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

Tag: Boston 25 News

Boston 25 is shrinking. You won’t be surprised to learn that private equity is to blame.

I knew that the news staff at Boston 25 was getting squeezed, but I didn’t realize how deeply until I read Aidan Ryan’s report in The Boston Globe (I’m briefly quoted). Ryan writes:

… at least 13 staffers, including reporters, producers, salespeople, and a news director, who have left the station since the start of the year, according to interviews and workers’ LinkedIn profiles. Those exits at WFXT-TV (Channel 25) came on top of a steady trickle of departures stretching back years.

Eight current and former employees who spoke to the Globe cited a confluence of factors driving people out, including issues with the quality of the station’s content, overwhelming workloads, pay cuts, layoffs, and uncertainty over whether its private equity owners will keep the lights on. Most spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of retribution.

You will not be surprised to learn that many of these cuts coincide with the station’s 2019 acquisition by a private equity firm, Apollo Global Management. Private equity has destroyed much of the journalistic landscape, especially local newspapers. Unlike newspapers, though, local television news is still a fairly lucrative business, as well as where a large proportion of Americans get their news, according to the Pew Research Center. If you look at this chart, you’ll see that advertising revenues have held fairly steady, with increases in digital offsetting some of the decline in over-the-air ads.

Private equity firms and hedge funds, though, care about only one thing: how much profit they can wring out before walking away and letting the next owner clean up the mess. In fact, Ryan reports that Apollo tried to sell Boston 25 to another hedge fund in 2022, but that deal fell through.

Boston 25 — formally WFXT-TV (Channel 25) — has a long history tied up in the convoluted tale of Rupert Murdoch’s one-time ownership of the Boston Herald. As I wrote for GBH News back in 2014, Hearst’s Herald American was on the verge of collapse in 1982 when Murdoch swooped in, rescued the tabloid and infused it with new energy. Murdoch added it to his Boston holdings in the late 1980s, acquiring Channel 25 and seeking a waiver from the FCC so that he could continue to own both.

One day as that story was unfolding, then-Sen. Ted Kennedy was making a campaign swing through suburban Burlington. As a reporter for the local daily, I was following him from stop to stop. Kennedy had just snuck an amendment into a bill to deny Murdoch the regulatory waiver he was seeking that would allow him to own both the Herald and Channel 25 (the amendment prohibited a similar arrangement in New York). At every stop, Herald reporter Wayne Woodlief would ask him, “Senator, why are you trying to kill the Herald?”

The episode also led Kennedy’s most caustic critic at the Herald, columnist Howie Carr, to write a particularly memorable lead: “Was it something I said, Fat Boy?” Years later, Carr remained bitter, telling me, “Ted was trying to kill the paper in order to deliver the monopoly to his friends” at The Boston Globe.

As a result of Ted Kennedy’s amendment, Murdoch sold the Herald to his longtime protégé Pat Purcell, who operated it until 2018, when the paper declared bankruptcy and was delivered unto the hands of Alden. Murdoch, meanwhile, continued to operate Fox 25.

In those days Fox 25 was a well-staffed operation with a real Boston flavor, running a satellite bureau across the street from the Statehouse and featuring segments such as “The Heavy Hitters” — commentary by local media guys Peter Kadzis, Cosmo Macero and Doug Goudie. Among the station’s journalists were anchor Maria Stephanos and investigative reporter Mike Beaudet, both of whom are now at WCVB-TV (Channel 5). Mike is also a colleague at Northeastern University. And no, despite Murdoch’s involvement, the station bore no resemblance to the Fox News Channel.

The station was acquired by Cox Media Group in 2014, and the station slowly became less distinctive and more generic. “The Heavy Hitters” was eliminated, as was the Beacon Hill bureau. Cutting began and then accelerated after Cox sold itself to Apollo in 2019. That said, I still like what I see whenever I tune in the Boston 25 newscast, and I hope there’s a way forward. Anchor-reporter Kerry Kavanaugh has been generous in helping us with several mayoral debates in Medford.

Boston is fortunate to still have a number of local TV newscasts, and some of them are quite good. Still, the fading away of Boston 25 is sad as well as a loss for both the community and the people who work there — and for those who are no longer at the station.

Correction: Updated to note that Doug Goudie was one of “The Heavy Hitters.” I had the wrong Doug.

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How Rupert Murdoch saved the Boston Herald — not just once, but twice

As I noted Thursday, one of the few positive contributions Rupert Murdoch can take credit for is preserving The Wall Street Journal as a great national newspaper. Another is that he saved the Boston Herald — not once, but twice. Larry Edelman of The Boston Globe writes about the first time (he interviewed me). I tell that story as well as the tale of Murdoch’s second rescue in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls,” which I excerpt below.

The Hearst chain, which had converted the Herald (known then as the Herald American) to a tabloid during the final years of its ownership, had run out the string by 1982. I remember one old-timer telling me that, with closure just hours away, workers came in to rip out the vending machines from the paper’s hulking plant in the South End. At the last minute, Murdoch reached a deal with the unions and the paper was saved.

