The Boston Globe's old guard balked when an outsider was made editor. Now his "more, better, faster" approach is heating things up.
By Bill Beuttler (Boston Magazine, Jan. 2002)
What a difference a few months make. Boston Globe editor Martin Baron — tall, bearded, bespectacled, sleeves rolled to the elbows — strides back to his corner office from a midafternoon news meeting several weeks into the war on terrorism looking comfortable and confident. He sits at a round wooden table and casually fields questions about his paper's strong coverage of the terrorist attacks, and the war. That and how he, a Tampa, Florida-raised son of Israeli immigrants, has been faring in a town better known for its clannish parochialism than for its warm welcomes.
Baron, 47, who took charge last summer of New England's top daily after just 18 months heading up the Miami Herald, had been noticeably stiffer at the July 2 news conference at the Globe's Morrissey Boulevard headquarters announcing his hiring. "We regard this as a coup for the Globe," said publisher Richard Gilman, who himself had been an outsider when he arrived at the Globe from New York two summers earlier.
Baron stood soberly beside Gilman in a gray suit, light gray shirt, and blue tie, his hands clasped in front of him. His predecessor, Matthew Storin, was nearby, looking relaxed and holding a bottle of Poland Spring water. The official line was that Storin had been planning his retirement for months but had agreed to speed up his departure when the search for a replacement turned up Baron. But Storin's imminent exit had long been rumored in the wake of the embarrassing forced resignations of columnists Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith in the summer of 1998, and another gaffe last year that resulted in a front-page apology for the paper's mishandling of information from unnamed sources in its coverage of the Dartmouth College double murder.
Gilman, of course, brought up none of that. Instead, he called Storin "a very tough person to replace" and lauded Baron's breadth of experience. Baron spent 17 years at the Los Angeles Times and another three high up the New York Times masthead before taking the top job in Miami. He had just been named editor of the year by Editor & Publisher magazine, and his newspaper had won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Elián González.
Gilman, Storin, and Baron stuck with upbeat themes: what a fine newspaper the Globe is and how talented Baron, Storin, and Storin's top deputies were (so good that Storin reportedly lobbied Gilman to choose one of them as his successor).
But then a reporter asked Baron — the first new editor in the Globe's 129-year history not to be promoted from within — how he'd deal with what the reporter delicately called this city's "tendency to be tough on outsiders."
Baron smiled. "Well," he replied, "I hope it's not unfriendly to this outsider."
Later that very afternoon, one Globe veteran suggested that the issue wasn't something to be brushed aside. "Some people here think that there's a problem," the insider said. "We've had a publisher and an editor who wouldn't know how to find Boylston Street. This won't help with that."
Which brings us back to Baron's office. Baron has had a knack for being where the action is, journalistically speaking. He arrived in Miami a couple of months after Elián González washed ashore, and the little boy seemed barely back in Cuba when the Florida electoral brouhaha broke out. September 11 came along in Baron's seventh week at the Globe. Not only had both 767s that crashed into the World Trade Center towers left from Logan Airport, but the Globe was one of just a handful of American newspapers with the resources to aggressively and independently cover the nation's response, at home and overseas. The Globe's bigger budget, in fact, had been a principal reason Baron says he decided to leave the Miami Herald.
Baron and his staff made the most of the opportunity. They beat the New York Times and other top papers to some major stories. Suddenly it didn't matter so much that the Globe's new editor wasn't from Charlestown or the Back Bay. The story rippled well beyond Route 128, and Baron found plenty in his paper's coverage to be proud of.
"Early on, Kevin Cullen did a terrific piece about the Saudi connection" to the hijackings, Baron recalls, "and the fact that they were probably fabricated identities as well. He had that before anybody else. Elizabeth Neuffer did a fantastic piece about the warning signs and how, from the case file of the first World Trade Center bombing, there was ample evidence that these folks and associates of bin Laden were getting flight training and intended to use it. Those were two right off the bat that were really excellent pieces. A lot of the stories we got from the scene [at Ground Zero] were, I think, very vivid. All of the investigative stuff we did on Massport, on airport security . . . a wonderful piece of writing Mitch Zuckoff did the first weekend that wove together the lives of six people converging on the first World Trade Center tower that collapsed — that was just a beautiful piece of writing." He pauses and worries aloud about leaving people out.
But Baron's mood changes noticeably when he's asked about the difficulty inherent in coming to his job as an outsider, and he bristles when the Boylston Street wisecrack gets repeated.
