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The Boston Newspaper Guild is asking for an ownership stake in the Boston Globe as its parent company, The New York Times Co., looks for possible buyers. The newspaper's largest union would like to discuss a possible stake in the paper with any potential owner. The names of a few such buyers have begun to emerge, including the Boston-based Intercontinental Real Estate Corp. and conservative billionaire Phil Anschutz of Denver.
Longtime journalist Tom Fiedler spoke with us about the developments and what they mean for the Globe. Fiedler is now the dean of the College of Communication at Boston University.
Bob Oakes: Do you think it's a good move for the Guild to try to get an ownership stake in the Globe — should the Globe actually be sold — and how likely is that?
Tom Fiedler: Well, to answer the first part of that question, it's in the Guild's interest to have seats at the table when it comes to deciding what policies that whoever the new owners will make. Because, clearly, one of the Guild's beliefs here is that they have not been listened to when The New York Times was making these substantive decisions.
On the other side of this, I think it's highly unlikely that a new buyer would be interested in something like that. In fact, the trend certainly has been that the presence of guilds or unions on boards has not been successful, and it's more likely that the new buyer would want to try and minimize union impact — probably even taking the company into bankruptcy so that all those contracts can be reworked.
Is it common across the newspaper industry to have union workers — organizations representing union workers — be part of the board controlling that newspaper?
It's been done, but it's not common. The Manchester Union Leader, in fact, up in Manchester, New Hampshire, has long had a significant interest owned by the unions that work there at the union leader. But more recently, this has been something that guilds have sought in newspaper transfers.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance — when that was sold by Knight Ridder to McClatchy, and then McClatchy spun it off — the guild there attempted and was unsuccessful in getting this kind of ownership deal. Frankly, I think the trend is in the other direction.
Bigger picture: Most would agree it's a terrible time to try to sell a newspaper. Why would anyone want to buy in this economic climate?
I think somebody who buys it is either buying it because they feel that there is a long-term value to the journalism — essentially they would be buying the brand and the reputation — or someone could be interested in buying the newspaper simply because they believe in the civic good that it does.
An angel investor.
An angel investor, essentially. Again, that would be almost somebody doing it for the same reason that we have museums and foundations.
All of those scenarios require a buyer or buyers who have incredibly deep pockets. So how likely do you think any of them are?
Well, you know, the reality is those pockets don't have to be so deep anymore. If you look at just the Boston Globe, if the numbers that are public are to be believed, the Boston Globe was purchased by The New York Times Co. for something on the order of $1.2 billion.
It's probably worth now around, maybe, $200 million on a good day. So you're talking about being able to buy something at a deep, deep discount. It's not a lot of money, particularly when you get the property that the Globe sits on in exchange for it, and of course the Worcester Telegram is part of this deal, too.
So it's not a big risk for somebody who has that money, and I think we could see that. In fact, there's a danger that the price here is so low that you get a buyer whose interest in this may be less to the civic good.
Let me ask specifically about a name that's been floating around. There's some speculation that Denver-based billionaire Phil Anschutz — a conservative Christian who's contributed to Republican campaigns, who's recently bought the San Francisco Examiner for the firesale price of $20 million and purchased the Journal Newspapers, which owns three dailies in Washington, D.C. -- might emerge as a potential buyer for the Boston Globe. Do you think that's possible?
Well, I would think it's possible. He certainly has the resources to do it. It would really, I think, depend entirely on whether Philip Anschutz wants to do this for political reasons. And that's possible. There's no question that he has been active in acquiring different kind of media, and generally his purpose in doing that is to try to bring a conservative approach to either the news or to his opinions.
If he bought the Boston Globe — I don't know how much credibility to give to that speculation — but it would seem to me he would be doing it for the purpose of trying to make political and religious statements with it.
I should mention at this point that we called Anschutz's office and asked for a comment, and there was no comment. With all of this going on, what do you imagine the working atmosphere is like right now at the Globe?
Extremely difficult. The Globe newsroom is divided in many different ways. The Guild members in the newsroom of course are divided against, in many cases, their own editors. So the idea of working as a team is tough. I think the challenge for the Globe management, the newsroom management, is to just simply try to focus, maybe appeal to the pride of the journalists there, that every day they want to try to put out the very best product that they can.
But this has got to be difficult. When you're talking, when you're thinking about your family's well-being, when you're worried about your mortgage, it makes it a little bit tougher to concentrate on whether the fire you're writing about or the Statehouse scandal is top of mind.
We have today's edition of the Globe in front of us. Looks the same. Do you sense any change?
No, I have to say, I admire the way the staff at the Globe has continued, I think, to focus on what they do every day — what they do very well — which is first-rate journalism. I think, the way they have handled this story — it's always difficult to write stories, to cover stories about yourself in many ways — I think they have done this thoroughly, objectively and fairly. I've been quite impressed.
This program aired on June 11, 2009.
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