Has the EagleTribune turned into a mother hen

When the Eagle-Tribune rolled out a 10-part series two years ago chronicling 10 untapped advantages of life in Lawrence that could give the fallen mill city a boost, people weren’t just surprised by what they read, they were surprised by where they read it.

The thrust of the series, titled “Unrealized Assets,” was startling enough. Many in the area had become so accustomed to thinking of the city as a cauldron of urban misery that it was hard to imagine the long-shuttered mills lining the Merrimack River as outposts of New Economy commerce, or the mighty Merrimack itself, once valued only for the force of its flow, as the centerpiece of an urban park system. But if locals had a hard time suddenly seeing Lawrence’s glass as half full, some say it was in no small part because the Eagle-Tribune had spent so many years convincing readers it was half empty.

To many Lawrencians, the Eagle-Tribune had delivered a distorted view of life in the city, showing nothing but crime in the streets and dysfunction in the homes. “We only got the bad press,” says City Councilor Julia Silverio, a Dominican Republic native elected in 1999 by a city that is now 60 percent Hispanic.

It’s not as if the bad news is hard to find. As the poorest community in the Commonwealth, Lawrence has suffered a laundry list of urban ills. It’s been known in recent years as the state’s car-theft capital and arson hot spot. Unemployment is double the state average. The high-school dropout rate is the highest in Massachusetts, the MCAS scores next to lowest. And four years ago, Lawrence High School was stripped of accreditation.

Local politics often haven’t been much better, with one recent City Council debate degenerating to the point that the police had to be called to restore order. Even the local sandlots haven’t escaped the factionalism and infighting, as five separate Little League programs operate with little coordination or cooperation, each longing for better equipment and fields. But is bad news the only news? Or does a newspaper have a responsibility to look beyond the daily desolation toward avenues of hope and possibility? These questions could be put to any newspaper in a community where there’s no shortage of gloom and doom to cover. That the Eagle-Tribune is grappling with them, and coming up with new answers, is getting plenty of notice, even from those who say the local daily has itself been one of those wasted assets holding Lawrence back.

No hero in its own back yard

“We could easily do a story on 10 things that are really bad about Lawrence,” says Eagle-Tribune editor Steve Lambert, a genial 45-year-old who speaks in flat inflections that betray his Chicago roots. “That’s been done, over and over and over and over. Some would argue that all we’ve done over the years is beat up on Lawrence. So what do you have at the end of that process? You have a pretty good list of things that are wrong. I think we have to expand that a little bit. In the case of ‘Unrealized Assets,’ it was trying in some ways to be a facilitator of a broader discussion on what needs to happen in Lawrence to move it boldly into the future.”

Under Lambert, who arrived at the paper in 1999 from a Pennsylvania daily, the Eagle-Tribune has been moving into the future pretty boldly itself. Last summer, the paper launched another 10-part series, “Building Bridges,” which explored the touchy issue of race relations between whites and Hispanics in the region. At about the same time, the Eagle-Tribune began publishing a weekly 16-page Spanish-language supplement, which now vies for readers with two independent weeklies in the area. Lambert has also established an advisory board of 12 area readers who meet monthly with Eagle-Tribune editors, offering everything from criticism of recent coverage to ideas for news stories.

“There’s been a definite change in direction” at the paper, says Michael Morris, an Andover attorney who grew up in Lawrence and maintains close ties to the city.

Over the years, some had viewed the paper as not just a passive observer of the city’s decline, but a contributor to it. “I’m going to be brutally blunt. The Tribune was part of the problem,” says one Lawrence native who, like many with critical comments, would share them only if not identified. One former elected official invokes a familiar, if not fond, local nickname for the paper: “Oh, you mean the ‘Evil-Tribune’.”

Editor Steve Lambert: Lawrence’s bad news
has already been reported, “over and over.”

In some ways, battle lines seem built into the culture of Lawrence, where textile workers once faced down mill owners and where each arriving ethnic group takes its lumps from those who came before them. “The history of that city is one of conflict,” says Brad Goldstein, who was the newspaper’s City Hall reporter from 1989 to 1994. And the culture of rancor, he says, includes the Eagle-Tribune. “Lawrence has always been at war with that paper.”

