Wormtown News

To talk with anyone privy to or affected by the sale of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette to the New York Times Co., which also owns The Boston Globe, is to come away with the impression that the creation of this regional newspaper powerhouse is, in essence, a non-event. After all, the T&G already went through the wrenching adjustment to out-of-town ownership when the central Massachusetts newspaper was sold to owners of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1986. And in late January, just after the new deal was closed, Times Co. mucky-mucks, including chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., flew into Worcester to assure employees that their cherished hometown voice would not become a ventriloquist’s dummy for New York puppet masters nor morph into a far-west edition of The Boston Globe.

“Your newspaper will endorse those candidates you wish to endorse without telling me where you are headed,” Sulzberger told the staff in a Mechanics Hall meeting, as reported by the newspaper he now owns. “A lot is expected of us in a synergistic kind of way,” announced Richard Gilman, publisher of the Globe and a member of the Times Co. senior management team, “but we will achieve these expectations while remaining separate entities.” For now, at least, the “synergy” is expected to come primarily from combined advertising buys and economies of scale in production and distribution. Much to the relief of T&G staffers and Worcester community leaders–though not all are convinced–the new owners essentially pledged allegiance to the status quo.

That’s the good news. And in a time of increasing concentration of ownership in traditional media and consequent loss of journalistic voices, it’s good news, indeed. But it’s also the bad news.

At least so far, the new owners have expressed no intention of tapping their vast resources–not the Times Co.’s considerable wealth, nor the rich examples of its flagship publication, The New York Times, and its local subsidiary, The Boston Globe--to make its central Massachusetts acquisition into a more complete newspaper. And even as they promised not to impose a New Yorker’s idea of what Worcester news ought to be, the Times executives felt no compunction about telling the T&G that it could deliver its own version with fewer hands on deck. Before the deal was even finalized, the Times Co. ordered a reduction in force, essentially declaring the T&G, which shrank painfully in the 1989-’91 recession and never fully bounced back, overstaffed.

Which is not to say there is any shortage of news coverage in the city that goes by the affectionate, if unattractive (and virtually inexplicable), nickname of “Wormtown.” Even today, in terms of reporting the daily events of a small city and local news across a county that stretches from the Connecticut border to the New Hampshire line, the T&G rates as one of the better mid-market newspapers in the country. And the city is home to not one, but two alternative weekly newspapers that fight it out for stories neglected, thinly told, or gotten dead wrong by the mainstream daily.

As a result, Worcester is a lively and competitive media market in which readers are surprisingly well served. Surprisingly, because not long ago Worcester was the most monopolized news market in the state. Surprisingly, as well, because Worcester, with its aging population and downtown economy ever on the verge of comeback, would seem an unlikely battleground for an alternative-newspaper war (a war in which, for more than two years, I was a combatant). And surprisingly, because the gaps in each of the publications are so glaring.

That the three taken together provide a chronicle of Worcester events that is both aggressive on breaking news and rich in background, perspective, and character is testament to the value of competition in the media marketplace. At the same time, that it takes three newspapers–two of them financially marginal and reaching a fraction of the readers of the dominant daily–to provide anything close to definitive coverage of the second largest city in New England is sad and troubling. There appears to be no commitment, nor even appetite, to give Worcester readers top-flight state, regional, and local news–including breaking events, investigative reporting, and Big Picture perspective–in a single package. Even ownership of the hometown daily by the most prestigious news organization in the country seems unlikely to change that.

Trial by fire

On December 3, the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co., a mothballed structure just outside downtown, burned to the ground, taking the lives of six firefighters. The inferno was not only the deadliest disaster to hit Worcester since a tornado ripped through the city in the 1950s, it was also an example of breathtaking heroism performed without hesitation in the line of public duty. That these civil servants lost their lives in an attempt to save homeless squatters who, it turns out, accidentally caused the fire–and who had already safely escaped–elevated the tragedy to almost Greek proportions.

