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N.Y. Times Backs Off Closure of Boston Globe

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Boston Globe dodged a corporate bullet yesterday as the New York Times Co., after all-night bargaining with union leaders, backed off a threat to notify federal authorities that it plans to close the paper within 60 days.

The company has reached agreement with six of the Globe's seven unions over its demands for $20 million in concessions, but not with the Boston Newspaper Guild, which has accused Times executives of "bullying" tactics. A guild spokesman said negotiations would resume soon.

"It's posturing by both sides," said State House bureau chief Frank Phillips. "The New York Times doesn't want to embarrass itself by shutting down one of the great institutions, not only of Boston but of America, really."

The Times Co. ratcheted up the pressure minutes before a midnight deadline Sunday by announcing that it would file the required shutdown notice under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification law.

The hardball approach has sparked considerable resentment in Boston toward the New York owners, who bought New England's largest newspaper in 1993, and roiled a newsroom that has won 20 Pulitzer Prizes.

"It's just been terrible," said columnist Alex Beam. "I think people feel this isn't going to end well for us as a group in the next six, nine, 12 months. There's a feeling that everyone's expendable."

Globe Editor Martin Baron, who declined to comment yesterday, told Emily Rooney of WGBH-TV that "you don't want to confront the possibility that your own newspaper will get shut down." That "disturbing" specter, he said, has caused "an enormous amount of anxiety and tension."

The Globe, which is on track to lose $85 million this year, has repeatedly trimmed its staff and closed its foreign bureaus. Advertising revenue at the paper and its Web site declined more than 30 percent in the first quarter of the year. But Dan Kennedy, who teaches journalism at Northeastern University, said its estimated $300 million in annual revenue should enable a slimmed-down paper to survive.

Kennedy faulted Times Co. Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. for a strategy based on little public communication. "Arthur Sulzberger has yet to talk to Boston, and we feel like he owes us an explanation -- it's our newspaper," he said.

Rooney, who hosts the program "Beat the Press," said: "The Times has really handled this about as badly as you could. . . . The Boston Globe is the newspaper of record here. It would be like The Washington Post disappearing. That's what the Globe is to this community. They still break news. They're the only ones who really have the resources."

Guild spokesman Andy Paven said the union had offered $10 million in requested savings through a 3.5 percent pay cut, unpaid furlough and reduction in retirement benefits. The sticking point remains lifetime job guarantees for 170 of the guild's 660 journalists, advertising and business office employees, previously negotiated in return for other concessions.

The Teamsters union, representing 245 mailers, said it reached a tentative agreement early yesterday for $5 million in concessions and changes in lifetime job guarantees. Another union, representing 210 drivers, said it reached a tentative deal on $2.5 million in concessions. Such agreements must be approved by the rank and file.

"We expect to achieve both the workplace flexibility and the financial savings that we sought from these unions," the Globe quoted management spokesman Robert Powers as saying.

Matt Storin, who edited the Globe from 1993 to 2001, said the foreign, national and science reporting that the paper once tailored to a Boston audience is now ubiquitous online. "Now the Globe goes from this full-service model to having to be almost a niche publication, the niche being local, where it can still play a critical watchdog role," he said. "I'm not a cockeyed optimist, but I do have some hope."

Storin, who teaches journalism at the University of Notre Dame, said he found Sulzberger generally supportive. But, he said, "The cultural differences -- the fact that, inevitably, we were going to be the stepchild -- you can't totally discount that."

Phillips, who has been a Globe reporter for 22 years, said there is "a little bitterness" among staffers who passed up an early retirement offer last month without being warned of the Times' shutdown threat that quickly followed. "I think we're going to make it this time," he said. "It's the long-term future that scares everyone."

Alex Jones, director of Harvard's Shorenstein media center, said the proposed shutdown was "calculated to get the deal made" and could prove useful to union leaders who have to sell their members a painful package by demonstrating "that they're up against a wall."

The Times Co., which bought the Globe for $1.1 billion -- the highest price ever paid for an American newspaper -- has had its own financial difficulties. The company reported a first-quarter loss of $74.5 million, laid off 100 Times newsroom staffers and imposed a 5 percent pay cut on those who remain. The Times has also mortgaged its new Manhattan headquarters and borrowed $250 million from Mexican mogul Carlos Slim HelĂș at an extraordinary 14 percent interest rate.

The Globe, which caters to Boston's passion for politics as well as the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics, has a weekday circulation of 303,000 -- a 14 percent drop in the latest six-month period. Its scrappy tabloid rival, the Boston Herald, has long been struggling, and its circulation declined 17 percent, to 151,000.

The Globe's plight drew little sympathy from Herald columnist Howie Carr, who wrote that the Globe would linger on life support like "a Terri Schiavo of journalism. . . . The bean counters are going to swagger into 135 Morrissey Blvd. and take a chainsaw to that petrified forest of deadwood."

Sen. John Kerry (D) and every other member of the Massachusetts delegation but one wrote to Sulzberger last week, urging him to "treat the Globe fairly" and requesting a meeting. The holdout, Rep. Stephen Lynch (D), said such a letter, from politicians covered by the Globe, was a conflict of interest.

At the White House yesterday, press secretary Robert Gibbs said that "there's a certain concern and a certain sadness when you see cities losing their newspapers or regions of the country losing their newspapers," but added, "I don't know what, in all honesty, government can do about it."

Several media analysts expressed disappointment that the Times has devoted scant attention to the Globe's fight for survival. Jones, a former Times media reporter, said "the Times doesn't cover its own labor negotiations very readily. I regret that. That's a bad decision."

Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis responded by e-mail that the paper has covered the Globe situation "as news developments warrant," including a 393-word report yesterday and a 1,200-word feature last month.

"We have told our readers no less and no more about the situation at the Globe than we have about the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, or The Washington Post, or ourselves," Mathis said. "We have done Page 1 stories on newspaper companies when there was a major development such as bankruptcy."

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