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Deal raises concerns on editorial freedom

As Red Sox owner John Henry acquires the Boston Globe, some observers ask whether sports coverage will change.

JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

As Red Sox owner John Henry acquires the Boston Globe, some observers ask whether sports coverage will change.

The acquisition of The Boston Globe by Red Sox owner John Henry raises immediate questions about the newspaper’s role in one of New England’s enduring dramas: the annual fate of the Sox, a subject that draws fans to the stands, readers to the news pages and drives tremendous traffic to the Globe’s websites.

The concern of some is that Henry could tilt news coverage or muzzle columnists to reflect best on his ball club, undermining the paper’s independence and credibility. There are, however, powerful reasons for Henry to protect the independence of the sports pages, observers say, even as his crossownership could present opportunities for the newspaper to capitalize on the popularity of the team’s worldwide sports brand, and its cable network, NESN.

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“The NESN relationship could be a great promotional bullhorn for the Globe and its coverage and that will help,” said Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst and author of the book “Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get.” “There are probably other things they can do in terms of e-commerce with NESN.

“But all of these are double-edged swords,” Doctor said. “It gives the Globe more promotional power at a cheaper cost but continually raises the possibility of conflict or the appearance of conflict.”

Henry, 63, agreed to a deal Saturday to buy the Globe from the New York Times Co. for $70 million. He has not yet personally addressed how he will handle his newspaper’s treatment of his baseball team.

The paper has routinely run critical stories on the team; a notable recent example was the investigation into the Red Sox’ infamous collapse at the end of the 2011 season, which found that several pitchers enjoyed beer and fried chicken in the clubhouse while their teammates were on the field.

Globe editor Brian McGrory has pledged sports coverage will not change under the new ownership. And media observers said the best antidote to concerns about conflict of interest is honest and scrupulous reporting and commentary, over a long period of time.

“A lot of readers care more about the Red Sox than politics or almost anything else,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a media consultant and professor of advertising at Boston University. “That puts the issue on the front burner. If the Globe continues to be outspoken, especially the columnists on the Red Sox, it will go away as a story.”

Sports coverage that seems skewed in favor of the team would probably drive readers to alternative news sources in print and on the Web, he said.

“He has to see that if he gets too heavy-handed he’s going to be hurting his own property,” Berkovitz said.

The Globe and the Red Sox have been entwined before: The New York Times Co. owned a minority stake in the Red Sox from 2002 to 2012. The paper often disclosed that relationship in news stories. Going back further, to the beginning of the last century, John I. Taylor owned the Red Sox from 1904 to 1911, while his father, Charles Taylor, was publisher of the Globe.

Media companies and sports teams have a recent history of crossownership. The Tribune Co., publisher of the Tribune newspaper in Chicago, bought the Chicago Cubs in 1981 and held the team for three decades. Media magnate Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Entertainment Group once owned the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“In truth, the world didn’t end” when those companies covered their own teams, said Doctor. He added that the extraordinarily successful Red Sox have little to fear from honest scrutiny or provocative columnists.

“They sell out almost all the games, they have the TV contract, which is very lucrative,” he said. “There’s not much damage to be done, and the more coverage the better.”

He recommended the newspaper handle the relationship with Henry “as affirmatively as possible,” perhaps with a standing block of text in the sports section that discloses the ownership situation and declares that editorial decisions remain independent.

“Then the staffers — from the sports editor on down — have to show the courage to do the reporting as if there was not common ownership,” he said. “Usually, very good newsrooms are very good at that. They challenge. A paper with the standards and history of the Globe, I’m not so concerned with that.”

Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, said Henry as the Globe’s new owner faces far bigger issues than how the paper covers his baseball team, such as falling ad revenue, the transition from print to digital, and questions about how big the news staff should be.

“When we look back in 5 or 10 years on how John Henry has been as owner of the Globe, I suspect that coverage of the Sox will be a small part of it,” Benton said.

And the hand-wringing over sports coverage “in some ways is really only a sidebar,” said Berkovitz. “The big story is: Can this guy turn around essentially a problem property? Is there anyone who can turn around a newspaper in this day and age?

“I guess we’re going to find out how smart this guy is.”

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@bostonglobemark
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