A Parallax View

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Boston is slated to regain a battered badge of its identity next month, when arts coverage is expected to return to the daily broadsheet editions of The Boston Globe. To be sure, the return of the section formerly known as “Living/Arts” is apparently a consequence of an expanding business section. It is a heartening development nevertheless.

Distinctive criticism has been a hallmark of Boston’s newspapers since 1830, when the Boston Evening Transcript opened for business. (It closed in 1941.) Ten years ago, in order to save some money in production costs, the Globe consigned its critics, along with its coverage of food and personal health, to a daily “magazine-style” tab section it called “G,” printed a day in advance.

That robbed dignity and immediacy from criticism by such distinguished contributors as Mark Feeney, Robert Campbell, Richard Dyer, Gail Caldwell, Ed Siegel, Sebastian Smee, Jeremy Eichler, Wesley Morris and Ty Burr. (Five Pulitzer Prize winners are on that list.) Dyer, Caldwell, Siegel and Morris left the paper at various points, before and after. “G” was among the worst of a long series of bad ideas from the New York Times Co., which bought the Globe for $1.13 billion in 1993 and sold it last year for $70 million.

Google didn’t do that. New York did.

Another mistake, not on the same scale, was shutting down Economic Principals. Editor Martin Baron said he wanted technical economics only, no politics. But even if economists sought to strip their discipline of its inevitable political overtones (and most no longer bother to try), it was a terrible idea for newspapers to go along. So EP quit and moved to the Web.  (On the other hand, Baron subsequently hired the last four of those critics.)

Thirteen years later, EP has amply proved its point.  Its coverage of Harvard’s Russia scandal ran circles around that of the Globe, the Times, and the Washington Post (where Baron is now editor). Its reporting on trends in growth economics was praised in the Times by columnist Paul Krugman (and, a few years later, dismissed on his blog!). Its coverage of the financial crisis has been more penetrating than that of the Times; of the fortunes of the Obama economic team, more realistic; of US policy toward Russia, more skeptical; of the competitive situation of print newspapers, less panicky. Like the Times, EP made dreadful mistake in supporting the US invasion of Iraq,

Moreover, EP’s public broadcasting model has proved out. A relative handful of readers support the enterprise with an annual subscription of $50, in return for an early email version on Sunday morning (Eastern Standard Time), with another 20,000 or so reading, over the course of a quarter, the online version for free.

How many pay? From year to year, it’s hard to know, renewal rates being hard to predict – somewhere between 250 and 500, fewer, perhaps, than had been hoped, but enough to keep EP in business.  Subscribers include civic-minded citizens from all walks of life in the four corners of the world.

Others who left the Globe have founded successful public radio talk radio shows: former foreign editor Tom Ashbrook started “On Point;” Bruce Mohl edits Commonwealth magazine.  EP goes it alone, with only its surpassingly loyal copy editor to correct infelicities and, occasionally, restrain enthusiasms. The payroll consists of vegetables, fruit, and ice cream

The Times is in the throes of change, but it remains a great newspaper (as do the Financial Times and the The Wall Street Journal, the other papers to whose print editions EP subscribes). You can learn a million things from the Times that you’ll never see here.

But EP regularly provides a parallax view of developments in economics and politics, as seen from Boston, much the same as it once did at the newspaper itself.

I look forward to many more years of doing the same.

I expect, too, to write slightly more frequently about Boston. The NYTimes Co. occupation is ended, but the Globe is damaged and the Herald is a shadow of its former self.  The sphere of news-gathering and discussion is considerably attenuated.  The conversation about Boston needs to include many voices.