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A tale of two papers (continued)

This sort of turnover is not necessarily unusual, and it was especially unsurprising given that Shribman, Moore, and Bradlee had all wanted the job Baron eventually got. A similar situation arose with Jack Farrell, Shribman’s number-two in the Washington bureau and the author of the definitive biography of Tip O’Neill, who took a job as the Denver Post’s Washington-bureau chief after he was passed over at the Globe in favor of Canellos. Still, even though the Globe continues to be populated by a number of veterans, the departures amounted to a considerable quantity of institutional memory walking away.

Baron’s reputation is that of an editor who pays attention to everything — not just big stories such as the war in Iraq and the Catholic Church crisis, but to matters that some might delegate, such as improved and redefined arts coverage (especially on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday) and the Food and Life at Home sections. Not only are such pages a better read than they’ve been in the past, but the improvements have the effect of bringing in readers who are younger, more upscale, and more female — important for advertisers.

Baron has won high marks outside the paper. Stephen Burgard, director of the Northeastern University School of Journalism, worked with Baron at the LA Times, writing editorials for the Orange County edition when Baron was the editor of that section. "I think that the paper continues to be absolutely first-rate on big, breaking stories, and this is a Marty Baron trademark," says Burgard, citing the paper’s coverage of the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island and the gay-marriage debate. Burgard also respects Baron’s work ethic, saying of their Orange County days, "You could drive by the plant on a Saturday, and he’d be there. You could drive by on a Sunday, and his car would be there." By all accounts, that hasn’t changed.

"I admire him," says Alex Jones, a former Timesman and Sulzberger-family biographer (as co-author of The Trust) who’s director of the Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School. "Overall, I think he’s done a very good job. Marty’s a very serious newsman. He’s ambitious. He loves competing with the New York Times more than almost anything in the world. For the Boston Globe, beating the New York Times is like mother’s milk. And it should be."

IT WAS LATE in the afternoon on a recent Wednesday when I met Baron in his Globe office, a glass-walled space in the farthest corner of the cavernous newsroom. As his reputation suggests, an interview with Baron is strictly business. And though he is not without a certain charm, he had a case to make and a paper to promote and defend. For the next hour and 15 minutes, that’s precisely what he did.

We covered a wide range of subjects, from his being publicly mentioned as a leading candidate to become executive editor of the New York Times last year ("Somewhere along the line I was asked how would I feel if I didn’t get the job, and I said, ‘Relieved.’ Because it is a great burden. It’s obviously the media institution the most watched in the country, and that’s an enormous burden") to the death of Elizabeth Neuffer, a Globe foreign correspondent who was killed in an accident in Iraq last spring. Neuffer was a well-liked, highly regarded reporter, and her death had an incalculable impact on the newsroom — and on Baron. "It was enormously sad for all of us here," he said. "We always, of course, knew that we were putting reporters into dangerous situations, and you always think about that. We’ve always told our reporters that no story was worth getting killed for, and we continue to tell them that."

Baron was particularly eager to talk about the redesigned and expanded Boston Globe Magazine. "Frankly, if we can demonstrate that Sunday magazines can be successful, editorially and commercially, I think we will have done our industry a great favor," Baron said. Without question, it was a counterintuitive move. During the 1990s, a number of large metros closed their Sunday magazines as cost-cutting measures, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Miami Herald (the latter before Baron arrived there as the top editor). In contrast, the Globe took a Sunday supplement that Baron said had always been profitable and invested to try to make it more profitable.

Most of the effort has gone into the front of the book — "Boston Uncommon," a collection of short features, lists, an advice column, and the like. The feature well is not that much different from what it was before, except there are a few more stories. The magazine still seems to be finding its voice, which is unsurprising at this early stage. The John Sedgwick–penned profile in the debut, about "the most important woman you don’t know," was of Boston Harbor advocate Vivien Li, whose obscurity was greatly exaggerated. But Neil Swidey’s March 21 profile of Dr. David Arndt — the troubled surgeon who memorably took a break during surgery to go to an ATM machine — was fascinating, as was Garry Harrington’s March 28 piece on the death of a hiker in the White Mountains.

Above all, the redesigned magazine appears aimed at cutting into the market for home and fashion advertising upon which Boston magazine, a slick monthly, depends. Baron moved out magazine editor Nick King, a respected veteran whose treatment was frowned upon by some insiders, and hired Doug Most, who’d been a senior editor at Boston. "We want this to feel like a magazine and not a feature section of the newspaper," Most told me. Globe Magazine staff writer Charles Pierce, who’s written books as well as for national magazines such as Esquire and GQ, said of the effort, "I’m committed to long-form journalism. It’s something to be applauded."

The magazine is surely important. Nothing, though, moves newspapers like the sports section. Baron has a crucial decision to make sometime soon. Don Skwar, the sports editor since the late 1980s, left last week to take a job as a senior news editor at ESPN, and now he must be replaced. Boston is a sports-crazed town. The Globe even owns a chunk of the Red Sox: in early 2002, the New York Times Company became a minority investor in the ownership group that took over the team. (The real object was a share of the Sox’ cable sports network, NESN.) And even though the Globe sports section has long been recognized as among the best in the country, sports is also the one area in which the Herald continues to compete on a more or less equal basis.

As good as the Globe sports section is, there are those who think it could be better by appealing more to casual fans and non-fans. I’ll use myself as an example. I’m a baseball fanatic, but I pay only passing attention to football. During the run-up to the Super Bowl, I would have appreciated the Globe’s designating one story a day as a must-read for people like me. It didn’t, and as a result I hardly read any of the coverage. I asked Baron whether he thought the section could appeal more to non-junkies without turning off the hard-core sports nut. "I think it’s something that can be done, sure," he told me. "And there are a lot of things that other papers are doing that we ought to take a look at. We will take a fresh look at everything we do." There are thought to be two internal candidates for the sports editor’s job, assistant sports editors Joe Sullivan and Reid Laymance, as well as an unknown number of outside candidates. ("I’m rooting for an internal transition," Bob Ryan told me.) There’s even talk of a woman, which would be a real breakthrough for one of the most prominent jobs in sports journalism. But as for when a replacement might be named, Baron was circumspect. "We are looking at internal candidates. We are looking at people outside. We don’t want a delay, but there’s no particular timetable," he said.

I asked Baron about concerns raised by several on the staff that he’s considering having the Globe subscribe to the New York Times news service. The fear expressed by some sources is that such a move would pave the way for the Globe to consolidate foreign bureaus and the Washington bureau with those of the Times. It’s symbolic, too, a reminder that the Globe is no longer independent but must answer to New York. Baron was dismissive of those concerns, saying that no decision had been made about running Times content, but that one had nothing to do with the other — that if the goal was to close bureaus and cut costs, the Globe could already do that by running copy it already pays for from the Associated Press, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Knight Ridder, and Reuters. "I think there’s a false issue here, and the issue is that somehow, by taking the New York Times, that will allow us to cut back on foreign coverage and national coverage. The truth is that we take all sorts of other wire services anyway," he said. (Richard Gilman, asked separately about the same subject, agreed, saying, "There aren’t any plans to close down and reduce even what we’re doing either in Washington or abroad.")

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Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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