Starr power at the Springfield UnionNews
For a bunch of upstarts taking on the mayor, Springfield resident Karen Powell and her group, the Citizens Action Network (CANE), haven’t done too badly. They had already stopped a needle-exchange program in the city when they found a new cause: Mayor Michael J. Albano’s plan to build a $21.3 million minor-league baseball stadium downtown.
Powell wasn’t opposed to a stadium. But she was troubled by the location: land occupied by a machine shop that employed 65 people and a strip mall called Northgate Plaza. And she didn’t like Albano’s plan to take the properties by eminent domain. “We looked at it and said, this isn’t right,” Powell says. “[You] don’t take a plaza that serves this community, use it for your own purposes, and charge it to us.”
The city’s only daily newspaper, the 177-year-old Union-News, saw things differently–much differently. In editorials, the paper trumpeted the project’s value in boosting the region’s quality of life and the “new beginning” it would offer the city’s downtown: “A vote for the ballpark is a vote for progress, for continued revitalization.”
The case, which included landowner lawsuits against the city, ended up in court. Last February, Hampden County Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney agreed with CANE. In her 89-page decision, Sweeney ruled the land taking was an invalid use of eminent domain, noting that the properties were not taken for a “public purpose.” And she scolded Albano for misrepresenting the property as blighted in his effort to get state funding for a private project. “Baseball became the all-consuming goal,” Sweeney wrote, “and the propriety of public funding to obtain that goal became, at best, secondary.”
The ruling was an embarrassment for Albano. And it was a vindication for CANE, which reveled in tweaking local pols over the course of the debate. (The group ran Powell’s dog Simon for mayor against Albano; the pooch got 600 votes.)
But Powell says she also learned a potent lesson in Springfield politics: When you take on city hall, you may also be taking on the Union-News. “Television, radio, and The Valley Advocate [a weekly newspaper covering the region] treated us fairly, and showed both sides of the issue,” she says. “But the main paper in the city…can get very nasty, and in some ways, that’s their way of saying, ‘We’re the press and we run the city.'”
“We took a position on the stadium, so of course they’ll claim we were biased,” replies David Starr, former publisher of the Union-News and still president of its corporate parent, Springfield Newspapers. “We take stands and people who take the other side don’t like us. What are you going to do, duck taking a stand because people aren’t going to like you?”
But critics say that when the paper takes a swing, it’s they who need to duck. “As Sweeney’s decision makes clear, the whole thing was a house of cards,” says City Councilor Timothy Ryan, one of three councilors who opposed the project. “And yet the paper was critical of any attempt to look at the structure of the financing. It was downtown insiders using city power for the benefit of downtown insiders.”
Big-city newspapers are often big players in city politics, and when they take stands, they make somebody angry. But there is also a persistent sense in this city of 157,000 that the Union-News is less a watchdog of the local powers-that-be than a member of the club. Especially when it comes to downtown development, critics say, aggressive boosterism on the editorial page and uncritical coverage on the front page of the city’s paper of record combine to stifle public debate rather than stimulate it.
“What makes [Springfield] so interesting and unique is that you have the strongest political establishment anyone could devise,” says former mayor Robert Markel. “It is the government and the city’s only newspaper [that are] in charge, so what would normally be the critic and the adversary is not. The critic is the dominant player, so you have silenced any real criticism. A lot of really dumb things and bad decisions don’t get reviewed.”
A Valley Apart
The news stories run the gamut as well. In Holyoke, violence and alleged police corruption are pressing problems. But not far away, in Longmeadow, 100 neighbors of a young family last summer called town officials to complain about a swing set that violated the town’s famously retentive bylaws. In Ashfield, the big story a while back was a fight with the state over whether the town could use locally quarried stone on its new sidewalks, in keeping with its “rural character.” Twenty miles east, in gritty Turners Falls, there are worries about drug-dealing.
What these stories have in common is that you didn’t see them in The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, or on Newscenter 5. The valley exists largely outside the Boston media orbit, and the valley generally returns the favor. Free-associate the word “Heather” inside of Route I-495 and people think “Kahn”; out here, they think “Locklear.”
