How the iEaglei editor flew the coop

INTRO TEXT

When Steve Lambert swooped into Lawrence as editor of The Eagle-Tribune, the mild-mannered newsman made some big moves to change the tenor and focus of the scrappy daily, which had earned praise over the years for its hard-hitting reporting but also scorn for a slash-and-burn style that some say only compounded the city’s already considerable woes (“Eagle eye,” CW, Winter 2002). But just three years after landing at the Eagle-Tribune, Lambert has flown the coop, leaving town in February to become editor of a larger-circulation paper, The Sun in San Bernardino, Calif. The question lingering in Lawrence is whether the new attitude he brought to the news has taken off with him.

Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood: With Lambert gone,
will focus on city issues continue or fade?

A proponent of “civic journalism”–an approach that calls for news organizations to not just expose community problems but try to fix them–Lambert cooked up two ambitious 10-part series, one on race relations, the other on “Unrealized Assets” that could revive the hard-luck mill town. He also launched a weekly Spanish-language supplement targeting the city’s burgeoning Hispanic population and established a community advisory board to solicit reader feedback.

Eagle-Tribune publisher Irving “Chip” Rogers III, who hired Lambert shortly after taking the reins of the family-owned paper when his father died in 1998, was said to be miffed over Lambert’s abrupt departure. Rogers brushes off such talk but does say, “I thought he was going to be here for a longer period of time.” Rogers also downplays the impact of his handpicked editor’s departure. “I don’t think you’ll see any change in terms of this paper’s commitment to all of our communities,” he says.

But change is already in the air. Rogers has pulled the plug on El Puente, the Spanish-language supplement. “New products” have to either “grow ad revenue or grow circulation, and we didn’t accomplish either goal with El Puente,” says Rogers. “The fact that El Puente could not sustain itself should not be taken as an indication of lack of interest in the city of Lawrence, because that’s not the case.”

Still, that’s exactly how it’s being taken by some. “I can tell you that they’re really reconsidering their stance on Lawrence right now,” says one Eagle-Tribune reporter, who declined to be named. “I think they’re trying to figure out where their circulation lies and where their future lies, and I don’t think it’s pointing to Lawrence.”

And when Rogers looks to fill the editor’s post, it seems unlikely that a civic-journalism mindset will figure prominently in the casting call. The paper weathered criticism- and some cancelled subscriptions- over its series on race relations, and Rogers sounds as if he’s cooled to civic-advocacy journalism. “It’s one thing to have an opinion about it,” he says of the issue-raising approach. “It’s another to have one once you’ve done it.”

At the moment, the editor search is on hold pending the outcome of the Rogers family’s bid to acquire three Essex County daily papers owned by Dow Jones & Co: The Salem Evening News, the Gloucester Daily Times, and The Daily News of Newburyport. These publications could give Rogers a media conglomerate that would dominate the Lawrence-to-Gloucester regional market- or pawns to be played in competition with The Boston Globe or Herald Media, which bought up Fidelity Investments’ Community Newspaper Co.’s suburban (including North Shore) newspapers last year.

Either way, the acquisition game is unlikely to sink the Eagle’s talons into the Lawrence market. Still, some fans of the paper’s brief Lambert-era tack remain hopeful that the changes in tone and coverage also reflect Rogers’s sensibilities as publisher. The 41-year-old scion of a family that has owned the Eagle-Tribune since 1868 has staked out a prominent community role in helping to resuscitate the local economy as co-chairman of the Merrimack Valley Economic Development Council.

Pedro Arce, a Lawrence school committee member who was instrumental in getting Lambert to dig into relations between Hispanics and whites, says he’s disappointed with the folding of El Puente. But he also understands the business dictates of the newspaper world, and praises Rogers for giving the supplement a try.

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.

“Give him credit for taking that risk,” says Arce, who nonetheless says he’s hoping to meet with Rogers to talk about where the paper is heading.

“There is some skepticism whether the Tribune can hold the course with Steve’s absence,” says state Sen. Sue Tucker (D-Andover). “But I believe there’s been a fundamental shift at the paper.” The proof, of course, will be in the pages.