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Battle of the Newspapers

Michael J. Ring

For many years, the attitude of Bostonians toward their two daily newspapers has remained stagnant. The broadsheet Globe, the city's top selling paper, was a newspaper well-respected on a national and international level, known throughout the region for its staid style and liberal slant. Its tabloid competitor, the Herald, was flashier, featured a conservative editorial department, and was known more for its local than national or international reporting.

Herald publisher Patrick Purcell has tried various promotions and gimmicks throughout this decade in an attempt to boost the Herald's circulation. Various pricing strategies, including 25-cent daily papers and 99-cent Sunday papers, have been used occasionally by the tabloid. Most infamous is the Herald's "Wingo" sweepstakes, which featured numbers games inserted into the newspapers. None of those measures was able to shake the Globe's dominance.

This summer, however, has been one of the most momentous in New England print journalism. The admired and esteemed Globe has had its reputation tarnished not once nor twice, but now thrice. Meanwhile, its cross-town competitor has unveiled a new colorful, more traditional style, hoping to capture new readers and those disenchanted by the troubles on Morrissey Boulevard.

The Globe's problems all started earlier this summer, when Metro columnist Patricia Smith was forced to resign amid allegations she fabricated characters in her columns.

More shocking and disturbing to Globe readers, however, were the various episodes erupting around another Metro columnist, Mike Barnicle, a quarter-century veteran of the Globe who is arguably as much as a part of the soul of New England as Fenway Park or Maine lobsters. Globe editors demanded his resignation after it appeared he plagiarized jokes from George Carlin. Rather than resign, however, Barnicle engaged the Globe brass and won his job back. His tale took another surprising turn a few weeks later when he was accused of fabricating characters, at which time he did resign from the broadsheet.

Most recently, the Globe was tarnished by revelations that convicted murderer Joseph Yandle, who won a commutation largely on his supposed record of Vietnam service, had fabricated his war record. While many politicians and other media outlets were also duped by Yandle's claims, it was the Globe that was the early champion of Yandle's case for commutation.

Meanwhile, the Herald's new look and style has been warmly accepted. The paper has improved its coverage of national and world news, while retaining its trademark features such as conservative columnists and the Inside Track gossip page. The new page one is much more traditional than the former flashy headlines which used to highlight that page. The new color also adds to the updated, modernized appearance of the city's second largest paper.

What do these changes mean for print journalism in Boston? The short-term winner is obviously the Herald, which has not been tainted by the allegations of fabrication and plagiarism. It has improved the quality of its product and increased the level of competition among newspapers in New England.

I do not, however, believe the problems at the Globe are as disastrous as many believe. The Globe has not had to retract a story, as did CNN after its disastrous report on defectors in Vietnam. Instead, the Globe's problems are largely those of individuals, not the collective newspaper. Smith and Barnicle were not news reporters trying to maintain impartiality, nor were they involved in any sensitive investigation. They were columnists with a large degree of freedom about what and how to write, and while they certainly marred their own reputations with their unacceptable journalistic behavior, they did not lessen the hard work of the news staff at the Boston Globe.

As for the Yandle incident, the Globe should have been more vigilant in checking its sources, but that goes as well for the Herald, local television stations, and national news magazines which reported on the convict's hopes for parole. Here the admonishment belongs to the media in general, not exclusively to the Globe.

While no newspaper approaches the respect given to the New York Times, the Globe deserves a place in the top echelon of major regional American dailies. For over 100 years it has served the people of New England well, and in these six states it is still the paper of record.

At the same time, I welcome the changes made to the Herald. It is a more complete and thorough journal thanks to the major investments and changes made by publisher Purcell. The increased competition will help both the Globe and the Herald maintain high standards of honesty and integrity.

Most important are the benefits to be reaped by newspaper readers across New England. Boston is fortunate to be served by two major dailies in an era when most American cities are left with one. Competition favors higher standards and better products, and a more competitive Herald will only encourage the Globe to make its own changes to further enhance the quality of what still is a great American newspaper.