Some argue that the media out here are smaller, too–folksier than around Boston, and a bit less aggressive with public officials, who may be neighbors of the newshounds. This isn’t always a bad thing. Your child will probably get her picture in the paper without breaking the law. And, even in the smallest towns, there’s usually a correspondent covering selectmen and school committee goings-on.
Sometimes the region’s small-market feel can be amusing: Where else in the state could a young newscaster mispronounce University of Massachusetts (and former state Senate) President William Bulger’s last name? (Hint: It’s not a homonym for cracked wheat.) And it’s sometimes endearing: At a time when newsreaders seem to age out at 35, NBC affiliate WWLP (Channel 22) was home to weatherman John Quill until his retirement last August–on his 84th birthday. Occasionally, it’s a bit embarrassing: When John McCain took a campaign swing through western Massachusetts, several reporters asked the presidential hopeful for his autograph.
But the media scene here is rich with tradition and surprisingly competitive. The daily papers are among the nation’s oldest. The Union-News was founded as The Republican by Samuel Bowles in 1824. The Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton was started in 1786, while The Recorder in Greenfield began its life as The Impartial Intelligencer in 1792 (back when they really knew how to name papers). Today, the Union-News and the Gazette boast two of the better newspaper Web sites in the state.
A Valley Voice Signs Off
The preoccupation with the Union-News is a function not only of the newspaper’s alleged
lapses but of the shortage of other public voices in the Pioneer Valley, particularly in Springfield. That situation recently took a turn for the worse.
Until a year ago, talk show host Dan Yorke served as a watchdog of sorts, on the city and its newspaper. A New Jersey native, Yorke, 39, came to Springfield in the mid-’80s, hosting a radio talk show the entire time he was in the valley. From 1991 to 1997, he was on late-night television as well.
Listeners loved Yorke or hated him. And even some who liked the show cringed at the outer limits of his humor, such as his riff portraying Hillary Clinton as a lesbian. But for months, Yorke hammered the city’s stadium plan on his WNNZ-FM morning drive-time show. In Hampden County Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney’s ruling against the ballpark, he found vindication for his lone-voice-in-the-wilderness questioning: “I literally felt like I wrote the decision.”
And it’s not just on the ballpark issue that Springfield needs people asking questions, he says. “I don’t want to be characterized as someone who’s picking on the old neighborhood, because I really miss it terribly,” says Yorke, who’s now at WPRO-FM in Providence, RI. “It’s a great place to live, but not a great place to see public policy get debated.” Now aired in his place is the nationally syndicated Don Imus.
“It’s a loss. There’s local talk, but it’s not Dan Yorke,” says Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers magazine, a Springfield-based trade publication. “He acted as a watchdog for government and other media…. He knew the area, was part of the area, and had done it for years. Not everyone agreed with what he did, but the big picture is he left a vacuum in that there’s not Dan Yorke commenting on what the politicians do, what the paper does, what big business does.”
With a circulation of 139,000 on Sunday and 93,000 on weekdays, the Union-News and Sunday Republican, as the Sunday edition is called, is the largest paper in the region, and the biggest west of Worcester. Springfield is also home to two television stations: WWLP (Channel 22) and WGGB (Channel 40), the ABC affiliate. FM radio stations WHYN and WNNZ offer news and talk radio, mostly syndicated. In the upper valley, the Gazette covers Hampshire County while The Recorder, based 15 miles north, does the job in Franklin County. Weeklies include The Holyoke Sun, started five years ago by a Berkshire County publisher, and The Valley Advocate, which began its life 30 years ago as a countercultural weekly in Amherst.
It’s a challenge covering an area as wide and disparate as the valley, but the Union-News is game. The paper puts out several zoned editions each day, going head-to-head with dailies in Northampton and Greenfield. The paper does a decent job of covering local news, and it has a State House reporter keeping tabs on western Massachusetts issues that get short shrift in the Boston media. It’s when it comes to Springfield, which the Union-News has largely to itself, that critics say there’s a problem. Then they mention David Starr.
