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Tabzilla returns
The sliding Herald rediscovers flash and trash, while owner Pat Purcell contemplates the new media landscape and asks, What's next? Eat? Or be eaten?
BY DAN KENNEDY

NOT SINCE THE 1999 MTV Music Awards, when Diana Ross fondled Lil' Kim's pasty-covered breast on live television, had the diminutive rapper's endowments gotten so much attention.

On June 4, the Boston Herald's "Inside Track" splashed a photo of a nearly naked Kim performing at the Tweeter Center. As described by Tracksters Gayle Fee and Laura Raposa, Lil' Kim was using two-sided tape to keep herself at least slightly covered up. "But the minute she whipped off her vest," they wrote, "her Notorious B.I.G. breasts busted free!"

Of course, there are limits to what you can publish in a family newspaper. So, over Kim's fully exposed right breast, an editor had thoughtfully — and strategically — placed a piece of tape labeled oops!

And so it goes at the new Herald — just the latest in a long series of "new" Heralds going back at least to the early 1970s.

From the time Pat Purcell bought the paper from his mentor and employer, Rupert Murdoch, in 1994, the Herald had cultivated an image as an aggressive but respectable tabloid, right down to the colorful USA Today–like makeover that it unveiled in 1998.

But now, beset by plummeting circulation, Purcell has decided to go — well, more tabloidy. The formula: pretty girls (and a few pretty boys), ever shorter stories, a hyperkinetic layout, all-caps headlines, and celebs, celebs, celebs. With the help of a consultant, former New York Post publisher Ken Chandler — who, ironically, had led the Herald to respectability as its editor in the late 1980s and early '90s — Purcell's new approach is to go for the jugular.

The local coverage remains reasonably strong, and projects such as this week's five-part series on baseball and steroids, by sportswriter Howard Bryant, show that the Herald can still be a serious newspaper. But the stolidity of recent years is rapidly becoming a memory.

"It has a lot of people really sort of depressed," says one Herald source. "It's somewhat embarrassing. Most of us are in this business — this may sound corny — to inform readers, and not to titillate them." Still, this source sounds a note of realism commonly heard at One Herald Square these days: "There hasn't been a lot of outcry at the paper. There's a feeling that they probably wouldn't be doing this if there weren't some dire circumstances as far as circulation goes."

At the same time that Purcell is tarting up his newspaper, he also expects to be a major player in the eat-or-be-eaten era of media deregulation — a phenomenon that will only accelerate following the Federal Communications Commission's recent ruling that allows a corporation to own a daily newspaper, a television station, and/or a radio station in a single community (see "Don't Quote Me," News and Features, June 6).

The ban on so-called cross-ownership — which had much to do with shaping the modern Herald — was something the paper's editorial pages and its business editor, Ted Bunker, had inveighed against in print on numerous occasions. And the ban's demise is expected to have an enormous effect on the future of the Herald.

Purcell has often expressed interest in buying a radio station, for instance. Meanwhile, there is the ever-present speculation that Murdoch — whose News Corporation owns WFXT-TV (Channel 25), in Dedham — will take advantage of the newly deregulated environment to buy back the Herald, which he rescued from financial collapse in 1982.

Such a bold move is not likely to happen soon. Though money is tight at the Herald, Purcell says the closely held Herald Media, Inc., is profitable. (How profitable? Who knows? When I asked him if he would share some numbers, he replied, "Thank you for asking, but no.") But he did sign off on sending a reporter and a photographer to cover the war in Iraq, an expensive proposition for a paper whose bread and butter is local news. And despite cost-cutting moves such as the suspension of 401(k) matching contributions (reported by the Dow Jones news service last month), the Herald recently expanded its Washington bureau from one reporter to two, and newsroom hires are proceeding apace, if not quite as quickly as some might like.

Purcell also continues to add small papers to his Community Newspaper Company subsidiary, which he acquired from Fidelity Investments a couple of years ago, and which publishes more than 100 weekly and a few daily newspapers in Greater Boston and on Cape Cod. (The largest: the Framingham-based MetroWest Daily News.) In the past, he's tried to add two big South Shore dailies to his holdings: the Quincy Patriot Ledger and the Brockton Enterprise. No doubt he would try again if their owner put them on the block.

Moreover, by all accounts Purcell enjoys being a local media mogul. Despite his New York roots, and despite his years as a top lieutenant to Murdoch, Purcell has reinvented himself as a pillar of Boston's business community, a highly visible presence who would prefer to keep building his mini-empire rather than sell out to someone else — even if that someone else were his old benefactor.

There's no question, though, that for Purcell to succeed, he's going to have to meet some perplexing and difficult challenges. Despite his assertion that Herald Media is profitable, he — like every newspaper executive in the country — has been battered by the collapse of lucrative help-wanted advertisements. And though the Herald is hardly alone in losing circulation, it has a much smaller margin for error than its muscular rival, the New York Times Company–owned Boston Globe.

Thus Purcell is faced with the task of broadening his reach into other media amid the worst economic conditions since he purchased the paper some nine years ago. And he's trying to stanch the bleeding at his flagship newspaper by going downscale, even though his future is increasingly in the tony suburbs served by CNC. Needless to say, photos of Lil' Kim's "not-so-Lil' Jumbotrons," as the Tracksters put it, would not play well in such Purcell-owned papers as the Wellesley Townsman or the Hamilton-Wenham Chronicle.

"The whole idea is that we want to continue to grow the Herald circulation base," Purcell said when I asked him about the recent changes. "We're still very strong on the local stuff," he added, but said that the paper had "lost our edge a little bit." The goal, he said, is to "brighten up" the entertainment coverage, offer "a little more gossip," and provide "a lot more emphasis on good-looking people and fashion."

But in a tacit acknowledgment that the Lil' Kim photo might have gone a bit too far, he described the changes as "a work in progress" and added: "There are going to be some mistakes that are made."

 

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Issue Date: June 20 - 26, 2003
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