PURCELL SPEAKS. Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell popped up on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) last night to discuss the future of his troubled paper with Emily Rooney on Greater Boston. (So did I, in the set-up piece.) Purcell's strategy apparently was to sound candid without making any news. He succeeded.
Asked about the devastating cutbacks he announced on Monday - 35 out of 140 or so union positions will be eliminated in the newsroom, and that only accounts for $2 million of the $7 million he intends to slice out of all operations by June 30 - Purcell blamed the advertising market, and asserted that other papers, including the Boston Globe, have seen at least as steep a falloff as the Herald.
"You've got a period of economic softness that you have to fight your way through," Purcell told Rooney. "We've fought our way through for the last 20 years, and we're going to fight our way through for the next 20 years." He also insisted the Herald will be competitive on news, noting that, since 1984, the number of newsroom employees (union and non-union) has grown from 118 to 210. In light of that, he said, the paper should be able to eliminate some positions without affecting the coverage too much.
Purcell added that the paper now has "all sorts of other information that we can utilize," citing the Internet and his own chain of more than 100 community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts.
Asked by Rooney what role high-priced star columnists will play in a dramatically downsized Herald, Purcell replied, "We're taking a look at everything.... I think it's safe to say that we're looking at all of our expenses." However, he added, "We're not going to do anything to shoot ourselves in the foot." Translation: Barnicle, Howie, et al. stay if Purcell is convinced that getting rid of them would cost him too much in terms of circulation. Otherwise - look out.
Asked about the possibility that he might embrace the free-distribution model being tried by the Examiner papers in San Francisco and Washington, Purcell conceded there has been "a lot of speculation," adding, "We have a business plan to do our own free competitor to the Metro." But what about the Herald itself? He noted that the reincarnated San Francisco Examiner has been on the streets for only six months, and the DC Examiner for less time than that, making it "a little funny that people [moi?] say this is a model for success. Who knows?"
Asked whether the Herald's current round of downsizing is being driven by the New York Times Company's acquisition of a 49 percent share of Boston's Metro - something Purcell tried unsuccessfully to fight by filing an antitrust complaint with the Justice Department - Purcell replied, "It just makes it that much harder to compete." He noted that the Times Company now owns the Globe, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, a chunk of New England Sports Network (through its minority share of the Red Sox), and nearly half of the Metro. However, he claimed, in the three years that the Boston Metro has been in existence, it "really didn't have an impact on us."
Asked whether he would consider selling if he's unable to succeed with a slimmed-down Herald, Purcell said, "The only way you can be sold is if somebody's interested in buying it. I think this is more of a strategy to make sure that we are viable. We've fought the good fight for a long time." (On February 25, I reported that Purcell had had serious talks with the Hollinger chain, which owns the Chicago Sun-Times and a string of suburban papers. However, since that time, principals at Hollinger have taken to suing each other, making a purchase pretty unlikely.) Purcell added that the other segments of his local media holdings - Community Newspaper Company (CNC) and his Internet properties - are doing well.
Two years ago, the Herald morphed itself from a somewhat sober purveyor of local news into a glitzy, gossip-heavy tabloid. Rooney asked Purcell, "How will you settle on what works? Is Boston really a tabloid town?" Purcell didn't quite answer the question, replying that the Herald has been a tabloid for a long time and that the Globe is now partners with a tabloid, the Metro. Come on, Pat - Rooney was clearly asking about sensibility, not size. Still, he then went on to say that the Herald would retain what he called its "entertaining" approach, and added that he's convinced it's had some success. "We're seeing less erosion. I think we've arrested the slide," he said. He also offered an unsolicited shoutout to business editor Cosmo Macero, saying, "Cosmo is doing an absolutely phenomenal job on the business pages."
Rooney's final question: will the Herald appeal a $2.1 million libel verdict that it lost earlier this year in a case brought by Superior Court judge Ernest Murphy? "We're still in the process of evaluating that," he said. "I think in all probability we're going to appeal."
THE LONG GOODBYE. You will find news about what I'm up to in the "Names" column of today's Globe. Scroll down to "Last Writes."