The Herald’s head man

Q&A with Joe Sciacca, Editor-in-Chief

A 27-year veteran of the Boston Herald, editor-in-chief Joe Sciacca has spent most of his career covering Massachusetts politics. So on election night when US Rep. Barney Frank complained about the “complete political irrelevance of the Boston Herald,” Sciacca took the comments in stride.

“It’s not unusual for a politician who has been a subject of tough reporting to lash out at the messenger and I think that’s what happened in this case. But I think we’ve been fair in our coverage of Congressman Frank and I think we will continue to be so,” he said.

But as the Frank episode highlights, fairness is in the eyes of the beholder. The Herald often doesn’t hide its political leanings. The banner front-page headline on the paper the day after the election wasn’t about Gov. Deval Patrick winning a second term. Instead, it was “Sorry Charlie,” a reference to Republican Charlie Baker’s unsuccessful bid to oust Patrick.

In the Herald’s top slot since August, Sciacca oversees a total newsroom staff of about 140, with a core group of 11 news reporters. The paper is no longer printed in Boston and its offices have been sold, necessitating a staff move soon.

Audit Bureau of Circulations figures show that during the period April to September 2010, the tabloid’s circulation declined 9.8 percent to 124,691 for the weekday Herald and 5.7 percent to 90,222 for the Sunday paper. According to Sciacca, Bostonherald.com has 3.5 million unique visitors per month and online ad revenues are also “ticking up.” He declined to say whether the Herald is profitable.

I sat down to talk with Sciacca before the election and followed up on the Frank controversy after the election. Below is an edited version of that conversation.

How do you define the Herald’s mission today?

The overarching goal I have for the Herald is that we start the daily conversation, whether it’s in the coffee shops or the boardrooms or the governor’s office. That we bring something each morning that people are going to be talking about, buzzing about throughout the day. We try to be very proactive and very agenda-setting, forward- looking, exclusive in a lot of things that we do each day in the paper.

Very briefly, there are three things I’ve set as goals for my role as editor: One would be print and web integration. The website is a different product from the newspaper and that it shouldn’t be a place where you cut and paste stories and put them up on the web. That’s not going to be successful. There has to be some linkage between the paper and the website.

Second, to interject new personality into the paper. We are already a paper known for its branded personalities, but I want to put some new personalities in the publication and online.

We actually just hired a former Herald features writer back from the New York Post, Raakhee Mirchandani. She is going to come back as an associate editor to write a column once a week from—I hate to use the word hipper but, frankly, anybody is hipper than me—more of a cutting-edge, pop-culture-oriented sort of perspective.

We’ve also started a feature in the paper called “Power Hitters,” where we take some of our star writers, whether it’s in business, features, sports, or politics, and we put one question to them, have them do four responses, and then have our readers react. [Then] we print the responses.

Finally, a goal I have personally is more enterprise reporting. We’ve done a lot of enterprise reporting within the news section, and I want to expand that throughout the newspaper. When I say enterprise, I mean, again, those forward-looking, agenda-setting, exclusives—new angles, different angles, behind-the-scene stories—you can’t get anywhere else, except in our paper.

How does that mission differ from The Boston Globe’s?

It used to be in the old days that we would have to have every story the Globe had, every nuance of every story the Globe had. It would be a loss if we didn’t have the same lead story each day. Now we compete with them on a different level. Now we say to ourselves, “If we have the same story that the Globe has on page 1, then why would anybody want to read us?”

Our focus is to produce original content. Everybody talks about original content these days, but I don’t see myself as just a newspaper editor. I really see myself as the leader of a news organization that produces original content in our newsroom that is transferrable across platforms, whether it’s in print, or the Web, or on broadcast.

What has been the Herald’s most important exclusive so far this year?

The Phoebe Prince case, the bullying case.  We were on top of that story from beginning to end. It was one of the most important stories of this year because it impacted so many people.  We won first place in the New England Associated Press News Executives Association writing and public service contest for enterprise reporting in that case.

We were hearing literally heart-wrenching stories from kids who were calling us at the city desk or going online talking about their own experiences [and] parents who were at their wits’ end. Teachers and school officials were getting involved in the conversation. It was unbelievable; I’ve never seen a story quite like that.  It led obviously to some state legislation on bullying, and I think really advanced that issue as a matter for public discussion.

How would you describe the editorial tone that you bring to the paper?

