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Crawling Out of the Snakepit at the Real Paper

By Scott A. Kaufer

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."

The Handwriting on the Wall Theory. As things deteriorated in the editorial department, many staff members hungered for a little discipline, even it if meant stiffening the hierarchy. The staff formed a search committee to look for a replacement for editor Paul Solman, who resigned to become a staff writer. The search committee interviewed candidates and eventually offered one the job, but he rejected it out of concern for staff laxity, and especially, the growing desire among the staff to sell the paper ("instead of riding it out," as one staff members says, "waiting until it turned into a piece of crap.")

Kay Larson, the Real Paper's art critic and a member of the search committee, was somewhat surprised with the refusal of the editor candidate, but she could understand it. "How do you work with a staff, half of which wants to get out?" she says.

"I respected his decision." Peter Southwick says. "He must have been able to see the handwriting on the wall."

There's something sadly cyclical about this theory. As things got worse at the Real Paper, the editor's job became less attractive. The less attractive the job, the harder it was to fill with a tough but fair editor who could bolster morale. Finally, the staff voted to make one of its new staff writers. David Gelber, the new editor. It was Gelber who was given the power to fire people in a more streamlined way, a power he used to dispose of the staff writer caught in the marital triangle. (He also fired film critic Stuart Byron, who is suing the Real Paper for back pay and bonuses, claiming that his rights as a staffer/owner were violated.)

Gelber was fairly popular when the staff elected him editor last November, and for a while there was talk of a new spirit at the Real Paper--or an old spirit at the Real Paper, something close to the shared high purpose that launched the paper. But it didn't last long. Writers soon tangled with Gelber over some of his new procedures. (For example, Craig Unger '69 didn't see why he now had to clear in advance with Gelber all items in his regular page three "short Takes" column.) Factions developed, or regenerated, with some staff members complaining that the Real Paper--almost two and a half years old then--still needed sound direction from the top. As a staff member says now, trying to explain the decline that led to the sale, "We never had a good editor." (For his part, Gelber says the changes he made--which included the controversial elimination of the regular Friday morning staff meeting--were designed only to increase productivity and not to amass power.)

The Know What You're Getting Into Theory. Some Real Paper staff members think that many on the paper didn't understand what a staff-run paper entailed. For one thing says Peter Southwick, it required hiring people who get along well with others, which wasn't always the case with new employees.

And Stuart Byron thinks that a staff-owned paper must be a "writer's book" like Esquire rather than an "editor's book" like New York magazine. That is, a staff-owned paper should enshrine the right of writers to "go off in directions the editors don't like." He cites the Village Voice, which doesn't have the Real Paper's staff share holder structure but whose pages are peppered with fiefdoms where writers like Jill Johnston and Jonas Mekas run amok without editorial interference. A staff owned paper that does not allow that freedom, Byron thinks, will inevitably be rife with infighting.

The Collectivist Ship Awash in a Capitalist Sea Theory Chief Spokesman: Andrew Kopkins, Real Paper film critic "Collectivist behavior is a political act," he says, and it's hard to sustain a collective in a hostile, uncollective environment. People who try to do so, as Real Paper staffers did, feel "very isolated" --and they are soon torn between conflicting needs. Kopkind gave voice to this argument last spring, in an article in the Cambridge based. "Working Papers" magazine. His piece was a study of "alternative media" in Boston, titled "Hip Deep, in Capitalism." For the "alternative" paper or radio station, Kopkind wrote.

All the contradictions and ambiguities of the counterculture have been handed down as well: the tension between ideological authenticity--and commercial success, between collective work and the efficiency of command.

Clearly, the Real Paper, with a circulation of 100,000 (some of it distributed free) makes frequent bows to popular business practices in order to survive. In that sense it is part of, but estranged from, the capitalist business community that it must look to for support. Kopkind doesn't think collectively-owned newspapers are doomed, but he thinks their chances are better if they receive encouragement from the community.

None of the theories that attempt to explain the Real Paper sale concerns the quality of the newspaper, which staff members in all factioris consistently rate as very high (often calling the Real Paper the best-written newspaper in Boston). If it earns that distinction, it should be noted that the competition is not staff, and that the Real Paper is often thin and uninteresting (more so these days, some staffers admit, because of plunging morale).

Still, the Real Paper, unlike similar publications in other cities, is more often solid than not. It has the prolific Andrew kopkind, a considerable resource; Ronn Campisi, a clever graphicist; Peter Southwick, whose photography is consistently original. On longhaul local stories like the Edelin trial, the Real Paper often gives more complete and crisp coverage than even the daily Globe.

The Real Paper has also shown an ability to produce good investigative reporting, not the muck-faking that similar weekly papers often crank out. Recently it revealed that Suffolk Country Sheriff Thomas Eisenstadt, for example, spent public funds to furnish his house, spending money for velvet drapes, a Pakistani rug, even an escargot set. It was a story that the Real Paper beat The Globe to by several steps.

"Sure they did!" admits Globe editor Tom Winship, who calls himself a fan of the Real Paper and Phoenix. "We've been scooped many times by both of them. They're both good, lively, feisty publications that keep us on our toes."

Martin Linsky, in a statement of intent to the Real Paper staff, has promised to keep what is good about the Real Paper and make the rest better. It is a glib promise perhaps--as one staff member said, "He said what every body wanted to hear." But there is a tentative inclination on the part of Real Paper staff members to give Linsky his chance to shape the paper without breaking it. They don't credit him with much journalistic knowhow--a recent stint as a Globe editorial writer is his only serious credential--but even a staff member who called Linsky an "oily, greasy guy" concedes that "it's possible that Linsky cares enough about the paper to do a good job with it." It is about time, the staff member said, because things at the paper have degenerated to the point where "nobody gives a shit."

Publisher Rotner has a different way of putting it. "You know," he says softly, "now it is just like before the end of school, when you know it will be over in a few days and you just stop."

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