"I know how to find my way to Boylston Street," Baron retorts. "Look, it was a difficult decision for me coming here because I wasn't from Boston. I couldn't claim to know Boston and the issues in Boston. But it's not an insurmountable challenge. And I think that there is some benefit in coming from the outside and bringing a fresh perspective to what we do."
That perspective, staffers say, is built on a no-nonsense approach to newspapering. "More, faster, better" is said to be Baron's mantra. He demands that his reporters cover the city better than the competition — and by competition, he does not mean only the Boston Herald.
"As I said to the staff on the first day I was here, we should not let our competitor beat us on any story of note. That doesn't mean we have to have every little story they have, but it means that on any story of significance, we should beat them. And I think we want to go beyond and offer context and perspective and writing quality. That should be the hallmark of this newspaper.
"We compete with the Herald on local news in a variety of ways. Certainly government, crime, sports, things of that sort. But our competition goes well beyond that. We do compete with the New York Times in a number of areas as well — some things in Washington, some things overseas. But also importantly in certain key areas that are areas of distinction for Boston and should be areas of distinction for the Boston Globe — areas like health, medicine, science, technology, money management, higher education. Our competition in that regard is with the New York Times and with other publications of that stature — the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times. And our coverage should be, in my view, equal to or better than that of those publications."
Getting to "equal or better" means scrutinizing the newspaper for ways to improve it. Baron may brag about the Globe's coverage of the war, and he is quick to defend his troops when someone takes whacks at the paper's mediocre business section, its even worse Sunday magazine, or its scaled-back Sunday book-review section. But behind closed doors, he has not been shy about criticizing what crosses his desk. He appears considerably more disposed to push for improvement than to pat backs.
Baron acknowledges a desire to make the Globe better. "James Levine has a great quote in the paper today that I'm going to write down and steal and use," he says. He fetches himself a copy of the day's Living/Arts section and begins flipping through it looking for the quote. "It's in the second paragraph. He said, 'There is no point in doing things a certain way simply because that is how they have been done before.' And he said that with respect to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of the best orchestras in all of America. And I would say the same thing with respect to the Boston Globe, one of the best newspapers in America. We're in the early stages of that. And again, things got a little put off because of the war. But that area, the issue of focus and voice, is something that we're looking at very closely right now."
A little too closely for some. Globe editors, especially, have been pressured to keep raising the quality of what gets into the paper. And writers more inclined to pontificate than to report are finding themselves out of favor. Still, the criticism isn't personal or explosive (as was sometimes the case under Storin), and most people seem happy to be trotting out their A-game for a change. "Everybody's on their toes again" is how one pleased staffer put it to another. Baron expects no less. "I don't think anyone here suffers from any illusions that there aren't ways to improve this paper and that the paper can't be still better," he says, "and I think that everybody here wants the paper to be as good as possible. We're going to do that by having honest conversations with each other about what we do well and what we don't do so well and how we might go about improving things. And I don't think that that's anything to be afraid of or ashamed of. If we don't do that, then we're not doing our jobs."
A crucial aspect of Baron's own job for now is getting to know Boston. It's not uncommon for him to have two or three meetings with local movers and shakers before his workday is through, and he's spotted regularly at evening social events. When he does stay in at night — Baron, who is single, moved to a unit in an 1800s townhouse in the South End a few weeks ago — he reads up on the city in such books as Carolyn Cooke's short story collection, The Bostons, and Thomas O'Connor's history Boston Catholics.
At this rate, Baron could transform himself into a full-fledged Bostonian after all. For the time being, though, he's still a bit sensitive about that old calumny exaggerating how much he isn't one yet.
Shortly after meeting with Baron, we found ourselves pondering how to illustrate this story. We didn't want a clichéd shot of a busy newspaper executive standing around his newsroom in his shirtsleeves. But where else made sense to take Baron's picture? Then it hit us: Boylston Street. How better for Baron to prove conclusively that he knows where it is?
Baron, alas, didn't find the idea all that amusing. And just to be sure he'd made himself understood during that conversation in his office, he left a voice mail at ours:
"Hey, Bill, it's Marty Baron at the Globe. I got a call from your photo person wanting to set up a photo at Boylston Street because of — I don't know what — these jokes or something about not knowing where Boylston Street was. She kind of indicated that was going to be a piece of the story, which is — well, you can write what you want. I just want to be clear: I do know where Boylston Street is, and I've known where it is from day one. So I don't know what the focus is, but I just want to be clear that that's what I told you. Thanks."
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