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William O. Taylor dies; led Globe 19 years

William Osgood Taylor II was publisher of The Boston Globe 1978-1997, an era of growth. William Osgood Taylor II was publisher of The Boston Globe 1978-1997, an era of growth. (Boston Globe)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / May 3, 2011

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William Osgood Taylor II, the fourth in his family to run The Boston Globe, and the Taylor who negotiated the historic sale of the newspaper to The New York Times Co., died Sunday evening in his Boston residence.

A chairman emeritus, Mr. Taylor was 78 and had succeeded his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather as publisher of the Globe, a title he held for 19 years. He died of brain cancer more than two years after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.

“By any measure — Pulitzer Prizes, editorial integrity, revenues, profitability, treating employees fairly, commitment to the community — Bill Taylor was as good as any publisher of his generation,’’ said Benjamin Taylor, a second cousin who succeeded Mr. Taylor as chairman and publisher. “He did the job well, and he did it for a long time.’’

In a succinct style that reflected his orderly ap proach to life, Mr. Taylor signed his name Wm. O. Taylor, but he was Bill to everyone from dignitaries to the janitor who swept the pressroom. Unassuming and soft-spoken, he preferred to praise the contributions of others rather than herald his own accomplishments.

“He was one of the last of the old-school Yankee gentlemen, and he was also a gentle man, in the truest sense of the word,’’ said Timothy Leland, a longtime friend and a former vice president of Affiliated Publications, which was the Globe’s parent company. “Of course, he was one of the most influential leaders in Boston, given his position as publisher of the Globe, but you’d never know it in conversation. He was extremely modest and self-effacing.’’

Nevertheless, during Mr. Taylor’s tenure, the Globe won nine Pulitzer Prizes, journalism’s highest award. As he became publisher, the newsroom entered the computer age, and as chairman, he guided the Globe and Affiliated Publications through a period of unprecedented growth in its market value.

“Bill fashioned the Globe into one of the best news organizations in this country, with a reputation for integrity, excellence, commitment to its community, and influence in the wider world,’’ said Martin Baron, editor of the Globe. “All of us here today owe him an immense debt. We stand on the foundation he built, and our own performance is measured against his achievements and his aspirations for the Globe.’’

Mr. Taylor also served in leadership positions and on the boards of many private and public institutions, including The Boston Globe Foundation, the Boston Public Library, and the Cotting School in Lexington, for students up to age 22 with disabilities.

“To me, he epitomized everything that is great about this institution,’’ said Christopher Mayer, the Globe’s publisher, who spent his first 13 years at the Globe while Mr. Taylor was in charge. “He was committed to quality journalism, being a good corporate citizen, and running a strong company. When someone mentions the name Bill Taylor, I think of the Globe, and vice versa. I’m certain I speak for all employees when I say that Bill will be missed, and that we strive every day to continue his legacy.’’

Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman of The New York Times Co., said in a statement that “Bill will long be remembered for his forward-looking leadership that positioned the Globe as a beacon of integrity in the world of journalism. The legacy he leaves behind will continue to serve the Globe long into the future.’’

Janet L. Robinson, the Times Co.’s chief executive, added that “Bill was a good friend, a consummate gentleman, and a strong and able leader who guided The Boston Globe through historic changes and set a standard of excellence that continues to this day. He will long be remembered for his humility and gentility and admired for his brilliant stewardship of the Globe.’’

Like his father, William Davis Taylor, Mr. Taylor did not lack for suitors eager to buy the Globe, but he faced a different problem. Principal ownership was controlled by family trusts representing the heirs of Eben D. Jordan, a founder of the Jordan Marsh stores, and more than 120 descendants of Mr. Taylor’s great-grandfather, Charles Henry Taylor.

Those trusts were set to expire in 1996, leaving the publicly traded Affiliated vulnerable to an uninvited takeover. Quietly and firmly, in scores of meetings held in boardrooms or one-on-one, Mr. Taylor used financial savvy and familial acuity to negotiate a deal under which the Times Co. paid $1.1 billion for the Globe in 1993. At the time, that was the highest sale price ever for a newspaper.

“Bill worked diligently to keep the long-term stakeholders — the Taylor family and the Jordan family — on the same track, which was a significant part of building a quality newspaper in Boston,’’ Benjamin Taylor said. “The Globe was a far better newspaper for his having been its publisher, and all the stakeholders — readers, advertisers, employees, and the region in which we published — benefited as a result.’’

Just as significant for the Taylor and Jordan families — not to mention Globe employees who owned company stock — were Mr. Taylor’s efforts in the early 1980s to diversify Affiliated’s holdings.

