It was the perfect Boston Herald story: Greedy entrepreneur runs business into the ground, walks away to his myriad mansions with pockets lined with millions while working stiffs are left holding the bag.
Remarkably, that story, which ran in Wednesday’s Herald pretty much straight, without typical tabloid excess, was about the publisher of the Boston Herald, Pat Purcell. It noted that in the year leading up to the Herald filing for bankruptcy and being put up for sale, Purcell was paying himself an annual salary of almost a million dollars, while doling out some $265,000 in salaries among his three daughters.
If you ask me, the best argument for wanting the Herald to survive was on robust display when reporter Brian Dowling wrote that story and the Herald courageously printed it.
When he called me Thursday from Naples, Fla., where one of his homes is located, Pat Purcell was not exactly sheepish.
“People can throw stones,” he said. “A lot of people weren’t around when the Herald was going to close. It was losing $13 million a year until [Rupert] Murdoch bought it. It was barely profitable when I bought it in 1994. We made it work. I paid myself what I was being paid at [Murdoch’s] News Corp. I took nothing out of the business. I have nothing to apologize for.”
Hmmm. That last line didn’t go over so well with former and current Herald employees I ran it by. To them, “I have nothing to apologize for” was a modern-day version of that marvelous old Daily News headline when President Gerry Ford said he would veto any federal bailout of New York City, “Ford To City: Drop Dead.”
The Herald people I talked to, who didn’t want to be identified because they feared it could negatively affect their jobs, health insurance, and pensions, think it is obscene that Purcell is walking away with millions that he earned on the backs of the people who put out the newspaper all those years.
Purcell sees it differently. He believes the Herald has survived this long in no small part because of his stewardship and his willingness to reinvest in an industry that has seen the Internet gut the advertising side that paid the bills. He says he tried everything to keep the paper alive. He estimates that he put $60 million into the paper, “reinvesting profits,” is how he put it.
He acknowledged that he made a tidy sum when he sold the old Herald site in the South End that has been reborn as the Ink Block, a high-end residential and commercial development.
He wouldn’t tell me how much he made from selling the property, but even that, he insisted, was a just reward for what at the time was a shrewd investment.
“I did OK. It was a risky business. In 2008, it could have gone under. I did very well, but, hey, I kept the Herald alive for 30 years,” he said.
He addressed some other widely held beliefs, such as the one that he got a free condo at the Ink Block as part of the real estate deal: He says he didn’t. Denying what has long been rumored in town, he said Murdoch, his old friend and mentor, did not give him the property for a song.
“Murdoch gave me leeway on the price, but it was fair market value,” he said, declining to say what that price was. “Everything was on the up and up. No gifts [from Murdoch]. I continue to have a good relationship with him. He wanted me to succeed on my own. And I did. You deserve to get credit.”
A lot of Herald people who are worried about their jobs and benefits are far less charitable. They see Purcell as somebody who made sure he and his kids and his top executives were financially secure before he pulled the plug, leaving the workers to fend for themselves.
“He’s driving around town in a Jag, he’s got houses all over the place, Naples, the Vineyard, Weston,” said one reporter. “He laid off printers, drivers, took money out of the place for years. For him to be crying about how much credit he deserves for keeping the paper alive when he’s walking away with millions is just disingenuous.”
Purcell said that by launching the bankruptcy process, he’s giving the Herald a chance to survive. The GateHouse Media chain has offered $4.5 million, while a private equity firm is offering $5.4 million. But, as usually happens in modern newspaper sales, nobody wants to take on the pension liabilities, leaving some 140 of the Herald’s remaining 240 workers understandably nervous. The 100 nonunion Herald workers stand to get nothing.
“Fortunately, there are people who are interested and want to keep the Herald going,” Purcell said.
He said he feels for Herald workers, and he believes most will get a good chunk of their pension, maybe 70 cents on the dollar, after the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation gets involved.
Purcell says his conscience is clear.
“I could have put money in my pocket. I didn’t. I worked my ass off to grow the company,” he said. “What gets lost is . . . I had no money, I buy this place. Murdoch told me, ‘Take a chance.’ And I did.”
Workers at the Herald are getting screwed. It’s not fair. And that the guy at the top is leaving with millions while ordinary workers are left swinging in the wind is merely a sad, depressing, and absolutely accurate metaphor for America in 2018, when CEOs earn hundreds and hundreds of times more than the people who give their blood, sweat, and tears for a company.
I worked at the Herald for a couple of years before joining the Globe. Had a blast, learned a lot. There are many good people at the Herald. I want it to survive.
The paper’s political slant is irrelevant to me, and gloating over its potential demise because you don’t like its politics or some of its writers, or maybe the fact that Purcell is riding off into the sunset with all that swag, is as mean-spirited and narrow-minded as Howie Carr’s juvenile lusting for the Globe’s demise.
The Herald employs 240 people. That’s 240 families.
After the Globe, it breaks more news — not some fire in some godforsaken town in the 495 belt, or a car crashing into an ATM in Randolph, but real news — than any other news organization in the metro area.
All you have to do is look at Washington to realize we need more, not fewer, newspapers.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org