There’s no doubt that we are more conservative editorially than the Globe. A lot people tend to think of the Herald as the Republican/conservative paper and the Globe as the liberal/Democratic paper. After being here for 27 years and having covered politics for a lot of the time, never did I get a call from the front office saying, “direct a story this way or direct a story that way” or “let’s try to pin a story this way” because there really is a bold line that is respected here between news gathering and editorial. But when it comes to our political coverage I would describe the Herald’s political coverage as being populist, more than conservative or liberal.

What do you mean?

Trying to call them as we see them, be a watchdog on government. If you do a study of all the stories that we’ve written about Massachusetts state politics, we scrutinize Republican administrations as much as we scrutinize Democratic administrations.

The Portland Press Herald recently suspended comments on web stories for a short period after the Maine newspaper’s publisher complained about “vile, crude, insensitive, and vicious postings.” Herald commenters came pretty close or crossed that line after recent shootings in Boston. How does the Herald moderate comments?

Do I recoil if I see those nasty, crossing-the-line comments? Absolutely I do. But I still believe that the comment boards are serving the real function of newspapering in a democratic society. What we are there for is not to suppress opinion, not to suppress people’s views, but to encourage it.

We do moderate the comment boards. When there is something that we believe that doesn’t meet our standards, we will delete those comments. We have banned commenters who are frequent offenders.

The greatest tools we have are the commenters themselves. We have the “report abuse” button that people use freely. Ninety percent of the people or more who go to those comment boards actually want to have a civil conversation. They don’t want that junior high school mentality to take hold.

So readers “turn in” abusers?

Yes, after so many readers flag the abuse, the comment is automatically deleted.

What’s has been the reaction of subscribers to the electronic edition of the Herald?

I think that is a work in progress. We just recently started an iPhone app. We are getting good initial response to that. We have a long way to go in terms of trying to get all those things up and running technically speaking. Our website has made huge advances in terms of how much video we can post, how much bandwidth we have, [and] how easy or difficult it is to navigate through the site.

What does the Herald need to do online?

We are trying to do an awful lot all at once right now, trying to get more video up there, more content online, more live streaming events, and building out pages on our website for travel, for movies, for real estate. And we’re trying to generate revenue on the site. So we’ve got our Web developers going in 15 different directions which is really the issue more than anything else.

Two years ago the Herald moved its printing operation to Chicopee and one day a week in Norwood: How has that affected editing?

Fortunately, not the way we thought it might. We were really worried about deadlines and having to be pushed way up because we were outsourcing our printing. It hasn’t happened. We’ve actually been able to get a lot of late sporting events in the paper by deadline.

How close is the Herald to moving out of its South End headquarters?

It’s not exactly clear when we will be moving. It involves the development of this property and the leasing arrangement that the publisher has with the developers. We have looked at a whole bunch of different sites both in the city and out of the city. It will be over the next couple of years, I would guess.

Is the paper staying in Boston or going to the suburbs?

We wouldn’t go far [outside the city.] I would prefer we stay in the city, but really the economics of that and the specifics of that really haven’t been worked out yet.

The Globe plans to roll out a subscription-only site in 2011: Does the Herald plan to put up a paywall?

We don’t have any immediate plans to do that. There have been some discussions. It’s not as simple as flicking a switch and going right behind a paywall. You really run a great risk of just losing the vast majority of your traffic if you were to do that. So I think there are various business models. Do you go behind a complete paywall? Do you go behind a partial paywall? If you go behind a partial paywall, what are you charging people for exactly?

People say, “OK, well, newspapers are dinosaurs, they’re on the way out. But I think that the model, how we get news, how we produce content here, with professionally trained reporters who operate under a set of standards, who report to a professionally trained editor, who then scrutinizes the work that they’ve done and then has a discussion with other editors on the presentation of that news and the sourcing of that news, is the credible model for that news reporting.

That’s what news consumers are going to continue to demand. If that’s the content that is provided on the Web, then I think people will pay for that down the road.

Charging for newspaper content was not successful the first time around: What is the difference today, especially if free content remains available?

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

During the Randy Moss controversy, Ian Rapoport, who covers the Patriots for the Herald, got almost 1 million page views on his blog alone. He is consistently one of our top writers. Do you throw Ian Rapoport behind a paywall?  I wouldn’t say that you would do that hastily. You’d want to assess it, and figure out exactly who his audience is, and will they come back and are they willing to pay.

You almost have to do an analysis of each and every feature you are trying to put behind a wall. Part of the problem last time was that it was simply, “Let’s just put up the gate, and say you can’t come in unless you pay. People say, “Well, I’m not going to pay; I’m going to go somewhere else.”