By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The Herald strikes back

Boston Herald business editor Greg Gatlin leaps onto the Herald’s Messenger Blog in order to whack the Phoenix’s Adam Reilly. Gatlin’s upset that Reilly allowed an anonymous “astute Boston observer” to call the Herald “basically irrelevant” in his article this week about the Herald and its new/old editor, Kevin Convey.

Reilly responds that Gatlin may be right — that “the source’s anonymity should have made me think twice about using such a damning line.”

Media Nation’s take: Reilly’s in a tough position. A journalist should not, except under very unusual circumstances, use anonymous sources to attack people or organizations. It’s a basic rule of the craft, and it’s one I reminded my students of last week.

And yet. Writing from experience as the Phoenix’s media critic from 1994 through 2005, I can tell you that if you follow that rule too strictly when covering the notoriously insular, paranoid press, you’ll rarely get a quote that’s either candid or memorable. This is not like covering politics — people can lose their jobs if they tell you what they really mean and attach their names to it. Or, in the case of the “astute Boston observer,” he or she may fear retribution in the pages of the Herald.

I still remember one occasion when I allowed an anonymous source to deliver a rather stinging rebuke to his news organization. Within days, this same source said exactly the opposite — on the record — to another newspaper. I can assure you that he was being candid with me and dissembling to the other paper.

If Reilly erred here, it was perhaps in not characterizing his anonymous source sufficiently enough for readers to get a feel for where the “irrelevant” quote was coming from.


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19 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Umm…Isn’t Greg/the Herald calling the kettle black? Or is it the cliche about hoisting and petards? Of course, two wrongs doesn’t make Reilly right. ….

  2. Anonymous

    Gatlin is one of the good guys in this business — and I speak from experience, as one whose career, while mainly in journalism, also included several unfortunate years in high-tech public relations. Though I’m not a personal friend of his, my experience in dealing with Gatlin is that he is a solid reporter (now editor) and someone who wouldn’t have blasted Reilly if the situtation hadn’t merited it. Unless the payoff is huge, quoting anonymous sources is rarely worth the loss in the writer’s credibility. Face it: Reilly’s item was simply a way for someone to deliver a cheap shot at the Herald. Reilly, who is generally excellent, booted one this time.

  3. man who's not a newspaper fan

    Well does it matter if it’s anonymous when it’s true? ;-)[insert Jon Stewart shouting OOOHHHHHH!! SNAP!!]In all seriousness I would indeed say the Herald is irrelevant. I’m not saying the Globe is relevant, mind you. In fact, I’d say the Globe is on the edge, itself.On the other hand, the Herald is pretty entertaining. Well, I personally think it’s crap, but I can see how it’d be entertaining to someone. Quite a few someones. I wonder if the Herald could pull off a transition from a newspaper that entertains to an entertainment paper that informs you with some news. The Daily Show effect, if you will.For that matter, I find Reilly an entertaining read. So let the mudslinging begin! If I want real news I’ll listen to NPR (and I do).

  4. Anonymous

    The Herald objects to anonymous sources!?!? While I agree with you Dan, let’s not forget that we are talking about a cheap tabloid that uses every trick in the book to smear people, but objects to one anonymous source that is critical of it in a responsible commentary. The Princess and the Pea, indeed.

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 3:34: I would argue that the Herald’s standards do not make it any more or less deserving of being attacked by anonymous sources. You’re suggesting that when you’re reporting on the Herald, you can lower your own standards. I disagree, vehemently. I know Adam would disagree, too.

  6. o-fish-l

    If the Herald is irrelevant, does that make the Phoenix subirrelevant?

  7. Dan Kennedy

    Fish Boy: I almost tried answering your idiotic question, but instead, I’ll ask you a question: On what grounds have you deemed the Phoenix to be irrelevant? I will admit that it’s completely irrelevant to bitter conservatives.

  8. o-fish-l

    No bitterness here Dan, I’m not the one calling people names. I just find it laughable that a paper that still has 200,000+ people paying for it everyday is deemed irrelevant by an anonymous source in a paper that can no longer get people to pay for it just once a week. They used to actually charge for the Phoenix, didn’t they? Oh yeah, and the Phoenix reporter writing about the Herald admits he wanted to work there but was denied. I guess the Herald, a perennial bridesmaid, was somehow more relevant then. Priceless.

