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A tale of two papers
Boston’s dueling dailies, the Globe and the Herald, have entered a new phase of their long rivalry — one that threatens to consign the Herald to irrelevance

BY ANY REASONABLE standard, the competition between the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald for news, readers, talent, and advertising ended a long time ago. The Globe is the country’s 13th-largest daily newspaper, and can stake a legitimate claim to being among the half-dozen best. Its reporters and photographers cover a full range of national and international news, from the presidential campaign to turmoil in the Middle East, and set the regional-news agenda as well.

The far-smaller Herald is essentially a local paper, with a limited staff and limited ambitions. Yes, the tabloid Herald has broken its share of stories over the years, and the battle for news between the papers has been followed with relish by media and political insiders. But when a Herald reporter starts beating the Globe too regularly, the solution at Globe headquarters has always been a simple one: hire the reporter away.

Now, though, the considerable gap between the Globe and the Herald appears to be widening into a chasm. On Sunday, March 7, the Globe unveiled the results of a substantial investment: a redesigned and expanded Boston Globe Magazine. Time will tell whether the magazine will be a significant addition to the paper’s journalism, but it’s already paid off in one important respect: the debut issue contained 130 percent more advertising than the same issue the previous year, according the Globe.

Last year the Globe won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its coverage of the Catholic Church crisis, and is reportedly up for two more Pulitzers next week. It has owned the same-sex-marriage story, covering it with breadth, depth, and heart. Editor Martin Baron, who will mark three years at the top of the masthead this summer, has toughened up the news coverage, imposed a new sense of discipline and standards, and presided in the fall of 2002 over the unveiling of the Sunday Ideas section, a vibrant if at times esoteric slice of intellectual life. So respected is Baron that a year ago, when New York Times executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd resigned over the Jayson Blair affair, Baron was one of just two non-insiders (the other was Los Angeles Times managing editor Dean Baquet) who were identified as serious candidates to replace Raines.

Meanwhile, a couple of miles north on the Southeast Expressway, at One Herald Square, things are getting ugly. Consider a meeting that took place on Monday, March 8. The Herald had just hired Mike Barnicle — forced out of the Globe in 1998 amid a blizzard of accusations that he had plagiarized and fabricated throughout his quarter-century career — to write a twice-weekly column. Barnicle’s departure nearly six years ago was due in no small part to aggressive reporting by the Herald, which revealed on its Web site that he had lifted a bunch of one-liners from a George Carlin book. (Barnicle’s resignation several weeks later came amid revelations in the Phoenix that he had lifted large chunks of a 1986 column from a book by the legendary journalist A.J. Liebling, and an internal Globe investigation into a column about two kids with cancer that appeared to have been largely fictitious.) Earlier in the day, some 130 Herald union members had signed a petition expressing their "shock and disappointment" at the Barnicle signing. Now publisher Pat Purcell and editorial director Ken Chandler faced scores of angry staff members who demanded to know why Barnicle was being brought on board.

It was, according to a number of those who were there, a fiasco. Many reporters and editors were still upset over the well-regarded Andy Costello’s removal as editor the week before. With each day, the tabloid was looking more and more like Rupert Murdoch’s lurid New York Post, where Chandler had spent much of the past decade as the editor and, later, the publisher. Purcell reportedly wouldn’t give an inch, insisting that Barnicle had run into trouble only with a couple of columns out of the 4000 or so that he’d written during his career, and that he’d been trying to lure Barnicle to the Herald for some 20 years. "Get over it," he said, according to several sources. Chandler reportedly said little, except to assure his jittery troops that the door to his office was open.

"I’ve never seen Purcell so defensive about having to face us," says a Herald staffer. "He was just clearly defensive. Not a hint of recognition or even kind of owning up to the fact that, five years ago, when we started the ball rolling [on Barnicle], he was ecstatic. He was gleeful. His feet weren’t touching the ground. It’s like all that didn’t happen." He adds: "There’s a real level of paranoia and sense of estrangement. I think for a lot of people the place feels more than a little different now." For a paper whose esprit de corps has always been one of its most valuable, if intangible, qualities, that marks a notable change. Indeed, another source wonders whether the personal loyalty to Purcell that has always helped energize the understaffed, overworked newsroom has now been irreparably fractured.

Within days, Costello’s top deputy, managing editor Andrew Gully, revealed that he would resign by June. Jonathan Wells, whose six-year stint at CBS’s 60 Minutes had made him a prized acquisition when he returned to the Herald in 1999 to head the paper’s investigative unit, announced he would leave for a similar position at WFXT-TV (Channel 25). And City Hall reporter Ellen Silberman gave her notice to take a job with state inspector general Gregory Sullivan. These days, the sense inside the Herald newsroom is that, with very few exceptions, anyone who can leave, will leave.

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Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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