The Newspaper that Fired Its Readers

A newspaper’s authority derives ultimately from its prosperity.  So it was more bad news last week that among the 25 largest US newspapers, only The Wall Street Journal managed to eke out a small gain in circulation during the six months of the financial crisis. The general gloom, however, may be somewhat overstated. A hot-potato game has characterized the industry over the last twenty years, the astute and the distressed unloading on the innocent and reckless. As a result, many important newspapers – in Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Boston – are in the hands of owners ill-equipped to manage them. Another round of potato-passing, this one finally at the bottom of the market, may improve matters somewhat.


Take the story of The Boston Globe, which The New York Times has loudly threatened to close if it doesn’t receive further concessions from its unions. Every unprofitable newspaper is unhappy in its own way. The story of the Globe may be the unhappiest story of them all. I know something about this. I wrote for that paper for many years.


It was in 1993 that the Taylor family of Boston sold the newspaper they had nurtured through four generations, over 120 years, to The New York Times, for $1.1 billion. An earlier attempt to sell, to the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, had come undone during the 1990 recession.  By 1993, a sale of some sort was a necessity.  A series of trusts were about to expire. The family’s options were sell the paper, borrow money to buy it themselves, or surely lose control to some raider.


The Times, at least, knew what it was doing – or so it was thought. And for the next five years, Sulzbergers and Taylors socialized regularly. But ten years ago this summer, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher and chief executive of the Times, made a date with Globe publisher Benjamin Taylor, traveled to Boston, and, according to The Wall Street Journal, fired his counterpart before dinner could be served, whereupon Taylor walked out of the restaurant.


The dismissal came essentially without warning. The Globe at that point was in glistening good financial health, with revenues from the boom pouring into the till.


Those who took Times’ side in the matter said they were not surprised.  “It’s ridiculous to think that The New York Times would pay over a billion for something and not manage it,” Alex Jones, author of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times, told The Christian Science Monitor.  The Globe “didn’t measure up financially,” Jones asserted, “and [Ben] Taylor was given very low marks for the way he handled the firing of [columnist] Mike Barnicle, too.”


In Boston, Taylor’s dismissal was viewed as treachery (Sulzberger’s father, who had overseen the purchase of the Globe, had made a “moral commitment” to retain Taylor leadership).  Worse, it was thought to be arrogant and inept management. The Barnicle matter had surfaced a longstanding contempt on the New Yorkers’ part for Boston journalism.  Oswald Garrison Villard memorably conveyed this view in 1944 by describing the city as the “poor farm” of American newspapering, meaning the place where the least fortunate in the community went to work for their supper.  For all its newfound prosperity since the 1950s, and its growing influence since the 1960s, the Globe was seen by its new owners in the 1990s to be a place of insufficiently high journalistic standards.


A new publisher, Richard Gilman, was dispatched from New York (where he had previously played a key role it getting the Times’ new color printing plant up and running). Two years later, Gilman hired a new editor from Miami, Martin Baron, with previous experience in New York and Los Angeles. Together they set out to subtly make over the Globe.


Practically the first thing the new editor did was to lay into the Boston archdiocese of the Catholic Church, where public concerns about the incidence of pedophilia among priests had simmered just below the surface of mainstream media attention for several years. Energetic and resourceful reporting over the course of eighteen months led to a number of prosecutions, a raft of new “zero-tolerance” policies in the church, the resignation of the cardinal, large financial settlements on the victims, and a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The story resounded around the world.


The pedophile priest story reflected a familiar tactic in building newspaper circulation.  Newspapers are often described as an essentially two-sided market, meaning that both readers and advertisers each pay a share, but there is a significant third side to newspaper markets as well, a non-pecuniary one that influences readers’ and advertisers’ willingness to pay for the product. This is the realm of peer opinion in the newspaper industry, reflected in prizes, medals and general reputation. There is always some risk when seeking the good opinion of the profession of seeming to appeal over the heads of readers.


Indeed, competitive intensity in the Pulitzer competition may have put the Philadelphia Inquirer on an unstable path in the 1970s and 1980s.  For twenty years after John Knight  acquired the paper from the Annenberg family, in 1969, and in 1972, after the newly-created Knight-Ridder chain made it its flagship paper, that formerly somewhat down-market broadsheet was routinely considered to be on the cutting edge of post-Watergate journalism, thanks to the leadership of editor Eugene Roberts.


