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A better Herald (continued)

The loss of a landmark

MY INTRODUCTION to the Atlantic Monthly came in late 1981, when the magazine published one of its most famous articles, "The Education of David Stockman," by William Greider. Thereís more than a little irony in that. The article, in which Stockman, Ronald Reaganís first budget chief, revealed the cynicism at the heart of Reaganomics, could not have been more Washington-centric, and Greider himself was on staff at the Washington Post. So perhaps I should see the Atlanticís actual move to Washington ó announced last week by its owner of six years, David Bradley ó as inevitable. I donít. Instead, Iím sad and even outraged.

Inside-the-Beltway as Greiderís piece may have been, it also demonstrated that an outsiderís perspective was perhaps a necessary element in exposing Reaganís tax cuts as a fraud. From faraway Boston, the Atlantic was speaking truth to power, just as it had in its founding years, when its principal mission was to denounce slavery. Now Bradley, who has some 300 employees working for him in Washington at publications such as National Journal and the Hotline, has decided he can no longer countenance allowing 37 people to toil away in the North End. Moving those positions (it seems likely that few of the people who actually hold those jobs will uproot themselves) will allow the money-losing Atlantic to achieve "economies of intellect," Bradley told the Washington Post, whatever that is supposed to mean.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the death of Michael Kelly had a lot to do with last weekís announcement. When Bradley bought the Atlantic and put native Washingtonian Kelly in charge, the rumors immediately began to fly that the magazine would move to the nationís capital. Instead, Kelly loved it here, buying a huge place in Swampscott near the ocean and commuting between Boston and Washington, where he held supervisory responsibilities for National Journal. But in 2003 Kelly stepped aside as editor to cover the war in Iraq, where he was killed when the Humvee in which he was riding came under fire. Within months of Kellyís death, Bradley acknowledged that the Washington move had become a distinct possibility. "My original thinking (and statement) was that Atlantic would remain in Boston. As it remains," Bradley told me by e-mail. "The problem, principally for my account, is that Iím finding it hard to lead a culture at such distance" (see "Donít Quote Me," News and Features, October 24, 2003).

Sadly, the Atlantic is not just leaving, but itís likely to become a lesser magazine as well. Managing editor Cullen Murphy ó among the most respected in the business ó will not be making the move. The Atlantic just won a National Magazine Award for fiction, right after announcing that it was marginalizing fiction by restricting it to a special annual edition and to its Web site. It appears that the Atlantic is well on the road to becoming just another Washington political magazine, and an increasingly neoconservative one at that.

In the introduction to the 1957 book Jubilee: One Hundred Years of the Atlantic, the then-editor, Edward Weeks, wrote, "Boston has been our vantage point, and I think the country still respects us for the Yankee humor and integrity which flow in our veins." One hundred years earlier, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., who actually gave the magazine its name, tried to define why his native city was, if not quite "the hub of the solar system," a special place nevertheless: "Boston is just like other places of its size; only, perhaps, considering its excellent fish market, paid fire department, superior monthly publications, and correct habit of spelling the English language, it has some right to look down on the mob of cities."

The fish is still good, the fire department is still paid, but the spelling isnít what it used to be. As for the "superior monthly publications" ó well, the best of them is about to leave town.

ó DK

3) Turn right. The Herald is frequently ó and inaccurately ó described as a conservative alternative to the Globeís liberal editorial and op-ed pages. The fact is that the Herald doesnít have a single local conservative columnist writing op-eds. Howard Manly is a liberal. Tom Keane is a centrist Democrat. Wayne Woodlief is a moderate. Beverly Beckham almost never writes about politics, and ought to be moved to the lifestyle pages. I guess Charles Chieppo was a conservative, but he got bounced a couple of weeks ago after the Globe revealed he had two public-relations contracts with the state.

When editorial-page editor Shelly Cohen or her deputy, Virginia Buckingham, write a column, they lend a bit more of a conservative flavor to those pages, but both women are really moderates at heart. Of the two conservative columnists who appear in the news pages, Howie Carr does little more than recycle his increasingly moronic radio show, and Joe Fitzgerald is about as happening as Paul Harvey. Cosmo Macero Jr. had a good conservative thing going on for a while, but then he became business editor and cut back on column writing; in any case, Maceroís more of a reporter than an ideologue. How ridiculous is all this? Hereís how: the best conservative columnist in Boston is Jeff Jacoby, a Herald alumnus who toils at the Globe.

