Following the purchase in March of the Boston Herald by Digital First, a media company owned by private equity firm Alden Capital, some longtime staff members were laid off. At the same time, Digital First slashed the newsroom staff at the Denver Post. In a recent Boston Business Journal column, Slowey/McManus Partner Jim McManus outlined some positive, low or no-cost steps the new owner can take to support the iconic paper.
The Boston Herald’s plan to emerge from bankruptcy will mean substantial changes for one of Boston’s storied media companies, whose history stretches back to 1846. The paper hopes to complete its bankruptcy plan in February, and two serious contenders have stepped forward.
The Herald has survived near-death experiences before, and the paper today is the end product of other failed, merged and acquired newspapers. Since 1994, when Pat Purcell bought the Herald from Rupert Murdoch, the paper has struggled to retain readers and advertisers. It has limped along on the strength of some talented reporters and columnists, a strong sports section, and readers who want an alternative to the Boston Globe and Boston Business Journal for local news coverage and opinions. It has 240 employees, and both contenders, Gatehouse Media and Revolution Capital Group, have said they will cut headcount to about 175. Herald retirees looking for their pensions will likely get cut adrift.
Gatehouse itself went bankrupt in 2013, but now owns more than 130 newspapers across the US, so it knows how to emerge from bankruptcy and continue to operate newspapers. However, in every case, Gatehouse has reduced staff and cut back on the local news content.
In fact, the record of out-of-state, private equity-backed firms like Gatehouse and Revolution in acquiring and running newspapers does not bode well for the Herald’s future. The American Prospect magazine tells a sobering tale of such deals.
In Massachusetts, Gatehouse now owns many of the daily newspapers, including the Worcester Telegram, New Bedford Standard Times, Fall River Herald, Taunton Daily Gazette, MetroWest Daily News, Cape Cod Times, Brockton Enterprise, Milford Daily News and the Quincy Patriot Ledger. In every case where it has bought a paper in Massachusetts, Gatehouse has cut staff to reduce costs.
So what should the next owner do with the Boston Herald?
- Don’t treat the Herald like just another paper in the portfolio. As the largest city in the region, a state capital, and the center of commerce for New England, Boston should be able to support a Herald that features a, well-written and well-edited newspaper and news site. A lesser version of the current Herald would likely limp into oblivion.
- Bring in a publisher with local roots. At Revolution, Robert Loring is a former Herald intern and Scituate native who may have a good sense of the community.
- Improve the smartphone experience — it’s a relatively cheap and easy fix.
- Collaborate with non-profit investigative groups to bring readers in-depth high-impact stories that force change;
- Consider changing the print schedule — perhaps a five-day a week newspaper for commuters.
- Swing for the fences. A free paper, supported entirely by ads, like the San Francisco Examiner, the Washington Examiner, the London Evening Standard, tbt (the former Tampa Bay Tribune) might work here in Boston.
Today, Herald veterans are marbled throughout the business and civic life of Boston, and many cities beyond. Herald alumni are working at the New York Times, Bloomberg, the Associated Press and other media outlets. They hold leading positions at banks, universities and in government. For those of us who spent time in the newsroom, it was a great learning experience. Among the lessons we learned: tenacity and hard work, combined with creativity, can produce terrific reporting and keep people in high places more honest than they otherwise might be. Let’s hope the next edition of the Boston Herald maintains that important legacy.