The player

Trying to find some meaning in ace biz-boy columnist Steve Bailey’s move to London
April 2, 2008 2:31:40 PM

The exit of Boston Globe business columnist Steve Bailey this past week to take a post in London as a general-interest news editor with Bloomberg punctuates not so much the end of an era as it signifies the exhaustion of a tradition — of favored reporters, columnists, and editors being granted the latitude needed so that they could become insiders, or “players,” within the spheres they covered.

Time, in various guises (death, retirement, controversy, the need for new challenges, buyouts — especially buyouts), conspired to make the Globe — a paper where the “insider” was once the star — into something less than a constellation and more of a professional guild.

Gone are Bob Healy, Muriel Cohen, Marty Nolan, Loretta MacLaughlin, David Nyhan, Curtis Wilkie, Gerry O’Neill, Tom Oliphant, H.D.S. Greenway, Mike Barnicle, Walter Robinson, Will McDonough, and (now) Bailey. No doubt, more than a few readers, competitors, and colleagues thanked God when some of these folks left. And this catalogue in no way suggests that this crew held a monopoly on Globe talent. But this crowd — to the unfair extent to which they can be ganged together — did tend to dominate, and in a few cases hog, the spotlight.

That this list comprises mostly men owes much to the fact that it reflects the intersection of almost ancient newspaper history with something closer to current events. Eileen McNamara, a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist, now also gone, was too independent a soul to play — or pretend to play — inside baseball with anyone. Ellen Goodman, another Pulitzer winner, was more inspired by issues, causes, and analysis than shoe leather.

Joan Vennochi, who in effect wrote the “Bailey” column before she moved onto the Op-Ed page, is a bit harder to pigeonhole. Vennochi is as influential a force as any at the Globe. Ask an informed reader — or even a power broker — who had more clout, Vennochi or Bailey, and the answer would usually depend on a coin toss. I’ll hazard a guess and say that Bailey cared a bit more than Vennochi does about the whole “player” aspect of column writing. To the extent that the inside game is interesting, it depends a lot on a pose, a style of operating.

The inside-player style of operating, of course, was never exclusive to the Globe. Back when journalism was far more circumspect, many big-city dailies had a staffer or two who enjoyed more freedom than the pack. Even the New York Times — which, before its discovery of flirty summer sandals and anonymous downtown nightspots, was once a paragon of monochromatic virtue — had its favored sons: Arthur Krock, James Reston, and Tom Wicker, to name just three.

Krock, Reston, and Wicker tickled their typewriters in an era when type was hot, editorial assistants were called copy boys, and the telephone answering machine had yet to be invented; computers were found at Caltech, MIT, and in New Yorker cartoons; and newsrooms were clouded with tobacco smoke.

Winship’s invisible hand
It was the genius of Ben Bradlee, who played a sort of Ivy League Tarzan in the primitive Washington world of the 1950s and ’60s, to fertilize the once incredibly boring and second-rate Washington Post with the raffish (but not quite louche) insider ethic he cultivated while at Newsweek.

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.

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