The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously upheld a 2017 ruling by the FCC to loosen media ownership regulations, including an end to the so-called cross-ownership ban. That ban prohibits one entity from owning a newspaper and a TV or radio station in the same market.
The FCC’s long, tortured history on cross-ownership shaped the Boston media scene from the 1950s through the ’80s. Although the ban wasn’t formalized until 1975, the FCC had much to say about the issue well before that. No one told the story better than John Aloysius Farrell in his 2001 book “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century,” which I wrote about for The Boston Phoenix.
It’s a pretty amazing tale, and it’s crucial if you want to understand how the dynamic between The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald played out over the course of those decades. The very short version: the Boston Herald Traveler, with the support of the Kennedys, obtained the license to Channel 5 in the 1950s through corrupt means. The Globe, with the help of O’Neill, then a young congressman, exposed that corruption. That, in turn, led to the Herald’s losing the license to Channel 5 in the early 1970s, thus cementing the Globe’s status as the city’s dominant daily newspaper.
The final act played out in the late 1980s when Rupert Murdoch, who then owned the Herald, bought Channel 25 and sought a waiver from the FCC that would have allowed him to keep both. Sen. Ted Kennedy slipped an amendment into a bill that made it virtually impossible for the FCC to grant such a waiver. Several years later Murdoch sold the Herald to Pat Purcell, a longtime lieutenant. Although the Herald enjoyed a few years of prosperity under Purcell, it eventually entered a long, slow decline, ending in bankruptcy and the sale to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital in 2018.
So now that the cross-ownership ban is gone, what’s next? A number of organizations, including the media-reform group Free Press, opposed the FCC’s move, arguing that it will make it more difficult for local groups, including those representing women and people of color, to acquire media outlets. I agree, although there’s also a case to be made that newspapers and, to some extent, broadcast media are so moribund that ownership regulations are more about the last century than this one.
It does seem likely to me that we’re going to see newsrooms that combine newspaper and broadcast operations in an attempt to save money. We’ll see less diversity and less coverage as a result. But given that virtually all media have shifted to the unregulated internet, the ultimate effect of such consolidation is yet to be determined.
Eight top executives out at The Boston Globe since last summer. Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell paying himself nearly $1 million in the past year as his paper was sliding into bankruptcy. It has been a significant week for the city’s two daily newspapers, and there’s some important context to both stories. So let’s try to tease out what’s really going on.
First the Globe. Last March, as I was finishing up my book on wealthy newspaper publishers, “The Return of the Moguls,” the Globe seemed to be well-positioned to make a legitimate run at financial sustainability. The strategy was a sound one: move the newsroom and business operations to the downtown and open a new printing facility in Taunton dedicated to producing the Globe as well as publications such as the Herald, The New York Times and USA Today.
As we know, the execution turned out to be disastrous. The Taunton plant simply couldn’t handle the work. All kinds of stories were floating around. Among the ones I heard was that management had failed to negotiate an agreement with the unions in a timely manner and that the presses lacked the needed capacity. Whatever it was, the situation quickly devolved into a rerun of the home-distribution fiasco of a year and a half earlier, except with fewer obvious options for fixing it. The story went public in a big way in September, when the Herald published an apology to its readers, putting the blame squarely on the Globe. From a personal point of view, I found myself frantically inserting material into my book about the printing problems during copy-editing and on page proofs.
What I’ve heard in the months since then is that the printing problems have eased but have not been entirely solved. It’s in that light that the eight departures ought to be evaluated, even if not all of them were related to the printing disaster and even if some of the blame was unfairly assigned. Globe publisher and owner John Henry told Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal this week that the changes were made in an attempt to change the culture of the Globe’s business operations.
“The culture of the Globe on the business side … needed to be reset,” Henry told Seiffert via email, adding: “The challenge and disappointment has been squarely with senior leadership. We’ve finally dealt with those issues. I am squarely responsible for not dealing with these issues in the first year.”