If not always, at least since 1969. That’s the date that still lives in infamy in the minds of some Lawrencians, the year the Eagle-Tribune pulled up stakes from its building on Essex Street downtown and moved into a gleaming new office complex just over the line in leafy North Andover. “That was kind of legendary as one of the moments when an important institution kind of jumped off a sinking boat,” says William Traynor, executive director of Lawrence CommunityWorks, a local community development corporation.

The other shoe dropped in 1987, when the paper trimmed “Lawrence” from its name. From a business perspective, the renaming made sense. Circulation had been falling in the city while the paper was expanding its reach as a regional daily. Southern New Hampshire, in fact, now accounts for a quarter of the Eagle-Tribune readership. Over the past decade, the number of subscribers in Lawrence has dropped from 10,000 to 6,000, or only about 10 percent of the paper’s daily circulation of 55,000. (Sunday sales total 60,000.)

Along with the Eagle-Tribune‘s physical departure and symbolic disowning of Lawrence came a journalistic distancing from the city, some say, a shift familiar to native Lawrencians who have made the climb out of the urban working class to more middle-class lives in neighboring Methuen, North Andover, or Andover.

“I can’t tell you the whys or wherefores, but I can tell you the focus certainly went away from that city,” says former reporter Jim Arnold. Dan Warner, the paper’s hard-hitting editor for 27 years until his retirement in 1999, treated the antics at City Hall as more appropriate for the “comics pages than the news pages” says Arnold, who now runs a federally funded after-school program called Hoops for Hope.

But some of the friction seems tied to politics. In a city dominated by Democratic politicians, the Eagle-Tribune editorial page has been an unbending voice of Republican conservatism. And some charge that its news coverage hasn’t always been even-handed. Former Democratic state representative Kevin Blanchette, who represented Lawrence from 1981 to 1993, says, “They made it quite clear who they liked or didn’t like.” Blanchette, who says he was in the latter group, once took part in a ceremony with a group of local officials presenting a check to Lawrence from a state grant. In the next day’s paper, he says, only his shoulder is visible at the edge of a photo of the event. “They literally cut me out of the picture,” says Blanchette, convinced that the slight was intentional. Arnold suggests he may be right. “I think [Warner] had tremendous capacity, but also played favorites,” says Arnold.

That charge reached its zenith in 1996, when Lawrence school superintendent James Scully came under blistering criticism from state officials for mismanagement of school funds, eventually leading to his ouster. The usually aggressive Eagle-Tribune was seen by some as going soft on the school chief, with coverage and editorials taking swipes at nearly every player in the drama but the embattled superintendent. The red flag in it all: Scully’s ex-wife was the daughter of Eagle-Tribune publisher Irving Rogers Jr. That connection–and the possibility that it colored the paper’s coverage of the story–drew attention from The Boston Globe as well as from CommonWealth (“Asleep at the Perch,” Fall 1997).

Warner, who now teaches journalism at Boston University but still serves as a consultant to the paper, did not respond to requests for an interview.

If the paper, which has been owned by the Rogers family of Andover for more than 100 years, has taken knocks from some corners for throwing its weight around, it has done so while racking up an enviable record as one of the more enterprising mid-sized newspapers in the country. Under Warner’s watch, the Eagle-Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize for its 1988 reporting on the state’s flawed furlough system for prisoners–stories that brought the Willie Horton story to light and ultimately helped sink Michael Dukakis’s presidential bid. In the 1990s, the paper was a two-time Pulitzer finalist, for its coverage of the 1995 Malden Mills fire and for investigative pieces by sportswriter Russ Conway on the rip-off of NHL players by the then-executive director of the hockey players’ association.

And all along, the Eagle-Tribune has been willing to pour big-paper resources into big stories. “We’ve always been a local newspaper that has tried to have an impact, that has been maybe a little more ambitious, a little more bold than the typical paper our size,” says managing editor Alan White, a 28-year veteran at the Eagle-Tribune. “And I think if you look around–and I’m not going to mention any names–but other papers our size are basically mailing it in. They’re boring, they don’t jump on anything. When we get a big story, whether it’s the Malden Mills fire or the fact that Lawrence is the most Hispanic city in New England, we tend to go after it, and that’s something we’ve always done.”

