Boston Globe omits name of reporter who left after harassment accusation

Saturday update: The Boston Business Journal’s Catherine Carlock posted a very good overview Friday night of the Globe’s decision not to identify the reporter who had been forced to resign over sexual-harassment accusations. She also quotes some of the online commentary, including very tough tweets from my former Boston Phoenix colleague Carly Carioli and former Globe journalist Hilary Sargent. She quotes me, too.

If you watch Friday’s “Beat the Press,” you’ll see that I believed the forthcoming Globe story would identify the former employee. I was basing that not just on thinking it was the right thing to do but on some information I’d received as well. So I was pretty surprised to see that the name had been excluded.

This was a tough call. I think Brian McGrory and other Globe executives had two choices, both of them bad. Six months ago, no one would have expected the paper to name a mid-level employee, not especially well known, who had been pushed out over sexual harassment that was apparently serious but involved no touching. But it’s not six months ago. We are all living in the post-Harvey Weinstein era now.

The very same story that omits the name identifies Tom Ashbrook of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) as having been suspended for unspecified allegations. Especially given the Globe’s strong reporting on sexual harassment and assault in restaurants and at the Statehouse, it seems to me that the paper needs to be as transparent as possible about what’s going on in its own house. And if you want to argue that that’s somehow unfair to the former employee in question, I would respond: Yes, in some ways it is unfair. But it’s necessary.

Original Friday item: I just took a quick scan through Boston Globe reporter Mark Arsenault’s story on sexual harassment at the Globe and at other local media organizations, including unspecified charges involving Tom Ashbrook at WBUR Radio (90.9 FM). For the most part it appears to be a fine, thorough piece. But what stands out and will spark hundreds of conversations is the Globe’s decision not to identify a journalist who has been the subject of rumors this week, including on today’s “Kirk and Callahan” show on WEEI Radio (93.7 FM). Arsenault writes:

The Globe chose not to identify the employee in this story because his alleged conduct did not involve physical contact, threats, or persistent harassment, and editors determined it is highly unlikely the newspaper would have identified the accused, or written about his conduct, if this situation had arisen at another private company.

““Yes, we’re well aware that by withholding the identity of the reporter involved, we’ll be accused of a double-standard by people and organizations that are not privy to all the facts,” editor Brian McGrory said in a message to the newsroom from which Arsenault quotes. “I can live with that far more easily than I can live with the thought of sacrificing our values to slake the thirst of this moment.”

Although I can understand McGrory’s judgment given Arsenault’s description of the misconduct (especially the lack of physical contact), I wonder if it is tenable in the current environment. I suspect the name is going to come out anyway given how many people know it. Then again, if Globe executives are convinced that not naming him is the right thing to do, I suppose they’re prepared to live with someone else reporting it. But it leaves me feeling uncomfortable.

A source sent me the full text of McGrory’s memo a little while ago. Here it is.

About three weeks ago, I commissioned a story taking a look at how this and other local media organizations are covering the extraordinary #MeToo movement — at the same time that we’re assessing our own situations and confronting issues from within. It took a while, because all of these stories take a while. Sourcing is painstaking. Accusations are raw. Context is important and can take more time than we’d like.

We’ve done some extraordinary journalism on many fronts of this movement — Yvonne [Abraham], Kay [Lazar], Shirley [Leung], Shelley [Murphy], Devra [First], led by Jen [Peter, senior deputy managing editor]. The list could go on, and there’s more to come. Our standards have been high and meticulously upheld, in terms of what we’ll report and how. Vetting of the stories has been rigorous to the point of painstaking.

Now our story on local media, written by Mark Arsenault, is ready this afternoon, as there’s speculation on talk radio and in the social sphere about a recent situation involving the Globe. Mark addresses this situation in the story, having learned about it because he’s an excellent reporter. But even as Mark is aware of the identity of a journalist who has left the Globe, we’ve made the decision not to publish the name, and here I’ll attempt to explain why.

Quite simply, the transgressions would not meet our standards for a reportable event if they happened at another company. To all our knowledge, nobody was physically touched; no one was persistently harassed; there were no overt threats. We’re covering it because we’re applying an extra measure of transparency to ourselves.

This is not in any way to make light of what happened here. There was conduct highly unbecoming of a Globe journalist, people who justifiably felt victimized, and the potential for conflicts of interest. So the responsible party is no longer at the Globe.

Context, again, is vital in this moment, and it is ever more paramount for the Globe and other reputable news organizations to exercise good judgment in unwavering fashion. There are degrees of misconduct, a spectrum, and we must be careful to recognize it. We’ve been meticulous in bringing this kind of context to all of our reporting on these issues, the things we write and, as often, the things we don’t. This is not the time to lower our standard.

So to answer your inevitable question, yes, we’re well aware that by withholding the identity of the reporter involved, we’ll be accused of a double-standard by people and organizations that are not privy to all the facts. I can live with that far more easily than I can live with the thought of sacrificing our values to slake the thirst of this moment. I’m also well aware that wise people, including people in this room, will disagree. I respect that.

Beyond this, please know that our coverage will continue with all the rigor that we’ve already brought on all fronts. Also know that, even as we believe the culture of this room is in a good place, it can get better and we’re working to improve it.