Fortunately, the Globe’s long-term strategy of selling expensive digital subscriptions is on track, with editor Brian McGrory recently writing that he expects the paper will cross the 100,000 mark during the first half of this year.
If I had one piece of advice for Henry, it would be this: No doubt the Taunton mess blew up whatever financial projections that had been made, delaying any visions of returning to profitability. But this would be the worst possible time to cut. At a moment when the digital strategy is working, it would make no sense to try to get readers to pay $30 a month for a shrinking product.
The signs are good: the Globe recently added a sixth journalist to its Washington bureau, and it is planning to hire replacements for Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Sebastian Smee, who’s left for The Washington Post, and Statehouse reporter Jim O’Sullivan, who resigned amid accusations of sexual harassment. Slashing the newsroom because of Taunton’s problems would be the worst possible move.
The Herald today published some unsettling news about Pat Purcell, who has owned the paper since 1994 after previously running it for his mentor Rupert Murdoch. According to bankruptcy records obtained by reporter Brian Dowling, Purcell paid himself $970,000 in the year before he declared Chapter 11 on Dec. 8. Finance and operations executive Jeff Magram, a part-owner, was paid another $653,000. Four of Purcell’s children received more than $200,000 among them.
“I continued to pay myself what I was earning previously at News Corp.,” Purcell told Dowling, referring to the name of Murdoch’s company. “I took some raises, same as everyone else. When there were no raises, I took no raises.”
Globe columist Jeff Jacoby, a Herald alumnus, put it this way:
Pat Purcell wasn't expected to take a vow of poverty, but could he really not have made do with, say, $500,000?
On the other hand, kudos to the @BostonHerald for publishing this story. And to Purcell for not spiking it.
And no, of course Purcell didn’t take a vow of poverty when he bought the Herald. But as former Herald columnist Peter Lucas pointed out last Friday in his column for the Lowell Sun and the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise, Murdoch practically gave Purcell the Herald and the South End property it was located on. Several years ago Purcell sold the property, which was redeveloped as the Ink Block high-end combination of condos, apartments, a hotel and a massive Whole Foods.
Now the money-losing Herald owes $31 million and the fate of employee pensions is up in the air. GateHouse Media, Purcell’s preferred buyer, proposes to shrink the number of employees from 240 to 175, although another possible buyer has emerged.
The Herald has gotten smaller and smaller over the years, and it seems reasonable that it was time for the Purcell era to end. But given how well he has done as a direct result of Murdoch’s largesse, I hope his employees’ worst fears aren’t realized when the bankruptcy proceedings are over and the paper is sold. He owes them much.
Whoa. Former Boston Herald (and Boston Phoenix) columnist Peter Lucas absolutely torches Herald owner Pat Purcell, who has taken the tabloid into bankruptcy with the intention of selling it to GateHouse Media. Lucas, now a columnist for the Lowell Sun and the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise, begins:
Not everybody is leaving the Boston Herald broke, just the workers.
The owner, Pat Purcell, will make out just fine.
In fact, after announcing bankruptcy and the sale of his paper, he will walk away from the business a rich man.
“He built a real estate empire on the backs of Herald workers, and now the workers are being thrown out on the street,” said one veteran Herald reporter, who fears for his pension.
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.
GateHouse, a national chain that owns more than 100 community weeklies and dailies in Eastern Massachusetts and environs, has given little indication of what it intends to do with the city’s number two paper. First the Herald has to go through bankruptcy, and though it’s likely GateHouse will end up with the tabloid, there is no guarantee.
What we do know is that a GateHouse-owned Herald will be smaller. Preliminary reports suggest that the staff will be cut from 240 to 175 across all departments. That is going to have a huge impact on the Herald’s newsgathering capacity, as the newsroom accounts for about half of that 240. On the other hand, a daily newspaper with 175 employees should still be able to do good work and provide at least some competition to The Boston Globe.
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.
1. Get smart. This is probably the single most important step that GateHouse could take in trying to appeal to new readers. More than 20 years ago, a journalist who had left the paper told me something he’d once said to Purcell. It went approximately like this: You’ve already got all the stupid readers, Pat. You need to find a few smart ones as well.
