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A tale of two papers (continued)

We also talked about the Ideas section, conceived late in the Matt Storin era as a replacement for Focus when the economy improved, and unveiled in the fall of 2002. I like it; though it can sometimes be maddeningly obscure, I generally find one or two worthwhile pieces, and itís published some fascinating articles on the roots of Islamist terrorism. I also prefer it to the Timesí Week in Review section, which all too often chews over the previous weekís news in a manner that is not particularly scintillating. But Ideas has its critics; there are those who dismiss the section as elitist and off the news, and who say they would prefer to see the Focus section return. Baron scoffed. "Not every section has to appeal to everybody. Not every section does appeal to everybody," he said. "Look at what goes on in this city. In this city you have some of the biggest and most prominent universities in the world. What is it they do? They traffic in ideas. They traffic in the kinds of things weíre writing about in the Ideas section. If thereís somebody out there who thinks that thatís too esoteric or thatís boring, well, then they think a lot of what transpires in this city is esoteric and boring."

Some Baron-watchers ó including Northeasternís Steve Burgard, not to mention several Globe reporters I talked with ó think Baronís focus on hard news sometimes comes at the expense of doing step-back pieces, longer stories not tied to the news of the day that put broader issues in perspective. Not surprisingly, Baron disagreed, rattling off a long list of such pieces that appeared in the Globe in 2003. He noted that both of the paperís Pulitzer finalists for 2004 (at least according to a report in the trade magazine Editor & Publisher) are for precisely those kinds of pieces ó Ellen Barryís coverage of mental-health issues, and Patricia Wenís series of features on Barbara Paul, a single mother who was forced to give up her children. He cited Gareth Cook and Beth Daleyís series on the fishing industry. A narrative reconstruction of the Station fire. The paperís seven-part series on John Kerry, which has been expanded into a book that will be released next month. The increased resources put into the magazine. The Lives Lost special section on, and regular coverage of, world health problems. The Spotlight series on charitable foundations.

"Do I emphasize hard news? Yes. Weíre not going to sit here and not cover the news and not break news and not do investigations," Baron said. But he added: "This past year, it would be hard to say that we could have done any more step-back pieces than we did. I just think that there were an incredible number of them. It was a model year for that kind of work."

We talked about some other issues, too. Among them: the loss of talented young staff writers such as Ellen Barry (to the Los Angeles Times) and Anthony Shadid (to the Washington Post), the latter of whom is up for a Pulitzer next week for his coverage of the war in Iraq. While at the Globe in the spring of 2002, Shadid was accidentally shot by an Israeli soldier in Jerusalem, and Baron flew out to tend to his wounded reporter. ("In those days in the hospital, he acted as a colleague and a friend, and I appreciated it," Shadid told me recently in an e-mail from Amsterdam, where he was en route to Baghdad. "As for leaving, the Globe made a real effort to keep me, one that came very close to being persuasive.")

"I was very sorry to lose both of them," Baron said. "But it will be a good opportunity for other people. And I donít know what else we can do. I canít turn the paper inside-out solely for the purpose of keeping somebody."

Which is another way of saying that Marty Baron and Richard Gilmanís Globe is run like a business. Not to exaggerate; obviously plenty of people left the Globe back when the Taylors were running it, too. But today, sources say, there is more of a sense than there used to be that no one is indispensable, that anyone can be replaced. In the long run, thatís probably healthier ó or at least more realistic.

THAT REALISM extends to labor relations as well. Since the beginning of 2001, some 1200 Newspaper Guild employees ó reporters, photographers, editors, advertising salespeople, and a number of other business-side folks ó have been working without a contract, during which time their health-insurance costs have skyrocketed. There were some difficult negotiations under Taylor-family ownership as well; in the early í90s, talks dragged on for more than two years. But the period during which employees have gone without a contract this time is unprecedented. On a number of occasions, employees have picketed outside the Globe plant. The union has even taken out radio ads to lament the situation. Last summer, business reporter Jeffrey Krasner was slapped with a one-week, unpaid suspension for displaying a pro-union sign in a spot in the newsroom where it was picked up by a New England Cable News camera.

Boston Newspaper Guild president Steve Richards, a sports copy editor at the Globe, says that the two sides are scheduled to meet more than 15 times through the end of April, and that heís hopeful the deal will finally get done. But he warns that heís not ruling anything out if he canít get a contract ó including the possibility of picketing at the Democratic National Convention, or even, if necessary, a strike.

"We could do it if we felt we had to, but itís certainly not something we want to do," Richards says.

Gilman, ever cautious, says, "What I would prefer to say ó the thing that I think will most help get to an agreement, because I think at this point everyone involved wants to have an agreement ó is that the negotiators for both sides have been talking to each other long enough that they understand, all of them understand, what itís probably going to take to get an agreement done. The pace of negotiations is picking up, and thatís what needs to happen. And I think we all have our fingers crossed that weíre going to get there fairly quickly." By the end of April? "I donít see it as now or never, but I see it as a hell of an opportunity," Gilman says.

And Globe employees understand that it could be worse.

OVER AT WINGO Square, the beleaguered staff of the Herald is already suffering through its first Mike Barnicle embarrassment. Last Friday, Barnicle took to the airwaves of WTKK Radio, one of his many employers, to apologize for having referred two days earlier to former secretary of defense William Cohen, whoís white, as "Mandingo," a stupid and offensive reference to the fact that Cohenís wife, former Boston newscaster Janet Langhart, is black. Among those protesting was Howard Manly, president of the Boston Association of Black Journalists ó and, like Barnicle, a Herald columnist.

The apology was reported in the Globe, on BostonPhoenix.com (see "Media Log," March 26), on Greater Boston (WGBH-TV, Channel 2), and on WCVB-TV (Channel 5). In a twist that was more pathetic than scandalous, it turned out that Barnicle had "borrowed" the description from his buddy Don Imus, who used it to describe the Cohen-Langhart marriage several years ago. But not one word about Mandingo-gate appeared in the Herald. No surprise there. As Barnicle told the Globe recently when he was asked about how heíd be received by his new fellow employees, "Itís my relationship with Purcell [and] Ken Chandler that resulted in my going there." Itís just like old times, when Tom Winship and the Taylors chuckled indulgently over their favorite bad boy. And itís not like Herald columnists Howie Carr and Joe Fitzgerald donít write things just as offensive about, say, welfare mothers and gay people.

This is a strange time for the Herald. Until last year, when he brought Ken Chandler in as a consultant and began tarting up the paper, Pat Purcell had by all appearances embraced quality ó or at least a certain narrow vision of quality ó as his model. Now itís clear that he never really saw quality as a way to do anything but make money. And when he wasnít making enough, he tossed it like yesterdayís news, ripping the heart out of his newspaper in the process.

Not to over-romanticize what has been lost. Since Hearst acquired the Herald in 1972, the paper has veered back and forth between respectable and sensational, between sober and screaming, between newsy and floozy. Purcell, a Murdoch protégé, has presided over both, and heís obviously as comfortable with one as the other.

Maybe the Globe left him with no choice. Maybe itís just gotten too big and too aggressive to keep up with. Itís one thing to compete with a larger adversary if youíre going to win a few battles. But if youíre going to get croaked on almost every story, and your circulation continues to slide, then obviously the time has come to try something else.

Itís just a shame that the alternative Purcell has settled on has to be so stupid.

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

page 6 

Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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