As always, feel free to drop by or share in any other way your thoughts.

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How the Globe’s home-delivery woes became a crisis

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Boston Globe owner John Henry now has a full-blown crisis on his hands. Before Sunday night, the Globe’s inability to deliver newspapers to its paying customers looked like an annoying but manageable problem—provided it was solved within the next few days. But the stunning revelation by the paper’s new distributor that it could take four to six months for home delivery to return to normal changes everything.

Following Sunday night’s devastating story by Globe reporters Mark Arsenault and Dan Adams (it’s also on the front of today’s print edition if you can find one), it’s clear that there is going to be an ugly—and very public—standoff between the Globe and the new distributor, ACI Media Group of Long Beach, California.

Earlier claims that only 5 percent of customers were being affected have given way to reality. The Globe’s chief executive, Mike Sheehan, now says the number is 10 percent, citing ACI’s own figures. Anecdotally, that still seems low. As of this morning, people living in 112 zip codes are still experiencing delays. Or, as many customers have been complaining, no delivery at all.

Other than the four- to six-month timeframe, I thought the most mind-boggling part of the Globe story was a quote from Jack Klunder, the president and chief executive of ACI, who claims he told Globe executives exactly what to expect:

“I said ‘I cannot describe to you how painful it is,’ ” Klunder said, recounting his warning to Globe officials. “I used the expression ‘massive disruption.’ … You’re going to get thousands of calls, emails—social media is going to be blistering you. The news media is going to be blistering you. You’re going to like where you are at the end of this cycle but you’re going to go through this.”

Sheehan essentially denies being told that, saying the problems of the past week go “far beyond any reasonable definition of disruption.”

Incredibly, Arsenault and Adams also report that ACI can’t be held liable for any performance problems during the first three months of the contract.

Despite all this, I suspect there’s more than a little posturing going on. Both sides have to know that a months-long delivery crisis is unacceptable and will set off an avalanche of canceled subscriptions (I’ve already heard from people who want to cancel but can’t because the phones are jammed), refunds to advertisers, and severe damage to the Globe’s brand and reputation. (Klunder seems to think this isn’t going to hurt ACI’s reputation at all. “We’ll be fine,” he’s quoted as saying. And why not? The Globe hired him despite similar problems in 2014 at the Orange County Register.)

But what can be done? We can safely assume that Globe executives don’t want to give ACI more money. Although Sheehan is quoted as saying the switch was mainly made to improve service (oops), he adds that he was aiming to save money as well. Perhaps the Globe could cancel the contract and re-up with the previous vendor, Publishers Circulation Fulfillment. But the network of hardworking, underpaid delivery people has already been so thoroughly upended that there’s probably no sure way of restoring the status quo.

Among the many threads to this ongoing story, one emerging theme may be tension between the Globe’s newsroom and the business side. The era of good feelings engendered by John Henry’s ownership suffered a setback this fall, as the paper eliminated about 45 positions through buyouts and layoffs at the same time that Henry was launching Stat, a well-staffed website covering health and life sciences.

On Saturday night and into the early-morning hours on Sunday, many dozens of Globe journalists volunteered to deliver the Sunday paper. It was a feel-good story, to be sure, and it would have been seen as a nice gesture if the delivery woes were just a few days away from being solved. But there was an edge to it as well. I spent some time at the paper’s Newton distribution center, and unhappiness was clearly evident among newsroom staffers toward their colleagues whose job it is to manage the paper’s business operations.

“We’re fighting for our survival here, and I like doing what I’m doing,” technology columnist Hiawatha Bray told me as he assembled papers alongside reporter Todd Wallack. “Not just because I get paid, but because I love journalism.” When I asked him why he thought the switch in vendors had been so painful, Bray replied, “I’m sorry, I have no idea. We have nothing to do with whatever it was that happened, and we’re just mystified.”

Added Wallack: “People deserve their paper. I agree with all our readers. They have a right to expect the paper to be there every morning.”

For that matter, Sunday night’s bombshell story was something of a declaration by Globe editor Brian McGrory that the paper can best serve its readers by holding powerful institutions accountable—including the Globe itself.

A final point. If you feel tempted to snark about the Globe’s dependence on print circulation some 20 years into the digital age, you need to understand a few things about the newspaper business. Digital is both the present and the future, of course. But print is still where the money is, not just for the Globe but for nearly all newspapers. Online, advertising is ubiquitous and therefore cheap. In print, advertising remains a lucrative if declining source of revenue.

Moreover, if we’ve learned anything from the past week, it’s that a lot of people still like to read the newspaper in print. On one end of the scale are the Globe readers who took to Twitter and Facebook to complain about the delivery problems. On the other are the total digital holdouts. I’ve heard stories that Globe employees took calls from customers who don’t even have an email address.

One person who hasn’t been heard from throughout the chaos of the past week is John Henry himself. This is his first real crisis since he purchased the Globe in 2013. But if there’s anything we’ve learned throughout his long tenure as principal owner of the Red Sox, it’s that he has a tendency to let bad situations play out—sometimes too long—before he acts.

It would be nice to hear from him. But it would be even better if he commits to doing whatever it takes to fix this mess. The Globe doesn’t have four to six months to get it right.