Unfortunately, Purcell never really took that advice. From the mid-1990s until the early 2000s, the Herald thrived on the strength of strong local news coverage, an aggressive business section, an excellent sports section, and good photography. But as the economics of newspapering began to crater, the Herald embraced a flash-and-trash approach while continuing to get smaller.
In recent years, under editor Joe Sciacca, the sensationalism has been toned down considerably, and the daily report is solid if shrunken. But the goal seemed to be to hang onto the paper’s shrinking pool of existing readers rather than try to cultivate, say, the young workers in Boston’s growing innovation economy — many of whom may not be as liberal on economic issues as the Globe thinks they are and who would thus be open to an alternative.
2. Upgrade the look. Twelve years ago I wrote: “Newcomers to Boston no doubt are perplexed when they hear old-timers refer to the Herald as ‘the Record.’ That’s a reference to the Record American, a Hearst-owned tabloid from a bygone era that, along with several other papers, eventually morphed into the modern Herald. Trouble is, the Herald really does look like the Record, if the Record could be exhumed, updated a bit, and printed in color.”
Unfortunately, nothing has changed. Today, as I did then, I would recommend a makeover along the lines of (for instance) the Boston Business Journal, an attractive tabloid that takes a more restrained approach. The old urban tab look is perfect if you’re looking for something to fold up and take with you to Suffolk Downs — provided you’re going to the horse races. Now the city hopes the Suffolk Downs property will become Amazon’s second headquarters. GateHouse ought to be thinking about how to design a Herald that will appeal to the sort of young, highly educated folks who would work there — a sizable group even if Amazon ultimately picks another city.
3. Turn right. Despite the Herald’s reputation as a bastion of right-wing Trumpery, the paper’s editorial pages have long been rather staid and moderate. The right-wing reputation comes from a few of its news columnists, especially Howie Carr, who’s long since slid into self-parody; Joe Fitzgerald, a former sportswriter who traffics in snoozy social conservatism; and Adriana Cohen, who recycles seemingly every talking point from Fox News, including the network’s outrageous attacks on the FBI.
The opinion pages, on the other hand, carry respectable syndicated conservatives like Jonah Goldberg, George Will, and Michael Gerson, as well as local voices like freelancer Jim Sullivan, who rarely writes about politics. What would help is if editorial-page editor Shelly Cohen recruited some young, smart, conservative local columnists. Surely there’s some recent college graduate out there who wants to be the next Ben Shapiro or Tomi Lahren who’d be willing to work for a low salary and a shot at Twitter immortality. Unfortunately for the Herald, now as then, the best conservative columnist in Boston is Jeff Jacoby — a Herald alumnus who left the paper for the Globe many years ago.
4. Dump the website. I first made this recommendation on the grounds that the Herald simply didn’t translate well online — it was a quick read that people flip through on the subway or at Dunkin’ Donuts just before they go to work. Today’s smaller Herald is an even quicker read. Besides, the Herald’s website is not exactly a joy to navigate, though its mobile app is decent.
What I hadn’t anticipated 12 years ago was that the Herald would launch an internet radio station that has become an integral part of the paper’s identity. The problem is that it is essentially an old-fashioned conservative talk station, and people listen to talk radio in their cars, most of which are not especially well suited to streaming audio. But it has been a worthwhile experiment, and GateHouse should continue with it.
5. Live free or die? Purcell never wanted to take this step, though there was some buzz that he might when the free commuter tab Metro first came to Boston. I thought a free Herald could make sense; certainly it’s a better read than the Metro. Moreover, the Herald relies on point-of-purchase sales, and there are simply fewer places to buy newspapers than there used to be.
The trend in newspapers these days is to charge as much as the market will bear, either in print or online. Persuading readers to pay for journalism is essential given the collapse of digital advertising (for anyone other than Facebook and Google) and the ongoing decline of print advertising. But what little advertising value remains in newspapers is all on the print side. And if GateHouse can cut expenses enough (probably the one thing the compay is really, really good at), it might be able to turn a profit with a free Herald.
