LIFE FORCE: Russel Pergament, the indefatigable publisher of BostonNOW, has been described as having “the metabolism of a white rat on amphetamines.”
He’s going too fast. Tape-recording interviews usually gives reporters plenty of time to catalog their subjects’ conversational tics. But Russel Pergament — architect of the new free daily BostonNOW, creator of amNewYork, inaugural publisher of Boston Metro, and co-founder of the Tab newspapers — is not your usual interviewee. There are too many words, spoken too quickly, accompanied by too many gestures and poses and changes of tone and facial expression; mechanical assistance notwithstanding, it’s impossible to keep up.
All of which is another way of saying that Pergament still has it — “it” being the freakishly high energy that leads current and former colleagues and collaborators to describe him in near-reverent terms. One calls Pergament a “force of life.” Another says he has the “metabolism of a white rat on amphetamines.” A third puts it this way: “It’s like he drinks 30 Red Bulls every morning — and he never slows down.”
Over the past three and a half decades, this energy has helped Pergament amass quite a record as a journalistic entrepreneur. In 1979, Pergament and two friends, Steve Cummings and Dick Yousoufian, founded the Brookline-Newton Tab “in a garage, with fifteen thousand bucks,” as he puts it. With Pergament as publisher, the number of Tab papers grew to 14 before the threesome sold to Fidelity-owned Community Newspaper Company (CNC) in 1993. (Terms of the deal were never made public, but sources suggest the purchase price topped $10 million.) Three years later, Pergament and Cummings helped fund Craig Sandler’s purchase of State House News Service, the venerable Massachusetts-politics wire service. When Metro, the free commuter daily, debuted in Boston in 2001, Pergament held the publisher’s reins. And in 2003, after an acrimonious split with Metro — more on that later — Pergament launched another free daily, amNewYork, with financial backing from Tribune Company.
Now Pergament is back in Boston. Officially, he’s CEO of 365 Media USA, the American media arm of Dagsbrún, an Icelandic telecommunications and media conglomerate. In practice, though, he’s the mastermind behind BostonNOW, which, backed by Dagsbrún, made its debut last week. (If all goes according to plan, Pergament will orchestrate the rollout of several more NOW papers around the US over the next few years.) Asked about BostonNOW’s prospects, Boston media observers cite Pergament’s track record, drive, and knack for salesmanship (“he’s in the ice-to-Eskimos category,” says former Tab editor and current Boston Business Journal associate editor Mark Lecesse). And they suggest that the Boston edition of Metro — which is jointly owned by Metro International and the New York Times Company, which also owns the Globe — is in for a nasty fight.
Coming up roses
But how rosy can the forecast for BostonNOW really be? The case against Pergament’s new venture is simple: this seems like terrible time to launch a newspaper, across the country and especially in Massachusetts. Major dailies throughout the US are struggling mightily to keep readers and advertisers. People are still trying to figure out how to turn online traffic into dependable revenue. Boston has roughly 300,000 fewer residents than it did 50 years ago, and the state as a whole is losing population. What’s more, the demise of Filene’s has left local publications fighting over a shrunken pool of advertising dollars. Just look at ad revenues for the Times Co.’s New England Media Group, which includes the Globe, the region’s premier journalism brand, and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette: they dropped 4.2 percent in the first quarter of 2007, and nine percent the previous year.