With the Herald changing hands, here are five updated ideas for making it better

Photo by Emily Judem for WGBH News

If I had a nickel for every time someone predicted the death of the Boston Herald over the past 25 years, I would have — well, many nickels. So I see last week’s announcement by Herald owner Pat Purcell that he plans to sell his paper to GateHouse Media as just one more bump in what has been an exceedingly bumpy road.

Twelve years ago, as The Boston Phoenix’s media columnist, I offered five suggestions for how the Herald could improve and build a more sustainable business. With the Herald changing ownership for the first time since 1994, when Purcell bought it from his mentor Rupert Murdoch, I thought I’d take a look at what I had to say in 2005 and see whether any of it is relevant today.

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What will GateHouse Media do with the Boston Herald?

There is so much local media news breaking today that it’s hard to keep it all straight. Late this afternoon came the huge announcement that Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell, who bought the tabloid from his mentor Rupert Murdoch in 1994, was taking the paper into bankruptcy with the intention of selling it to GateHouse Media.

I’ve posted the clip of us talking about the deal on “Beat the Press.” Here is the Herald’s coverage. And here is The Boston Globe’s. The Boston Business Journal has some interesting details as well, including the bankruptcy filing. I talked with Jenna Fisher of Patch about what’s next.

At this point, we all have far more questions than answers. A friend suggested something to me a little while ago that is worth pondering: Can we be sure that GateHouse will end up with the Herald? Once a business goes into bankruptcy, it’s up for grabs. As I note in my forthcoming book, “The Return of the Moguls,” the executives who were running California’s Orange County Register took that paper into bankruptcy several years ago with the goal of buying it themselves. They lost out, and today the Register is part of the Digital First Media empire.

Other questions: Although cuts have already been announced, will the diminished Herald be its old recognizable blend of local news, good photography and sports coverage, and feisty tabloidism? Or will it be something else entirely? Will GateHouse keep Herald Radio up and running? Will it honor its printing contract with the Globe, or will it move operations to a GateHouse facility? We’ll learn the answers to all these questions in the weeks and months to come.

Interestingly, for a few years Purcell owned around 100 community papers in Eastern Massachusetts in addition to the Herald, selling all but the Herald to GateHouse about 15 years ago. Now things have come full circle.

No one wants to see hard-working journalists lose their jobs. We all hope GateHouse will keep the pain to a minimum, and that the Herald will be with us for many years to come.

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How Boston media were shaped by the FCC and dirty politics

Tip O’Neill (center) and the Kennedy family were on opposite sides in the battle that gave rise to modern Boston media. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The Federal Communications Commission overturned a decades-old rule last week that prohibited common ownership of a television or radio station and a daily newspaper in the same city. At a time when newspapers are hemorrhaging money and the broadcast news business is shrinking, the FCC argued, the so-called cross-ownership ban had become obsolete, and was standing in the way of possible joint enterprises that could reinvigorate news coverage.

The more likely outcome of such hybrids would be combined newsrooms, layoffs, and a dumbed-down product. Here in Boston, it would mean something else as well: the end of a regulatory regime that was instrumental in shaping our media environment. It was an epic battle over cross-ownership that led to the rise of The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald’s slide into perpetual also-ran status, and the emergence of WCVB-TV (Channel 5) as one of the best local television stations in the country. The story is told in three books: “Common Ground,” J. Anthony Lukas’ monumental history of Boston during the busing era; “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century,” by John A. Farrell; and “Newspaper Story: One Hundred Years of the Boston Globe,” by Louis M. Lyons.

The origins of this tale goes back to January 1956, at a lunch at the Somerset Club on Beacon Hill attended by, among others, Herald publisher Robert “Beanie” Choate and Globe publisher Davis Taylor. The once-dominant Boston Post was about to fold, and Choate proposed that the Herald and the Globe — the largest and most influential of the city’s remaining papers — combine their forces and thus avoid an expensive newspaper war. When Taylor refused, Choate reportedly told him: “You fellows are stubborn. Worse than that, you’re arrogant. You better listen to us or we’ll teach you a lesson. I’m going to get Channel 5, and with my television revenues I’ll put you out of business.”

Two commercial TV channels were already on the air in Boston. Under FCC guidelines, the third license — that is, Channel 5 — should not have been awarded to the Herald, which already owned two radio stations. Yet it was, after a furious round of lobbying by Choate. When Davis Taylor and his cousin John Taylor made the rounds in Washington to find out what had gone wrong, they were told by House Minority Leader Joe Martin, a North Attleborough Republican, “I’m afraid you fellas have just been outpoliticked.”

Indeed they had been. It seemed that Joe Kennedy was determined to win his son Jack a Pulitzer Prize for his book “Profiles in Courage.” The judges in the biography category were so unimpressed with “Profiles” that it did not even appear among the eight books they nominated, so Kennedy and his friend Arthur Krock — a veteran New York Times columnist who had stepped down as chairman of the Pulitzer board several years earlier — worked to persuade board members to overrule the judges and award the prize to Jack Kennedy. Joe Kennedy and Krock succeeded.

