On October 19, New York Times Company chairman Arthur Sulzberger received a letter. It had been drafted by the Boston Newspaper Guild, and signed by 26 political and labor leaders. It expressed support for The Boston Globe, which is owned by the Times Company.
Mr. Sulzberger wrote back. He mentioned his pride in the paper’s six Pulitzers since 1993. He made no promises and chose his language carefully. In closing, he wrote: “As we move ahead, we will remain focused on ensuring the long-term financial health of The Globe so that it can continue to fulfill its journalistic mission.”
That same day, Oct. 19, the Times Company released its third-quarter statement. It reported a 39 percent drop in profits from the same period of 2005. It also said that advertising revenue had dropped—for the first time in 18 quarters.
“Terrible” is how industry analyst Edward Atorino summarized the Times Company’s third-quarter statement. And regarding the state of The Globe in particular? “Dreadful,” he said.
“Plagued by weakness in the national category and the Boston market, New York Times reported anemic newspaper ad revenue growth,” said a Goldman Sachs report, which is dated Oct. 19. The key risks, according to the report, are “weaker then [sic] industry average revenue performance” and “challenges in the ad market, particularly in Boston.”
And so now The Times is trapped between Beacon Hill and Wall Street.
“It’s more than just another business,” said Massachusetts Congressman Stephen F. Lynch, a signatory of the letter. The letter said, in part, that “a troubling pattern of disinvestment, downsizing, outsourcing and cost cutting has emerged” in The Times’ treatment of The Globe.
“All the signs are there that The Times may be disinvesting in The Boston Globe. That usually precedes a sale of some sort,” he said.
The Congressman said he wasn’t trying to score points with The Globe’s editorial or news pages. “There is no risk they might write something nice about me,” he said. Most recently, the editorial pages called him “arrogant” for declining a debate.
Senator Edward Kennedy, another signatory, responded to questions in an e-mail. He wrote that he had signed the letter hoping “to ensure that this vibrant and important paper is not threatened by cuts to staff and resources.”
The day previous to all this, Oct. 18, The Globe’s union rejected management’s latest offer, by a vote of 307 to 223. Management had proposed that potential wage increases be tied to revenue gains, but didn’t include the Web site Boston.com in that.
“Reporters contribute to the Web site,” said Dan Totten, the newspaper guild’s president. “To have their work not recognized is unacceptable and illogical.”
So what will become of The Globe?
The Globe is having its “second bad year in a row,” said Mr. Atorino, of the Benchmark Company. This doesn’t that mean Mr. Sulzberger is “ready to pull the plug yet,” Mr. Atorino said—but he might “tighten the belt.”
And neither the signatories of the letter nor the paper’s union would care for that.
“Well, the primary problem in Boston is the consolidation of department-store chains,” said industry analyst John Morton, of Morton Research Inc. “Retail advertising, which really drives a lot of advertising revenue, has been weak up there.” Mr. Morton said he didn’t think The Globe would be put up for sale.
“It’s almost impossible to buy a major-market newspaper,” he said. “I would doubt very much that the company would unload its properties in New England for any reason.”
On Oct. 12, the company experienced a 4 percent stock increase. It fueled speculation about a leveraged buyout of The Times.
Could Mr. Sulzberger pull such a thing off? “It’s conceivable,” said Mr. Morton. A buyout would mean heavy borrowing. Investors would be paid 25 to 35 percent above market value for their shares in exchange for Sulzberger family control.
“It would relieve the company of the worries of what Wall Street thinks,” he said.
“I don’t think young Arthur is going to turn The New York Times over to outsiders,” said Mr. Atorino.
“I don’t know where the rumors came from,” Mr. Atorino added. “Maybe an investment banker was seen walking out of the building.”
On Oct. 18, New Republic editor Franklin Foer fired associate editor Spencer Ackerman. It was Mr. Foer’s first firing since taking over in February; Mr. Ackerman, in fact, is only the second New Republic staffer to be fired since the Hollywood-worthy fall of fabulist Stephen Glass in 1998.
Before anyone calls up Hayden Christensen this time, the principals need to do some more work on the narrative line. Mr. Foer described the dismissal as a matter of serial “insubordination”; Mr. Ackerman, 26, wrote on a personal blog that it was the result of “irreconcilable ideological differences” with the magazine’s upper editors.
In what Mr. Foer called the “proximate cause,” Mr. Ackerman had been using that personal blog—titled “Too Hot for TNR”—to disparage the magazine.
Again with the Web logs: On Sept. 1, senior editor Lee Siegel was suspended and had his culture blog removed from the magazine’s Web site. Mr. Siegel had been caught posting flattering comments about his own wit and wisdom in the third person under the pseudonym “sprezzatura”—a “sock puppet,” in blog parlance.
Mr. Siegel is still suspended, but he remains on the masthead. Then again, Mr. Siegel hadn’t previously sent Mr. Foer an e-mail offering to “make a niche in your skull” with a baseball bat, as Mr. Ackerman did during a dispute about whether the magazine should have a blog about the Major League Baseball playoffs.
“The Siegel thing was a first-time offense,” Mr. Foer said. “Ackerman involved repeated offenses.”
Mr. Ackerman said he had clashed with Mr. Foer over various editorial matters. But he said that he had fallen from favor after growing disenchanted with the invasion of Iraq, which he and the magazine had both supported in the beginning.