  9. man who's not a newspaper fan

    I just re-read my comment and realized I should clarify. I find Reilly entertaining AND relevant. Just because something’s entertaining doesn’t automatically mean it’s irrelevant.Dan, I agree that you shouldn’t adjust your standards just because your topic’s subject has low standards themselves.However, what if you’re reporting about an industry? Does scale matter when you’re adjusting your standards? If you’re skewering the entire newspaper industry…the vast majority of which (yes, even the Phoenix) I’d argue is deserving of skewering…aren’t your standards inherently being shifted (probably lower)?That’s not a rhetorical question…I’m interested in hearing from “Professor Kennedy” if you’re willing to indulge us. 🙂

  10. Dan Kennedy

    Fish: Your latest is among the most inane comments you’ve ever left here, and, frankly, that’s saying something. Let me pick up on two points:1. The Phoenix is free. So what? At the time the Phoenix went free, in 2001, it was selling 120,000 papers a week at $1.50 apiece. There is no question that management could have kept doing that indefinitely. But free distribution is the wave of the future. In fact, the Phoenix was pretty much the last alt-weekly in the country to embrace the free model. It’s easier. You can attract more advertisers. And you can finally think about your paper and your Web site as an integrated whole instead of keeping stuff off the Web for fear that people won’t buy the paper.In fact, one of the smartest things the Herald could do is to go upscale (perhaps with a change of name) and put together a free home-delivery network, as the Examiner papers are doing in Washington and elsewhere. If the Herald doesn’t do it, the Examiner will.2. Adam once tried to get a job at the Herald. Good Lord. Again, so what? Newspapering a small, nomadic business. Long before I became the Phoenix’s media critic, I took a stab at trying to get hired by the Globe and the Herald (neither worked out), and turned down an offer from Boston Magazine. It ain’t a big deal.

  11. o-fish-l

    Dan, to me it’s like a fledgling ballplayer on the Toldeo Mud Hens (AAA level) running around saying that an “astute baseball observer told me that the Boston Red Sox are irrelevant.” Sure kid, much like the Herald, the Sox may finish second most years but if they’re irrelevant, what are you?Would that Mr. Reilly had engaged the astute observer and asked, “How do you reconcile ‘irrelevant’ with the 200,000+ folks buying the paper each day, the shrewd merchants still buying ad space, the hundreds of folks toiling there and people like me (Reilly) who think the Herald is relevant enough to want to work there?”Ooops. Scratch the Toldeo Mud Hens comparison, unlike the Phoenix, one has to actually pay ($8) to see them.

  12. Dan Kennedy

    Fish: Argument by analogy is the next-to-last refuge of a scoundrel. And don’t try to make it seem as though Adam was trying to get a job at the Herald while he was working at the Phoenix — that’s not what he wrote, and you know it. The Herald has its good qualities, but the Phoenix is a more important and influential media institution.Raw circulation numbers are not everything. I mean, the Herald sells three times as many copies in one day as the New Republic, the Weekly Standard and the Nation combined sell in one week. Gee, I guess the Herald is more influential than all three put together, eh? And Slate’s free, so I guess that’s worthless. Etc., etc.

  13. amusedbutinformedobserver

    The Herald is not irrelevant. It is boorish, devoid of journalistic standards and integrity, and a generally lousy newspaper. But it still sells close to a quarter million copies and some people do believe some of the utter nonsense that is published

  14. Steve

    The Herald is certainly irrelevant to me. But if the anonymous source truly believes it to be irrelevant in general, why would he or she “fear retribution in the pages of the Herald”? That would belie the point, no?

  15. Peter Porcupine

    The PHOENIX is influential? Outside of Cambridge?The Herald is a statewide newpaper, not a boutique alternative weekly. Perhaps, if they need a name change, they can try Record-American!

  16. Anonymous

    Dan, I’m sorry but you’re overrating the Phoenix’s importance in the scheme of things. It isn’t even the top alternative weekly in the city anymore.

  17. Anonymous

    If the Herald is a statewide paper with statewide coverage, then I’m H.L. Mencken.

  18. Anonymous

    Peter Porcupine,You don’t even live in the metro area. How do you feel qualified to speak on the relative impact of local papers?Do you just have a compulsive need to post on every topic in every local blog?Speaking of irrelevant, how’s the Republican State Committee doing?

  19. neal

    This New Yorker still reads the Phoenix faithfully online every Thursday. I never had much use for the Herald even when I was living in Brighton.

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