You'd think that when you bought a newspaper for $1.1 billion, and were faced with selling it for a fire-sale $65-80 million, you'd sell it to the highest bidder. The New York Times is handing the Boston Globe over to Boston Red Sox owner John Henry for $65 million – less money, several other bidders claimed, than they offered.
And yet, a strong argument can be made that the Times indeed sold the paper to the highest bidder. It's just not, thankfully, all about money.
Henry's purchase has made some people nervous. The Globe (a terrific paper for which I worked for many years) has a stellar sports section, filled with writers who are literate and thoughtful without taking the sheer jubilation and frustration out of sports. They've unofficially rooted for the Red Sox, which makes sense – it's a Boston paper, after all. But they've also been brutal when the Sox deserved it, either because of their performance on the field or their behavior off the field.
So will Henry put the kibosh on the tough treatment? It's not likely. Any effort to do so would be so obvious and embarrassing it would hardly be worth it. And Henry – who has already said he will not interfere with the coverage – knows the sports section is one of the Globe's best selling points. He would be foolish to diminish the brand he owns.
What of the other bidders? One is John Gormally, a Springfield television station and magazine owner. He might have some commitment to Massachusetts, but owning "Business West" isn't a strong qualification to bolster a great newspaper in need of corporate help. Then there's Robert Loring, whom the Globe describes as the founder of Revolution Capital, a west Coast company that owns the Tampa Tribune. Loring's a Massachusetts native, but there's no indication that he has anything but a pure fiscal interest in the Globe. Finally, there was John Lynch, chief executive of the UT San Diego newspaper. Have you heard of the (previously named) Union-Tribune? It won a Pulitzer in 2006 for investigative stories that sent former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham to prison. Then the paper closed its Washington bureau. That was before Lynch's time, but he didn't re-establish a news presence in Washington. And the paper, under the ownership of Douglas Manchester and executive direction of Lynch, has come under fire for what respected media critics have called an embarrassingly obvious slant towards Manchester's favored business interests and hard-right politics. New York Times critic David Carr wrote that the paper often seems like a brochure for [Manchester's] various interests."
Newspapers were in their heyday when they were part of the community, local institutions that might have published stories that upset elected officials or businesspeople or sports owners, but which were a critical part of the region. The trend toward selling papers to people who are mainly interested in profit or dividends for shareholders has had a very damaging effect on the product and on the institution of journalism itself. A paper has a far better chance of keeping its integrity being owned by a single rich person than being owned by a bunch of stockholders who would rather let a misguided war in Iraq go uncovered and unexamined than spend the money to send some brave reporters over there to see what's going on. Henry may not like some of the baseball coverage in the Globe, but both the Red Sox and the Globe share a powerful bond: they are both Boston institutions, and they survive only if people stick with them during the tough times. An owner who cares about Boston, cares about quality journalism and cares about the Globe is the person who deserves to buy it. That kind of person in fact, is the true highest bidder.