Last week’s announcement that the Herald would be sold was good news in the sense that Boston will continue to have two daily papers. But it’s sad, too, because a lot of people will be losing their jobs, and the likelihood is that the Herald is going to offer less. “More newspapers mean more coverage,” wrote Herald sports columnist Steve Buckley over the weekend. “More newspapers mean more opinions. And listen up, Globe: More newspapers mean more hustle. If we lose the Herald, the Globe will lose something as well.”
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.
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.
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.
Congratulations to the staff of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which fearlessly revealed Wednesday night that the money behind its new owner is casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is not normally the shy, retiring type, but in this case he tried to keep his ownership interest a secret. Predictably, his cover was blown within days.
So my conspiracy theory that the sale involved some sort of a shell game being played by New Media and its sister company, GateHouse Media (which will continue to manage the Review-Journal), proved not to be the case. But there is an interesting Boston alt-weekly angle to all this that’s worth keeping an eye on.
As had been reported earlier in the week by the Review-Journal and others, a newspaper executive named Michael Schroeder is listed as a manager of News + Media Capital Group, the newly formed company that bought the Review-Journal and several smaller papers for $140 million. And Schroeder, whose holdings include Connecticut’s New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, is the former publisher of BostonNOW, a free tabloid that competed briefly with Metro Boston.
The founder of BostonNOW was a well-known local entrepreneur, Russel Pergament, who began his career as an ad salesman extraordinaire for The Real Paper, which competed with The Boston Phoenix during the 1970s. Pergament later founded the Tab chain of high-quality community weeklies in Boston’s western suburbs.
During the ’90s Pergament sold out to Fidelity, which was then amassing a Greater Boston chain of weeklies known as Community Newspaper Company, or CNC. Fidelity eventually sold CNC to Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell, who turned around several years later and offloaded them to GateHouse Media, based in Fairport, New York, a suburb of Rochester. Pergament’s creation still survives, sort of, in the form of GateHouse-owned papers like the Newton Tab. Perversely, the Tab papers are not longer tabs.
After folding BostonNOW, Pergament moved to New York, where he started a similar free tabloid called AMNewYork—which, like BostonNOW, competed with the local version of Metro.
Will Pergament, through his connection with Schroeder, have any involvement in News + Media? Here’s what the Review-Journal reported on Tuesday, before the Adelson connection was definitively confirmed:
Pergament, BostonNOW’s publisher and CEO, is CEO of NAN Holdings, a Massachusetts venture capital fund that helped finance the startup of Jewish News Service.
JNS has an exclusive agreement to distribute content from Israel Hayom, an Israeli newspaper owned by Adelson. Both JNS and Israel Hayom have been widely criticized for a perceived tilt in favor of far-right Israeli politicians.
Pergament has not responded to requests for comment.
Given that most observers believe Adelson wants to own the Review-Journal so that he can use it as a platform for his views on Israel—including strong support for the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—it’s not hard to imagine a role for Pergament somewhere. Indeed, he and Adelson are already business partners.
I’m going to email this to Pergament at the last known address I have for him and update it with his comments if he responds.
Correction: The original version of this post misstated the location of GateHouse Media’s headquarters.
Labor and management continue to be far apart at the Boston Herald, as the Newspaper Guild reports that employees on the commercial side have rejected the company’s contract offer by a vote of 35 to 12. This follows last week’s 32-26 no vote by editorial employees. The Guild tweets:
Commercial has it worse than editorial. They got hit with a pay cut and furlough last time and the company came back for more this time.
We are disappointed that the Boston Herald Commercial and Editorial units of The Newspaper Guild of Greater Boston failed to ratify new collective bargaining agreements. We have been, and will continue to be, negotiating in good faith. We look forward to the next round of discussion, and hope it results in a fair and equitable outcome.