Among the Pulitzer board members who concluded that “Profiles in Courage” deserved a Pulitzer was none other than Beanie Choate. No surprise there. Joe Kennedy had dispatched one of his coat-holders, Francis Xavier Morrissey, a municipal-court judge, to assure Choate that he would get the license to Channel 5 if he voted to give JFK a Pulitzer. And Joe Kennedy was as good as his word. By a four-to-two vote, the FCC granted the license to Choate; siding with the majority were two commissioners with close ties to Kennedy.

Choate’s victory represented an existential threat to the Globe. Its young Washington bureau chief, future executive editor Robert Healy, was assigned the task of trying to unearth information that could reverse the FCC’s decision. Healy cultivated an unlikely source: Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, then a rising Cambridge congressman, who was interested in higher office but was afraid he would be blocked by the Republican-leaning Herald if the Globe went out of business. With O’Neill’s help, Healy got access to the inner workings of a congressional investigation into federal regulatory agencies. Healy was able to report the existence of telephone records that showed FCC chairman George McConnaughey had improper contacts with Choate. That, along with several other stories, led the FCC in 1972 to strip the Herald of its television license.

Without a television station to prop it up, the Herald Traveler, as it was then known, could not survive. It was sold to Hearst’s Record American, which published the paper as the Herald American until 1981, when a rising press baron named Rupert Murdoch rescued it. Channel 5, meanwhile, was acquired by a civic-minded community group called Boston Broadcasters, who adopted the call letters WCVB, pumped up its news operation, and innovated with local programming such as “Chronicle,” a magazine-style show that survives to this day. WCVB was sold in 1982, leaving its founders very wealthy but the station itself less ambitious and more focused on the bottom line. Even now, though, the Boston television market is widely considered to be smarter than is the case in most areas of the country, a situation that can be attributed in part to the legacy of Channel 5.

Perhaps one of the more surprising elements of the Globe-Herald struggle was that O’Neill and the Kennedy family found themselves on opposite sides, and that the Kennedys’ interests were aligned with the Herald rather than the Globe. Eventually, O’Neill and the Kennedys formed a tight bond, and the Globe was often regarded as close — inappropriately in some cases — with both the future House speaker and the members of the Kennedy dynasty.

The Globe’s relationship with the Kennedys played itself out in a faint echo of the Channel 5 story in 1988, when Rupert Murdoch purchased Channel 25. Sen. Ted Kennedy quietly slipped a provision into a bill that made it almost impossible for the FCC to grant a waiver allowing Murdoch to own both a TV station and a newspaper in Boston. Murdoch chose to sell off Channel 25, thus saving the Herald. Several years later Murdoch repurchased Channel 25 and sold the Herald to his longtime protégé Pat Purcell, who continues as the Herald’s publisher to this day. Thus did the cross-ownership ban not only pave the way for the Globe’s rise to dominance but it ended Rupert Murdoch’s years in the city’s newspaper market as well.

Now the cross-ownership ban is gone. How will that change the Boston media scene? The current Globe owner, John Henry, has long been interested in television. Both the Globe and the Herald operate internet radio stations that feature music and talk, respectively. Might they seek to purchase terrestrial radio stations? Or could the owner of one of the city’s TV stations buy one or both newspapers?

There’s no question that the rise of digital technology has hollowed out traditional media, rendering the cross-ownership ban archaic in some respects. On balance, though, the ban has been good for Boston news consumers. What comes next is likely to have a lot more to do with profits than with the public interest.

Barbara Howard of WGBH Radio’s “All Things Considered” and I talked about the FCC’s regulatory changes last week. Click here if you’d like to give it a listen.

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It’s time for some answers on the Globe’s printing woes

In trying to think through what’s behind the crisis at The Boston Globe’s new Taunton printing facility, it seems logical that one of two things is going on. The first possibility is that the problems are fixable but that they have taken longer to resolve than anyone expected. The second is much worse: that the presses the Globe bought are not up to the task, will never be up to the task, and shouldn’t have been purchased in the first place. I certainly hope it’s the former and not the latter.

The Boston Business Journal’s Don Seiffert, citing “multiple sources,” reports that Boston Globe Media’s chief operating officer, Sean Keohan, has left the company — a departure that, Seiffert hastens to add, may or may not be related to the printing problems.

This comes within days of a tough statement from the Boston Herald — which is printed by the Globe — apologizing to its readers for the poor job the Globe is doing of printing its tabloid rival. “We talk with the Globe on a regular basis but unfortunately the remedies they put forth to solve the production problems have failed miserably,” the Herald said. (My WGBH News colleague Emily Rooney praised the Herald on “Beat the Press” for speaking out.)

