Lewis I. Rice writer
Brian Smith photographer
On his first day back to work from a vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, Boston Herald owner and publisher Pat Purcell looks relaxed in a golf shirt and khakis. But as always, he’s ready for competition, against the Boston Globe and anyone who wants to see his paper fail.
During an interview in his executive office at One Herald Square, Boston, he points to a front-page headline mounted on the wall from a 1982 edition that reads: “You Bet We’re Alive.” It’s a phrase he invoked again in an essay he wrote earlier this year after he sold Community Newspaper Company, which he had acquired in 2001.
Now focused on his first acquisition, the Boston Herald, during a challenging business environment for the newspaper industry, Purcell says he’s determined to keep Boston a two-newspaper town. That may disappoint some politicians who have been targets of the paper, he says.
Some of the country’s most prominent politicians are pictured on the wall of Purcell’s office shaking hands with him, including George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Dan Quayle, and Ronald Reagan. Also pictured is Rupert Murdoch, who, after a long association with Purcell at News Corporation, sold the Herald to him in 1994. Previously, Purcell served as publisher and vice president of advertising for the New York Post and associate publisher of the Village Voice.
He lives with his wife, Maureen, in Weston. His children, Kathleen, Erin, Pat, and Kerry, all followed their father’s footsteps into the newspaper business, a place he intends to stay, he says.
WellesleyWeston Magazine: How did you get into the newspaper business?
Pat Purcell: I got into the business after my freshman year in college as an office boy for the New York Daily News. My father was a construction worker, most of my friends’ parents were policemen or firemen, and I had an opportunity to see what it was like to earn a living in a white-collar occupation.
WW: When Rupert Murdoch offered you the opportunity to buy the Herald in 1994, what was your reaction?
PP: I said, “Why not?” It was an opportunity of a lifetime to own something. Owning a newspaper in what’s my hometown now was something that my family and I recognized was worth the risk.
WW: You’ve worked in city newspapers your whole career. What was it like to own Community Newspaper Company’s suburban papers?
PP: Working for Murdoch made me realize that each individual media outlet has its own personality, its own audience. For me, it was obviously different. Metro dailies certainly are different from the Wellesley Townsman. The one thing that became very clear to me was that local, local, local was the most important element to preserve and build on.
WW: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as the newspaper industry has evolved?
PP: I think everyone in this building believes that our future rests with a bigger and fuller Internet presence. We don’t categorize ourselves as a newspaper company per se. We are an information distribution company. Like most newspapers, we’re trying to navigate the eroding circulation and diminished advertising volume in print while seeing enormous growth in our online audience and revenue.
WW: How do you try to stop the erosion of readers of traditional newspapers?
PP: Make the paper more interesting and as relevant as you possibly can, recognizing that there are folks in my generation who can’t give up the tactile nature of reading a newspaper every day, and recognizing that our children and grandchildren may never pick up a newspaper because they’ve got a computer in their hands that gives them instantaneous information and access.
WW: What are your thoughts about the editorial direction of the paper?
PP: When we talked to people about the Herald, the thing that came through was the whole idea that “someone’s got to say it.” We are the paper that’s fearless, that people rely on to hold politicians accountable, hold business people accountable. And that’s what we’re trying to address.
WW: You wrote a front-page essay earlier in the year that assured readers the Herald is here to stay. What prompted you to write it?
PP: Through the ’80s and ’90s, people predicted our demise. I think everybody here has always felt enormous pride in being the scrappy underdog and being the business that has defied all the naysayers. I think we’ve done a phenomenal job of that. I made an enormous bet to buy Community Newspapers, to make a bold step to expand the company, and when it didn’t work out as we had envisioned, all of us were saying “What’s next?” The idea was that we’re going to continue to fight the fight, that we’re going to continue to provide Boston with the alternative voice that is missing in so many other American metropolitan areas. I wanted to embolden everybody - to let them know that it’s hard work and a challenge, but we’ve defied the odds for a long time already. Let’s keep doing it.
WW: Why do you enjoy the underdog role?
PP: It’s all I’ve ever known. I was always competing. It’s pretty satisfying when you can turn a business around.
WW: How do you know the Herald is here to stay?
PP: I think we are resolute in our determination to keep this thing going. It is not without challenges. That’s a realization that I’ve always had. We hear that the Globe is in danger of losing money for the first time in God knows how many years. We’ll see where this all takes us. I think I’m a pragmatist, but I’m also determined to make the most of it.
WW: What brought you to live in Weston?
PP: When we first came to Boston in 1984, I asked what suburban areas would provide the best commute because having lived on Long Island, I wanted to see if I could make my life a little less complicated. I heard: Go west. One of the Ws: Wellesley, Weston, Wayland. So we bought a house in Wellesley. Then Rupert asked me to become the publisher of the New York Post, and we relocated to Connecticut. A year later there was no newspaper division to run out of New York, so we moved back. It’s a shame, because we should have just stayed in the house. But we found another house in Weston, and that’s where we’ve been ever since.
WW: Did you have to adapt as a native New Yorker when you came to Boston?
PP: I’ve heard stories from other people that it’s harder to acclimate to Boston than some other areas in the country. I never found that. When our kids first moved here, there was some adaptation they had to make.
WW: How did your kids end up getting into the newspaper business?
PP: I said to each of them: This is what has worked for me. I’ve counseled them to find a career and an occupation that they are happy with. I’ve obviously been happy in it. I suggested to each of them that they try to find a business they can be challenged and satisfied in. As it happened, each of them wanted to give this a shot. They each liked it and have done extremely well.
WW: Do people in your hometown talk to you about the paper?
PP: It’s safe to say that my involvement with Community Newspapers generated more discussion with folks in Wellesley and Weston than the Herald. Although whether it’s Herald coverage of the Grenedier case or Herald coverage of sports or business, some things get a reaction. People will let you know how they feel.
WW: Now that your kids are adults, do you think about moving to the city?
PP: No. We lived in the city for about a year while our house was being refurbished. While it was a good experience, it was also instructive in that my wife and I both recognized we like where we are.
WW: Finally, if you had to write a headline to sum up your career, what would it be?
PP: What I’m proud of is that we did keep Boston a two-newspaper town for however long it happens. That to me is a significant accomplishment, because of the determination of everybody in the building. It’s hard, I think, for people not in the business to appreciate how smart and how hardworking everybody is. I recognize that we’re a tabloid and we have splashy headlines and sometimes there are pictures in the paper that take people aback. What we’re proudest of is that we’ve kept this paper alive and relevant and important in people’s lives. There’s just an enormous amount of dedication in what we do. That’s probably the most gratifying thing.
PP: I know that’s not a headline.
WW: It’s lucky you don’t write the headlines for the paper.