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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 4/9/09

Times to Globe: It's hard out here for a pimp!

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Message Rory OConnor
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Eileen McNamara had it right. McNamara, a Pulitzer Prize winning former columnist for the increasingly beleaguered Boston Globe, wrote a recent Op-Ed in the rival Boston Herald wherein she noted, “From the moment The Times Co. purchased The Globe in 1993 it has treated New England’s largest newspaper like a cheap whore.”

McNamara’s piece, “Times pimps, pillages Globe,” was written in response to the Paper of Record’s recent threat to shut the Globe down. The headline brought to my mind the longstanding advertising slogan for St. Pauli Girl beer. The brand name alludes to Hamburg’s famous red light district, St. Pauli. German enterprise capitalized on the connection by naming Hamburg’s native beer in honor of the hookers who ply their trade there. As the beer’s double-entendre sales slogan slyly reminds us, “You never forget your first girl.”

And if you’re a grizzled, gray bearded reporter staring down the double barrels of the digital information revolution and the dizzying decline of print, you never forget your first journalism job either – even if the dowdy matron of a newspaper whose bosom first embraced you ended up made up and pimped out by a “boy genius whose crack management skills have helped drive the parent company of two of journalism’s most respected newspapers to the brink of bankruptcy,” as McNamara phrased it.

So there I was in the Seventies, amazingly and gainfully employed at a still-tender age at a major metropolitan daily — one that was an industry leader in opposing a brainless, unconstitutional war, going toe-to-toe with a corrupt sitting President, and even playing a part in publishing the Pentagon Papers – and so what if I was just a night side copy editor in the Sports Department, mostly kept busy placing punctuation in Peter Gammons’ stream-of-unconsciousness baseball columns. I was still as thrilled to finish cutting-and-pasting (yes, we literally used scissors and a paste pot back then!) Gammons, Bob Ryan and Leigh Montville’s immortal copy, and then sending it sluicing down a pneumatic chute to the comp shop, as I was to see the legendary editor Tom Winship stroll by in suspenders.

Much has changed in the intervening decades, of course, both for the paper and me, and this post is certainly not meant as some Proustian ode to the good old days. I didn’t stay long at the Globe; decamping from what later came to be known as the “mainstream media,” I soon found a new home in a newer form called “alternative” journalism. When that first got mired in and then eventually sold down the river of “hip” capitalism, I moved on and eventually ended up here in the wobbly world of so-called “independent media,” or, as I choose to call it, more accurately, the “dependent” media. It hasn’t been easy – telling the truth too soon is never good for the bottom line — but at least my virtue remained largely intact.

Alas, the same cannot be said for the Globe. Although its glory days are long gone — decline began to set in years ago under local ownership – it wasn’t until 1993, when The Times Company purchased New England’s largest newspaper, that the fish really began to rot from the head. As McNamara observed, the Times

“pimped her out for profit during the booming 1990s and then pillaged her when times got tough. It closed her foreign bureaus and cheapened her coverage of everything from the fine arts to the hard sciences. Under the leadership of even the best editors, The Globe’s mission was narrowed, its vision constricted by year after year of buyouts and layoffs, even as The Times’ newsroom remained unscathed.”

Meanwhile, inbred Times executives, led by the callow publisher/chairman/scion Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., made a series of disastrous (and in some cases truly boneheaded) business choices that literally cost the company hundreds of billions of dollars. Along the way, Sulzberger also managed to tarnish both brands in deals such as this one in 2005, when the vaunted Times Company purchased fifty percent of the free daily Boston Metro, and got in bed with that company’s rampant racist and sexist executives despite ample warning signs of their disgusting attitudes and actions.

While it’s no doubt true that the revenue model of most metropolitan newspapers has shattered, tied as it was (in McNamara’s words) “to an antiquated business model which did not anticipate the migration of readers and classified advertising to the Internet and which has not yet figured out how to pay for the original and expensive newsgathering on which the cable-TV and Web commentariat feeds,” it’s equally true that Sulzberger’s forays into real estate and baseball team ownership haven’t exactly, shall we say, panned out. Rather than face the facts, Junior instead decided to bleed the Globe (along with any and all other Times-controlled companies) in order to save his flagship – not to mention his own butt. As a result, the Globe has been reduced to a shell of its former self —- more than 500 union jobs have been lost there since 2000, even as the Times’ own bloated 1,300-person newsroom remained intact – and the endless wave of buyouts, layoffs and concessions (five rounds of staff cuts since 2001) have resulted in a product that is vastly inferior to its former self.

Now The Times is demanding still more — $20 million in wage and benefits concessions from members of the Globe’s unions – even as top executives like Sulzberger issue themselves beaucoup bucks in bonuses, and refuse to comment on how the other $65 million the paper will lose this year will be made up. Does anyone really doubt Sulzberger & Co. will come back to the workers and extort more painful cuts -— backed up by another threat simply to close the door unless their demands are met?

Last October, Times executive editor Bill Keller told his staff, “The Globe is really a separate arm of the company. They’re going through hard times, even harder times than we are… but no, there’s no consideration being given to integrating with them.

“It’s not entirely clear what we would gain from that,” Keller concluded, “unless you were talking about some day where there’s no longer a Globe…”

Are the threats to New England’s paper of record real – or merely a negotiating ploy to rest more cash out of Beantown to rescue the real Paper of Record? Those who believe the Globe is here to stay should remember that Times CFO Jim Follo is already on record as saying, “We are not married to any one asset other than probably the New York Times newspaper.”

With the Times Mothership listing badly, cash flow deteriorating and debt rising, the threat of Chapter 11 is looming far beyond Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester, all the way to the gleaming, Renzo Piano megalith on Eighth Avenue. When push comes to shove, does anyone really doubt that everything –- and everyone — else in the Times “family” will be pushed and shoved overboard lest Sulzberger, Keller & Co. go down with the ship?

Sure, you never forget your first girl — but then, it’s hard out here for a pimp…

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Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the 'Media Is A Plural' blog, accessible at www.roryoconnor.org.
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