Crawling Out of the Snakepit at the Real Paper

For the first time in his 34 years. Martin Linsky doesn't sleep well at night. He has been preoccupied recently, thinking of all the things he'll do when he becomes editor of the Real Paper within the next week or two. He tries to sleep, but ideas keep popping into his head, and when that happens Linsky reaches for a pad of paper next to his bed and scribbles himself a note. The writing is often unintelligible the next morning, but that doesn't matter because Linsky has had more ideas by then--ideas for articles and the like that come to him in his sleep, in his dreams. "It's really sort of a funny phenomenon," he says.

It is also sort of a funny phenomenon that Linsky finds himself in this position at all, about to take control of a scrappy. He is a Republican by registration and profession, a former state representative and perennial unsuccessful political candidate (He ran for Lt. Governor in 1970, for Congress against Father Dtinan in 1972). In 1972 he supported Richard Nixon against George McGovern. But tonight, barring a thoroughly unlikely change of heart. Real Paper staff members--who collectively own the paper--will vote to sell it to Linsky's friend Ralph Fine, a Boston lawyer Fine has no journalistic experience and no Citizen Kane fantasies, and he freely admits that "basically, the editorial control will be in Marty's hands."

Fine will pay about $352,000 for the paper, giving each staff member stockholder about $10,000 profit. Tonight, after they vote to ratify the sale, some of these soon-to-be nouveauriche will go drinking to celebrate. But it will probably be a muted celebration, because Real Paper staff members don't know whether Linsky will let them stay, or even whether they will want to; they don't know how he will change their paper with all of his ideas, hatched in a Republican politician's head and scribbled down late at night: and they're not sure--this seems to trouble them most of all--what went wrong. They founded a newspaper three years ago, voted to own it themselves, made it a commercial success, and then let "antagonisms" (says one staff writer) and "friendships and enemyships" (says another) poison their collective spirit.

"You can't piece it together," says Peter Southwick '73, the Real Paper's photo editor. "You can't figure out where things started falling apart." But he has his theories, like most staff members--and the theories are worth examining for what they migh, reveal about Boston journalism, collective ownership of newspapers, and, as supplements editor Jan Freeman puts it, "the real important part of the experiment: what happened to us a group."

At the beginning," Freeman says, "I think it was terrific, because everyone was united against a common enemy--poverty...it was euphoric."

In those early days, she says, staff members became good friends suddenly, "the way you do on a picket line." They started the Real Paper, after all, because they had been on a picket line together--at the old Phoenix, where they once went on strike against publisher Richard Missner. Missner and the strikers settled after the paper was shut down for a week, but a couple of months later, in July 1972, Missner sold the Phoenix to rival publisher Stephen Mindich of Boston After Dark. Mindich wanted only the Phoenix name and a staff member of two; he bought the paper merely to squeeze out his competition. The abandoned Phoenix staff, consumed by equal measures of pique and principle, decided to start their own paper, the Real paper. The first issue appeared August 2, 1972, with a cover story castigating Missner and Mindich for trying to create a "journalistic monopoly."

There were enough ads in that first issue for the Real Paper to continue publishing, but few people expected the paper to succeed. Staff members who remember those days speak of hard work and noble struggle. But deadlines were lax, staff meetings friendly, and what tension there was arose naturally from the shared pressure to survive. It is a romantic picture, enhanced by the Real Paper's structure. This was a Staff-owned paper, reeking of egalitarianism, with practically no hierarchy at all (the masthead listed simply "The Staff," without giving titles). There were no financial angels, and the success that came quickly and steadily to the Real Paper was all the more gratifying for the way the staff won it.

And then, while the paper remained fiscally sound, the editorial department came unglued. There was infighting and mistrust, which eventually spawned the factions that still exist. Why did it all fall apart?

I'm not sure," says staff writer Burt Solomon. He laughs and shakes his head. "After all this, I'm not sure."

There are, of course, theories:

The Helen of Troy Theory, Soon after the paper's founding, two important staff members found themselves in a marital triangle that soured their professional relationship. They were in positions where they were forced to deal with each other regularly and weren't able in. "That's one of the unfortunate, extraordinary things which happened to the paper that led to my disappointment," says photo editor Southwick.

"In any normal situation any normal paper, one person would have to go," he adds. But at the Real Paper, where firing a staffer owner involved hearings and appeals (should the staff member claim his right to them), both men stayed It wasn't until months later, when staff members granted a new editor emergency powers to fire people, that one of the men was fired. He left without protest, but those who argue the Helen-of-Troy theory say the damage in bitterness was more than the paper could withstand in its infancy. Because of the triangle, says Southwick. "I don't think the paper was ever give a chance."

The Tower of-Babel Theory, "Some of the board meetings are incredibly ugly," says publisher Robert Rotner, "but just the fact that they can get that way is a good sign." People can vell at the editor and publisher, he says: "Most companies don't allow that."

But is shouting and bickering always a good sign? Could it be that an egalitarian structure makes staff members go to the wall to protest policies they would tolerate on a more traditional newspaper, simply because they resent anything that smacks of hierarchy? Real Paper staff members recall instances of pitched battles waged over trivial matters, and many cite a sort of combat fatigue as a reason they now want to sell. "The place is a snakepit, it's awful," says one.

And publisher Rotner, despite his talk of the virtues of venting rage, seems to agree, "I felt I was tired of spending too much time with all of us debating a decision," he says. He found that decision-making at the paper was becoming "very arduous, very complicated, and very tiring."