A number of sources have told me that printing woes have required the Globe to set deadlines so early that the print edition is often missing sport scores — even when the Red Sox play at home. Papers are going undelivered. In addition to the Herald, the Globe also prints The New York Times, and, needless to say, that is not a relationship that Globe owner John Henry wants to endanger.

The problem right now is that few people know for sure what’s going on. When the Globe endured its home-delivery fiasco about a year and a half ago, the paper itself published the definitive story about what had gone wrong. It was thorough and unsparing. This time, we haven’t heard much since Globe Media chief executive Doug Franklin left in mid-July. We need to see the Globe once again rise to the occasion and report on what has gone wrong and how it is going to be fixed.

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The Herald unloads on the Globe over its ongoing printing woes

Whoa. The Boston Herald has published a scorching statement on how it’s been affected by The Boston Globe’s printing problems. As you probably know, the Globe has been printing the Herald for the past several years. Here’s the conclusion: “We talk with the Globe on a regular basis but unfortunately the remedies they put forth to solve the production problems have failed miserably.”

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Herald reporter suspended for violating social-media policy

Boston Herald reporter Chris Villani was given a three-day suspension for violating the paper’s social-media policy. According to Chris Sweeney of Boston magazine, Villani tweeted out some breaking news on the Aaron Hernandez case without first seeking permission from the higher-ups. (Note: This post has now been updated with a message to the staff by Herald publisher Pat Purcell and a response to Purcell by the Newspaper Guild. Just keep scrolling.)

A number of Herald reporters are boycotting Twitter in response to Villani’s punishment. Here’s a statement from the union that represents Herald employees:

The policy is the policy. But having to get permission from a top editor before tweeting seems unworkable for a news organization hoping to make an impact in the digital space.

Adam Vaccaro of The Boston Globe has more. An interesting side note: Herald editor Joe Sciacca declined to comment to the Globe even after providing a rather fulsome statement to Boston magazine.

Update: Herald publisher Pat Purcell has weighed in.

Update II: The Newspaper Guild has now responded to Purcell.

Guild members are grateful to Pat Purcell for keeping the Boston Herald alive and thriving during a difficult time for the newspaper industry. We respect his leadership and his decades of experience.

No one is more concerned with matters of reputation and accuracy than his Guild employees. After all, our names go on the stories; our reputations are on the line if any of the information is wrong. The same holds true for our social media accounts, where our names, pictures, and occupations accompany every single post. We are well aware that if we were to use social media recklessly, we would lose the trust both of sources who help us do our jobs as well as our readers.

We agree with Pat that there is a need for a policy, but we have deep reservations about certain aspects that Herald Media Inc. has incorporated into its policy. In our view, the response our members have expressed about this recent enforcement is an opportunity to open the door to discuss making changes.

We remain committed to providing Boston Herald readers with the best quality journalism in the city and look forward to speaking with him.

The Guild

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Somehow, the Boston Herald keeps on keeping on

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Murdoch to the rescue: December 3, 1982

Chris Sweeney has written a sharp piece for Boston magazine on the state of the Boston Herald, the city’s number-two daily. As is generally the case with stories about the Herald, the overarching theme is: How much longer can the struggling tabloid cling to life?

And yet I wonder if that’s the right question. For a decade starting in the mid-1990s, I covered the Herald‘s ups and downs as the media columnist for the Boston Phoenix. If I had a dime for every person who told me the Herald had six months to live, I’d be a very rich man. Sadly, it was the Phoenix that didn’t survive.

As Sweeney notes, the Herald these days seems more like an extension of its online radio station than a standalone newspaper. Nearly two years ago editor Joe Sciacca gave me a tour of the paper’s new headquarters in South Boston, and I was impressed with what I saw—especially the amount of space devoted to multimedia and to the modern radio facilities.

My WGBH colleague Jim Braude tells Sweeney that not many people may be listening to Boston Herald Radio (OK, Braude’s actual quote is “I don’t think anyone listens”). But Braude also points out that it’s given the Herald a jolt of relevance in terms of high-profile guests like Mayor Marty Walsh, Governor Charlie Baker, and Donald Trump, whose appearances can then be written up and tweeted out.

Unfortunately, none of the top three executives at the Herald would speak with Sweeney, a group that comprises publisher Pat Purcell, Sciacca, and executive editor John Strahinich. It would have been useful to get some insights from them regarding the Herald‘s current business model. Not that I’m faulting Sweeney—I’ve been there. And his description of trying to get Strahinich to talk is pretty amusing.

But even though print circulation has shrunk precipitously and print advertising revenue is presumably scarce, the Herald does have some strengths. Sweeney does not report the size of the staff, but it’s small and therefore affordable. The sports section is very good. The website is slow and frustrating, but the third-party mobile app is excellent—and includes one-click access to Herald Radio. Purcell made a lot of money selling off the old headquarters in the South End; the Herald is now printed by the Boston Globe, which means that its larger competitor has every reason to keep its rival breathing.

So how long can the Herald survive? Keep those dimes rolling in.