Now that the New York Times Company and representatives of the Boston Newspaper Guild, the Boston Globe's biggest union, have agreed to a deal that will keep the paper alive (more on that in a bit), the great unanswered question becomes: what, exactly, does the Times Co. plan to do now? After all, the combined concessions management has wrested from the Globe's seven major unions total just $20 million — nowhere close to covering the $85 million the paper is slated to lose this year.
That the Times Co. will soon use the weakening or elimination of the lifetime-job guarantees enjoyed by several unions seems clear. So, too, does the fact that, if at all possible, the Globe's New York overlords would very much like to unload the paper: sources tell the Phoenix that former Globe executive vice-president Al Larkin, a consummate Boston insider who served as the paper's mouthpiece for years before retiring in June 2008, has been employed by the Times Co. for several months, charged with trying to drum up a buyer. (Globe spokesman Bob Powers declined comment when asked about Larkin's role, and attempts to reach Larkin himself by press time were unsuccessful.)
If Larkin has had any success, though, it's been an exceedingly well-kept secret. Ever since the Boston Red Sox issued their recent statement asserting that neither principal owner John Henry nor anyone else affiliated with the team was interested in buying the paper, talk of a local savior — or any savior, for that matter — has pretty much abated.
Does this mean that the Times Co. is here in Boston for the long haul? Veteran newspaper analyst John Morton thinks so: the Times Co., he says, will simply wait for the economy to rebound and the paper's economic prospects to brighten. ("After every past recession," says Morton, "newspapers were able to recapture the advertising they'd lost.") But he also notes that the last such recovery came in 2002 — relatively early in the Internet era, when the Web was far less of a threat to print advertising than it has since become.
In contrast, Lauren Rich Fine — the former Merrill Lynch newspaper analyst who now writes for paidcontent.org — still seems inclined to predict a sale. But like Morton, she isn't exactly brimming with certitude. "I have no clue what the Times Co. is really up to and how they will close the [$65 million] gap," Fine tells the Phoenix by e-mail. "It is going to be really tough. They certainly could eliminate a day or two in print as a starter. I can't help but wonder if they are trying to prove to potential buyers that the unions are willing to be flexible."
If so, Times Co. brass have to be cursing the recent comments of investment savant Warren Buffett — who pointedly identified newspapers as the one business he'd never touch. As far as brokering a Globe sale goes, Buffett's observation couldn't have come at a worse time.
The agreement (still subject to ratification) that the Guild and management reached early Wednesday morning reflects a basic truth: permanent jobs aren't much good if the place where you work ceases to exist.
Obvious as that point sounds, it looked for a while like Guild head Dan Totten might not get it. While the Guild did provide the $10 million in concessions requested of it, union leadership had steadfastly refused to budge on the elimination of the lifetime-job guarantees held by roughly 190 of the Guild's 600-some members. Management, in turn, saw the elimination or substantial modification of those guarantees as absolutely essential if the paper wasn't going to be shuttered.
This conjured up a grimly absurd scenario: by insisting on the rights of a third of its members to perpetual employment, the Guild risked leaving all Globe workers unemployed — and, for good measure, depriving Bostonians of their paper of record.
What changed? Start with management's late-breaking, game-changing request for a whopping 23 percent pay cut by the Guild's members. (The message here: if you're not going to give up lifetime guarantees, we're really going to bring the pain.) Things were also nudged along when the two other unions whose members have held lifetime guarantees caved at least somewhat on that front.
When that happened, the Guild was under tremendous pressure to do the same — especially because this concession was far more painful for some other unions than it would be for the Guild. At the Boston Mailers Union, for example, all 145 full-time members have lifetime guarantees. (One hundred part-time members don't, and would be the first to go if layoffs hit.) But even though the shift from print to the Web threatens the mailers with obsolescence down the road, the mailers' leaders were willing, before their Guild counterparts, to rethink their lifetime-guarantee provision in order to keep the paper alive.