Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman of the The New York Times, at least did it with some grace. No awkward phone call. No delegating the task. He took Boston Globe publisher Benjamin Taylor to the Four Seasons restaurant in Boston and told him face to face he was being replaced.
After 126 years the family name of Taylor has disappeared from the venerable Globe's masthead as publisher - a move consummated by a member of a family whose name first appeared on the Times masthead in 1896.
The transition is raising concerns in Boston about what kind of editorial changes there might be at New England's largest newspaper.
It is also kicking up old reminders of the rivalry between Boston and New York that dates back to Colonial days. Indeed, for Bostonians, this kind of slippage of pride at one of its institutions echoes that day in 1920 when the insufferable New York Yankees stole Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox.
Bostonians, forgive? Never. And now the Globe wears Yankee pin stripes.
To a certain extent, some sort of change at the Globe was perhaps inevitable. When The New York Times bought the paper for $1 billion in 1993, the Times said it would give the Globe five years to maintain complete local control.
But the kinds of changes to come were uncertain - and their exact timing. Bostonians have lived in denial ever since. "It's ridiculous to think that The New York Times would pay over a billion dollars for something and not manage it," says Alex Jones, co-author of the forthcoming biography, "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times."
"As agreed upon, the Globe had five years of noninterference from The Times," says Mr. Jones, a Pulitzer Prize winner for media coverage in l987. "But the Globe didn't measure up financially," he says, "and Taylor was given very low marks for the way he handled the firing of [columnist] Mike Barnicle too."
Richard Gilman, a senior vice president at the Times, is replacing Mr. Taylor as publisher. Taylor will become chairman of the Globe board.
In an interview, Mr. Gilman denies that the controversial Barnicle episode, in which the writer's fictional characters were passed off as real, played a role in the change. "That all kind of passed under the bridge about a year ago," he says,"and there is no direct connection."
Financially, under Taylor's lead, the Globe slipped in ad revenues, and Sunday circulation had fallen from 751,377 to 730,420 over a two-year period. "I do not come with an agenda," insists Gilman, "nor do I have a kind of overall game plan. My task is to learn from the staff, and work with the folks here as they figure their own plans and strategies."
Media critic Ben Bagdikian sees the Times decision as dovetailing with the media consolidation trend that has rocked the newspaper world for the past decade.
"It is common among large, national companies to acquire local companies," he says, "retain the localism for a short time, and then adopt the philosophy of the parent firm, although in this case I don't think the Globe will become a complete, local New York Times."
Mr. Bagdikian, author of "Media Monopoly," a book critical of the consolidation among big media companies, cites 10 or so conglomerates now on the verge of becoming "private ministries of information." He argues such consolidation threatens the free flow of information and ideas as companies adopt a more corporate, bottom-line focus, or put entertainment over news.
He does not exclude the Times company because it owns 26 newspapers, nine television stations, three magazines, and various other media enterprises. But according to some observers, the unparalleled stature and clout of the Times bring some journalistic exemptions not even accorded to Babe Ruth.
"In the context of media mergers," says Robert Giles, executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, "I think the Times giving five years of hands-off treatment to the Globe is extraordinary. Most companies move rather rapidly to make a change at the top. And with Gilman saying that what happens at the Globe in the future will be a local decision, this is an indicator to me of how the Times plans to operate at the Globe."
Gilman, who has 15 years' experience on the business side of the Times, says the number of Times-owned newspapers certainly represents business consolidation. "But the Times company has been very scrupulous in allowing the publishers and managers of its newspapers and TV stations to make decisions locally," he says. "There has never been editorial consolidation."
Editorial freedom or not, many New Englanders are still smarting over the Taylor symbol of longevity and propriety that has fallen like a brown leaf in autumn. No matter the assurances from Gilman that he will "listen to people in the community," the Globe is different.
"It's a startling thought to think of the masthead of the Boston Globe without the Taylor family name there," says Richard Reston, editor of the Vineyard Gazette, a homey broadsheet published on Martha's Vineyard for more than 150 years. "I think it's hard to find anything positive in this. I would guess that this change portends other changes, and I gather there has been a lot of talk about it in Boston, so the only question open was, when was New York going to make its move? And now it's coming."
Others envision change as well. Jon Klarfeld at Boston University's school of journalism says the Taylor family ran the Globe and developed an enormous loyalty during the 1960s newspaper strike, when it paid its staff anyway. But now he thinks there will be a harder look at "some of the comfortable arrangements that have existed between top editorial management and publishing."
"With ad revenue off and circulation dropping, I think the Globe has been misreading a young audience," says Mr. Klarfeld. "Gilman can't just say we are going to be a lean, mean business and not make editorial changes, which is the part that really does matter."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society