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CHRISTINE CHINLUND | THE OMBUDSMAN

Leverage and the Metro deal

TO JUDGE from the loud headlines in the rival paper, one might think that Bostonians are outraged by the plan of the Globe's parent company to buy part of Metro Boston, the free commuter paper -- and that the Globe has missed the significance of the story. But the only reader outrage I've seen has been confined to the seven e-mails and one phone call I've received. That's barely a blip on the ombudsman scale.

Still, a few points in this rather unusual episode of journalism warrant a response. We'll start with a recap, since three-quarters of daily Globe readers don't also read the daily Herald.

On Jan. 4 the New York Times Co., which owns the Globe, announced plans to buy a 49 percent interest in the Metro Boston, one of the nearly four dozen free commuter papers worldwide owned by the Swedish company Metro International SA. The hope was that the minimalist Metro would attract new readers and advertisers and provide a vehicle for Globe promotions.

The Herald quickly said it would fight the deal on grounds it stifles competition. It took its cause to the Justice Department via an antitrust complaint and to its front pages:

"Metro execs' racist smears" -- the headline on a story, first reported by Mediachannel.org, about two Metro executives who made racial slurs at European conferences in 2003 -- was the first. Later came "Dump the deal" along with stories on local complaints of racism and sexism at Metro. When the Herald learned that an investor in Metro International telecast sexually explicit fare in Europe, "Globe partner peddles porn" graced its front page.

On its editorial page, the Herald said the Times Co. should have known about, and should now avoid, Metro's "sleazy" culture. The tabloid also urged readers to write to Washington to support the antitrust complaint. In short, the Herald has pulled out all the stops.

Globe Publisher Richard Gilman properly condemned as "reprehensible" the two Metro executives' remarks (which had included use of the N-word). Such comments, said Gilman, "are an affront to all of us."

The two Metro executives apologized for what they said were inadvertent offenses. One left the company, the other, Steve Nylund, who said he made the slur unwittingly during translation, stepped down as Metro USA president, but stayed on as executive vice president of Metro International. (Does letting Nylund stay send the wrong message? Times Co. officials are "continuing to gather information" on that score, Gilman said last week, declining to elaborate.)

The Globe covered the major developments of the slur story, but in a lower-decibel way in the Business section. That play seems about right. The story, I am told, will be reported like any other, despite the pending New York Times Co. deal. That's good.

Should the Times Co. abandon the Metro deal? Usually, that would be strictly Times Co. business, not Globe ombudsman fare. But if the deal goes ahead, it's the Globe -- which will offer some stories to the Metro -- that will be most publicly linked with it. Plus, the charge here is racial insensitivity, which can't be ignored. Thus, these thoughts for concerned readers:

The slurs were of course disgusting and are rightly condemned. It's less easy to say they were the result of a racist company culture that the Times Co. should have known about. If there were cultural problems at Metro, it was not necessarily obvious.

Consider Toronto, where the Toronto Star partners with that city's Metro paper, the model proposed for Boston. Staffs work closely together. "I've not in my dealings seen any sign of racism," said Murray Skinner, president of Metroland Printing, Publishing & Distributing, the Torstar division overseeing their Metro. He said he was "shocked" to hear of the executives' comments, as were local Metro staffers. The Star's just-retired ombudsman, Don Sellar, also reports no "whiff" of similar controversy -- even though in that city's newspapers wars "you expect every bit of dirt regarding the other guy to come out."

So maybe the slurs were an aberration -- but maybe not. The Globe and the Times Co., as part of "due diligence," need to find out before they buy in to the operation. If they find something systemically rotten, the deal should be canceled. If there are no new revelations, and a clear promise to do better, there may still be an argument for getting out -- but perhaps a better one for staying in.

That is where the leverage is. The Times has already used its influence to good advantage. Metro International has in recent days hired an American as global director of human resources, and a firm to recommend changes in Metro USA's employee/community practices. It's creating citizen boards to advise on diversity, and launched several other similar initiatives.

That's a good start, but I am guessing there is more work to do, and a little inside influence could help.

In old business: My last column said the Globe was probably more accuracy-conscious in '03 than the year before. While that could be true, three eagle-eyed readers figured out from the context that I meant to type '04. I thank them.

The ombudsman represents the readers. Her opinions and conclusions are her own. Phone 617-929-3020 or, to leave a message, 929-3022. Our e-mail address is ombud@globe.com. 

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