The Union-News was purchased by the Newhouse family in 1960. In 1977, Starr came to Springfield, bringing with him the philosophy of what he calls an “activist publisher.” He landed in a city with a history of political wrangling between Protestants and Catholics, Irish and Italians, says UMass-Amherst sociologist Nicholas Jay Demerath, co-author of A Bridging of Faiths, a 1992 book about the city’s religious and ethnic politics. Starr “was genuinely interested in rebuilding Springfield and he wanted to be a prime mover in it,” Demerath says. “And he was effective at it.” Though he has turned over day-to-day operations of the paper to publisher Larry McDermott and executive editor Wayne Phaneuf, Starr, at age 78, is still a force in the newspaper, and remains as involved as ever in the city’s civic and cultural life.
Like many other small American cities that have seen better days, Springfield is also a place that could use an economic boost, and its political tectonics do the most shifting in efforts to bring The Big Project downtown. The baseball stadium was just the latest incarnation.
Indeed, the stadium debate featured echoes of the mid1990s, when the paper supported casino gambling for Springfield and opponents complained of biased coverage (though in that case the ultimate decision was made by the state). Voters rejected gambling in a 1994 referendum, but proponents didn’t give up. Former mayor Charlie Ryan even launched a comeback mayoral bid in 1995, vowing to stop a casino, but lost to Albano. A second referendum voting down gambling finally put the nail in that coffin.
The stadium battle was equally hard-fought–and the Union-News editorials just as pointed, even personal, with opponents castigated as “obstructionists” and “naysayers.”
“I felt a little like I was in the battle between the Montagues and the Capulets,” says stadium opponent Todd Crosset, a UMass-Amherst sports studies professor who lives in Springfield.
There may be something to that. Charlie Ryan, who was once friends with Starr, represented CANE in its case against the city, pro bono. His son, the city councilor, got slammed in a September 1, 1999, editorial: “It is obvious that [Timothy] Ryan cannot stomach any success by Mayor Michael J. Albano because Albano defeated his father, Charles V. Ryan, when the latter attempted a comeback to the city’s highest office.”
Some say the paper’s enthusiasm for downtown projects is just small-city boosterism. The darker theory is that the paper’s positions stem from its real estate interests, namely its downtown headquarters. McDermott denied those claims in an editorial, and Starr says the paper had nothing to gain financially in the deal. The stadium, he says, “would have been nothing more than a nuisance to us.”
Tim Ryan may be closer to the truth when he says that what motivates the paper’s positions is Starr’s “love of the game”–and he doesn’t mean baseball. Markel, the former mayor–who met with Starr weekly for years until the two had a falling out–is more pointed. Starr, he says, wants to run the city without running for office.
Some of those who work for Starr say his power-mongering reputation is overblown, one staffer even comparing him to the Wizard of Oz–mythically omnipotent but in reality just an unimposing man behind the curtain. Starr, who calls himself “an unabashed do-gooder,” says he is amused at the more prevalent characterization of him as Springfield’s Darth Vader. But he makes no bones about being a player. “It’s a proper function of a publisher to be involved,” he says. “Sure, we are a part of the establishment. Name a paper that’s not part of the establishment. That’s our job.”
All the news that’s fit to print?
But while Starr writes off the criticism as whiny opposition to the paper’s editorial positions, it’s the perceived bias in news coverage that really riles some readers–and anyone bucking the city’s entrenched political establishment. That charge frustrates executive editor Phaneuf.
“People who think he runs the news operation here and tells us what to run, that’s just not true, and it’s never been true,” says Phaneuf of Starr. “It comes from people who don’t like him and are jealous of what he’s done.”
And not even the paper’s critics say that every stadium story was grossly slanted. Some disinterested observers go so far as to say that, as an underdog, CANE received as good coverage as it could expect.
“I thought it was balanced; it was balanced enough to have [the project] go down,” says Edwin Abar, professor of communications at Westfield State College. “The lead [of any particular story] might not have been as anti-stadium as it could be, but if you read the whole story, you got both points of view, although I think the proponents had better access and usually got their point out first.”
