Boston Screamer: News nabs Convey to pummel Post

boston-screamer-news-nabs-convey-pummel-post
How the 'Herald' broke the Kerry story: with class! ()
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Kevin Convey's office at the Boston Herald isn't far from downtown Boston, but its windows look southeast, across a freeway, toward Southie, the longstanding Irish and white ethnic Boston enclave that, in the past two decades, has rapidly gentrified. On the wall behind his desk is a picture of Che Guevara.

But that's all over: He's packing it up, after a three-decades-plus career in Boston journalism, to take the reins at the Daily News.

The Guevara poster is not a political statement, unless you consider it political to fight a losing and metaphorical guerilla war against a snooty broadsheet which is itself in a shambles. In fact, guerilla or no, the "newspaper war" in Boston between the Times-owned broadsheet, The Boston Globe, and the flashy tabloid Herald looks more like a staged bum-fight.

Now he should replace his Guevara with a Khrushchev. The war he is entering, against The New York Post, seems these days like a permanent state of affairs. To make their little victories against each other noticeable over the overall declines in advertising revenue and circulation that are sinking them both, the New York tabloids churn out press releases touting minuscule gains and making questionable comparisons to the competition on a regular basis. Sometimes, the media press corps (yes, in New York, there is a subdivision of the press that covers the whole), gets a good quote out of one of the publishers and puts out a story that is the journalistic equivalent of a sarcastic burnt-finger gesture: Oh no, he didn't! But otherwise, this tabloid war is a very, very clean one with little collateral damage.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

New York's print newspaper readership, what remains of it anyway, has shown over the years that it is not willing to choose between the Post and the News, but will have them both (for as long as Rupert Murdoch is willing to sustain the Post's losses, at any rate).

In Boston, with a staff of about 100 and a newsdesk of less than a dozen, Convey's Herald has sustained epic losses in readership. The static picture, according to the last data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, has the weekday circulation of the Herald at 132,551. The Globe gets less than double that on weekdays.

Convey's new paper has three times the editorial staff, and an average daily circulation of 535,059—twice that of the Globe, and a hair more than his new competitor, the Post.

And all of this in a town that, arguably, has five local newspapers that aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Whereas a scare last year had the Globe scrabbling to make cuts which, if unsuccessful, might well have resulted in its total shutdown. The Times later sought bids for, then closed down a sale of the paper.

Because there is also The New York Times, whose local reporting is unambitious only in comparison with the rest of its coverage, and the Wall Street Journal, which recently launched an expensive and unlikely bid with a section of up to 16 pages devoted to local coverage.

Opportunistically, the Post's Media Ink columnist Keith Kelly recently suggested broad fear in the News' newsroom that Convey was here to bring some Boston-style austerity to the News, which earlier this year bought out 30 of its newsroom employees and promises another buyout program, less remunerative than the first, very soon. This is at odds with Kelly's own report, however, that departing News editorial director left his post to care for his wife, who has cancer. Whatever the case, the news was sudden, and does not appear to be a Zuckerman strategy to cut costs or to find a new pattern for the battle against the Post. But as long as the spot is opening up, why not see what happens when you put a hotheaded guerilla in front of the red button?

AT THE DAILY NEWS, THE ANNOUNCEMENT IN A JULY 20 EDITORIAL meeting that Martin Dunn would step down as editor in chief and deputy publisher was followed by a staffwide email. Dunn told the Observer's Zeke Turner that Zuckerman had been instrumental in helping him find the best care for his wife, and, one presumes, the best successor to the top spot on the paper's masthead: Zuckerman announced Convey's appointment just three hours after Dunn announced his departure.

In some ways, Convey is plucked out of the same DNA pool as his predecessor, one flooded with heritage from the ancient white ethnic slums of Boston and New York and its indigenous newspapering instincts, as well as a strand of Fleet Street flash that came to America with the arrival here of Rupert Murdoch decades ago.

It was Murdoch who saved the Herald from destruction, and brought in some muscle to change the paper into a British tabloid. His right-hand man for much of that time was Kenneth Chandler.

"It was like Fleet Street around here," Convey remembered to the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz in 2008. "The place was flooded with Englishmen."

When federal regulations forced Murdoch to sell control of the paper back to Patrick Purcell, the Herald publisher brought in a young Martin Dunn, a British tabloid man, to continue the process. But Dunn left for the Daily News after only four months, leaving Purcell without an editor. After a brief stint with one editor, Purcell went inside the paper, and the "Micks With Dicks" era began.

This was the affectionate nickname for the troika of editor Andy Costello and co-managing editors Andy Gully and Convey.

What followed was a reversal of the Herald's small gains in British newspapering. The three men were obsessed with local politics, and put out a serious tabloid without all the "skin," the news-you-can-use, the screaming headlines. "A mainstream, sober tabloid" is what Boston Globe columnist Mark Jurkowitz called the Herald at the end of the Micks With Dicks decade, when Kenneth Chandler returned to the paper as a consultant, in 2003, after a successful stint at the Post.

What followed was a Sunday paper full of surefire diets, a Monday column called "Pop Porn" in a new section called "Edge," and lots of sex and skin. The following year, the troika was split when Gully and Costello, who Purcell said had been "collectively" making decisions with Chandler, left the paper. At a going away party, Gully presented Chandler with a gag gift: a dried rattlesnake.

