Tunnel Collapses; an Editor’s Apprenticeship,
By Edward Shanahan
The recent fatal roof collapse in the highway tunnel connecting the Mass Turnpike (I-90) and the Ted Williams tunnel leading to Logan Airport has triggered a firestorm of finger pointing and charges of possible criminal behavior by engineers, contractors, highway administrators, and politicians.
For most of the last decade, Boston’s Central Artery project, which was then trivialized by its nickname, The Big Dig, was mainly covered by the media as a somewhat amusing multi-billion dollar cost over-run story, which in turn became the butt of jokes by late night television comedians or as a gee-whiz marvel of engineering.
Thus the surprise when a section of concrete ceiling fell on a passenger in a car traveling through the tunnel, killing her. Turns out, the tunnel’s construction - as well as other defects in the entire project - was seriously flawed. And that was no joke.
For me it recalled a similar event years ago when an elderly couple driving along the Connecticut Thruway (I-95) suddenly plunged to their deaths when a section of roadway fell into the Mianus River below just as their car was crossing the highway bridge.
That remains memorable because a young reporter, who worked with me at the Daily Hampshire Gazette, was assigned by his newspaper – the Hartford Courant - to join a team of reporters to undertake a year-long investigation of the activities of bridge inspector s employed by the state of Connecticut.
That investigation revealed a shocking pattern of sloppy work, no show workers, and bridges certified as safe when they had, in fact, not been inspected.
The newspaper’s investigation resulted in criminal charges and widespread reforms, and earned praise for the courage and determination of the newspaper and its reporters.
That young reporter was Clifford Teutsch, an Amherst College graduate and former school teacher who joined the Gazette as a rookie reporter nearly 30 years ago .
He is now acting editor of the Courant, having come up through the editorial ranks over the last 25 years there and is a candidate for the top job. My money is on him.
As he wrote in a recent e-mail: “I seem to be getting a good hearing. I know I am signing up for tough stuff, but this community's citizens deserve the best paper we can give them, we have a very committed staff, and I would like to give it a go.”
One of the bests reporters I ever worked with, Clifford instinctively understood what it meant to do his very best because readers were entitled to that. He was involved in some difficult and highly sensitive stories at the Gazette, including the investigation of the role of the Hatfield school superintendent at the time of the misuse of school funds and supplies, the sad tale of the unsolved death of Seta Rampersad, a UMass student, who was found abandoned in a South Deerfield motel, and bogus overtime payments to a Northampton city worker.
What made Clifford unusual as a reporter was that while he was indefatigable in his quest for information, he was cool under fire, never arrogant or cynical, but rather scrupulously ethical and fair. Rare qualities in just about any line of work. And always steady, as his 25 years of distinguished work in Hartford testify.
A solid citizen, is the way I would characterize Clifford. Wouldn’t that be what you would seek in an editor?
Meanwhile, on the other side of the media divide, it is embarrassing to read what is taking place at the daily newspaper in one of my favorite seaside cities in Southern California.
Virtually the entire newsroom at the Santa Barbara News-Press has quit their jobs, in protest against the interference by the owner of the newspaper, one Wendy P. McCaw, who has no background in journalism, but had the great good fortune to get a billon dollar divorce settlement from a “cellphone magnate.” And according to her critics at the newspaper, she has no background in ethics either, meddling in the handling of the news, even suppressing legitimate stories.
With all that hard-earned money to spend, she decided in 2000 to buy the Santa Barbara newspaper for an estimated $100 million and has been a controversial figure ever since with six different publishers arriving and leaving over the last 5 years.
What I find interesting about this media dust-up is that when newspaper neophyte Wendy McCaw found herself rich beyond imagining, the willing seller she found was none other than the super ethical New York Times Co., then owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press.
There apparently was no vetting of Wendy McCaw’s journalistic principles by the High and Mighty Times, whose newspaper ceaselessly reports on lapses of ethics in all sectors of society. The Times, the corporation, instead chose to take the money and skip, letting the citizens and subscribers in Santa Barbara suffer the consequences.
This cavalier attitude by the Times company as corporation as distinct from the Times as newspaper is not unusual.
Some years ago the Times bought a daily newspaper in suburban Atlanta (Gwinnett County) which had a circulation of about 40,000 or 50,000. The Times goal was to build up the paper to compete with the Atlanta Journal and thus be a major presence in that rich metropolitan Atlanta market.
Turns out the locals did not want the paper the Times had in mind, so the Times rather than stick with it, killed the paper, and left the 40 to 50,000 readers without any local newspaper.
I recall no criticism of the Times role then, nor today in the case of Santa Barbara. It’s just business. Clearly the name Sulzberger does not always guarantee good results for readers and employees when rank capitalism comes into play.
It is hard to know what this means – that stockholders in the big media companies see no future for the daily newspapers, or that individual entrepreneurs are optimistic about the future of print and its related on-line potential. Either way the industry is in great turmoil.
Of course, there are other models for newspapers that don’t involve media consolidation or Wendy McCaw type entrepreneurship.
These include the arrangement of the much admired St. Petersburg Times in Florida, which is owned by a non-profit organization, the Poynter Institute, created by the late Nelson and Henrietta Poynter, the previous owners. And there is the employee-owned newspaper in New London, Conn., the New London Day, a paper with a good reputation in the trade.
I wonder if either of these models was ever explored prior to the sale of the 220-year-old locally-owned Gazette to the Concord, N.H., chain.
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