“Free parking in Boston is a rarity,” Herald publisher Pat Purcell wrote to his staff at the time, “and, sadly, there will not be free parking for any employee — myself included — when we move to the Seaport Center.” The former Herald property is being transformed into a luxury mixed-use development known as the Ink Block, and Purcell is one of the investors. So I’m guessing Purcell can afford parking.
As for the 93 percent of health-insurance costs that union employees have to pay, the Herald has long been notorious for its low medical benefits — although it sounds like it’s gotten worse since the 1980s, when Ed Cafasso was one of the political reporters.
“Employee share of healthcare has to be the highest in the state among white collar employers,” tweeted Cafasso, now a public relations consultant. “You’d be better off in the ACA!”
@HeraldWorkers Employee share of healthcare has to be the highest in the state among white collar employers. You'd be better off in the ACA!
Tighter editing standards at Boston.com, improved online comments at the Boston Herald and well-deserved recognition for some first-rate political reporters. There’s so much good news on the local media front on this day-after-the-blizzard morning that it’s hard to know where to begin.
• Boston.com strives for civility. After a miserable stretch in which it falsely accused a Harvard Business School professor (and, gulp, lawyer) of sending a racist email to one of the owners of a Chinese restaurant and then mocked House Speaker John Boehner’s alleged drinking problem following an assassination threat, the folks at Boston.com sound determined to get it right.
We’ve made a pretty strong point about the fact that it’s OK to slow down. That we’d much rather not be first but get something right and be really thoughtful about it than rush to publish and bypass the discretion that should be required of any good content producer like ours.
The worst thing the Boston Globe-affiliated site could do is chase clicks. December turned out to be a boffo month for Boston.com, driven by its reporting on the Harvard professor’s harassment of the Chinese restaurant over a $4 overcharge — a righteous hit before it went off the rails. (T-shirts were involved, too.) According to Compete.com, Boston.com received nearly 3.7 million unique visits in December, way up from November’s 2.8 million. Compete’s numbers aren’t perfect by any means, but it’s safe to say Boston.com’s numbers were up a lot.
Yet quality matters. And according to Compete, BostonGlobe.com actually attracted more traffic than its free cousin in December, receiving more than 3.8 million unique visits — even though you have to pay a digital subscription fee to receive full access to the site (granted, free social sharing at BostonGlobe.com is pretty generous these days).
No doubt Gottlieb and company are going to stick with their plan to build a buzzy site with lots of viral content (here’s my alternative idea). But I’m glad to see that they understand what’s gone wrong and that they’re determined to do something about it.
One of Boston.com’s biggest problems is that it’s been flying without an editor (except for a few weeks last fall) since its relaunch last spring. That should be rectified as soon as possible.
• The Herald embraces Facebook. Online newspaper comments in general can make you despair for humanity. Over the years the Herald’s have been particularly loathsome. So kudos to publisher Pat Purcell and editor Joe Sciacca for switching to a Facebook-based commenting system.
Facebook isn’t perfect. Certainly there are issues with a news organization turning over its community platform to a giant corporation with its own agenda and priorities. But people are generally more civil and constructive when they’re on Facebook, in large measure because Facebook requires real names — and most people comply.
Check out the comments beneath Howie Carr’s ridiculous column on climate change today. Not bad at all. Only one of the first eight is pseudonymous. And if they’re not all exactly civil, they are less toxic than I’m accustomed to seeing at BostonHerald.com.
Can a real-names policy at BostonGlobe.com be far behind?
• Massachusetts’ best political reporters. Chris Cillizza, who runs a political blog for The Washington Post called The Fix, has named nine Massachusetts political reporters as among the best in the country. (Disclosure: The list was based in part on a reader poll, and I voted for friend of Media Nation Jon Keller, who’s among the winners — but every one of these is worthy.)
It’s especially nice to see a couple of reporters outside the Greater Boston orbit win recognition — Jim Hand of Attleboro’s Sun Chronicle and Shira Schoenberg of The Republican in Springfield. Congratulations to all.