New generation, new mission

But many see a new tack at the Eagle-Tribune, one that has coincided with changes at the top two positions at the paper. Irving “Chip” Rogers III assumed the publisher’s reins in 1998, after his father’s death, and Steve Lambert took over as editor the following year, filling the post held by Warner for nearly three decades.

The two 10-part series that the paper has run since its management change, both digging into Lawrence’s civic life in new ways, are “something you never would have seen before,” says Arnold.

“It signals a significant change in how the Eagle-Tribune relates to the city–in not just reporting on what’s going on but being a catalyst for positive change,” says David Tibbetts, a former state secretary of economic affairs and founder of the three-year-old Merrimack Valley Economic Development Council. Traynor, the CommunityWorks director, adds that the Eagle-Tribune has “re-embraced Lawrence as a part of the region.”

And the paper is getting attention within the profession for its new civic-mindedness. The “Unrealized Assets” series won two national awards: a second-place prize from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and a public service award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Publisher Chip Rogers: a “results-oriented person”
pushing for economic development.

The 41-year-old Rogers, representing the fourth generation of the Rogers clan to run the paper, takes pride in the acclaim. But he’s a tad uncomfortable with the suggestion that he has turned over a new leaf in the relationship between the Eagle-Tribune and the city of Lawrence. “I think we all have different styles,” he says of his familial forebears, who look down from imposing portraits in his wood-paneled office. “Your style is in some ways connected to what’s going on during your tenure.”

In other words, if Lawrence’s fall from vibrant mill city to urban disaster area colored his father’s tenure, Chip Rogers has taken over the paper at a time of new hope for the kind of rebirth that has boosted other cities–such as nearby Lowell, whose comeback is not only an inspiration but also a reminder of how far behind Lawrence has fallen.

“I think that the Tribune has always been willing to play a positive role, but it can only play with what it’s got,” says James Shannon, the former US congressman and state attorney general who is also a lifelong Lawrence resident. “I think one of the great things that’s beginning to happen now is we’re beginning to see the other pieces starting to fall into place.”

In the “Unrealized Assets” series, the Eagle-Tribune estimated the potential of the city’s imposing mill buildings; it looked with fresh eyes at the strength of Lawrence’s neighborhoods and the palatial, bargain-priced Victorians that have drawn a trickle of professionals to the city (a young Newton-born physician who now calls Lawrence home served as a man-bites-dog centerpiece of one story); it described the burgeoning Hispanic culture as a boon, rather than an alien addition, to Lawrence life; and it sought to renew the bonds between city and suburbs by spotlighting departed Lawrence natives who maintain connections with their hometown. Each “unrealized asset” was accompanied by a civic to-do list detailing potential benefits, roadblocks to development, and the key players who could make the investment pay off.

Jan Schaffer, director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, calls the series “upbeat without being Pollyannaish and too cloying.” Indeed,”Unrealized Assets” had its tough moments. But at times the optimism did seem to spill over the top, as in the installment on Hispanic culture that suggested, with the right planning, Lawrence could become a “New England version of Miami’s South Beach,” referring to a now-trendy neighborhood that was down-and-out in the 1970s and 1980s (but was still, after all, in sun-drenched Miami).

But after the 10-part series on race relations, which ran last summer, no one could accuse the Eagle-Tribune of seeing the city through rose-colored glasses. Lawrence is known as the Immigrant City, and it has relied on the labor of newcomers to US shores ever since the city was built in the 1840s by a group of wealthy merchants as an ideal site for their textile mills. But the growth of the city’s Hispanic population has created considerable tension, and the paper’s editors knew from the start that their series was going to stir things up even more.

