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

Parsing the Times’ latest Globe story

With the New York Times Co. and the Boston Newspaper Guild scheduled to resume negotiations today over $10 million in union givebacks at the Boston Globe, the Times’ Richard Pérez-Peña weighs in with some insights.

His lede, focusing on the Guild’s alleged failure to keep its members apprised of what’s been going on for the past year, is telling, and helps explain why talks between the two sides went off the rails this spring. Even political reporter Brian Mooney, who was outspoken in his support for a “no” vote several weeks ago, says, “It wouldn’t have been that hard to make this go a lot better. There’s plenty of blame to go around.”

Yet there are three questionable assertions in Pérez-Peña’s story. One isn’t that important, but two are. Those assertions pop up in one sentence about halfway through the story:

Throughout the long process, the company has publicly said little about the situation, and to this day it has not confirmed last year’s loss, or acknowledged that it had threatened to close the paper.

I’ll deal with the threat to close the paper first. From the moment on April 3 that news outlets began reporting that the Times Co. was threatening to close the Globe unless the paper’s dozen or so unions could come up with $20 million worth of concessions, it was a little unclear precisely where that shutdown threat was coming from.

I’m not going to try to trace it back to the beginning, though, because I don’t have to. Times Co. spokeswoman Catherine Mathis confirmed it, in an on-the-record e-mail to the Phoenix’s Adam Reilly, on June 4. Reilly had asked Mathis why, in the weeks leading up to the “no” vote, talk about a possible shutdown had seemingly stopped, and whether management had in fact taken that option off the table.

Mathis responded: “Closure is a very real path for the Company to take.” So there you have it: a declarative sentence in which a top Times Co. official, speaking on the record, asserts that the company might shut the Globe if it fails to obtain the concessions it has demanded.

As for the Globe’s losses, Pérez-Peña specifically refers to “last year,” when, it has been reported, the Globe lost an estimated $50 million. As with the closure threat, it is hard to find a statement in which that $50 million figure has been directly attributed to an identifiable Times Co. official — or, in most cases, attributed to anyone at all. Maybe one exists, but I couldn’t find it.

Still, there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that management has, in fact, been telling Globe employees that the paper lost $50 million last year. For instance, consider this, from an April 9 Globe story by Robert Gavin:

Without the union concessions and other cutbacks, the Globe is projected to lose $85 million this year, following a loss of about $50 million last year, according to an employee briefed on union discussions.

But it seems to me that the more important figure is the $85 million. Here, too, the company itself has been less than forthcoming — so much so that a few people warned me early on that I should be clear that the origin of that number was suspect.

Fortuitously enough, though, the $85 million figure shows up in the Times Co.’s most recent quarterly report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, filed on May 7. Here’s the language:

Before savings from changes to the union agreements or other cost-cutting initiatives or the effects of any revenue initiatives, we projected that 2009 operating losses at the Globe and Boston.com would be approximately $85 million.

Finally there is the small matter of Pérez-Peña’s claim that “[t]he Globe’s troubles did not explode into full view until April 3, when its Web site, Boston.com, posted an article reporting that the Times Company had threatened to shut the place down unless unions agreed within 30 days to major concessions on wages.”

Maybe it depends on your definition of “full view.” But, in fact, WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) broke the story on its Web site on April 3, followed a very short time later by the Phoenix’s Reilly, who reported both the $20 million giveback demand and the closure threat.

It’s impossible to ascribe motive when doing this type of analysis. And I suppose these discrepancies don’t add up to a whole lot. But, inevitably, when the Times covers the Globe, every sentence and phrase is going to be scrutinized.

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3 Comments

  1. badubois

    Dan,My favorite part of this story is this little gem: "Even when the guild accused management of unfairness or incompetence, the company often would not respond, and it declined to comment for this article."Remember that the next time the NYT goes off on government or corporations for "openness", "transparency," and so forth.Rules for thee but not for me….

  2. Treg

    Dan, have you asked Pérez-Peña to comment?

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Treg: Yes.

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