The Second Century of the Boston Evening Transcript

An old saw has it that running a business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark.  You may know what you are doing, but nobody else does.

It’s a commonplace now that the near-monopoly on advertising and eyeballs that newspapers enjoyed for 150 years, damaged by the advent of television after World War II, has been ended by the Internet and the electromagnetic-spectrum auctions and dramatic expansion of possibilities they produced, and that everyone is doing less of what was formerly so remunerative. The news industry has changed a lot since Economic Principals moved to the Web in early 2002. The Boston Globe, which was its home for many years, was sold to The New York Times in 1993. Other second-echelon papers itself have been sold — The Philadelphia Inquirer to a local entrepreneur, The Los Angeles Times to the publishers of the Chicago Tribune, Tribune Co. to real estate tycoon Sam Zell.  This autumn Rupert Murdoch is expected to complete his acquisition of The Wall Street Journal.  Magazines, too, are reeling. Meanwhile, the Web itself is a relentless cornucopia of new forms.

It took a while to discover the right format for EP’s sort of journalism, which, in the postal era, might have been a newsletter.  In the age of the Internet, the appropriate business model for independent journalism is essentially that of public television: expect a relative handful of supporters to pay for everybody else. (Among news professionals, the best-known example is Romenesko, a daily digest of industry news.) A weekly like this one can’t harangue readers the way that broadcasters do their listeners. So, once a quarter going forward, EP intends to depart from economics in order to write more broadly about the news business, the better to explain something of where the online version came from and where it is going. It’s not that EP hasn’t occasionally written about the news business before, but now the plan is make its reports a little more focused, regular, more of a frame.  This slender new thread running through EP may be somewhat indirect, but it is advertising.

A natural place to begin is by considering the tradition of Boston newspapering that gave birth to EP.

In 1930 the Boston Evening Transcript celebrated the centennial of its founding with a little book of excerpts from birthday tributes from newspapers all around the country. All tended to support the view that among American newspapers, the Transcript was unique: old-fashioned, individualistic, intellectually, eager to know and to educate. “The Transcript is the country’s thought of Boston. Its devotion to literature, science, art, music, Harvard, the wool market, genealogy and a half dozen other peculiarly Boston institutions, gives the Transcript a character all its own” (Minneapolis Journal). “Under the ownership of one thrifty family, it has managed to preserve a tone and temper of its own” (The New York Times). “Many a cherished tradition is melting down in the fires of modern life but the excellence of the Transcript stands up through the flame” (The Boston Globe). “The Saturday Evening Transcript is more than a newspaper. It combines the services of a newspaper and a magazine….perhaps no paper is more often quoted in other newspapers than is the Transcript (Greenfield, Mass. Gazette and Courier).  And, of course, there was the cherished chestnut “which concerns the butler who announced the arrival of the representatives of the press by the phrase, ‘Two persons from the papers, madame, and a gentleman from ‘the Transcript”’ (The New York Herald).

Twelve years later, the newspaper was out of business.

Why?  After the death in 1934 of editor George Mandell, last of the founding family, the paper collapsed “almost like the one-hoss shay,” according to Louis Lyons, longtime Nieman Foundation curator. A standard boast had been that among its readers were “the 50,000 best minds in Boston,” but circulation probably peaked at 30,000 in 1935 — not enough to sustain it in the lean times of the Great Depression. A brief resurrection after 1938 under a textile magnate who added comics didn’t help. Pretty soon all that most people remembered of the Transcript was the T.S. Eliot poem of that name:

The readers of the Boston Evening Transcript
Sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.
When evening quickens faintly in the street,
Wakening the appetites of life in some
And to others bringing the Boston Evening Transcript,
I mount the steps and ring the bell, turning
Wearily, as one would turn to nod good-bye to Rochefoucauld,
If the street were time and he at the end of the street,
And I say, “Cousin Harriet, here is the Boston Evening Transcript.”

Little noticed has been the fact that something of the Transcript survived in, not one, but two nationally important newspapers.

The ear the Transcript sought from its first day was that “Genteel Boston,” meaning not just its old-stock Brahmins, but the entrepreneurial middle and upper middle classes aspiring to live more like them, according to Joseph Edgar Chamberlin, a long-time editor who wrote The Boston Transcript: Its First Hundred Years. The initial edition, of July 24, 1830, reported that gangs of rowdies had been roaming the Common, tearing up freshly-planted seedling trees. But, as Chamberlain notes, the same issue left no doubt about the readers it was seeking. it advertised,

To let, a dwelling house on the corner of Hanover and Portland streets, “suitable for a large family or a genteel boarding house.” There was also a “genteel brick house” to let in Allen Street, “now occupied by Rev. Dr. Sharp” — three stories, with “every convenience for a genteel family.” But the genteelest indication in the paper, next to an announcement of a book entitles, “Discourses on Cold and Warm Baths, with Remarks on the Effects of Drinking Cold Water in Warm Weather,” by John G. Coffin MD, is an advertisement of “The Art of Tying the Cravat, Demonstrated in Sixteen Lessons, Including Thirty-two Different Styles,” by H. Le Blanc, Esqr., who seems to have been a recent and genteel arrival from France. This book was advertised for sale by Carter & Hendee, the principal booksellers of the day, at the ‘Old Corner.’ 

