor had been hired to run the troubled enterprise. The Taylors eventually came to own the Globe, and Ben Taylor is the fifth member of his family to serve as publisher.

At a department heads' meeting that preceded the staff meeting, Taylor offered a prayer. "It was nice," says one who was there. Although Taylor, at 52, is a very wealthy man, and he and other family members remain major shareholders in the Times Company, there is some poignancy to his being marginalized as the chairman. His heart is said to be in journalism, and those who know him say he moved to the business side more out of a sense of obligation than enthusiasm. "I think people feel bad for Ben," says a newsroom source. "He probably would have spent the rest of his career in the newsroom, but the family called."

Globe veteran Jack Thomas, currently the paper's ombudsman, says that because of the Taylors' self-effacing style, few know about their contributions to the region's civic life, to charity, to culture, even to improved race relations.

"If they were not a Globe family, the Globe would be all over this story," Thomas says. "It's a real heartbreak for an awful lot of people here. The feeling is that it's not our paper anymore.

"On the other hand, the Times people ain't fools. They know how to publish a newspaper."

It's a politic statement, to be sure, but it's also true. The question, yet to be answered, is whether the Sulzbergers are as committed to publishing a great newspaper in Boston as they are in New York.

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

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