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A tale of two papers (continued)

But if Purcell isnít in any real financial trouble, he nevertheless faces challenges. On February 20, Globe business columnist Steve Bailey reported that the Audax Group, a venture-capital firm based in Boston and New York that invests in everything from biotech to portable restrooms, was looking to unload its $28 million stake in Herald Media, Purcellís umbrella group for the Herald and Community Newspapers. With interest rates low and traditional financing easier to obtain than it was a few years ago, some speculate that Purcell would like to refinance his holdings through more traditional means, such as a bank loan. Thus it has escaped precisely no oneís attention at Wingo Square that Barnicleís wife is Anne Finucane, an executive vice-president of FleetBoston Financial Corporation, who is in line for a top role at Bank of America once the latter has completed its acquisition of Fleet. Though it was probably one of those cosmic coincidences, eyes were popping when Barnicleís very first column, which started on page one, jumped to a page dominated by an ad for Fleet. It is no doubt true that Purcell had wanted Barnicle in his paper for two decades. But if youíre looking for a loan, you could do worse than to hire the husband of one of Bostonís most powerful bankers.

Barnicle is not the only Globe or ex-Globe name Purcell is hoping to acquire. David Nyhan, who now writes a column for the Eagle-Tribune papers and works as a business and political consultant (Boston mayor Tom Menino is among his advisees), says that George Regan, Purcellís public-relations consultant, approached him around the first of the year about writing a column for the Herald. "Iím not sure if I would do it or not, but I would be willing to talk to them about it," Nyhan says. And though Nyhan says heís loyal to Eagle-Tribune editor William Ketter, he adds thereís a possibility that he could work something out with the Herald.

Globe sports columnist Bob Ryan, while serving a one-month suspension last year for suggesting on a television show that Joumana Kidd, the wife of New Jersey Nets star Jason Kidd, should be "smacked," says he was approached as well. "At the time of my troubles, there was an intermediary who offered to put me in touch with Pat Purcell with the idea of jumping or seeing what they had to say," Ryan told me. "I thought about it, called him back, and said, ĎThank you, itís very flattering, but Iím a Globe guy, Iím very happy, and this is going to pass.í"

A Herald source says that Purcell also tried to woo Steve Bailey recently. That would be a major acquisition, given Baileyís role in breaking such stories as Boston Universityís hiring of (and subsequent parting of the ways with) NASA administrator Daniel Goldin as its president, Bank of Americaís acquisition of Fleet, and Manulife Financial Corporationís takeover of John Hancock Financial Services. But Bailey, recently named an associate editor at the Globe, says heís not going anywhere. "Bostonís lucky to be a two-newspaper town. Readers win when newspapers compete. But Iím very happy at the Globe," says Bailey. "Marty Baron has the place headed in the right direction. Iím happy to be part of that."

Downsizing and then using the savings to try to hire a few big-name columnists is a pretty cold strategy for Purcell to pursue ó and, of course, so far itís yielded nothing other than Barnicle. Moreover, it seems not to have occurred to Purcell (or maybe it has) that Nyhan, Ryan, and Bailey are big names not just because theyíre talented, but because theyíve got a Globe pedigree. Put, say, Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis at the Globe for a few years, and he would be far better known than he is today. As it is, Gelzinis went to Chandler almost as soon as Barnicle was signed and asked to be switched from Tuesdays and Thursdays to Wednesdays and Fridays (plus Sundays) so they wouldnít be competing over the same urban turf. The request was granted. "Itís certainly less crowded from my standpoint, and maybe a little less redundant, too," Gelzinis told me.

As for whatís next for the Herald, no one except Purcell and Chandler knows. Right after Costelloís departure, word was that a new editor would be named within weeks. More recently, though, sources say that Chandler has been dropping hints that heíll keep the job himself, at least for a while. The larger strategy remains a mystery. Chandler is said to be less interested in competing head-to-head with the Globe on local stories than he is in offering something completely different, with microscopically short stories, cleavage, gossip, and wacky headlines taking precedence over, say, whoís up and whoís down on Beacon Hill.

Will it work? At best, it would appear to be a gamble. Murdoch himself tried it when he owned the Herald in the early 1980s; but it wasnít until the latter part of the decade, when his thenĖhired hands Purcell and Chandler focused on local news, that the Herald began to succeed. New York obviously has a far larger audience for an old-fashioned tabloid than Boston does. And in the year since Chandlerís been back at the Herald, first as a consultant, now as editorial director and acting editor, the paper has shown little of the Postís cleverness (who can forget the Postís headline AXIS OF WEASELS, with the French and German foreign ministers Photoshopped to look like rodents?), although that could change once he begins to put his own people in place. Then, too, the Post costs a quarter. The Herald goes for double that, which means it must also compete with the free Metro for readersí time and attention.

Former Herald sports editor Bob Sales, removed nearly a decade ago by the Costello-Gully regime, says, "Itís an interesting play to try to become more Post-like. Whether thereís a market for that in Boston, well, who knows? In New York, what you get is some pretty sophisticated people buying it because theyíre in on the joke. Theyíre after some sense of the idiocy of the world." Sales adds: "Ken Chandler brings a sense of whimsy and cleverness to the paper which makes it fun to read. Thatís what a tabloid has to do, and thatís what Ken does. And thatís what the Herald has to do. They kind of lost that over the past few years."

But even if more readers buy the sexed-up Herald, itís hard to see how a downscale tab fits with an overall business strategy. Some years ago, for instance, when Murdoch was pleading with Bloomingdaleís chief executive Marvin Traub to advertise in the Post, Traub is said to have replied: "Your readers are our shoplifters." And itís impossible to imagine the new Herald appealing to the suburban readers who subscribe to Purcellís community papers. Barnicleís column and Wingo are being carried in the suburban dailies ó the Framingham-based MetroWest Daily News, the Waltham Daily News Tribune, the Dedham Daily News Transcript, and the Milford Daily News. That move is described by some as a mistake. As for the Herald itself, most folks in places like Concord, Lexington, and Hamilton arenít going to want it on their front lawn, never mind on their kitchen table. This isnít synergy. Itís anti-synergy.

Still, itís only fair to point out that, despite the pervasive fear and gloom that have fallen over the Herald newsroom, not everyone is pessimistic. Costelloís departure was a far deeper blow to morale than Barnicleís hiring, about which opinions are more mixed. Many seem inclined to judge Barnicle by his current work rather than by what happened years ago. "Hey, look ó the Heraldís got to sell itself off the newsstand every day. Thatís a hard thing to do," says business columnist Cosmo Macero Jr., who adds that he exchanged pleasantries with Barnicle during a recent newsroom visit. Even on a not-for-attribution basis, some Herald sources voice measured support for the new direction. "I love this paper, and the stuff Iíve seen in the paper so far is good. I have not seen anything thatís horrified me at all," says one. Says another: "Morale was horrible, but I think itís settling down."

Herald staff writer Tom Mashberg, who chairs the editorial unit for the Newspaper Guild of Greater Boston, said by e-mail that "the departure of hard-news veterans like Andy Costello, Andrew Gully, and now Jon Wells leaves many on the staff wondering whether the Ďflood the zoneí style of hard-news reporting we have made into a franchise for a decade now is going to be discounted in favor of whatever seems grabby in any given day. Obviously the reporters havenít missed the fact that Wingo and superficial gossip are getting premium space above tough news. But they also recognize that if they have good, taut stories, those stories are going to compete for prime spots in the paper. Right now we are experimenting a lot while counting on the political news and convention run-up to carry us."

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Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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