Valley newspaper reporters and editors ebb and flow, but over nearly 30 years there has been one Fixed Star in the tiny local media universe - Stephanie Kraft of the Valley Advocate.
Despite an academic specialty in Victorian literature, Krafts byline first appeared in the Advocate in 1975 on a review of a book about alligators, for which she was paid $3.50, but allowed to keep the book. So I did, she recalled during a recent interview.
Since that modest beginning, the Stephanie Kraft byline has appeared countless hundreds of times over stories that dig beneath the surface and veer off the beaten track, while regularly antagonizing politicians, intimidating polluters, and unearthing strange goings-on in communities along the river.
Her appearance as the conservatively-attired spouse of a UMass physician masks her toughness as an interviewer, willing to ask the impertinent question and to craft an often complex government, crime or real estate story in unadorned prose that is easy to read.
But there also is an edge and the ability to detect motive behind behavior, to track down and match up the public documents with the promises or performances, to bring into focus the dubious links of seemingly disparate players.
You mentioned that I ask questions that some say are impertinent, she said during our initial interview. Think of the impertinence on the side of people who spend public money without accounting for it.
And above all, she is unfailingly loyal to her publisher, the one-time alternative publication, which is now ad-fat and pretty much mainstream, owned by the Tribune Co. of Chicago, one of the nations largest media conglomerates.
We have a management that allows us to publish what we can prove; we have aggressive editors; nobodys looking over our shoulders, she says. Ive never been told I cant publish something I can get out and prove.
A former reporter who by accident happened to eavesdrop on our conversation sent along a note the next day: That Kraft lady is a ball o fire.
Similar but expanded sentiments were offered by Kris Hundley, once a colleague of Krafts at the Advocate, but now a reporter for the well regarded St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. Though Kraft was a veteran, Hundley said Stephanie managed to retain the energy, enthusiasm and eternal curiosity of a newcomer ... she was unwaveringly fair to her subjects and obsessed with accuracy. And though she wrote about slimy subjects, Stephanie always maintained her innate elegance.
What is so striking about Kraft is the contrast between her personal and professional background - innate elegance - and the gritty journalistic milieu she has operated in for nearly three decades.
One-time teacher with a doctorate from the University of Rochester, and author of a 1978 book titled No Castles on Main Street, about the homes and communities of some of Americas most famous novelists and authors, Kraft seems to have no misgivings about abandoning academia and more literary pursuits for news reporting.
She takes pleasure talking about the wildly bizarre stories she has covered and what she gets to witness; in short, she says, work that has been so damned much fun.
Kraft has never had any interest in becoming an editor in order to supplement her income. For one thing, married to a doctor, she did not need the extra money. But more compellingly, she says: I wanted to be out on the street. I had such gleeful delight being on the street.
She and her husband David moved here from the Washington area in 1974 where she had been teaching at Northern Virginia Community College. She quickly found that the Five College area was overrun with highly qualified women. Thus, it was hard to find a teaching job and one that enabled her to care for her two-year-old.
But the following year she made her cameo appearance in the fledgling year-old Advocate, which then operated on Amity Street in Amherst. Trained as a teacher, she did not believe she had the skills for news writing.
Building on her debut alligator book review, she began working part time at the Advocate churning out a steady stream of book, music and play reviews; and eventually for nine years was the chief play reviewer for the paper, a real delight, she recalls.
She also took on another part-time job as a teaching assistant reading students papers for Smith College professor Kenneth Connelly, who taught a course in Proust, Joyce, and Yeats, and she kept at it for six years.
Early in her Advocate career she stuck to feature writing, rather than news reporting. But in the late 1970s there were several incidents of harassment of lesbians in Northampton, story tailor-made for Advocate readers. A young woman reporter assigned to the story found she could not deal with it, so an editor turned to Kraft saying, in effect, Frankly, were down to you.
I had to go out and get the story and had one eight-hour period to do it. Thats how I got into news," she recalls.
There were subsequent interruptions when she left for six months to do her literary book and in 1980 she had another child. But mostly she just squatted at the Advocate, and by now they always had a desk for me.
Finally, she said, it was Jonathan Harr, then an Advocate editor, who really helped me by carving out a news staff slot.
From then until 1996 Kraft was full-time, including several years working in Springfield covering a steady stream of hot, investigative stories. In 1996, when she was 52, Kraft curtailed her hours and now is essentially working 25 to 30 hours a week as a floating reporter, proof reader and copy editor working out of the newspapers office at the Eastworks in Easthampton.
Having toiled as a reporter first in the so-called upper valley of Franklin and Hampshire Counties, Kraft seems to be most drawn to her work on the tough Springfield beat and the dramatis personae as she described the subjects of her stories. Yet she admits: Im really frightened to sit here and tell you I understand Springfield.
While she covered political and financial stories as well as the federal court - handling the Heritage Bank-related trials - and reporting on what are popularly called Mob activities, Kraft seemed proudest of her coverage of poisoned abandoned industrial sites, stories that are regarded as not very sexy and too technical by most other reporters.
The environmental beat also tapped into her religious background, growing up as she did in the South and having gained a familiarity with Bible stories
I see polluted water as very dramatic, she says, toxins in water, the poisoning of wells is a timeless image - in the Bible, the Middle East, and Springfield.
Politics and politicians come and go, she says, but when water goes, earth goes, they are connected and, when they go, they are gone for good. From the point of view of the long haul that is the most important news of all, especially if you have children, she says.
Or as she put it to us in one withering comment: Politics is often just talk, but trichloroethylene is not just talk.
So we put this question to her: why does so much of the news media avoid complicated stories on the grounds they will bore or turn off readers?
It touched a nerve.
People want to hear the truth, she declares. There is no story too complicated for the audience to understand, especially in this region where readers are still addicted to print, she said. Thats why this is a very happy place to be a reporter. Its a libel and a slander that people cant understand a complicated story. Its an easy out for the media.
Across the country, she says somebody is making money hand over fist by infantilizing the reading public, employing a clinical term that is coming into popular use in describing media coverage.
More specifically her sharpest criticism is reserved for the Newhouse newspapers in Springfield, which she says is in a class all by itself in its unwillingness to tell the truth about Springfield.
The Springfield Newspapers have the best reporters in the valley, they are the most professional and backed by far the greatest resources, but they are not allowed to do their jobs, says Kraft.
She laments that her own paper, the Advocate, has been forced by its distant corporate owner to cut back sharply on resources, which limits its investigative efforts. Still the paper continues to do what is has always done best: report the non-mainstream stories, propelled by principle and ideas, fun and adrenaline, and market niche, she says. If a weekly paper was like the daily whod read the weekly paper?
While media ownership might be infantilizing the reading public, Kraft says, she is encouraged by her belief that young reporters fresh to the valley still have that sense of outrage, its like a plant growing. I feel a very good kind of energy right now. Its a real boost every day to my faith in human nature.
Kraft acknowledges that there are many stories that remain semi-submerged and under-reported, saying the full story has yet to be told about the Hadley courthouse machinations, or the legislative dismantling of the clean elections law, or the dealings of certain venture capitalists and development cliques in the upper valley - a story that would take open-ended investigative time to unearth.
In Northampton she wonders about the extent to which its development is being shaped by ambitious real estate agents, and not by the majority of city residents. While the city cant regulate the real estate business, she admits, it can be careful how much deference is shown to those folks.
But what about those books she might have written or the teaching career she might have pursued?
I was caught and didnt want to run because I was having so much fun, Kraft confesses.