The Boston Herald is not only debt-free as a result of publisher Pat Purcell’s sale of his Community Newspaper Co. (CNC) division; it also made a small profit last year. At least that’s what Purcell told Herald employees at a newsroom meeting on Monday, according to a respected insider.
Purcell has always played his finances close to the vest, so figuring out how well he is or isn’t doing is inevitably a matter of educated guesswork. According to “a newspaper executive who considered buying Purcell’s properties,” the Herald lost $2 million last year, whereas the 100-newspaper CNC chain made $20 million. I can’t explain the disparity between that account, reported by the Boston Globe’s Steve Bailey, and Purcell’s version. But I can guess:
- The drastic cutbacks Purcell implemented last year — slashing the newsroom by 25 percent by the end of June — may have finally taken hold, transforming a money-losing operation into a slightly profitable one.
- The Herald and CNC share a lot of content; not only is the Herald loaded with CNC copy these days, but a vast chunk of the sports section in the Framingham-based MetroWest Daily News, the CNC flagship, consists of Herald coverage. Such cost-sharing allows for quite a bit of creative accounting. And perhaps it was to Purcell’s benefit to pump up CNC’s numbers while having the Herald show a loss on paper.
According to my correspondent, Purcell told his troops that after paying off the debt he took on to purchase CNC (for a reported $150 million) in 2001, and paying a 35 percent contractural fee to his investors, the remainder of the $225 million CNC sale went to the Herald. Purcell wouldn’t say how much that was, but insiders estimate that at roughly $10 million to $20 million. Purcell added that neither he nor his family made any money on the deal, saying that all of it was rolled into the Herald.
So what’s next? Additional cuts and/or layoffs are possible, but Purcell said he has not yet decided whether that will be necessary. He said the Herald and CNC, under new owner Liberty Group Publishing, will continue to share content and advertising, and that he wants to reduce costs on the production end. Reportedly there was a lot of talk about growth and change, too, especially with respect to the Internet. Weekday circulation continues to plunge toward the 200,000 mark, but Purcell said the Herald’s Web site received 12 million hits in March. That should translate to roughly 2 million visitors, which isn’t bad.
One thing that has always impressed me about Purcell is his ability to inspire his employees. In a dozen years of writing about the Herald, I’ve almost always found it to be an incredibly loyal place with a circle-the-wagons mentality when any outsider would dare to criticize the paper. The only exception was a couple of years ago, when Mike Barnicle, who’d lost his Globe column because of ethical transgressions exposed partly by the Herald, was hired, and when well-regarded editor Andy Costello was removed from his post. But Barnicle’s gone (except for an occasional contribution), and, despite massive cutbacks, morale appears to have recovered.
Certainly it doesn’t hurt that Purcell has chosen to stand and fight. It may be true that no buyers wanted the Herald. But after selling CNC, Purcell easily could have taken his millions, shut the Herald and enjoyed a lucrative early retirement. That he didn’t shows that money isn’t the most important thing to him. You can’t say that about too many other newspaper owners these days, and you have to respect him for that.
Will it work? It has to be said that Purcell’s grand strategy of pumping up the Herald with his CNC purchase was, at best, a partial failure. The debt apparently proved to be too much, and he now finds himself the owner of an urban number-two paper with no other properties. Consider this, from Purcell’s front-page essay on Monday:
My priority has always been to keep the Herald viable. The acquisition by Herald Media of Community Newspaper Company in 2001 was a key part of that strategy. And it worked.
I’m very proud of the job we did in making Herald Media a success. But as I announced on Saturday, CNC will soon be under new ownership.
There’s really only one possible reaction to those two short paragraphs: Huh? Nevertheless, Purcell — and the Herald — are still here. I wouldn’t count them out.