Monthly Archives: June 2009

Press barred from public tour of public school

You wouldn’t think that when public officials tour a public school, anyone would be brazen enough to bar a news organization by claiming it’s a “private event on private property.” But that’s exactly what happened on Wednesday, according to the Newton Tab, which had assigned a reporter and a photographer to cover a tour of the $200 million Newton North High School construction site.

The Tab’s Dan Atkinson reports that Mayor David Cohen, a number of aldermen and members of the school’s design-review committee took the tour, but that Dimeo Construction wouldn’t allow the press to tag along — even though the event had been posted as being open to the public.

“It’s an essentially private event on private property,” Cohen spokesman Jeremy Solomon is quoted as saying. “It doesn’t entitle the media to attend.” Solomon added: “Elected officials deserve the courtesy to ask any questions without being concerned about how they’re portrayed in the Tab.”

The Newton North project — the most expensive public school in the history of the state, if not the known universe — has long been controversial. The Boston Globe’s Newton Wiki reports that the current price tag of nearly $200 million has almost doubled since 2003, when Cohen first proposed it. Newton voters approved it in a 2007 referendum.

Based on the facts as reported by the Tab, it’s unclear as to whether officials violated the Massachusetts open-meeting law, which, among other things, forbids private governmental meetings when there is a quorum present. Atkinson writes that “at least” nine aldermen took the tour — well short of a quorum, given that Newton has 24 aldermen. But if a quorum of design-review committee members was present, what took place might be considered an illegal meeting.

More important, what happened to the Tab on Wednesday was not just an affront to the press, but to the proposition that the public’s business should be conducted in public. As Tab publisher Greg Reibman said, “[I]t’s not the Tab that is being punished. It’s the taxpayers who are spending nearly $200 million on this project and they deserve to know how their dollars are being spent.”

More: Great catch by Michael Pahre, who notes that there is an “on-site inspection” exception to the open-meeting law. So, in all likelihood, no violation of the law took place. “That said,” Pahre writes, “the Newton officials were boneheaded in announcing this as a tour that is open to the public if they don’t want the press to attend.”

Still more: The Tab says that its reporter was allowed to take a tour today. But still no photos (or photographer), please.

Times Co. honchos “correct” the record

This is already floating around the intertubes. But since Media Nation obtained its own copy earlier this morning, I will post it here in full — a company-wide e-mail from New York Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and president Janet Robinson. Enjoy.

June 25, 2009

To Our Colleagues,

The month of May came and went and, contrary to the prediction of one writer, we did not stop printing The New York Times. But given all the speculation and incorrect information that has been reported about our Company, we think it is important to create a regular letter written so that you get the facts directly from us — on the record. In the first of what we expect will be frequent e-mails, we’d like to talk about recent events at The Boston Globe. Future letters will discuss financial transactions, advertising, circulation, costs and the digital challenges we face as well as other issues as they arise.

All of you know, only too well, that this has been a difficult time for the economy, the industry and our Company. The recession has amplified the downward secular trends in our business and caused steep declines in advertising revenue, particularly in the recruitment, real estate and automotive categories.

The Globe was one of the first metropolitan newspapers to be deeply affected by the secular and cyclical forces that are now roiling the entire media industry. Revenues at the New England Media Group (which includes the Globe, Boston.com, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and its Web site) have declined from $700 million in 2004 to $524 million last year.

In the fall of 2008, the Globe and Boston.com developed a strategic plan to deal with their operating loss, which earlier this year was projected to be roughly $85 million in 2009. The plan has several components to increase revenues and lower costs. Here are the strategic steps we have taken:

  • We have just completed the consolidation of printing facilities in Boston, which is expected to save $18 million a year.
  • In the last month, we significantly raised prices on newsstand and home-delivered copies of the paper.
  • The compensation of the Globe’s managers and other nonunion employees were significantly reduced in 2009/2010 through a salary reduction and elimination of their annual incentive plan.
  • The Globe’s labor contracts are being restructured in order to save $20 million in annual operating costs — essential to our turnaround plan. We had reached agreements with seven unions that provided slightly more than $10 million in savings. Yesterday we reached an agreement, which is subject to ratification, with the Boston Newspaper Guild, which would provide us with another $10 million in expense reductions.

There will be still more to come but with these steps the Globe is on a path to a more secure financial future. We are deeply grateful to all of our colleagues in Boston for the hard work and sacrifices they have made to put the Globe on a stronger financial footing. In future letters, you’ll hear from us about other things we are doing to strengthen our Company and prepare us for the future. These are tough times and we recognize that all of you are working very hard to make tomorrow better than today.

Thank you, we deeply appreciate it.

