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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Best frenemies

There was never much doubt that the New York Times would succeed in wringing major concessions out of the unions representing Boston Globe employees. After all, the Overlords of 8th Avenue held all the cards.

But management had a secret weapon in the composition of the Boston Newspaper Guild, a fractious group with conflicting jobs and philosophies who would be naturally wary of each other in the best of times. And ready to tear each other apart under stress.

Not surprisingly, the Herald prefers to tell that tale in relaying why reporters on a newspaper that prides itself on digging out the facts were left in the dark about contract details. And it sounds like one hand doesn't understand what the other hand does.

The Globe's Guild bargaining unit has a second major split beyond the one that pits those with lifetime job guarantees against those without. It is what amounts to an unholy alliance between newsroom and advertising employees.

Guild President Dan Totten comes out of the advertising side of the house -- the paid media section if you will. The key communications tools, aside from selling space to enable customers to get their message out is to retain public relations professionals to try the same thing with a slight twist.

So instead of relying on colleagues trained to tell a story, the Guild opted for the services of O'Neill and Associates, a highly visible PR and lobbying firm. A company that many Globe reporters may be wary of to begin with. To double the tension, O'Neill put Cosmo Macero Jr., a one-time Herald business editor and columnist, out as its front man for the client.

Macero's ostensible job? Preventing details from leaking to the Herald.
"The ongoing leaks to The Herald throughout the negotiating process did absolutely nothing to enhance our position at the negotiating table,” Totten wrote to union delegates yesterday.

“The last thing we need at this point is to have any member read details of The Times’ proposal in the Herald or any other media before they hear it and discuss it with the Executive Committee in person.”

It's a questionable strategy, to say the least, to withhold contract details from your own members -- people trained to dig out facts -- because you are afraid the other guy will get them first. It reflects a mindset fairly divorced from a newsroom.

Not surprisingly, details did leak out. Fortunately for Totten, his members ferreted them out before the Herald.

But the rift over this strategy looks to have ripped open wounds only slowly mending thanks to the Times' own tactics.

It's possible the Times deliberately messed up to the tune of $4.5 million to test the union's mettle. The 23 percent pay cut put forward as the not-so-last, not-really best offer was a pure power move to remind employees who held all the cards.

In any case, the two events did manage to temporarily unite the two factions. But there are plenty of ugly times ahead as Guild members deal with the wage cuts and layoffs that will now come to pass.

And no doubt we will read all about it in the Herald.

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