Herald sale to change Boston media landscape

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By Zach Carmosino, news correspondent

On Dec. 8, 2017, the Boston Herald filed for bankruptcy protection. The original intent of publisher Patrick J. Purcell was to sell the paper to Gatehouse Media for $4.5 million, but a new bidder has emerged: Tampa-based Revolution Capital Group made an offer in federal bankruptcy court Jan. 2.

Either bidder could potentially bring drastic change and significant downsizing to the paper.

The uncertainty around the sale has brought speculation that the new owner will downsize the Herald’s operations considerably. Best known for its sports section and conservative editorial page, the Herald has struggled to attract a younger readership, causing sales to plunge and staff to shrink in number.

Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy said the Herald has undergone many changes since its founding in the mid-1800s. Its current existence as a conservative, urban tabloid began in the 1980s when Rupert Murdoch bought the paper and rescued it from the brink of collapse.

Kennedy said while its journalists report well, the Herald’s size has weakened its viability as a serious competitor to the Globe.

At this point, it is very, very small and really doesn’t offer a whole lot, although its sports section is still very good,” he said. “Some of its local news coverage is still good. Their journalists are fine, there just aren’t very many of them.”

Don Seiffert, managing editor at the Boston Business Journal, echoed Kennedy.

“At one point, it was a conservative voice, it was a tabloid, kind of like a New York City-style tabloid, with snappy ledes and all that,” Seiffert said. “It used to really take on the Globe head to head. It was never as well funded as the Globe, and never as large, but at least it gave a conservative viewpoint.”

Kennedy said the uncertainty around the Herald’s future has only intensified with the intervention by Revolution Capital Group. When Purcell announced his intent to sell to Gatehouse Media, Gatehouse was expected to cut staff from around 240 to 175.

Kennedy thinks Gatehouse would use its large media holdings in the region as leverage.

“I would imagine that they’re going to try to leverage the Herald with all of their other holdings, but I don’t know what that would look like in practice,” Kennedy said. “You could put stories from some of the other Gatehouse sources in the Herald, and that saves a lot of money, but is that an appealing product? I don’t know.”

Seiffert said if Gatehouse buys the Herald, the paper’s future could be grim.

“They’ll probably whittle it away like they’ve done with every other paper they’ve bought,” Seiffert said.

However, Seiffert said Revolution Capital’s past handling of the Tampa Tribune might make it an even worse alternative.

“They sold [The Tampa Tribune] to the Tampa Times, and immediately closed it down,” he said. “Everybody was laid off, which sounds even worse than what Gatehouse does.”

The Herald needs to evolve into a more viable format and business model given the aging nature of its readership, Kennedy said.

“It’s an old-fashioned, urban tabloid, and I’m not really sure that really appeals to anyone under the age of 70,” he said. “It’s a very old concept. It’s hard to know.”

John Carroll, a professor of mass communication at Boston University, said the Herald’s biggest issue is not in its format, but in its business model. The paper’s small subscriber base means it has to sell directly off the stand, which can be a challenge.

“The Globe has a significant home delivery market. That’s guaranteed revenue,” he said. “But the Herald has to do something to induce people to pick it up.”

Additionally, Kennedy said the day has passed when the Herald was the Globe’s only competition in the region. Strong public radio broadcasts, along with other media, have made news in Boston far from a two-horse race.

“We are long past the time when the media competition in Boston was defined by the Globe versus the Herald… The Herald has shrunk to the point where it doesn’t look any more important than any of the other media players,” he said.

While Boston was once proud to be one of a handful of true two-newspaper towns, its chances to remain one are dubious.

“Every journalist I know thinks it’s a terrible thing that they’re being sold and that it’s basically going to shrink even more than it already is and get worse,” Seiffert said.

He said the Globe has made a business printing other local papers with their own presses, with the Herald being its largest client. If it is sold to Gatehouse, the Globe’s revenue would be cut significantly.

“To the extent that the Herald shrinks, the Globe’s revenue will be affected,” Seiffert said. “If Gatehouse buys, it could use its own in-house printing.”

The financial woes of the Herald point to a national trend that precedes the newspaper depression. For decades, secondary newspapers have been failing in most markets, Kennedy said. 

“I would say that it’s been hard to be the number two paper in a city for forty or fifty years,” he said. “There are very very few cities where there is a competitive number two paper.”

He said there is a market for a mainstream conservative editorial section, especially in a state that has largely avoided the grip of right-wing populism that propelled President Donald J. Trump to victory in the 2016 election.

“Even though President Trump lost by a huge margin in Massachusetts, there was still 1 million people who voted for him,” he said.

The sale of the Herald marks a low in the paper’s long decline. While it is very likely that the new ownership will downsize the Herald’s staff, how this will affect other players in the city’s media is uncertain.

“I think in general, the more voices the better,” said Carroll. “And I think it’s not exactly that the Herald keeps the Globe honest, but there is competition there.”