Arthur & Janet

An observation: What “incorrect information” are Sulzberger and Robinson referring to? I see nothing remarkable in here — nothing new, no correcting of errors. The Times wouldn’t run a letter accusing it of inaccuracies without specifying what they are. So what are Sulzberger and Robinson talking about?

Calling torture torture

Alicia Shepard is as sharp a media observer as they come. A longtime writer for the American Journalism Review and the author of “Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate,” she is a serious and respected voice.

That said, I’m scratching my head over how wrong Shepard gets it on NPR’s refusal to use the term “torture” to describe the “enhanced interrogation techniques” practiced during the Bush years. Shepard, now NPR’s ombudsman, writes:

I recognize that it’s frustrating for some listeners to have NPR not use the word torture to describe certain practices that seem barbaric. But the role of a news organization is not to choose sides in this or any debate. People have different definitions of torture and different feelings about what constitutes torture. NPR’s job is to give listeners all perspectives, and present the news as detailed as possible and put it in context.

Let’s forget “certain practices” and focus on just one: waterboarding, long recognized as torture. In November 2007, Sen. John McCain pointed out that the United States executed Japanese officers after World War II for waterboarding American prisoners of war.

And when McCain was challenged, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Web site PolitiFact.com investigated McCain’s assertion. Its conclusion: McCain was right — a number of Japanese officers were hanged, and others were sentenced to long prison terms, because they had engaged in waterboarding.

Shepard writes that rather than describing waterboarding as torture, it makes more sense just to say what happened: “To me, it makes more sense to describe the techniques and skip the characterization…. A basic rule of vivid writing is: ‘Show, Don’t Tell.'”

All right. Perhaps NPR can eschew the T-word and instead describe waterboarding as “an interrogation technique once considered so heinous by the United States that it hanged Japanese officers for doing it to Americans.”

Another good day for Mitt Romney

Now that South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s national ambitions are a thing of the past — left behind on the extreme southern stretch of the Appalachian Trail — it’s interesting to think about the number of up-and-coming Republican stars who’ve been taken off the board in the past year. Five (including Sanford) come quickly to mind.

Two — Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — were damaged by their own party, pushed in front of the public long before they were ready. Hype-versus-reality questions aside, Palin and Jindal were routinely described as rising stars until, suddenly, they weren’t.

Jindal can certainly recover from his poor performance in delivering the Republican response to President Obama’s national address last February. All he has to do is not act like a dork the next time. But the arc of Palin’s post-running-mate political career has already been determined: hero to the right wing of her party; pariah to everyone else.

Sanford’s finished. So is Nevada Sen. John Ensign, although at least his sexual indiscretions do not include a secretive flight to Argentina. I must confess I’d barely heard of Ensign before learning that (1) he’d been unfaithful in his marriage and (2) he was a possible presidential candidate.

Finally, there is former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, chosen by Obama as his ambassador to China. Huntsman hasn’t been tainted (except possibly in the eyes of a few partisan Republicans), but he’s not going to challenge Obama in 2012.

As Rich Lowry observes at National Review (via Talking Points Memo), Mitt Romney may be the last candidate standing by the time the ’12 campaign rolls around in earnest.

Share your thoughts on Obama’s presser

Friend of Media Nation Jon Keller has written a post at Beatthepress.org in which he endorses Dana Milbank’s account in the Washington Post of President Obama’s “prepackaged entertainment” at Tuesday’s White House news conference.

As you may already know, Obama called on Nico Pitney of the Huffington Post, saying, “I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?”

I don’t want to provide too much set-up before turning this over to you, but here is what Pitney wrote for HuffPo about what happened. Pitney says that though he was invited to prepare a question based what Iranians had been talking about online, no one at the White House knew what he was going to ask; and that though he was, indeed, escorted into the briefing room, he had been told ahead of time that there was no guarantee he’d be called on.

Now, I have two questions for you, which I want you to answer only after reading Keller, Milbank and Pitney.

1. If you relied solely on Milbank’s account, would it be your understanding that Obama knew what Pitney’s question would be?

2. Since, according to Pitney, Obama neither knew the question nor had promised to call on him, did either the president or his press operation do anything wrong, unethical or even disrespectful to the other reporters in the room?

Economic turmoil and the Globe’s future

The tentative deal between the New York Times Co. and the Boston Newspaper Guild over wage and benefit cuts at the Boston Globe (here, here and here) comes in the midst of unprecedented economic turmoil.

Oddly enough, that may be a positive sign for the future of the Globe, because it demonstrates that the newspaper industry’s problems can’t be attributed solely to the Internet.

Take a look at today’s Globe. The state’s landmark universal-health-insurance program is being cut, and state treasurer Tim Cahill is calling for even deeper cuts. Homeless families are crowding motels. Harvard University is laying people off. The Twin Rivers casino in Rhode Island is heading for bankruptcy. (Take note, Gov. Patrick.) Housing prices continue to drop. Local merchants are hoping to rescue the bankrupt Faneuil Hall Marketplace. And on and on it goes.