Beginning with an investment of about $12 million, Affiliated acquired a 45 percent interest in McCaw Communications of Bellevue, Wash., which initially operated cable television franchises on the West Coast. Over the next few years, Affiliated put a total of $82 million into McCaw, which moved into a new field and quickly became the largest cellular telephone company in the United States.

In 1989, at Mr. Taylor’s urging, Affiliated approved spinning off its McCaw stock to Affiliated’s 5,200 shareholders. By then, its stake in McCaw was worth about $2.6 billion, Forbes magazine reported. That meant a significant windfall for Affiliated’s shareholders — among them the Taylor and Jordan families, and the Globe’s employees.

“There are pressroom workers who drive Cadillacs and Lincolns to their Cape Cod vacation houses every Friday afternoon because of their well-placed faith in the Brahmin Taylors,’’ Globe columnist Brian McGrory wrote in 1999.

As Mr. Taylor shepherded the Globe through good and bad financial times, Affiliated’s estimated market value grew a hundredfold before contracting due to the recession in the early 1990s and the early rumblings of the newspaper industry’s current financial woes.

Still, his financial stewardship made the company a sound investment. Affiliated went public in 1973, when Mr. Taylor’s father was chairman and publisher. A $1,000 investment in Globe stock that year was worth about $120,000 in 1993, when Affiliated was sold to the Times Co.

“Bill was one of the wisest and most successful publishers of his generation — perhaps the most successful in financial terms,’’ Leland said.

Mr. Taylor’s great-grandfather Charles H. Taylor, known as the general, was the first in the family to run the Globe. Charles Taylor was hired as business manager in 1873, a year after a group of investors launched the Globe. By then, most of the investors had left the foundering newspaper, and Eben Jordan brought Taylor in to revive the enterprise.

Taylor was the first in his family to serve as publisher. He was succeeded by his second son, William Osgood Taylor, who turned over leadership to his second son, William Davis Taylor. His eldest child, William Osgood Taylor II, became publisher in 1978.

At the time, John I. Taylor, president of the Globe and Davis Taylor’s cousin, described William O. Taylor II as “probably the best businessman in the building, but with a good supply of compassion. He has a good news sense and a good business sense. . . which don’t often go together.’’

“General Taylor was the builder, William O. Taylor the savior, Davis Taylor the expander, and Bill may be a combination of all three,’’ John Taylor told the Globe in 1978.

Maybe so, but Mr. Taylor wasn’t always sure the job was perfect for him. Though born into a newspaper family, he didn’t immediately see the Globe as his life’s work, and he broke into a hearty laugh during an interview in his office in early January 2010 when asked if he ever considered a different life course.

“I always said, ‘If there’s one thing I won’t do, I won’t work for my family,’ ’’ he said, grinning at the memory, “but guess what?’’

He grew up in the Back Bay, where his family had a townhouse on Fairfield Street with rooms so spacious he could ride his tricycle in circles at the foot of his bed. Mr. Taylor had a toy fort and elegant lead soldiers that he kept precisely positioned. Already present were the orderliness and manners that became character traits as an adult.

“We grew up in the era of curtsying and bowing, and Billy always bowed properly,’’ said his younger sister, Anna Taylor Caleb of Rutland, Vt. “Let’s put it this way: Even as a small boy, the social graces were there.’’

Mr. Taylor attended the Dexter School in Brookline and St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954 and spent two years in the Army, in West Germany.

While he was there, he recalled in the interview, his father and grandfather sent letters encouraging him to join the family business. Mr. Taylor decided to step through the Globe’s doors for good, in part because another door remained closed. He had applied to the MBA programs at Boston University School of Management and Harvard Business School. BU said yes, Harvard said no, “and Dad said, ‘I think you’d be better off coming to work here,’ ’’ Mr. Taylor said.

On June 20, 1959, he married Sally Piper Coxe, who had been a roommate of his sister’s at Radcliffe College.

In a practice that is vanishing with the decline of family-run newspapers, Mr. Taylor worked in most departments at the Globe before taking his place in the ranks of management. Sometimes, he split a 10-hour day between three jobs. “I was in a state of discombobulation, to put it mildly,’’ he said.

Mr. Taylor was a reporter, and also worked in classified advertising and promotions, but his principal task in those early years was helping coordinate the Globe’s move from downtown Boston to Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester.

“I enjoyed every minute of it,’’ Mr. Taylor recalled. “A whole new world was opening up.’’