Once established, the Transcript grew quickly.  Its success mirrored that of Boston: it covered lectures at the Lowell Institute, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, the Mercantile Library Association, the Boston Lyceum. It supported medical research (unclaimed pauper’s corpses for dissection instead of body-snatching); advocated the ten-hour (and even eight-hour) day; opposed slavery; advocated on behalf of Irish immigrants at a time when prejudice against Catholics was very great; condemned the Mexican War; and appointed a woman editor.  Cornelia Wells Walter opposed the nascent women’s suffrage movement,  frowned on Theodore Parker’s liberal  religious views and, when Asa Gray lectured on the great antiquity of the Earth, saying that it was not six thousand but millions of years old, wrote, “Science is emphatically carried too far, when its far-pushed results become after all only vain speculation.” (She did endorse the creation of women’s colleges.) And when, after the Civil War, Boston entered its Gilded Age, the Transcript grew ripe too.  Features proliferated: columns galore (Suburban Scenes, The Listener, The Nomad, Saturday Night Thoughts, &c.); extensive book reviews and music criticism; a Washington bureau; a world-renowned genealogy page; college sports; a department of Bridge.

Once Yankee hegemony was lost, however, once the Irish ascendancy had begun, the old conservatism turned aggressive and sour. Its opposition to the New Deal was fierce. (That, in the end, Howard Mumford Jones was its book editor didn’t matter.) In old age, the Transcript had become “the personification of reaction and conservatism,” according to press critic Oswald Villard, “catering to the businessmen whose minds are closed and to the Back-Bay conservatives, male and female, whose horizons are as limited as their prejudices are unnumbered.”  Chamberlin, in his 1930 history, wrote, “If a newspaper does not answer the demands of its period, if it does not harmonize with its time, it is sure to die.” And, sure enough, it did. 

So what is it that remains of the Transcript?

It was The Boston Globe that acquired some of the tastes and even the mannerisms of the Transcript, in the same way that papers pick up the comics that failed papers drop, thereby becoming a palimpsest. (The Christian Science Monitor inherited the largest share of the Transcript’s readers.)  The Globe and the Transcript had long been friendly; both were family newspapers with deep roots in the community. Indeed, when the Globe first appeared, it was said to resemble a morning edition of the Evening Transcript.  But then an up-and-comer named Chas. O. Taylor gained control of it in a bankruptcy in 1873. and, with one fresh appeal after another — to women, to children, to immigrants, to labor, with color, comics and contests  — turned it into a mass circulation newspaper, the largest in New England.   (For many years the Globe was known as “the maid’s paper.”) 

Unlike the Transcript, the Globe weathered the Great Depression, as did the Boston Post, and a trio of papers owned by William Randolph Hearst, the evening American, the morning Record, and the Sunday Advertiser. By then it was the Boston Herald-Traveler that was thought of as the quality paper in Boston, the closest organ the city possessed to The New York Times.  But after World War II it was the Globe that gradually rose to national prominence, while the Herald, its control long tied up in trusts, lost its television license, at last was sold and under a succession of owners fell back to the feisty city tabloid it is today.

I started writing Economic Principals for the Globe in 1983, after four years as a beat reporter at the paper. Though the column succeeded, it was small potatoes compared to the Globe’s home-grown political stars, Martin F. Nolan, Robert Healy, David Nyhan, Mike Barnicle, Thomas Oliphant and Paul Szep; its “Spotlight” investigators, Gerald O’Neill, Walter Robinson and Stephen Kurkjian; its sports columnists, Ray Fitzgerald, Peter Gammons, Leigh Montville, Will McDonough, Bob Ryan and M.R. Montgomery; or David Wilson and Robert Taylor, who had come from the Herald; not to mention Ellen Goodman, whose column was syndicated nationally to several hundred papers; her fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner, William Henry; or the critics, of whom there were fifteen, led by Margaret Manning and Richard Dyer. Today it is just a list of names, not much different from an old high school yearbook. But for a quarter-century these writers and many others bound together readers and advertisers in a vibrant political and economic community, over which editor Thomas Winship presided with his deft knack for reaching the genteel while embracing the mainstream.

One day Nyhan explained it all to me this way: “You write for the Red Line [which serves Cambridge] and I write for the Green Line [which serves Brookline and the western suburbs].” It occurred to me that I was operating under a vague mandate of concern with intellectual affairs that had been acquired by osmosis from the Transcript, with certain overtones as well of the old Chicago Daily News, another much-admired newspaper. Some days EP had more in common with Transcript’s long-running column about ministers and religious affairs, “Churchman Afield” (to its critics, “Churchman Afloat”) than with its predecessor columns on the Globe’s financial page, by Peter Greenough and Robert Lenzner.