“We’re well aware of the rough waters that await us,” Lambert wrote in a column on the first day of the “Building Bridges” series. The articles tracked the migration of Hispanics to the Merrimack Valley, detailed their efforts to build local businesses, and addressed tough issues such as bilingual education and interracial marriage. The lead article in each installment was also published in Spanish, and each day of the series featured a profile of a local “bridge builder” working to improve relations between whites and Hispanics. Meanwhile, Lambert and other Eagle-Tribune editors hit the airwaves, joining discussions on local radio shows that were simulcast in English and Spanish.

The paper also opened its pages during the series to an unedited airing of comments from readers, which more than balanced the feel-good flavor of some of the articles. “They expect everything,” said one caller to the paper’s English-language phone-in line. “They come here; they don’t expect to work. They are just very lazy people.”

Hispanics, long mistrustful of the Eagle-Tribune–which they said only wrote about Latinos involved in crime–were angered by the paper’s decision to provide a platform for such invective. Meanwhile, some white readers were incensed at the expansive and favorable coverage given to a group they blame for Lawrence’s decline.

“It was a difficult series to do,” says Rogers, seated on a couch in the Eagle-Tribune publisher’s suite. “There was much more negative feedback than I ever expected,” including cancelled subscriptions “in the low hundreds.” But he says he had “no trepidation” about tackling the topic: “I don’t think we had a choice.”

Lambert agrees. “The fact that people still do harbor some of those feelings out there only underscores the need to go after series like this,” says Lambert. “If that didn’t tell us there was a crying need for this sort of thing, then nothing would.”

Carlos Matos, who directs the federal Third Tier Cities project, a work-force development program based at Northern Essex Community College in Lawrence, says race relations has long been the elephant in the room that no one wanted to talk about. “This has really been a hallmark of the city–don’t ask the question because then you’re asking for trouble,” says Matos, a native of the Dominican Republic, who recently joined the paper’s community advisory board. “I think opening the curtains and letting the sun in is the way to do things.”

Civic journalism, Lawrence-style

The two Eagle-Tribune series broke free from the pace of the daily news cycle in a manner common to civic journalism projects. “We’ve been so busy covering the news, we’ve missed the story,” says the Pew Center’s Schaffer. Of course, that assessment depends on who’s defining “the story.” Proponents of civic journalism often use an expansive definition indeed, not only probing deeply into problems, but also stoking the fires of citizen action to address them.

Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor and a leading civic journalism guru, says the approach is driven by reporters and editors who “want public life to work.” To do so, he wrote in a 1994 manifesto, “they are willing to declare an end to their neutrality on certain questions–for example: whether people participate, whether a genuine debate takes place when needed, whether a community comes to grips with its problems.”

Civic journalism has its critics, including top editors at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other pillars of the media elite. They say it’s a mistake for reporters to step out of the traditional role of detached observer, and that news organizations run the risk of seeing things as they would like them to be rather than as they are–or avoiding tough stories that might undermine their civic renewal goals.

“You can go too far,” Lambert acknowledges, drawing a distinction between what he’s tried to do at the Eagle-Tribune and simple “boosterism” or”cheerleading.” But he makes no apologies for discarding the veil of neutrality. “I don’t think simply going over to the police station and reporting the cop log changes the world a whole lot,” he says. “A lot of us got into this business because we were idealists and we wanted to change the world somehow.”

Meanwhile, Rogers is getting notice for his efforts to effect change. Three years ago, he agreed to serve as co-chairman, together with Lowell Sun publisher Kendall Wallace, of the Merrimack Valley Economic Development Council, a new initiative aimed at cultivating regional cooperation on economic development. Calling himself a “results-oriented person,” Rogers says he stepped forward because he sees people “coming to the table that want to get some things done.”

One of those things he’d like to get done is a revival of the mill buildings in the “Gateway” area of Lawrence, just off I-495. The Gateway area is one focus of the Merrimack Valley group, and efforts to jump-start redevelopment there have received considerable play in the Eagle-Tribune‘s news and editorial pages. But Rogers doesn’t back down from the idea of trying to bring change to the region, and he turns on its head the idea that such an outlook means the paper is “going soft.”

“I sometimes think we’re not tough enough in terms of looking at issues and demanding solutions,” says Rogers.

