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Memo To John Henry: Push The Globe To Cover The 'New' Boston

During the six years that I reported for The Boston Globe, I sometimes got this plaintive question from readers: No offense but, why isn't the Globe better? In a town with the sort of intellectual capital that Boston has, why isn't it more on a par with, say, The New York Times?

The basic answer was simple: The Globe had less than one-quarter the editorial resources of the Times. Filling a newspaper with smart stuff is not just a question of brain quality; you need brain quantity as well.

But I also always thought, and still think, that the Globe faces a deeper challenge: Breaking out of its heavy reflexive coverage of the Old Boston — the pols in the State House, the Southie of Whitey Bulger, the Church, the courts — and adding in far more coverage of the New Boston.

What I most hunger for is more information — explained at a level palatable to the general public — about the knowledge economy that is the shape of our future.

What and where is the New Boston? It's Kendall Square's high-rise forest of biotech. It's the dense medical-industrial complex in Longwood. It's anywhere there's a university. It's Burlington and Natick and all the reincarnations of what began as Route 128 high tech. It's the South Boston that isn't Whitey's anymore — the start-up haven of "the Innovation District."

Of course I'm not saying that the Globe should stop covering politics and crime and religion. I'm just telling you, Mr. Henry, that as your potential reader, what I most hunger for is more information — explained at a level palatable to the general public — about the knowledge economy that is the shape of our future. I'd bet a lot of money — and hope you will, too — that if you cover it, the advertisers will come.

In the 1970s, which was ultimately more important: what Jimmy Carter was doing, or what Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were doing? Maybe the Globe should cover Dr. Gary Gottlieb, the chief of Partners Healthcare, more than it covers Gov. Deval Patrick. Or Eric S. Lander, head of the genomic powerhouse Broad Institute, more than Mayor Thomas M. Menino. Maybe it could dig out some of the lab rats and garage inventors we've never heard of, but who could change our lives far more than any politician or judge.

Lest you think I'm a Globe-basher, I should note that the paper is already headed in the right direction lately. The new innovation news blog, The Hive, features "voices from the start-up, venture, and research communities." Innovation columnist and blogger Scott Kirsner practices new media in all the new ways, and should be cloned. I hear a young reporter has recently been "embedded" in the biotech trenches of Kendall Square. And science writer Carolyn Johnson chronicles "the discoveries, ideas, inventions, and people that make Boston a scientific hub" on her excellent new blog, Science In Mind.

But the Globe has a long way to go to make up the damage its coverage suffered as its finances tanked in recent years. Not to sound like a superannuated hack, but back in the good old days — like the 1980s or 1990s — the Globe had a whole reporter whose main beat was astronomy. Another who covered little but cancer. It had a vaunted and popular health and science section considered a model in the field.

Then came the bad financial times. The paper's leadership seemed to care little for coverage of science, medicine or technology for the sake of pure fascination, and so put it early on the chopping block. The beautiful, full-color Health/Science section was killed (full disclosure: I often wrote for it when I worked at the Globe) and science news relegated to the business section.

These days, in a clear improvement, science news appears in the Metro section. But is it given the prominence it deserves in a state that gets more NIH funding per capita than any other? If this is a "scientific hub," shouldn't the pages of our biggest newspaper reflect that? Shouldn't medicine and technology and education similarly dominate the headlines far more than they do?

Here's a bit of irony: At the end of the Whitey Bulger trial, after spending uncounted spools of newsprint on the story, the Globe itself acknowledged in a masthead editorial that Boston has moved long past Whitey, past what author Dennis Lehane calls "tribalism and knuckleheads," and its future looks bright:

"Few if any U.S. cities are better positioned for success in the knowledge economy. And yet Boston’s internal monologue sometimes fails to acknowledge these basic truths..."

To which I must respond, while struggling for restraint, Hello?!? Who is the most prominent keeper of "Boston's internal monologue"? Isn't it the Globe? And why couldn't you have spilled just a little less ink on Bulger and just a little more on less obvious topics that will ultimately matter far more to humankind?

Cultural change is notoriously hard. It takes a leader with a sense of mission.

That's a rhetorical question. I think I know why, and the answer is structural. Really digging in to the knowledge economy involves time and risk — stories may not pan out — and many trips out of the mothership on Morrissey Boulevard. A daily newspaper is a hungry beast to feed, and time-pressed reporters and editors gravitate toward news that is announced — politics and court proceedings and police press conferences. Plus, of course, it carries out a civic mission in covering those spheres.

But the effect is alienation. This has surely been a particularly challenging news year, but a young friend told me recently, "Sometimes I pick up the paper and look at the front page and think, Oh no, two stories about elections and three about crime — there's nothing here I care about."

What does it take to break out of long-established patterns of how things are done? Well, that's why I'm writing. Cultural change is notoriously hard. It takes a leader with a sense of mission. You've already helped the city by securing the Globe's future. Now, when your purchase is completed and you take full ownership, perhaps you should consider this message to your staff: "The Globe has a new owner. And it's going to cover the new Boston."


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This program aired on September 3, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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