BOSTON — PERSISTENT rumors about a change of ownership at the Boston Globe have sent tremors through the city, setting columnists and talk shows a-chatter. Reports of an imminent sale have appeared in Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and the Boston Herald, with the likely buyer being the New York Times. The reported offer: $1.09 billion.
Subsequent stories say the Globe has refused. The paper confirms nothing. Asked about the Journal article, Globe spokesman Richard Gulla would say only, "I have no comment on that story, just as I have no comment on the Time story."
Speculation about the sale of the Globe is not easily stifled, though: The family trusts that control the paper's publicly held parent company, Affiliated Publications Inc., will soon expire.
"If it is for sale," says Jonathan Klarfeld, a professor of journalism at Boston University and a former assistant city editor at the Globe, "it makes perfect sense.... In 1996, when the trusts expire, lots of people with little pieces of the Globe will be looking to convert them into money." Mr. Klarfeld suggests that some members of the far-flung Taylor family (their control of the paper dates from 1872) may feel a "stewardship" obligation that would incline them toward a buyer in tune with their journ alistic goals.
To some journalism observers here, the prospect of a New York Times takeover is welcome. "If the Times buys the Globe, it would have a terrifically positive impact," says Kenneth Hartnett, who has worked for both the Herald and the Globe and is now managing editor of "The Group," a current-affairs show on Boston public-TV station WGBH.
"It would be management that would have its priorities in line," says Mr. Hartnett, "to perform its journalistic mission first and foremost." So often, he notes, the only consideration when a newspaper is bought is the bottom line. And the highly profitable Globe, as one of the few remaining large, independently owned papers in the United States, could be attractive to a number of potential buyers.
But the issues involved in the management or sale of any newspaper today extend beyond concerns about journalistic integrity. Christopher Lydon, a WGBH commentator, observes, "All newspapers are looking ahead to the technology revolution. All are puzzling like crazy how to walk across the canyon - out of the printing business and into the information business."
If the Times, with its huge financial resources, has found that path, Mr. Lydon says, it may be trying to broaden its reach in anticipation of "21st-century electronics." The Globe's commanding position in New England, he says, represents "a glorious territory to land as a franchise." The Times owns a number of newspapers, all of them in the South.
The outcome depends on secret discussions at the Globe. The high cost of newspaper publishing forces people to think in terms of the bottom line, says William Kurtz, who teaches journalism at Northeastern University in Boston.
Other factors could have an impact: Family-run, independent papers have "a certain voice and a certain stake," says Mr. Kurtz. "They're run a little bit differently; they're a little bit more than a business." The Taylor family may want to preserve that difference.
But Robert Jordan, a Globe columnist and head of its largest union, says that the days of paternalistic leadership at the paper are over. His union has been unable to negotiate a contract with the Globe for the past two years. Mr. Jordan says that all the recent cost-cutting moves at the paper have had one purpose: to make the paper more salable.