It’s that sort of convergence between a publisher’s civic priorities and his paper’s news coverage that made the Sun a powerful engine of Lowell’s renewal in the 1980s and ’90s. The Sun has been both praised for its goal-driven activism and criticized for overstepping the bounds of a newspaper. “I’m trying to play that role, but I’m trying to play it a little differently,” says Rogers. “We don’t have a blueprint for what’s going to lead Lawrence out of some of the difficulties that it’s experienced.”

“Rather than try to steer an agenda,” says Les Bernal, chairman of the Lawrence planning board, “I think they’ve set a bar for raised expectations.”

Rules of engagement

It was eight days before the November election and Steve Lambert knew he was in a bind. The paper had yet to issue an endorsement in the race for the open mayor’s seat, and after a spirited five-way preliminary election the field had narrowed to two candidates. City Councilor Michael Sullivan, the son of a longtime Lawrence family and the brother of state transportation secretary and former mayor Kevin Sullivan, was up against Isabel Melendez, a Puerto Rico native who has toiled as a community activist in the city for four decades and is the first Hispanic to make it to a mayoral final election. The candidates were standard-bearers of the two Lawrences that the Eagle-Tribune has been trying to bridge, but now the paper was going to have to choose between them.

“We’ve put a lot of effort into trying to bring those two sides together, and no matter what we do, we can’t win on an endorsement,” observed Lambert, who, along with managing editor Alan White and seven other senior editors, sits on the Eagle-Tribune editorial board. “And complicating it is that neither candidate is head and shoulders above the other. So trying to pick one over the other under the best of circumstances would be difficult. Throw in everything else here, and it’s going to be a challenge.”

On top of it all, the race cast an uncomfortable spotlight on the publisher’s office, where there was once again a Rogers family connection to a Lawrence official in the news. Chip Rogers’s brother, Steve, works as an attorney for candidate Sullivan’s brother, Kevin, in the state transportation office.

On the Sunday before the election, the paper endorsed Sullivan, saying his experience in government won out over Melendez’s inspired, but unfocused, campaign.

Chip Rogers insists the endorsement was not his call. “My voice was no greater than anyone else’s,” he says of the editorial board’s deliberations. Lambert backs his boss, saying that despite the reservations about both candidates he expressed earlier, the board concluded that Sullivan was the better choice, and did so unanimously. Rogers, he insists, “was not the guiding force in this one at all.”

On Election Day, Sullivan prevailed by just under 1,000 votes, garnering 6,696 votes to Melendez’s 5,739. At City Hall that night, where Lawrence candidates traditionally gather to hear election results, Sullivan sought out Melendez and the two embraced, a show of fellowship they repeated two days later at Sullivan’s swearing-in. It was also something of a reprise of Sullivan’s performance at a mayoral debate a week before the election, co-sponsored by the Eagle-Tribune, where he wove several bridge-building references into his answers.

Whether this son of old-time Lawrence politics will truly help City Hall shed some of its old-time ways is unclear. His posture, however, surely augurs better for racial harmony than his brother’s campaign for mayor 16 years earlier, which rode to victory on the slogan, “Give the city back to the people who built it.”

“I’m very proud of the fact that ‘building bridges’ has become part of the vernacular in Lawrence,” says Lambert.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Still, it will take more than let’s-all-be-friends rhetoric to reverse Lawrence’s long slide. A master planning process that the city started after the “Unrealized Assets” series floundered under the previous mayor, Patricia Dowling. The city–and the newspaper–still has high hopes for reviving the Gateway area, but with the economy on the skids and various property owners in the area still not on the same page, Lambert calls the project “a tug of war.” Even the tournament-quality Little League diamond–which the paper has promoted as a “natural bridge builder” among various Lawrence neighborhoods and with surrounding towns–remains, at this point, a field of dreams.

But there are limits to how much impact a newspaper can–or perhaps should–have in shaping the community it covers. “Our job is not to build Lawrence,” says managing editor White. “It’s to help provide tools so it can build itself. We can, we hope, make people look at the city in a different way.”