It didn't even seem like a good idea at the time.
In June 1993, the New York Times Co. paid a staggering $1.1 billion to acquire the Boston Globe -- half the company's stock-market valuation. Wall Street was dubious. Within days, the Times Co.'s stock price had dropped by more than 14 percent.
"There's going to be some bumps along the way," Globe publisher William Taylor reportedly told his employees. "But it will all come together in the end."
Indeed it did. But the Times Co.'s 18-year run has been a rocky one, marked by ethical scandals, an abrupt end to local autonomy and, nearly three years ago, an existential crisis. So when word leaked on Monday that the Times Co. was trying to sell its Regional Newspaper Group (16 smaller papers in the South and the West), speculation naturally turned to whether the Globe would be next.
The Times' own coverage offered no guidance. In a blog item at NYTimes.com, Amy Chozick informed us that the deal would allow the company to focus on its "anchor newspapers" -- the Times, the Globe and the International Herald Tribune. Deeper in the item, though, she quoted media analyst Ken Doctor as saying the Globe could be sold if it were seen as a "distraction."
Certainly the Globe has been a distraction for much of the Times Co.'s tenure in Boston. In 1998, for instance, Howell Raines, then the Times' editorial-page editor, ripped Globe management for its dithering over the fate of star columnist Mike Barnicle, who was hanging on despite numerous suspected instances of plagiarism and fabrication -- including one I exposed in the Boston Phoenix hours before Barnicle was finally shown the door.
Raines was thought to be channeling publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who the following year removed publisher Benjamin Taylor, the last of the former ruling family to run the Globe, and replaced him with a Times Co. functionary. It hardly needs to be said that the worm turned several years later when Raines was ousted and Sulzberger humiliated following the revelation that one of their young star reporters, Jayson Blair, had been plagiarizing and making things up on a scale Barnicle's most outspoken detractors couldn't have imagined.
The existential crisis came in 2009, when the Times Co. announced that the Globe was on track to lose $85 million that year, and that it would be shut down if the paper's unions wouldn't agree to $20 million in givebacks. The largest of those unions, the Newspaper Guild, held out for months before finally throwing in the towel. The Globe and two related properties -- Boston.com and the Telegram & Gazette of nearby Worcester -- were put up for sale, only to be pulled back.
Interestingly, one of those groups included Ben Taylor and his cousin Steve Taylor, a former Globe vice president -- and they haven't given up, as they are now part of a group headed by a young greeting-card mogul named Aaron Kushner, who has announced his desire to buy the paper. Publicly, at least, Kushner has been unable to get the Times Co. to express any interest in selling. But that now may change.
For all the turmoil over the years, the Globe remains a first-class metropolitan newspaper -- among the best in the country, as cuts under Times Co. ownership, though deep, have been less devastating than at other major metros. Editor Marty Baron has been running the paper with a sure hand since 2001, and the current publisher, Christopher Mayer, is a local guy who seems to be popular with the troops. Last fall the Globe unveiled an online paywall, and an unusually well-designed cross-platform website, that are being closely watched throughout the industry.
It doesn't seem like a coincidence that the Times Co. put some of its properties up for sale within days of chief executive Janet Robinson's abruptly announced retirement. The $4.5 million golden handshake she received was the very symbol of what's wrong with out-of-town corporate ownership.
As a longtime observer of the Boston media scene, I'd have to say that Times Co. stewardship has been more positive than negative for the Globe. In the long run, though, it would be good for Globe -- and good for the community -- if our leading news organization were restored to local ownership.