He began his career as the Globe was changing from a newspaper whose circulation had struggled to remain in third place among Boston’s dailies during the Great Depression. Mr. Taylor’s father, who became publisher in 1955, was the first in the family to cede control of the newsroom. Davis Taylor appointed Laurence L. Winship editor, and picked his son, Thomas Winship, to succeed him in 1965. Under Thomas Winship, the newspaper took on a new identity.

At times, the changes were too swift for Mr. Taylor, whose measured approach harkened to his grandfather’s steady leadership during the Depression. Winship supervised news coverage and the editorial page until 1981, including the years of court-ordered busing to desegregate Boston’s schools.

Before he became publisher, Mr. Taylor argued that the Globe’s editorial stance on school busing and integration was at times too far in front of its readership, though the newspaper’s coverage received the Pulitzer for meritorious public service in 1975.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Taylor also questioned the Globe’s endorsement of US Senator George McGovern, the Democrat who challenged President Richard M. Nixon in 1972, but he lost that debate with his father, who was still publisher, and Winship. “I just thought that you had two turkeys running and one was enough,’’ Mr. Taylor recalled with a chuckle in the interview.

Although his relationship with Winship, who died in 2002, didn’t suffer as a result of their occasional disagreements, the editor’s relentless energy and strong-mindedness could be a handful for the publisher.

“I liked him a lot, but Winship was not the easiest person in the world,’’ Mr. Taylor said with a smile. “He chose wonderful people, though. That was Tom’s greatest strength: He had an eye for talent.’’

One of Mr. Taylor’s most difficult times came when Winship retired in 1984 and he had his first opportunity to pick a new editor. Rather than choose John S. Driscoll, who was the Globe’s managing editor and viewed by many as Winship’s heir apparent, Mr. Taylor appointed Michael C. Janeway, managing editor of the Sunday Globe.

Little more than a year later, Janeway abruptly resigned in a departure that drew national attention to what Mr. Taylor came to see as a wrong choice on his part. Driscoll took over leading the newsroom, and Mr. Taylor appointed him editor in December 1987.

“Bill liked to be at his desk by 7:30 each morning,’’ Driscoll said. “When I was editor, I generally met with him by 8 a.m. daily. He never told me what to put in the paper, what to play up or down. He just wanted to be briefed. He had what he called a no-surprises rule. On big stories, there never was an argument over extra space or how many reporters we would send scurrying out of town.’’

While many will measure Mr. Taylor’s accomplishments in Pulitzers won or on the strength of the Globe’s balance sheets, he saw as perhaps his greatest legacy the steps taken to diversify the newsroom through the hiring and promotion of women and minorities.

“I think it made for a better paper and gave opportunities to groups that hadn’t had access to good jobs and management,’’ he said in the interview.

Even when he was publisher and chairman, Mr. Taylor was often the first to arrive each morning. He would page through the Globe, assessing the news and gauging revenues with just a glance at the advertising.

“He knew how much the paper made that day,’’ said William F. Connolly, the director of Globe Santa and a former vice president of administration at the Globe who got his start as an assistant and driver to the Taylors. “Just seeing him go through the pages and be able to say, ‘This is a profitable day’ or ‘This isn’t a profitable day,’ was something.’’

Mr. Taylor also went through the building each day. Rather than rely solely on top managers, he counted on conversations to keep apprised of how his newspaper and employees were faring.

“Bill Taylor was a very compassionate individual,’’ said Richard Ockerbloom, a former Globe president. “He knew almost everyone by name, and he was very visible in all departments of the newspaper. If he learned of someone’s illness or a problem they were dealing with within their family, he would take the time to talk with them and see if there was a way he could help.’’

In addition to his wife and sister, Mr. Taylor leaves three sons, William Davis Taylor of Wellesley, Edmund Coxe Taylor of San Francisco, and Augustus Rumrill Taylor of Maui, Hawaii; four siblings from his father’s second marriage, Margaret Taylor Kane of New Haven, Conn., Wendy Taylor Patriquin of South Natick, Thomas M. Taylor of Edgartown, and James M. Taylor of York, Maine; and four grandchildren.

The family will hold a private funeral and announce a public memorial service for Mr. Taylor, who during the January 2010 interview was as proper as ever, reminiscing about his career while sitting in a State Street office that was as uncluttered as any he occupied at the Globe, where he was reputed to keep the tidiest desk in the building.

“The principal thing that I’d like to say is that we had fun,’’ Mr. Taylor said. “Everybody came away with a good feeling. That is what I miss most.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.

A memorial service for William O. Taylor II will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday, May 21 in Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. Mr. Taylor, chairman emeritus and former longtime publisher of the Globe, died Sunday.