In the 1960s and 1970s, when the media sky was as expansive as the horizon of Fenway Park, Boston Globe editor Tom Winship hankered to make the Globe one of the nation's top 10 dailies. He succeeded.
When Marty Baron took command of the Globe newsroom on July 30, 2001, the picture had changed. Across the nation, newspaper profitability had tanked. Survival was the new imperative.
As Baron prepares to assume the top editorial slot at the Washington Post on January 2, 2013, he is once again signing on with a jittery publisher. The Post is not going out of business. But while the Globe's parent, the New York Times Company, has achieved at least temporary stability, the Post is in the red, with a loss shy of $22 million in the third quarter.
Even in better times, judging newspaper quality was subjective. Today, numbers don't help much. All media balance sheets are under pressure. And the business of calculating Internet-enhanced readership is voodoo.
Still, I think it is safe to say that outside of New York, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, there is no big-city daily better than Baron's Globe.
Over the last 11 years, Baron kept the Globe's edge. Relative to resources, it could be argued that he made it better. Winship's brand had more voices and personality, Baron's more focus and discipline. Given the punishing economics of the industry, compounded by the worst recession of a lifetime, further walloped by digitization and commodification, maintaining excellence is a bankable accomplishment.
Baron's former colleagues at the Los Angeles Times and the Miami Herald talk about him in terms usually reserved for the last of the .400 hitters. That, too, is generally the case at the Globe.
In an online piece I wrote last week, the day Baron's long-rumored gig at the Post was announced, I suggested that during Baron's service at the New York Times in the late-1990s, he achieved oneness with the Times' values.
A friend from the Providence Journal, who had been hired by Baron to work in the Los Angeles Times' business section, emailed suggesting that I was not quite right: "He didn't take his standards from the NYT; he brought his standards there."
Hyperbole? Perhaps. But to parse the implicit point: Baron is inner-directed. He sets his own mark, measures his own success. That is what I think a New York coeval of Baron's was driving at when he told me, "On an existential level, I wonder if Marty gives a shit."
No one is likely to accuse Baron of being clubbable, a talent Winship held in spades. "Reserved." "Frosty." "Defensive." Those are words applied to Baron over the years, often by admirers — sometimes by friends.
My theory: there is something generational here. I noticed that when Larry Summers was Harvard president, many undergraduates said they liked the brutally direct Summers, felt they could connect because Summers was honest, unambiguous. Faculty reminded the kids of their parents. And the faculty, well, as a group, they found Summers insufficiently respectful.
To oversimplify, the Globe's thirty-to-fortysomething cohort seems more admiring of Baron than the forty-to-fiftysomething crew. And harnessing youth and energy is more or less a time-honored tactic in the business.