Under Murdoch’s ownership, the Herald established itself as a feisty alternative to the Globe, sometimes beating its larger rival on important local stories. That continued in the 1990s after Murdoch’s protégé Pat Purcell bought it from him. To this day there are people who believe that Murdoch continued to pull the strings behind the scenes, but I never believed it. Murdoch just didn’t care that much about the Herald, and I don’t doubt that he let Purcell have it on extremely favorable terms.

Unfortunately, the Herald’s financial model pretty much stopped working in the early 2000s, and today it’s owned by the New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital, famous for sucking the life out of its papers. Alden owns two other Massachusetts papers as well — The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

At one time Murdoch also owned the Ottaway chain, which included the Cape Cod Times and some small weeklies, including the Middleboro Gazette, where I grew up. Murdoch is fondly remembered by taking a hands-off approach, but I honestly wonder whether he even knew those papers were part of his empire. The Gazette was later closed by the Gannett chain, and today Middleborough is served by an independent startup, Nemasket Weekly.

Here’s what I wrote in “Moguls” about the Herald and Murdoch’s TV station, WFXT-TV (Channel 25), which he sold off a few years ago. The “endless struggle” I refer to was the Herald’s long-time ownership of Channel 5, an existential threat to the Globe that was removed when the Globe reported that its rival had gained the broadcast license because of corruption at the Federal Communications Commission. The Herald was stripped of its license in 1972, and Hearst swooped in to pick up the pieces.

The Globe’s endless struggle with the Herald’s broadcast ambitions played itself out in one last, faint echo in 1988, when Murdoch, who then owned the Herald, purchased Channel 25. Ted Kennedy, by then a leading member of the Senate, quietly slipped a provision into a bill that made it almost impossible for the FCC to grant a waiver to its rule prohibiting someone from owning both a daily newspaper and a TV station in the same market. At the time, I was a reporter for The Daily Times Chronicle, which served Woburn and several surrounding communities north of Boston. I remember covering a local appearance by Kennedy as he was dogged by the Herald reporter Wayne Woodlief. “Senator, why are you trying to kill the Herald?” the persistent Woodlief asked him several times.

Murdoch chose to sell off Channel 25, thus saving the Herald; he repurchased the TV station after selling the Herald to Purcell. But the Herald columnist Howie Carr remained bitter. He told me years later that Kennedy’s actions were worse than [Globe ally Tip] O’Neill’s, since O’Neill was just trying to help one of several papers rather than destroy the Globe’s only daily competitor. “I think Tip was just trying to get an ally,” Carr said, “whereas Ted was trying to kill the paper in order to deliver the monopoly to his friends.”

The liberal reputation the Globe developed during the Winship era was cemented during Boston’s school desegregation crisis of the mid-1970s, when the Globe wholeheartedly supported federal judge Arthur Garrity’s order to bus children to different neighborhoods in the city to achieve racial balance. It was a terrible time in Boston, as white racism ran rampant and bullets were fired into the Globe’s headquarters and at one of the paper’s delivery trucks. The Globe took the right moral stand, and its coverage earned the paper its second Pulitzer for Public Service. Winship in those years enjoyed a reputation as one of the finest editors in the country. But it was also during those years that the Globe became known as the paper of Boston’s suburban liberal elite and the Herald that of the urban white working class, a dichotomy that has persisted to this day.

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What the sale of Axios may mean for Boston news consumers

See correction below.

What will the sale of Axios mean for Boston news consumers? It’s too early to tell. But there are a couple of intriguing tidbits that emerged from the news that the digital startup will be acquired by Cox Enterprises for $525 million, a story first reported by Ben Mullin of The New York Times.

First, the sale appears to be good news for Axios Local. According to Rick Edmonds of Poynter Online, Cox isn’t looking to walk away from the local newsletters it’s been building out in order to concentrate on national politics. Instead, Cox wants to accelerate the growth of Axios Local. “Our goal of 100 cities is in reach,” publisher Nick Johnston told Edmonds. “I have a list of 384 metropolitan areas in my office, and we cross them off one by one.”

Second, Cox already owns is a minority owner of WFXT-TV (Channel 25) in Boston, the home of Boston 25 News. Two months ago, Axios launched a Boston newsletter produced by veteran journalists Mike Deehan and Steph Solis. Although I’m in no position to know what the strategy will be moving forward, it’s not difficult to imagine Axios Boston amplifying big stories from Boston 25, or featuring Deehan and Solis on its newscasts.

Of course, you should always follow the money. Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen and John Harris never had an opportunity to cash in after they left The Washington Post to found Politico in 2007. VandeHei and Allen were the marquee names who left Politico in 2016 to start Axios (Harris stayed behind). Monday was their big payday.

By the way, Ellen Clegg and I interviewed Deehan recently on the “What Works” podcast, so please give it a listen.

Correction/clarification. Axios has been acquired by Cox Enterprises, which spun off its television and radio stations to the hedge fund Apollo Global Management a couple of years ago. Those stations now do business as Cox Media Group. But wait: Cox Enterprises continues to hold an ownership stake in Cox Media Group, including Boston 25. Earlier this year, it was announced that Cox Media would sell Boston 25, but it’s unclear whether Cox Enterprises would keep its minority stake. So what I said above could still happen, but it’s a lot more complicated than I had realized.

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