Convey was left behind to work with Chandler, and was groomed to take over the paper. Today it is Convey's paper, but there is no tabloid in America that looks so much like Britain's Sun.

Just days after Convey's departure was made public, Herald gossip columnists Gayle Fee and Laura Raposa unearthed a story about Massachusetts senator John Kerry. To say the paper decided to Go Big with the story would be an understatement. The story, that Kerry's yacht, Isabel, was berthed in Rhode Island to avoid some $600,000 in taxes in Massachusetts, was loaded with the typical parochial angry tabloid trappings: the second paragraph, for instance, is meant to make you salivate with jealous class rage.

"Isabel—Kerry’s luxe, 76-foot New Zealand-built Friendship sloop with an Edwardian-style, glossy varnished teak interior, two VIP main cabins and a pilothouse fitted with a wet bar and cold wine storage—was designed by Rhode Island boat designer Ted Fontaine," Fee and Raposa wrote on Friday.

But the story deserves it on the inside. The shocking thing has been the "wood," the tabloid front-pages, which have been exclusively devoted to the story for four of the last five days. The first, under the bold all-caps headline "CAPT. KERRY'S CASH CRUISE," was a photo-montage of the Isabel and a silhouette of the senator in the foreground with a white yachter's cap photoshopped onto his head. It spirals downmarket from here: "KERRY HOISTS WHITE FLAG" read Saturday's front, with a snap of the Senator and a strangely chosen picture of the yacht foregrounding the enormous American flag at its prow.

By Sunday, columnists were making lame analogies between the "Swift Boat" scandal and the present one, presumably because "boating" and "kerry" were both keywords. On a black pirate flag that takes over the bulk of the front page, John Kerry's mug is the skull in a giant skull-and-crossbones; one of his teeth is blacked out, he's got a big hoop earring photoshopped onto his left ear, and a red striped bandana with a weird clip-art, translucent sailboat patterned onto it. "IT'S WRONG , JOHN!" reads the type. By now, the building of the boat in New Zealand was also being called into question. This is good, because it's a $7 million boat, and it seems a lot heftier than the $600 grand he says he'll pay the state if he owes it.

This morning, columnist Margery Eagan and Fee and Raposa share the front, with a classic paparazzo image of someone—Teresa maybe?—dodging reporters and a giant camera and trying to climb into an SUV. "GET ME OUTTA HERE!" reads the wood.

Is it possible Convey is now thinking the same thing? In New York it would seem unthinkable that there would be so little news that a $600,000 transgression would dominate so completely. And in part, that may be because New Yorkers have a different relationship with their ruling elites than does Boston. Or, than Boston once did.

Over and over again, discussing the problems of the Herald, the issue of the city's development into a monoculture of young professionals and families who pushed out the people you thought had read the Herald comes up. In a 2008 column for Boston magazine, Joe Keohane lamented the downfall of the Herald: "A good tabloid is like that—noisy, alarming, exhilarating. But then, in order to thrive, the city it covers needs to be similarly noisy, alarming, and exhilarating. And as we move past the messy urbanism of old into some rich, antiseptic DMZ somewhere between a city and a suburb, with neither the thrum of the former nor the schools of the latter, Bostonians are displaying a waning taste for that sort of thing."

"Maybe — thanks to factors ranging from the rise of the Web to middle-class flight — we’re fated to become a one-paper town," Adam Reilly speculated in the Boston altweekly, the Phoenix, just as Convey was taking the reins at the Herald.

And while there is a continual drone of working-class flight, disappearing manufacturing and semi-skilled jobs and a lack of affordable housing here in New York, too, we're no Boston. There are still plenty of readers for a tabloid here. But what kind?

"I think we have to be a radical alternative to the Globe in this market," Convey told Reilly when he took over the Herald. "I think being a tabloid is the heart and soul of this paper.”

But Reilly's most trenchant observation concerned the internal underdog culture of the paper:

"Any major retooling would require Convey — and Purcell — to rise above the us-against-the-world mentality that pervades Herald Square. At its best, this mindset motivates the Herald’s overburdened employees to do excellent work. At its worst, it dulls critical faculties and gives the Herald’s post-Murdochian status quo an air of inviolability. For Convey to turn the Herald around, he’ll need to steer clear of the Kool-Aid."

The Guevara poster suggests that he didn't, entirely.

At the News, getting past the culture will be everything. Are they a Martin Dunn-style answer to the Post? Can they win by out-Page Sixing Page Six? Can they upgrade the staff and focus on hard reporting in politics and city government and the boroughs, stuff too unsexy for the Post but important to hundreds of thousands of boroughs readers?

The News is winning, by a hair. Convey no longer needs to be the underdog. But which part of Convey's career will he reach down into to continue the war with the Post? The lessons he learned and implemented from the Chandler regime that seemed to turn the Herald into a shlock imitation of the Post? Or the "Micks With Dicks" lessons that put the paper on the desk of every major political and business power in town, right next to the Globe?

There's no dismantling the master's house with his own tools. Martin Dunn learned that, but had little else to draw on to give the paper an identity and a feeling and a constituency that mattered.

Convey does. He's not, at heart, a British tabloid guy, and the News will never be a British tabloid, either.