When I heard this past Friday that the New York Times Company had delivered a radical ultimatum to the Boston Globe's 13 unions — make $20 million in concessions in the next 30 days or we'll shut the paper down — I called Globe spokesman Bob Powers to check it out. He wasn't talking. No surprise there: the Times Co.'s demand had been delivered at a secret meeting (one that was supposed to be secret, anyway), and the Globe was working on its own story for Saturday's paper.
What came next was more befuddling: the Times Co. maintained its silence, even to its own reporters. That same day, April 3, after WBUR and the Phoenix had reported the situation, the Globe ran a short piece on its Web site. In that Globe item, written by staffers Robert Gavin and Robert Weisman, Times Co. chief spokesperson Catherine Mathis and Globe publisher P. Steven Ainsley both declined comment. Mathis also declined comment when contacted by New York Times reporter Richard Pérez-Peña for a Web piece published on Friday; for that matter, so did Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
And so it went. On Saturday, the print versions of Friday's Times and Globe Web pieces were similarly devoid of comment from the brass in New York and Boston. So were the two stories that ran in Sunday's Globe. Ainsley finally broke his silence in a note sent to Globe employees on the evening of April 6, a full three days after the story first surfaced; the Times Co. still isn't talking.
Why the reticence? Here's a trusting, resolutely optimistic explanation: the Times Co. desperately wants to hammer out a deal with the Globe unions; hasn't weighed in because it thinks a resolution is close but could be derailed; and initially ordered Globe management to keep quiet too.
That's one possibility, anyway. Here's another: while the Times Co. has shielded the Globe from the worst nastiness seen at other papers — until March, for example, the newsroom had been cut through buyouts rather than layoffs — the Globe is a permanent second-class citizen in the Times Co. firmament. (After all, there's a reason it's called the New York Times Co.) When the Globe makes money, and wins Pulitzers, and sends promising young talent to New York, it's possible to ignore its inherent inferiority. But now — with the Globe poised to lose a whopping $135 million in 2008 and 2009 — the Times Co. knows it's time to get rough. And as it does so, it feels zero obligation to justify itself to the Globe — or to Boston.
As for Ainsley, the Globe's publisher, it's hard to know just what he was thinking. In his April 6 memo to employees, he said the paper never comments on labor negotiations, and expressed regret that the story of the Times Co. ultimatum leaked out the way it did. But given the stakes and the way the media work today, this explanation seems both legalistic and naive.
As the face of the Globe, Ainsley should be reassuring readers that everything possible will be done to keep the paper alive. Meanwhile, the notion that the story could be kept quiet — then broken at the Globe's leisure — suggests ignorance of how quickly information moves nowadays, and how easily news is reported online, by a bevy of different outlets. Throw in the fact that, as one Globe source says, Ainsley is "publisher of a paper whose reporters beat down the doors of people many times, every day, to force reluctant people to say things," and his silence looks downright indefensible.
Not surprisingly, Mathis and Powers declined comment for this story.
Friends in need
The Globe usually buries news of its own woes deep inside the paper, but it gave this shut-down story the sort of play usually reserved for elections and wars: front-page, above-the-fold headlines on both Saturday and Sunday, with stories on the ultimatum itself, union response, and a man-on-the-street treatment that bore the emo-esque title "Threat to Globe Triggers Flood of Feelings." Since the Globe's very existence may be at stake here, this dramatic treatment wasn't unreasonable. But did the paper really need to solicit testimonials from an assortment of the state's most powerful politicians, as well?
On Saturday, it was Governor Deval Patrick ("It's hard to imagine starting the day or doing this current job without the Globe") and Boston Mayor Tom Menino ("The Globe holds people accountable on the issues, and that's important"). On Sunday, it was US Senator John Kerry ("It's difficult to imagine Massachusetts without the Globe and I'm not even going to try"), Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray ("[T]here's still time for things to be worked out and for the Globe to play the role it historically has"), and Massachusetts Treasurer Tim Cahill ("If the Boston Globe were to close, not only would it be a significant loss to the community, but also it would mean more people out of work in this tough economy").