Last February ownership of the Boston Herald was awarded to Digital First Media for $11.9 million, which hopefully means a new beginning for a paper that has served Boston well for over 100 years.
I do not remember a version of the Herald as early as the 1800s, but I do remember the Boston Herald American, which was one of two primary newspapers distributed in the Boston area during the 1970s along with the Boston Globe. The Herald was the newspaper that showcased the colorful Peanuts comic as part of its Sunday edition. In 1984, all of that changed when the Herald was purchased by Rupert Murdoch and became more of a tabloid publication in the style of the New York Post – also owned by Murdoch at the time. Although the paper always seemed to be the junior publication to the more traditionally assembled Boston Globe, the Herald (for anyone who has ever lived in the city or relied on public transportation) was the easier newspaper to manage. “Where the Herald can, and does, succeed is in the city of Boston on impulse, street-corner sales. It’s a feisty, lively, readable newspaper,” according to the Boston Business Journal in 1997. In contrast, reading the Boston Globe on a crowded subway takes a certain amount of skill to unfold, turn pages, carefully refold, and then read. Suffice it to say, for anyone who has ever found themselves sitting at the crowded breakfast counter at Kelly’s Diner in Somerville or waiting in line for a coffee at Mangia Mangia on Endicott Street in the North End, the Herald was always a much easier paper to commandeer.
In today’s digital world, the newspaper industry finds itself in a precarious place. Both the Herald and the Globe have been forced to transform themselves in a somewhat futile effort to stay above water financially. The Herald, for instance, which topped out with nearly 1,000 employees back in 2000 now carries fewer than 300 staff members working from its new location in the Seaport District. Herald publisher Patrick Purcell had one singular mission when he purchased the paper from Rupert Murdoch in 1994, according to the Patriot Ledger. “All I ever wanted to do was to keep the Boston Herald alive.” Unfortunately, the more manageable format of the Boston Herald has not been enough to save it. In the Boston Business Journal, former Herald journalist and retired Northeastern University professor Bill Kirtz expressed reservations about the effect that cosmetic changes would have on the Herald when it conducted one of its early design overhauls in an effort to increase readership. “To my way of thinking, you can spend a lot of money on a redesign, but how much does readership go up? Probably just a little bit,” Kirtz said. “I can buy a nice suit and new tie, but if I don’t lose 15 pounds, I might look a little better, but I’ll essentially be the same.”
The Boston Globe, which recently relocated to a smaller space downtown after spending 59 years on Morrissey Boulevard, has recently cut its Metro staff in half. According to Globe editor-in-chief Brian McGrory, the situation that today’s papers find themselves in is not due to the digital revolution. The Globe has “more readers than ever before,” McGrory said last June at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists Conference in Manchester, New Hampshire taking into consideration the far reaching effects of the world-wide web. The newspaper is now being accessed by people all over the world which was impossible to do in a timely manner when relying on print. The difference now is that newspapers are “geared toward digital presentation,” says McGrory. “Our press desk is entirely geared toward Boston.com, but the narrative stories mean more to readers than they ever have before.” McGrory went on to describe what he considers to be a more significant problem. “The loss of classifieds has killed the papers,” says McGrory. Newspapers have taken an enormous financial hit with dwindling use of the classifieds as people now turn to internet sites like Monster.com, Craigslist, and Cars.com for reasons that would have led them to the Herald or the Globe in past years. Says McGrory, “gone are the days when print was the only game in town.” McGrory added that although the delivery of the medium is changing due to the internet, it is still about “being accessible and being human. Seeing it with your own eyes and talking to real people.”
Newspapers “provide ties that bind a community together,” Boston Globe owner John Henry wrote in the Globe reflectively after he purchased the paper in 2013. Both the Herald and the Globe still have a continuing role to play in the Boston community, that is, provided we are not witnessing the final days of the Boston Herald.
A relatively strong pitch for the competing Herald came from a most unlikely source last week in the closing line of Globe sports reporter Dan Shaughnessy’s column. “Boston needs the Boston Herald. I’ve been a home delivery subscriber for more than 35 years.”
Boston is a world-class city. World-class cities need more than one newspaper. Boston still needs the Herald.
Jay Gillespie can be reached at readjaygillespie.blogspot.com.
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