The fatal fire was also the Telegram & Gazette‘s finest hour. For nine days, the newspaper gave the story exhaustive treatment, with up to 70 staffers–reporters, photographers, editors, columnists, editorial interns–dedicated to covering every angle. Between the search for bodies and the search for answers, events broke daily. But there were personal stories to tell, as well. There were moving profiles of the fallen men. And in a place that is as much big small town as small big city, the stories of people touched by the tragedy spread throughout the community. The T&G tracked them all down. Among the most poignant was James Dempsey’s column on the diner owner who told the fire team about the squatters, and whose conscience now aches with the knowledge that his information sent the firefighters to their deaths.

As the city mourned, with President Clinton arriving to share its grief, the T&G as homegrown, if no longer locally owned, institution joined in unreservedly. One memorial edition arrived on doorsteps with small palm fronds attached. And the newspaper was quick to establish, through the local Flagship Bank, a fund to benefit families of the fallen firefighters that has raised more than $6.1 million.

In the wake of this Herculean effort came the news from New York: Staffing at the T&G would be reduced by at least 30 people out of roughly 500. The Times Co. offered a generous buy-out package (up to a year’s salary) to employees age 57 and older; 35 accepted the deal, including a dozen editorial staffers. The rationale for the reduction was stark and officious, reflecting a bean-counter’s analysis. By the standard of the 22 regional newspapers owned by the Times Co., the T&G was bloated.

“The Times Co. operates a very similar newspaper in Sarasota, [Florida]–same circulation, same advertising support, same zoning [daily “zoned” local news sections]–and does so with somewhat fewer people,” explains Gilman, who has added president of the new Worcester subsidiary to his list of Times Co. titles. “Based on that kind of experience, we believe that the T&G can do this as well.”

As deflating as it was, the move shocked no one at the T&G . Many employees figured that the bloodletting would have been worse under other bidders–William Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group and Fidelity Investments’ Community Newspaper Co., which recently cut back operations, including staff at its flagship paper, The MetroWest Daily News. “I can’t say it was welcome news,” says publisher Bruce Bennett, a longtime T&G hand who, by all indications, will continue to manage the Worcester paper locally. “But did it surprise me? Probably not. Everything sells because the new owner thinks he can do better.”

“The Times Co. is very much aware of the bottom line,” says editor Harry Whitin. “They paid a lot of money for this newspaper”–$295 million, to be exact. But the staff cuts will have an effect, he says. “It means we have to rethink some of the things we do, and find ways to do them that are more efficient.”

“The Times Co. is very much aware of the bottom line…We have to rethink some of the things we do.”

What the T&G does now is very much shaped by its own long history. What it fails to do is a function of the same, resulting in a news culture that has deep local roots but is also inbred and unambitious. The T&G‘s limits provide lots of editorial running room–though a good deal less room for generating advertising support–for Worcester Magazine and The Worcester Phoenix, the alternative weeklies that operate in its shadow.

Making a media monopoly

As separate newspapers, the Worcester Telegram and Evening Gazette go back well into the 1800s, but their domination of the central Massachusetts news market dates from the 1920s. The papers came under common ownership in 1920, when inventor and former pressman T.T. Ellis bought the two in rapid succession. In 1925, Ellis sold the pair to George Booth, a former Telegram editor, and Harry Stoddard. Also part of the sale was a radio station Ellis had bought earlier that year. WTAG, which broadcast from the newspapers’ Franklin Street offices, became the electronic news leader of a media market that never did include television (some say, thanks to the maneuvers of Stoddard and Booth). When the T&G’s owners bought out the failing Worcester Evening Post in 1938, the local monopoly was complete.

The Stoddard-Booth ownership also cemented the newspaper’s ties to the local industrial elite. Stoddard was president of Wyman-Gordon Co., manufacturer of industrial forgings and castings and a large local employer. Robert Stoddard, who succeeded his father at both Wyman-Gordon and Worcester Telegram Publishing Co., was a founding member of the right-wing John Birch Society. How much Stoddard’s politics affected the news coverage and editorial commentary of the newspapers is the stuff of legend–and local debate. But the editorial stance of the Telegram and the Gazette remained distinctly conservative, Republican, and pro-business in a way that rankled this city of lunch-bucket Democrats throughout the Stoddard-Booth era–and ever since. “The T&G has always been the newspaper you love to hate,” says former mayor Jordan Levy, a die-hard Democrat.

