The player

By PETER KADZIS  |  April 2, 2008

Tom Winship, a Harvard contemporary and Washington pal of Bradlee’s who went on to edit the Globe and propel it to the front ranks of the trade, recognized a good thing when he saw it. Winship Bradlee-ized first himself, and then the Globe. That this is an oversimplification makes it no less true.

A vintage Winship moment occurred at the 1956 Democratic convention, when Ted Sorenson — who was to write so many of President John F. Kennedy’s historic speeches — borrowed Winship’s typewriter in order to bang out some words for then-Senator Kennedy, who was a surprise and unsuccessful candidate for vice-president that political go-round.

The 52 years that intervene between the loan of a typewriter to a Kennedy speech writer and the departure of business columnist Steve Bailey bookmark the era when the ethic of the Boston Globe player ascended, peaked, and expired — almost.

I say “almost” because, while Bailey very much styled himself a member of the inside-player tribe, he was operating in an environment that in many tangible ways was hostile to the notion of being “inside.” The disappointments and betrayals of Vietnam and Watergate, and the retroactive revelations about the Kennedys and the CIA, coupled with the rise of the counterculture, had began to tarnish the ideal of access. This new attitude was reinforced by the training that increased numbers of young reporters were receiving in journalism school.

During much of the time that Bradlee, Winship, and other daily editors around the nation were perfecting and orchestrating their respective versions of the inside-player game, the world of business reporting, while not exactly beneath contempt, was viewed as, well, not particularly sexy.

The steroid-infused economy of the Reagan and Clinton years changed that. Bailey had been a rather swashbuckling business editor — oxymoronic as that idea might seem — at the Globe before he became a columnist. The Bailey-directed coverage of the New York Times’ 1993 purchase of the Boston Globe for $1 billion-plus was aggressive enough to raise some eyebrows around town and in New York.

But it was the report published on Bailey’s watch that the Globe was “DUMPING” its long-time ad agency, Hill Holliday (headed then by Jack Connors, an ur-Boston inside player), that got Bailey cashiered from management, sent for re-education to Harvard Business School, and then repatriated — or was it reincarnated — as a business columnist.

Bailey essentially retooled the inside-player model by instinctively realizing that business reporting was less clannish than political or even sports reporting. Businessmen have interests rather than allies. The act of getting close to one side during one story is not as perilous in business — ethically or journalistically — as it is in politics. The bottom line is the bottom line. The very fluidity of the capitalist project makes it so much easier to play one side against the other, as long as the journalist in question can get at least one side to talk. And at that, Bailey excelled: sometimes bullying, sometimes charming, and always reporting hard.

All of this — the great game of insider-player journalism and Bailey’s place in that game as it was played in Boston — is neither good nor bad; it just is. Because I grew up reading newspapers and the habit stuck with me enough to go into the business, I pay more attention than is probably healthy to what a change like Bailey’s departure might mean. But with the very nature of the news business being radically redefined by technology, and the withering away of the familiar advertiser-subsidized business model, and the apparent absence of another to take its place, one looks where one can for clues. The good news is that there is still a place for a smart and talented guy like Bailey. The bad news is that it is in London. Make of that what you will.

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