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Ownership creates challenges in covering Red Sox

FOR AN ombudsman, last week was pretty close to The Perfect Storm.

The beloved general manager of the Red Sox resigned. Critics accused the Globe of supporting the owners who let him go. Angry e-mails descended like hungry locusts.

All this happened while I was already preparing an examination of the Globe's coverage of the team in which the newspaper's owner, The New York Times Co., holds a 17 percent stake.

Even before last week's saga, many readers wondered whether the financial ties resulted in more favorable coverage of the team. After several interviews inside the newspaper and studying dozens of articles -- both before and during the ownership -- I found no evidence that Globe coverage is influenced by the Times Co. investment. In fact, there are several instances in which Globe stories, columns, or editorials have been critical of the team's owners, managers, and players. (My attempts to contact Red Sox officials were unsuccessful.)

Globe sports editor Joe Sullivan summed up the general newsroom attitude.

''We're uncomfortable with the relationship, but that's never been a factor in our coverage of the Red Sox," Sullivan said two weeks ago. ''I challenge anyone to say we don't cover the team aggressively."

Readers upset over Theo Epstein's resignation as Red Sox GM blamed the Globe for publishing leaks sympathetic to Sox owners that prompted his departure. Epstein told a press conference on Wednesday that the coverage was not the reason he resigned.

My review of the Sox coverage began weeks ago, but the Epstein story offers fresh examples of the challenges the Globe faces in readers' perceptions.

Professional sports teams -- especially those that win -- help newspapers by drawing more readers and advertisers. Fans attach more emotion to their teams. Consequently, the sports page often reflects those moods.

However, the sourcing and attribution on some of the Globe's Epstein-related stories were often vague, leaving readers to wonder if an assertion was true or if the Globe was reporting someone's spin.

The private nature of the negotiations forced reporters to rely on secondary sources for information. But the early editions of Monday's story that Epstein and the Red Sox had agreed on a contract -- which turned out to be wrong -- had no attribution at all. Later editions of the story were updated citing ''multiple Major League sources," a description some readers noted could have included Red Sox owners.

Even if this time a week ago it looked like Epstein would stay with the team, the Globe's coverage would have been more complete by reminding readers that the deal still wasn't officially done. That would have helped squelch perceptions among readers that the paper had taken sides with the owners when, in reality, it had not.

Globe stories and editorials on the Red Sox -- with the exception of some sports stories -- are required to disclose the Globe's corporate ties to the team. Globe Editor Martin Baron acknowledged last week that sometimes the disclosure is accidentally omitted from a news story but that the rule is taken seriously.

Those disclosures did not appear in last week's news stories on Epstein's contract talks. Since such developments can impact the team's finances, the disclosure should be required in stories about Red Sox contracts.

The rule should also apply to the stories written by the staff of the Globe's website,, which didn't mention the disclosure in any of its pieces.

Globe editorials and op-ed columns have also varied between supportive and critical of the Red Sox and their plans to redevelop Fenway Park. Renee Loth, the editorial page editor, said that Globe Publisher Richard Gilman, who sits on the Red Sox partners' committee, has not been involved in Sox-related editorials.

Beyond the newspaper, the ownership deal has also created new ties between the Globe and New England Sports Network, which is mostly owned by the Red Sox and televises many of the team's games. The Globe now co-produces the Red Sox pre-game show, which features Globe sports writers. Sullivan said the rule is that reporters and columnists are not supposed to promote the team, only to offer analysis and commentary.

Finally, a clarification: Some Globe executives felt my last column accused the publisher and president of violating company policy by accepting Red Sox World Series rings. That was not my intent. Times Co. policy allows the rings to be accepted as a "business courtesy" because of its equity share in the team.

The ombudsman represents the readers. His opinions and conclusions are his own. Phone 617-929-3020 or, to leave a message, 929-3022. Our e-mail address is

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