In a perverse sense, though, these are all good signs for the Globe. In recent months we’ve heard a lot about the hopeless situation faced by major metropolitan newspapers. Much of their readership has moved online, but advertising hasn’t. And though charging readers for online content would surely be a boon, there are many good reasons to think people won’t pay.

But underlying the pessimism has been an unspoken assumption that current downward trends in print readership and ad revenue will continue until they converge at zero. That’s not going to happen. Somewhere there’s a stabilization point. Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell has proven that it’s possible to get small enough to break even or earn a small profit. Surely the Globe can do the same. With a readership and ad base considerably larger than the Herald’s, the Globe also should be able to preserve most of its core mission, which is to cover the city and the region as aggressively and thoroughly as possible.

One person who should be feeling very good today is Guild president Dan Totten. As New York Times media reporter Richard Pérez-Peña reported on Monday, Totten has been criticized, rightly so, for keeping his members in the dark. And following the narrow defeat of the first deal a few weeks ago — a defeat that Totten encouraged — the phrase you most often heard about Totten was “in over his head.”

Today, though, Totten can rightfully be said to have gotten a better deal for his members. Yes, it still adds up to a $10 million giveback, and it still means the end of lifetime job guarantees for nearly 200 Guild members. But the total pay cut is lower (about 8 percent when a mandatory furlough is figured in, as opposed to about 10 percent in the first deal), which members will presumably find more palatable, even though cuts in benefits are deeper.

Neither side blinked. But Totten’s instinct that it was worth the pain of forcing management back to the bargaining table proved to be right.

Finally, the Globe’s report today includes some crucial numbers that have been missing from most of the coverage — that Globe reporters earn between $40,000 and $70,000 under the current contract. So let’s consider the impact of these various proposals on, say, a youngish reporter with a bit of experience, making $50,000.

  • Under the proposal that the Guild rejected, her salary would drop to $45,000.
  • Under the 23 percent pay cut that management unilaterally imposed after the “no” vote, she’d be making $38,500.
  • And under the 8 percent total cut now being proposed, she’d make $46,000.

The agreement will be put to a vote on July 20, and though predictions can be futile, it’s hard to imagine that it won’t pass. I also wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a deal to buy the paper very shortly thereafter.

Overall, a very good day for the Globe, for its employees and for Boston.

More: The new deal is an improvement if you think that one of the messages coming out of the “no” vote was that folks would rather take a smaller pay cut even if it meant a larger cut in benefits. I should have acknowledged that that’s likely to be a controversial proposition. The Phoenix’s Adam Reilly is soliciting comments on that very point.

Photo (cc) by blyte1 and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Deep cuts at Boston magazine

Yesterday we learned from Jon Keller at “Beat the Press” and Adam Reilly of the Boston Phoenix that James Burnett was out as editor of Boston magazine.

Today comes word that that was just the beginning. Jessica Heslam of the Boston Herald and Johnny Diaz of the Boston Globe report that a total of six people were let go. According to Heslam, that prompted a seventh to quit.

Among those laid off were Paul Flannery, Boston’s online editor. Under Flannery’s leadership, the magazine’s Boston Daily blog at one time was a must-read — a smart and bitchy take on local politics and media.

But blogger Amy Derjue’s job was cut last year (she’s now spokeswoman for Boston City Councilor Mike Ross), which, as it turns out, was the beginning of the end. Combined with other cutbacks, cobwebs began to gather. Looks like the last post was on May 22.

Best wishes to the city’s newest job-seekers.

An employee-ownership option for the Globe

Could members of the Boston Newspaper Guild wind up as co-owners of the Boston Globe? A Media Nation reader sends along this link from the Financial Times. The story, posted last Thursday, doesn’t seem to have gotten a lot of pick-up.

But according to an anonymous source, one of the potential buyers, Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca, is reportedly willing to work out some sort of deal with the Guild that would result in employees owning a share of the paper. As the Financial Times notes:

Working with the Boston Newspaper Guild could help remove one of the biggest obstacles to a deal — negotiating a reduction in operating cost that could prove prohibitively expensive to return ownership to local control.

Such an arrangement would be similar to the one recently struck in Maine involving the Portland Press Herald and several smaller papers. Employees now own 15 percent of the company.

Boston Newspaper Guild president Dan Totten released an optimistic statement late this afternoon: “The Boston Newspaper Guild continues to have productive discussions with the New York Times Company and Globe management. We feel we are close to reaching an agreement that we can bring to Guild members for a vote.”

A vote has been scheduled for July 20.