Reading the Globe then (1981) and now shows how democracy has been curbed

Bill Walczak

Last week, while shuffling boxes around my basement, I discovered a complete Boston Globe edition from Feb. 3, 1981, close to the heyday of the newspaper’s circulation and profitability. I saved it to memorialize my son’s birth date, but I hadn’t revisited it since first placing it in that box 40 years ago.

I’ve heard a lot of opinions about the difference between today’s Globe and when it was one of America’s premier newspapers. These opinions note that most of the articles in the national section are now from the New York Times or Washington Post, that the editorial and Op-Ed pages have been eviscerated, and that it is much reduced in all regards.

I took the time to read through the 40-year-old edition, juxtaposed with the Feb. 3, 2021 edition, to see what struck me as the same and what is different. Feb. 3, 1981 was a Tuesday and this past Feb. 3 was a Wednesday, both weekday editions.

The first thing I noticed was the actual size of the paper, which has lost 3 of its 14 inches in width over 40 years, a loss of over 20 percent. But the size of the print had also shrunk by 15 percent, so the loss of printable space was 5 percent. The 1981 edition had 60 pages, compared to 40 last week, but the amount of advertising was immensely different. The 1981 paper had 25 pages of advertising, compared to only 3.25 pages of ads in 2021, a stark difference, and the major reason daily newspapers are in trouble.

Last week’s paper had three full page ads – one each for liquor, cars, and an awards ceremony. The 1981 edition had 3 pages of cigarette ads, 2 full pages of real estate ads, 6 pages of job listings, 1½ pages of bank advertisements, 3 pages for cars, a page for stereos (remember them?), and a movie guide. In addition, there were 4 pages of stocks and bonds listings.

Having seen that most of the articles in today’s national news section are reprints from other sources (mainly NY Times, Washington Post, and AP), I was surprised to see that the 1981 national/foreign section was also mainly made up stories from other sources, at about the same percentage as 2021.

The stories from 1981 reflected that Ronald Reagan had just been inaugurated as president, and that the weather had been unusually warm. It carried a story about the decision-making process to determine who would get the contract to wire Boston for cable television, a full-page story on Walter Cronkite’s retirement, and a story by reporter and Dorchester resident Richard Knox (who went on to NPR as the medical editor) headlined “Study finds much surgery is needless.”

The editorial page was more extensive than today’s version, with three editorials (one on the mayor of Pittsfield, one on federal deficits and tax cuts, and one on America’s relationship with the Soviet Union). Two of the three are still current topics for editorials.

The Op-Ed page was also more robust in 1981. Today, we typically get three op-eds and a large graphic, but in 1981, there were five op-eds, one related to “populist governor Ed King,” one on Mayor Kevin White and Proposition 2 ½ , one international column, one comic piece by Art Buchwald, and one on Jean Harris and Hy Tarnower (a spectacular murder case) by Ellen Goodman.

The Metro section had a column on the creation of corporate boxes at the old Boston Garden, and how it affected the “Gallery Gods.” Other stories were protests of cuts at the MBTA, evictions at housing projects, various crime stories, Kevin White’s proposed $295.8 million budget, including $97 million in cuts, and how Prop 2½ was affecting the town of Hanson. The Business section disclosed General Motor’s $763 million deficit, the impact of computers on businesses, and the drop of the prime interest rate from 20 percent to 19.5 percent. One Dorchester story was about the closing of a Neponset Avenue store, with a headline “One of the last of the old mom and pop stores.” The store, named “George’s,” owned by George Jakub, was described as “an old piece of Americana,” and stores such as his “as stabilizing a unit in the community as the family or the local church (or the local pub).”

“Cambridge basketball star Patrick Ewing to attend Georgetown,” read the reference above the Page One flag to a story in the sports section, reinforcing a widely held view that the Globe is a sports-oriented newspaper, then and now. In the sports section itself were two follow up stories on Ewing, along with major stories on the Beanpot, and one on the upcoming free agency of Carlton Fisk. City Councilor Fred Langone proposed having the city take over the Boston Garden and renovate it with $15 million in state funds, a precursor to the Convention Center idea.

My look at the 1981 vs 2021 Globe surprised me in a few ways: Although the editorial and op-ed pages have been greatly diminished, the amount of news covered was not dramatically different. I also found that many of the articles, editorials, and OpEd topics from 1981 continue to be the same in 2021. The paper still has upwards of 300,000 subscribers – print and digital – making it still a preeminent media powerhouse in Boston.

What scares me is that the business model for big city newspapers, including the Globe, is not sustainable, and hasn’t been for going on 20 years now. The Globe would not continue to be an essential community institution were it not for its billionaire owner, John Henry, and his wife, Globe CEO Linda Pizzuti Henry, who have a commitment to own a newspaper.

Social media cannot be expected to replace newspapers for the simple reason that, unlike social media, journalists are in the news business, with the ability to study topics and ensure a level of accuracy in coverage. But social media has taken away the advertising revenue that used to go to newspapers. As a result, our democracy has suffered due to the financial collapse of so many of the nation’s newspapers. Boston needs and deserves to have excellent newspapers, and it is up to its residents to make sure that local papers like the Dorchester Reporter and regionals like the Boston Globe are supported with our subscriptions.

Bill Walczak is a Dorchester resident and a Reporter columnist.