Indeed, even the critics don’t blame the reporters who covered the issue; Powell says they were good people who did a good job. And a scan of the paper in the months before the land-taking shows stories that dutifully reported the arguments of both opponents and proponents.
What’s lacking in this coverage, however, was much in the way of independent analysis of those arguments. An introduction to a Sunday spread frames the stadium issue not in terms of its viability, but more like a wrestling match between the mayor and those who would thwart him. Here’s part of the front-page teaser: “It ain’t over till it’s over, but some are already predicting victory. Albano has been taking a crack at baseball for seven years, but opponents like Robert and Karen Powell and City Councilor William Foley are balking.” The package itself included a chart of pros and cons, and a long piece about a successful minor league team in St. Paul, Minn. A story about a failing team in Lynn didn’t appear until two weeks later, on a weekday.
Also absent before the city council vote were the issues that Sweeney ultimately ruled on: whether a ballpark was an appropriate use of eminent domain, and whether the site fit the requirements of the state grant money being counted on to finance it. And on the purported economic impact of the proposed stadium, the paper had an expert in its own backyard that remained untapped: Smith College sports economist Andrew Zimbalist. Zimbalist says there hasn’t been a stadium built anywhere in the country over the past decade about which he hasn’t been interviewed. But not a single call came from the Union-News. Even when he spoke against the project at a forum, his comments got short shrift in the resulting story, he complains.
These are journalistic sins of omission, rather than commission. But they feed the impression that the Union-News does not always fulfill what most consider a newspaper’s main mission: holding public decisions up to scrutiny. Stories that could have raised legitimate questions about the project–its financing scheme, its claimed benefits for the city, even its very legality–simply did not get done.
“The Union-News has a history of strongly supporting any downtown development project, with David Starr often directly involved in the shaping of those projects,” says Stephen J. Simurda, a former Union-News reporter who teaches media criticism at UMass-Amherst. “As a result, the paper doesn’t effectively play the role of watchdog, asking tough questions and looking carefully into all the details that make up a complex project.”
Phaneuf, who grew up in Springfield and started at the Union-News as a paper boy, says there’s a negativity about redevelopment in Springfield that makes some partisans dismiss even-handed coverage as whitewash.
“There was a lot of disinformation on the other side, and the more you tried to straighten it out, the more people criticized,” he said. “Our coverage was, I think, very fair. It’s not fun to be accused of these sort of things, but it goes with the territory of being the big guy.”
But being “the big guy” carries with it big responsibilities. Former reporter Simurda says the Springfield newspaper does the city no favor by not rigorously examining every project, including those it supports. “If the paper covered all sides of a development project with a skeptical eye, the city would ultimately end up with better economic development,” he says.
It’s not that the Union-News couldn’t do it. More than any other valley news source, the paper has the resources and the talent to dig into issues and take on the establishment. Some excellent reporters got their start at the Union-News, such as the Boston Herald’s Cosmo Macero Jr. and Ellen Silberman and The Wall Street Journal’s Dan Golden. Reporter Jack Flynn is currently showing what the paper can do with his coverage of questionable loans made by the mayor’s community development office to downtown businesses, including a loan to the 29-year-old son of reputed mobster Al Bruno.
Meanwhile, CANE’s victory illustrates that, in a city where ethnic politics is giving way to coalitions that come together over single issues, the newspaper’s power goes only so far. As Starr himself points out: “They won.”
Karen Powell and her husband, Robert, are on to a new issue: libraries. Why, she asks, aren’t the branches open full-time to the public?
In most communities, libraries are municipal entities, a ho-hum line item in the city budget that draws little public interest. In Springfield, they are run by the private, nonprofit board of the Library and Museums Association, funded with private donations and $7 million in public money. One board member: David Starr.There’s a suspicion that more money gets spent on the Quadrangle, the downtown collection of small museums, than on neighborhood libraries. So Powell is trying to get a look at the association’s accounting of its finances. “We’re not getting real far,” Powell says, “but we’re working on it.”
Contributing writer B.J. Roche teaches journalism at UMass-Amherst.