That era came to an end in 1986, when the owning families cashed out, selling the properties to Chronicle Publishing Co., family-owned publishers of the San Francisco Chronicle, which in turn sold off WTAG. Though Chronicle Publishing invested in a huge new printing plant in nearby Millbury, the realities of outside ownership began to be felt in 1989, when the two editions were merged into one, resulting in the Telegram & Gazette.

The move was inevitable, given the demise of afternoon newspapers across the country and the economically indefensible duplication of staff within the same building. But it came at the cost of the last vestiges of competition in daily reporting. The intramural rivalry for stories between reporters who shared the same desks had been collegial, but real.

But it was the recession that really knocked the stuffing out of the T&G. In 1991, with advertising revenue down for the second year in a row, the company cut bonuses for executives and editors and forced other employees to take unpaid one-week furloughs. Then, later in the year, 33 employees were laid off, out of a staff of 527–the first layoffs in memory. The new sense of insecurity inspired a union drive, resulting in a vote for representation by the Newspaper Guild in 1993.

Though the T&G has since rebounded financially–which explains last summer’s bidding war–the Depression mindset has never dissipated. Management did invest in a Web site (eWorcester.com), but new newsroom hires have been exclusively part time, at lower pay and benefits. And six years of negotiation have yet to result in a contract with the union.

“I had to lay off 33 people in 1991. I never wanted to go through that again,” says Bennett, the publisher. “So I’ve tried to run this operation in a way that’s spare, even Calvinist.” But none of that parsimony spared the T&G from another round of cutbacks under its new owners.

Warring weeklies

These two key events in T&G history–the 1986 sale and the 1989-’91 recession–also, however inadvertently, set off Worcester’s alternative-newspaper wars. The recession drove an existing, but moribund alternative weekly onto the auction block. And sale of the city’s mainstream daily let loose a frustrated heir to the Telegram legacy–and fortune–who was anxious to get back into the newspaper game.

Founded in 1976 and named after an early 19th-century publication, Worcester Magazine started out, like most alternative papers of that vintage, as a shoestring operation that specialized in muckraking and anti-establishment attitude. But it had been in decline, financially and journalistically, for several years when the owner put the weekly up for sale in 1992.

The failing publication attracted two buyers. One was Allen W. Fletcher, prodigal son of the Booth clan. As a young man, Fletcher had fled the stifling atmosphere of his hometown and his place in its conservative industrial aristocracy. He joined the Peace Corps–two years in West Africa–and studied architecture at Berkeley. When he returned to Worcester in the 1980s, he started out in the family business as a reporter covering the northern reaches of the county, fully expecting to become publisher some day. But Fletcher was left without a dynasty to rise in when other members of the Telegram owning families opted to cash out. Fletcher was devastated. “It was a major personal trauma to me,” he says. But Fletcher dusted himself off and got back into the publishing business, taking over the bankrupt Worcester Business Journal and making it enough of a success to launch a sister publication in Hartford.

Worcester Magazine‘s other suitor was Stephen Mindich, owner of The Boston Phoenix. Mindich had taken over The NewPaper, in Providence, RI, and was eager to extend his reach to the west.

“Ultimately, there was a bidding war, and we won,” says Fletcher, who launched his retooled Worcester Magazine in January 1993. But that didn’t stop the Phoenix, which launched its own Worcester edition three months later.

Although both are tabloids given away for free, the two alternative weeklies took business and editorial approaches so different that it has always been hard to consider them in the same category. Fletcher poured money into local talent. He hired away two marquee names from the T&G--man-on-the-street reporter Paul Della Valle and entertainment columnist Walter Crockett–to become the paper’s editors and put two full-time reporters on staff. Fletcher himself retained the title of executive editor and wrote weekly editorials of (for Worcester) an astonishingly liberal nature, endorsing the legalization of marijuana and a graduated state income tax, among other causes.

With Crockett and Della Valle each writing weekly columns, along with longtime political columnist Ken Moynihan, the new Worcester Magazine was rich with local stories, commentary, letters, and political gossip. But the weekly never tied Worcester issues to larger trends and events, eschewing even statewide politics. (Columnist Lou DiNatale, the University of Massachusetts pollster who cut his teeth in Worcester County politics, was dropped after about a year after he kept writing about state politics instead of the Worcester City Council.)

