“If you’re looking for something sugar coated, buy a donut”
Nate Dow edited copy at the sports desk as the Boston Herald newsroom filled with people nervously waiting for a surprise all-staff meeting called by publisher Pat Purcell.
Nate doesn’t work there anymore.
The two sports editors he worked under are gone, too.
Our entire editorial page staff vanished, and so did our cartoonist. Jeff Howe, a fan-favorite Patriots writer, took his talents elsewhere, and our entire business section now consists of the very talented Jordan Graham.
We lost four news editors, our veteran police reporter and a kickass photographer. At one point the Herald encompassed two floors — now advertising and editorial are separated by a little more than 77 inches of carpet.
After Pat declared bankruptcy, everything started falling apart. People feared for their jobs, pensions and future. A reporter handed me a piece of paper with a number written on it in pencil: Vacation Days Owed.
“What do I do?”
No one knew Pat was going to drop the hammer. He had not spoken to the newsroom about the state of affairs in years, and the only clues we had were small penny-pinching indicators.
The Christmas party was canceled. We didn’t replace Jack Encarnacao when he left the business.
But no one besides Pat and his innermost circle had any time to prepare for the worst. The rest of us were left waiting in a crowded newsroom as Nate loudly deleted extraneous words.
From there, it only got worse.
Gatehouse was announced as the front-runner, and we were all told we had interview with a company that didn’t own us. Some of our meetings were shifted around to make sure Howie Carr could be accommodated.
As the bankruptcy proceedings moved along, the Herald was the only media organization in the city to cover it properly. Brian Dowling did great work on the story — often hounding Pat and his lawyers — and yet no one asked him to come and talk about the process.
The media critics never even asked for his number. If the Globe was facing the same situation, and one of its fine journalists was doing the same brave reporting, I think you would be able to hear about it on WBUR or WGBH.
Maybe there wasn’t any interest, or perhaps other outlets don’t have the resources to spare. It may have something to do with the fact that Boston media beef has no sell-by date.
Aside from Dowling’s work, the most interesting insight came from Boston Globe publisher John Henry, who had this to say in the print version of his Dec. 14, 2017 column:
“At the top levels of government, there has been a glaring failure of leadership with regard to protecting journalism in America. Congress, for example, should have held hearings into the emergence from bankruptcy of the Tribune Company, where storied newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune were set up to struggle with dwindling resources in order to provide returns for investment funds.
“While newsrooms across the country have been decimated, at the same time those newspapers have churned out double-digit margins and sizable dividends, no matter how many journalists were being let go.”
Interestingly, that commentary is now missing from the online version of the article.
Henry’s concerns over bargain-basement bankruptcy buys were warranted. Digital First Media secured the winning bid for the Herald. In the days and weeks that followed, it was clear that the far-off cries from our sister paper in Denver had newfound meaning on the East Coast.
We had to re-apply for our jobs. People who had worked for the Herald for decades had to figure out how to create a first resume. It was a clean operation: A conveyor belt of scared humanity passed in front of discerning editors from newspapers that had already been through the pain.
Then we waited. You would get an email if you received a job. If not, you waited until the Sunday before Digital First officially took over. If there was no correspondence by then — grab your stuff and don’t come back.
It was a dehumanizing way to handle a delicate situation. The sports desk kept empty boxes next to their keyboards in a joking-but-not-really way. People cried. Rumors fluttered around the newsroom as we all waited for “the email.”
Those who survived were immediately forced to move their stuff into crammed quarters. The sports desk — typically a lively place where games are on, chops are busted and readers yuck it up with editors on the phone — was moved into a far corner. No televisions. No banter.
People were laid off. People quit. After our printing operations were moved, our deadlines were moved so far up that news reporters were told to file by 7 p.m. Pick up the paper when the Celtics, Bruins, Sox or Patriots have a West Coast or Mountain Time evening game.
The score won’t be there.
Digital First also had no interest in keeping our archives, which go all the way back to the late 1800s. Last I heard, the Herald was able to find a home for centuries of Massachusetts history that otherwise would have been lost.
As all of this transpired, our new owners were blasted in the pages of its own papers and in the New York Times. Yet, we received nothing to assuage fears. There was no push back.
The conveyor belt kept moving with more wire copy and fewer hands on deck.
Perhaps things will change, but I have a lingering fear they won’t. I worry that buying newspapers out of bankruptcy will prove to be financially prudent for investors.
On its face, the purchase will seem virtuous and good. It will keep a news outlet alive, and it will keep people employed. But I wonder what the cost will be when already depleted newsrooms are boiled down to skeleton crews.
At some point, a newspaper becomes a once-proud masthead riding on an empty vessel.
I don’t think that’s good for the community, and I don’t think it’s good for journalism.