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Tabzilla returns (continued)

BY DAN KENNEDY

CERTAINLY RAPOSA and Fee's sentiments are echoed at the top. Of those who criticize the newly celebrified Herald, Ken Chandler says: "I say that they should get over it and recognize that a newspaper is a business and that it has to be competitive to succeed, and that you have to face the realities of today. These are presumably people who never watch prime-time television, they never look at a magazine cover."

Chandler adds: "Unfortunately, there is no law that says people have to buy newspapers. I wish there was." And he denies that his tinkering represents a threat either to the paper's local news coverage or to the leadership of Andy Costello, whom he hails as having done "a terrific job" in "a very tough market." As for the future, Chandler, who's 55, says, "I think I'll just take it on a month-by-month basis. I meant to be retired."

Costello's comments about the changes at the Herald are much the same as Chandler's. "It is a tabloid and we're proud of it, and we are not a 'tabloid in a tutu' as somebody once called Newsday," he says. "We are a bona fide tabloid. The paper has evolved through the years into what we think is a really outstanding tabloid. And we have consciously in the last month tried to pick up the pace of the paper a little bit."

Costello is as adept at saying nice things about Chandler as Chandler is about him. "I worked for Ken running the city desk when Ken was here, and I've always had a good relationship with him," Costello says. "I like him personally, he's a really great guy."

As for that Lil' Kim photo, Costello is almost contrite. "Maybe the Lil' Kim photo was a little overboard," he says, adding that he's received a few complaints from both staff members and readers. "It's a balancing act, and I think at some point we'll get the balance right. The only thing I say is, please be patient. Give us some time to work our way through this. We are living in a very competitive world. Other publications are doing some pretty provocative things."

Of course, both Ken Chandler and Andy Costello serve a constituency of one: Pat Purcell. Despite being on vacation, he agreed to a brief phone interview. He says this about having both a former editor and the current editor working side by side: "Ken Chandler is a terrific friend, a terrific talent, and he's helping us in a whole host of different ways. Costello is the editor, he's making the day-to-day decisions."

As for the future of his business, Purcell was characteristically blunt and cryptic at the same time. I asked him about Metro, the weekday freebie that has attained an audited circulation of about 166,000, and that has presumably damaged the circulation of both the Herald and the Globe. There are rumors that Purcell is thinking about starting a competitor to Metro, but he says no decision has been made. "We're taking a look at doing something there. It has been an annoyance and has probably impacted circulation a little bit" is all he'll say.

Earlier this year, the Herald began charging for online access to its columnists. Purcell wouldn't say how many readers have signed up as paying subscribers to BostonHerald.com, but he wasn't shy about explaining his reasoning: "I think newspapers are nuts if they continue to give away content."

What about a radio station? Brad Bleidt, a financial planner who is the CEO of WBIX Radio (AM 1060), told me recently that he's in the midst of boosting his station's signal and moving to 24-hour operation. Bleidt made it clear that he would love to have a media partner although he would not necessarily be looking to sell out and that Purcell is someone he'd like to do business with. Says Purcell: "We've had a number of conversations, and that's a possibility."

What about WWZN Radio (AM 1510), a/k/a "The Zone," a floundering sports-talk station? "There's a lot of built-in overhead there, and that signal is not as good as it should be, as well, just because of its dial position," Purcell says.

What would Herald Radio sound like? How would Purcell compete with all-news ratings king WBZ Radio (AM 1030)? "We have 600 editorial employees," he responds, referring both to the Herald and to CNC. "We have people in just about every town in Eastern Massachusetts. There's an awful lot of leverage that we have there. Whether it's talk, whether it's news, whether it's a combination."

Is Purcell interested in buying the Improper Bostonian? The magazine's pubisher, Wendy Semonian, recently told me that she was "exploring options," and would be open to a possible sale or joint venture. "Right now it's quiet," Purcell replies. "We've expressed interest in it, but we don't have anything to report on that. That would be a nice fit."

And what about Rupert anyway? "I don't know," Purcell says. "He's going in a lot of different directions. We're open to building the company. We're open to strengthening our footprint here."

Likely translation: Purcell has no immediate plans to sell, but he might be amenable in the future if Murdoch agrees to leave him in charge. And there might be some way of doing business with Murdoch short of an outright sale.

THE PARAMOUNT issue, of course, is that Boston is one of the few truly competitive two-daily cities in the country, and that it would be calamitous if the Herald were to go out of business.

Under Purcell's ownership, the Herald has not only survived, it's prospered. The CNC deal in 2001 turned out to be shrewd: even though it cost Purcell a reported $150 million, he says the combination has enabled him to attract advertising that had previously been available neither to the Herald nor to the CNC papers. Some observers say that CNC is actually in better financial shape than the Herald. Synergy can work, in other words.

About this there is no doubt: it's a shame that circulation at the Herald has fallen so precipitously that Purcell must now go shorter, lighter, sexier. Though never in the same league as the Globe, the Herald since the mid '80s has been a good local paper that breaks its share of stories.

Maybe tarting up the Herald will reverse or at least slow down the circulation slide while inflicting only token damage on the paper's credibility. Or maybe it won't work, and Purcell will have to try something else. In any case, he's built up enough goodwill over the years that he deserves a chance to prove that he can get the mix right.

"A tabloid is as good as the story that gets you into the paper," says Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman, who pronounces himself untroubled by the direction that the Herald has taken. "You don't expect to get the depth that you get in the Globe or the Times. That's not what it's for."

Goldman adds: "My greatest fear is that before I die we'll be a one-newspaper town, and that will be the day that the city dies. Anything that keeps two newspapers going is a good thing."

Anything? Well, maybe not quite anything. Still, Goldman is absolutely right about one thing: we've all got a stake in Pat Purcell's quest for survival.

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Issue Date: June 20 - 26, 2003
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