Rather than zeroing in on the extremely heterogeneous community of greater Philadelphia, however, Inquirer reporters fanned out across the country and around the world. They produced wonderful stories and won seventeen Pulitzers in fifteen years, but many of their series read better in the New York hotel rooms where Pulitzer juries deliberated in February than on the year-round Philadelphia breakfast table. When the paper fell on hard times in the late 1990s, its penetration of the market was too thin to attract a premium buyer when Knight-Ridder put it up for sale.


It is hard to evaluate what the vigor of the Globe’s pursuit of the story of the church’s tolerance of sexual abuse by priests cost the paper in good will. But the paper’s next campaign, against the manner in which the city’s “Big Dig,” its central artery tunnel, had been brought to completion, failed to garner similar honors and awards.  By then it was apparent that the new owners had brought a very different sensibility to their task.


The TaylorsGlobe had been highly local, with deep roots in every corner of the community. Editor Laurence Winship had been succeeded by his son Thomas, a Harvard College graduate with a taste for politics and a knack for acquiring readers in the prosperous suburbs of precisely the sort that advertisers most desired to reach. Thirty years of uninterrupted success under the younger Winship created a newsroom with a serious age imbalance, which the Times managers resolved by generational clear-cutting. The old-timers who were pensioned off or otherwise sent packing included most of the paper’s legitimate stars:  Martin Nolan, David Nyhan, Curtis Wilkie, Gerard O’Neill, Thomas Mulvoy, and Eileen McNamara. Many lesser lights left as well, including me.


The TimesGlobe was preoccupied with particular demographics, mostly young adults, including the transient student population who had never paid much attention to the TaylorsGlobe. At one point, the editor of the newly defunct higher-ed magazine Lingua Franca was hired to put out an “Ideas” section, replacing the paper’s familiar old “Focus” department. The once-serious Sunday magazine was reinvented yet-again as a consumer guide. A new listings and comics section, “Sidekick,” appeared as a tabloid insert, only to be replaced a few years later by a beefed-up “G” – all the paper’s criticism and life-style coverage relegated to a youth-accented tab whose economic logic was to save money by printing two days ahead on smaller paper.


A steady stream of talented reporters and trainees were hired from other cities around the country. But the more the paper pandered to the young, the more Bostonians who had grown up with the paper stopped reading it. Even the “Doonesbury” comic strip was buried for a time, as if to say to baby boomers that their custom wasn’t much needed any longer. A series of missteps on the business side, including the purchase of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette for $296 million and the sale of the paper’s home delivery subsidiary in 2002, culminated in the sale of the Globe’s lease on the landmark “Old Corner Bookstore” on downtown Washington Street.


As the gravity of the situation was borne in on the company – the Times as well as that of the Globe –the Times began to manage its Boston property more conservatively. Publisher Gilman, 55, was  “retired” in 2006, and replaced by P. Steven Ainsley, 53, president of the Times  regional newspaper division. Neither Gilman nor Baron could be described as “community men.”  Ainsley has more of a traditional publishing background. But the downward spiral of circulation has continued apace.  In 2007, the company wrote down the value of its $1.4 billion investment in its two New England newspapers by $814 million.


Today’s Globe is passable imitation of the old version. The reporting is more careful than it used to be; the editing is crisper, particularly the editing of the wire material that now fills the front section of the paper. Taken as a whole, the daily product is far more dignified than the redesigned circus papers that real estate baron Sam Zell puts out in Baltimore and Chicago.


The Tribune, on the other hand, apparently remains profitable. In Boston the spark has gone out. At this point there is probably no way the Times can hope to make money with the Globe in Boston. There is no alternative but to sell it, hope that new with a better sense of Boston can be found to nurse it back to health, and that, undistracted by its misadventure in New England, the Times can concentrate on restoring its own battered fortunes.


Who will buy the Globe? It depends, of course, on the price. Potential purchasers are waiting in the wings. That’s probably what the current contretemps with the unions is about – the Times is structuring the paper for sale, driving the hardest possible bargain, doing the dirty work that the next owner prefers not to do.


Never mind Warren Buffett’s admonition over the weekend that there is no price at which he would consider a newspaper an attractive investment (he still has positions in two, the Buffalo News and the Washington Post). Repair work has never been his passion. With a little luck, the best regional papers – The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times – will wind up back in the hands of people who know how to run them.  If so, the newspaper industry will return to a scaled-down semblance of its former self – a profitable and stable group of companies in the first-draft-of-history business. But then, I am a congenital optimist. I have sometimes been wrong.