Surely thereís some obnoxious, snotty right-wing recent college graduate out there whoíd be willing to crank out obnoxious, snotty right-wing columns for a low salary and a steady supply of cigars and vodka martinis. Moreover, there is a plethora of syndicated right-wing talent available, and virtually none of it appears in the Herald. Robert Novak? Pat Buchanan? Cal Thomas? Youíve got to be kidding.

The Herald already runs Michelle Malkinís column, which is a good start. If I were Purcell, I would also sign up right-wingers like Jonah Goldberg, Ann Coulter, and Mark Steyn as quickly as I could. These are the kinds of youngish, caustic voices that appeal to the sort of well-educated conservatives who get most of their news and opinions from the Web. Iím not crazy about any of them (well, Jonahís okay), but business is business. And for respectability, what about George Will? The Globe has controlled the rights to his syndicated column forever, but it hardly ever runs his stuff. Would it be possible to get him to move over?

4) Dump the Web site. It pains me to say this. I live online. I probably read the Herald more online than I do in print. But the Web is not the Heraldís friend. Purcell told me this himself years ago. Now the time has come for him to follow his convictions and get rid of BostonHerald.com ó or most of it, anyway.

The problem is that the Herald is such a quick read. And even in the unlikely event that Purcell takes my advice, itís still going to be a quick read. In 10 minutes, you can check out the front page, skim through the lead story, and maybe page through the gossip in the "Inside Track." If thatís all you want, click your mouse and Purcell just lost 50 cents. The Globe, on the other hand, can get away with a full Web presence because no one wants to spend a half-hour or 45 minutes reading the paper online.

The Herald already charges extra for online access to the columnists, unless youíre a home subscriber. Now itís time to go all the way. Certainly Jobfind.com or anything else that makes money should stay. But it makes no sense whatsoever for a paper like the Herald to be available on the Internet.

5) Live free or die? Could the Herald survive as a free daily? Purcell is understandably freaked out about the Globe and the Metro forming a common front against him, which is why he filed an antitrust complaint with the Justice Department. But thereís much, much worse out there on the horizon: the Examiner, which has free dailies in San Francisco and Washington, and which ó according to rumbles within the newspaper industry ó is poised to go national. The Examiner name has been trademarked in some 70 cities across the United States ó including the Examiner Boston on October 28 of last year, according to the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Iím hardly someone who understands the economics of this. Typically, daily newspapers earn 75 percent of their revenue from advertising and 25 percent from paid circulation. Taking away one-fourth of a paperís revenue stream is bound to result in a smaller staff and thinner coverage. In fact, by my admittedly back-of-the-envelope calculations, it could cost the Herald between $35 million and $50 million per year. Going free would definitely be the nuclear option.

But Purcell may not have a choice. Consider that the Washington version of the Examiner is a far beefier paper than the Metro, and itís home-delivered to more than 200,000 households in affluent areas around the city every Sunday through Friday. Such a paper would not only harm the Herald, it might take a substantial bite out of the Globeís circulation as well. "The Examiner is a real newspaper," says newspaper consultant John Morton, who lives in the Washington area. "Itís brief, but not unduly so." It may be a matter of Purcell choosing his poison: he absolutely cannot let an Examiner Boston get a toehold here.

When Emily Rooney asked Purcell about the possibility of the Heraldís going free, he replied that he has considered putting out a free competitor to the Metro, but that it was premature to speculate on the Herald itself. "Itís a little funny that people say this is a model for success. Who knows?" he said, noting that the two Examiner papers, in San Francisco and Washington, have been in operation for less than six months.

Would any of these steps ensure the Heraldís survival? Damned if I know. It may be that Iím simply describing a paper Iíd like to see, and not one that would necessarily succeed. Hey, maybe I really donít know anything about tabloids. Ultimately, though, the Herald needs to carve out a niche for itself. And appealing to folks who live in Bostonís neighborhoods ó as well as to intelligent, well-educated professionals with a conservative bent who would grab a copy on their way to work in addition to the Globe, the New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal ó is not a bad niche to try to fill.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

page 2 

Issue Date: April 22 - 28, 2005
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