“I definitely, for lack of a better term, drifted leftward,” Mr. Ackerman said. “The Iraq war will do that to you. The Bush administration will do that to you.”
Mr. Ackerman had been acting out, by his own account: telling a colleague it “wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world” to get fired “for being too left-wing”; declaring in an editorial meeting that he would “skullfuck” the corpse of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to establish his anti-terrorist bona fides. And there was the baseball-bat remark, which Mr. Ackerman said was meant as a joke. After chewing him out for that, Mr. Foer agreed to let him edit the baseball blog.
Both agreed that, whatever the politics, Mr. Ackerman’s taste in stories was wonkier and more bureaucratic than Mr. Foer’s.
Still, in 2003, Mr. Foer and Mr. Ackerman had teamed up to write a 6,900-word cover story about Dick Cheney. And in 2005, The New Republic published a cover story by Mr. Ackerman arguing for immediate withdrawal from Iraq, against the magazine’s editorial stance.
“Ideologically, I’m not far from Spencer,” Mr. Foer said. “I’m not a fan of Joe Lieberman. I think the Iraq war has been a monumental catastrophe. I hate George W. Bush. I have no ideological motive for firing the guy.”
Under previous editor Peter Beinart, Mr. Ackerman wrote a blog about the war, called Iraq’d, for the magazine’s Web site for 15 months, ending in the spring of 2005. After that, his blogging was absorbed into the newly launched overall blog, The Plank.
Mr. Ackerman said that his work was more heavily edited in the new blog. With Iraq’d, “I had total freedom,” he said. “With The Plank, I didn’t.”
Too Hot for TNR was created “in a moment of cheekiness” on Oct. 15, Mr. Ackerman said. In order to post a comment on another blog—by fellow twentysomething associate editor Ross Douthat of The Atlantic Monthly—Mr. Ackerman had to register with Blogger. Having registered, he went ahead and began putting up his own material: Under headlines taken from rock lyrics, he offered his thoughts on topics including sports, television and music. And politics: Under the headline “What gives you the right to fuck with our lives” (borrowed from the Montreal-based band Stars), Mr. Ackerman published Defense Department releases about casualties in Iraq.
Mr. Ackerman also wrote that “TNR’s webdesign software, very appropriately, is called Coma.” He also wrote that “all the cool kids hate TNR.”
Two days later, Mr. Foer called a meeting with Mr. Ackerman, told him he’d “shown little interest in changing,” according to Mr. Ackerman, and fired him on the spot. Mr. Ackerman said the discussion of severance ended after he refused to sign a nondisclosure agreement. “I was told I had to be out of the office by 4,” he said.
“Because it’s a personnel matter, I don’t feel comfortable getting into detail about it,” Mr. Foer said. “It was painful for me to do, because I have a long relationship with Spencer and really liked him.”
Mr. Foer said that editor in chief and part owner Martin Peretz, the magazine’s most devoted defender of the war, had no role in Mr. Ackerman’s firing.
“Marty knew nothing about this until hours after the fact,” Mr. Foer said. “To my knowledge, he hasn’t looked at Spencer’s blog.”
“Frank has kept me out of the loop,” Mr. Peretz said. “I think it’s a good thing in general for me not to be involved in the internal, precise operations. I was surprised when I was told that it had happened.”
Mr. Ackerman described Mr. Peretz as a foe of his leftward drift, but said he could not cite any instance in which a piece had been killed for not conforming to the boss’ politics.
“I think he’s a little bit childish,” Mr. Peretz said, speaking of Mr. Ackerman’s online work for the magazine. “He didn’t grow, in my estimation.”
Mr. Peretz said that Mr. Ackerman in a blog post had once referred to someone as a “fool.”
“I said to myself, ‘Where does a 15-year-old come off saying stuff like that?’” Mr. Peretz said.
You mean a 25-year-old? “Whatever,” Mr. Peretz said.
Less than 24 hours after being fired, Mr. Ackerman was hired by The American Prospect as a senior correspondent. Next month, he said, he plans to report from Iraq for The Nation. He is also shopping around a proposal for a book about American Islam and counterterrorism, tentatively titled America, Insh’allah.
Since the summer, it’s been a ghost town around the already-quiet Details offices, following several staff departures.
But now, the magazine is adding to its editorial ranks, hiring Alex Bhattacharji as articles editor. Mr. Bhattacharji replaces Pete Wells, who became editor of the New York Times dining section in September.
Most recently, Mr. Bhattacharji was involved in the creation of Look, a prototype film magazine for Time Inc. Prior to that, he worked at now-shuttered Budget Living as the executive editor, and later editor. He’s also freelanced for Details.
Other editorial staffers have fled since May, taking a variety of positions.
Brian Farnham, former deputy editor, became editor in chief of Time Out New York in April. A previous articles editor, Kevin Gray—along with a rising flood of Manhattan’s media population—headed to Condé Nast Portfolio.
Bart Blasengame, formerly a Details senior writer, is now a radio D.J. in Portland. However, he’s not gone in spirit: Mr. Blasengame—who remains on the masthead as contributing editor—wrote the November 2006 cover story on Lance Armstrong.
And Jeff Gordinier, editor-at-large, still remains at large—on book leave. Currently, Mr. Gordinier is writing a book about Generation X for Viking, based upon a Details essay from April 2006.