Today the Globe is, once again, a very different paper. Under the Times, it has placed its bet on youth. Missing are many of the familiar flourishes with which several generations of the Taylor family built the paper’s market. Nor do the new owners have the same commitment to the city’s interests. The venerated “Old Corner” bookstore, which served for decades as an in-town headquarters to the Globe and a meeting place for  the city’s leaders, was vacated by the Times some years ago and now serves as a retail outlet for a flashy diamond merchant.

A more durable monument to the Transcript is The Wall Street Journal. Many of its genteelisms are those of the Transcript — the deliberately old-fashioned look of the front page (at least until the recent redesign); the single-column headlines with their several banks; the dignified halftones (the Transcript eschewed the use of any photographs until 1909); the distaste for frills such as comics; the desire to be seen as a standard-setter in everything from accuracy to excellence in typography.

Why?   Because Clarence Barron, the Boston newsman who bought The WSJ in 1902 from its founders, Charles Dow and Edward Jones, learned his trade as a Transcript reporter, and invented its financial department at a time when few newspapers thought business news worthy of note (“the Transcript was already taken by everyone; yet in a few weeks, the Transcript circulation increased fifteen percent,” he wrote in an autobiographical fragment). Barron took personal control of the WSJ in 1912, and, consciously or not, brought to it many of the tastes he had acquired in Boston:  for clarity of exposition, for comprehensiveness, for combativeness on the editorial page. Like the editors of the Transcript, Barron was a great fan of Calvin Coolidge, who as governor of Massachusetts had acted decisively against the Boston Police strike of 1919.

You need only compare headline styles of the WSJ with those of the Transcript, or, for that matter, the Chamberlain book about the Transcript, to recognize the similarities of the narrative voice. Chapter VI, for example:  “The Lady Editor: Mr. Walter Succeeded by his Sister — Dickens’ Picture of American Editors of the Period — Miss Walters’ Success — Her Memorable Attack on Edgar Allan Poe.” Even the management culture of the WSJ resembles that of the Transcript, where visitors encountered a sign at the bottom of the stairs leading up from Washington Street: “Editors, one flight up; Reporters, two flights up.” (In fact, decision-making at the Transcript was highly consensual, whereas WSJ authority is strictly top down.)

A great deal has been said over the years of Bernard (Barney) Kilgore’s role in inventing the modern WSJ, and justly so.  Kilgore, who took over in 1941, turned a New York financial broadsheet with a circulation of 32,000 into a national daily that eventually would sell more than 2 million copies a day. He did so partly by putting the stamp of the American Midwest on the paper — in the first instance, by hiring as many as possible of his fellow graduates of DePauw University, in Greencastle, Indiana. But it was Barron’s framework that Kilgore expanded, and it was Barron’s family, through his stepdaughter Jane Bancroft and her heirs, that continued to own and oversee the development of the newspaper — from Boston.  It is true that Clarence Barron became a considerable showboat as he aged; true, too, that the difficulty he had managing his own appetites foreshadowed the difficulty that his descendants would have managing theirs, leading to the sale of the paper eighty years after his death. But after Barron died in 1928, the Saturday Evening Post described him as “the father of financial journalism.”

Who knows what part of the WSJ will remain true to its Boston roots under Murdoch?  We’ll all be better off if he recognizes his newspaper’s ancestral tendencies and permits them to persist — especially the ingrained sense of fair play of its news pages. 

Meanwhile, there is EP, too—a touch of Transcript, a good deal of the old Globe, a view from Boston.

* * *

A flurry of speculation followed Harvard’s Martin Feldstein announcement that he would step down in June after thirty years as president of the National Bureau of Economic Research.  So important has the NBER become under Ferldstein’s management to the profession’s sense of itself, at least in terms of policy-oriented research, that economists have gossiped for years about who might be expected to succeed him. (See, for instance, this EP weekly from 2002, which includes a capsule history of “the Bureau.”)

Not widely recognized is the extent of Feldstein’s organizational skill. He was, in equal parts, entrepreneur, fundraiser, political operative, academic diplomat, scholar, mentor and effortless administrator. “Marty created a new model—a facilitator in the best sense, a highly efficient machine, and an inspiration,” says Richard Portes, a London Business School professor who founded and serves as president of the Centre for Economic Policy Research, the European equivalent of the NBER.

It helps, too, that Feldstein was in tune with the temper of the times, a leader of the generation more influenced by Milton Friedman than by Robert Solow and Paul Samuelson. He took two years off to serve as chairman of Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers in the early 1980s. In the 1990s, he was the intellectual leader of the drive to privatize the Social Security System.

Who will succeed him next year?  James Poterba, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, would command widespread support.  So would David Cutler of Harvard University or Edward Lazear of the Graduate School of Management at Stanford University, who is currently on leave as Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.  But the front-runner at this point probably is N. Gregory Mankiw, also of Harvard, himself a former chairman of the Council, who already has replaced Feldstein in the classroom as the leader of Harvard’s large introductory course.