Though hard hitting in some of its cover stories, Worcester Magazine was also sensitive about giving offense. A 1994 Della Valle column on a locally authored book drew complaints from auto dealers for its headline–FORMER (OCCASIONAL) SCUM-SUCKING CAR SALESMAN FESSES UP–and a published statement of “regret” from the publisher, Peter Stanton. And the paper’s brilliant photographer, Patrick O’Connor, was abject in apology to the police chief’s complaint about a light-hearted photo of two cruisers parked outside a doughnut shop, captioned “Headquarters.”

“I believed that … you and the department would view the picture as innocent ribbing by a friend. I was wrong,” O’Connor groveled. “To yourself and the members of your department, I extend my apologies.”

And for a paper that presented itself as an alternative to the T&G, Fletcher’s Worcester Magazine betrayed an abiding affection for the old plantation. The daily’s retirees contributed frequently to the weekly, with former editor-in-chief Ken Botty writing a regular column and former editorial writer Al Southwick submitting features. Worcester Magazine rarely challenged the T&G on fact or interpretation of any story. And even though the personal ties to T&G reporters were closer than ever, there was less newsroom scuttlebutt leaked in the new Worcester Magazine than the old one.

Alternate alternative

In contrast, The Worcester Phoenix brought to town a spare, three-person editorial staff of outsiders–including me, as news editor, until 1995–who had earned their spurs in the Phoenix organization rather than Worcester. Managing editor Clif Garboden was a Phoenix mainstay and I had just finished up a stint as acting news editor of the Providence edition. The Phoenix‘s first–and still only–Worcester-bred editorial staffer was listings coordinator Brian Goslow, who joined two years later. The staffing, modeled on Providence, was skeletal but sustainable in a market that is thin for youth-oriented advertising (though the news editor slot was kept open for most of 1996 to save money). And it was a sufficient, if barely so, editorial infrastructure for a publication that emphasized authoritative local listings, close coverage (by freelance contributors) of a local arts and music scene starving for attention, and a generous offering of The Boston Phoenix‘s trademark arts-and- entertainment criticism and coverage of State House and national politics.

For The Worcester Phoenix, local news, then and now, consisted of in-depth stories on politics and local subjects that were edgier than Worcester Magazine‘s and more likely to resonate with statewide and national issues. “It’s almost an embarrassment of riches,” says Melissa Houston, a veteran of Community Newspaper Co.’s Tab newspapers who took over as news editor in 1995, then succeeded Garboden as managing editor. “We’re a little bit outsiders, which turned out to be a good thing. We write stories people here would never dare to write.”

Among those stories have been a trademark Phoenix free-speech crusade on behalf of a shock-rock band whose presence on the bill had city officials threatening to shut down an outdoor concert last summer and a startling (for Worcester) piece on a small-town firefighter’s sex-change operation. And then there’s city politics. While Worcester Magazine‘s “Worcesteria” column is the better source of insider gossip on a weekly basis, it was Phoenix news editor Kristen Lombardi who weighed in the day after last fall’s municipal election with a hard-hitting piece on Mayor Ray Mariano’s rising chorus of critics.

“The talk that we’re just a Boston spinoff, we don’t get that any more,” Houston contends. But the Phoenix still has difficulty maintaining a consistent local news presence, with some editions lacking a single local story. (Phoenix editors chafe at that charge, given the consistent attention paid to local arts and entertainment.) Local observers were dumbfounded that the Phoenix wrote not a word about the Worcester Cold Storage fire, except in its year-end look-back.

Even after six years, the Phoenix can still be tin-eared when it comes to local interests–and sensibilities. With no local news story, the issue of January 21 featured Boston’s GROW JOBS penile-enlargement piece (sure to get their attention on Salisbury Street) and a review of the Ansel Adams show at the Portland (Maine) Art Museum–evidence of the Phoenix‘s new Portland edition. (At least The Worcester Phoenix had the good sense not to use Boston’s banana-and-ruler HOW BIG IS BIG ENOUGH? cover in Worcester, leading instead with the Boston edition’s fine profile of Jane Swift–by then a resident of nearby Northbridge–in the wake of her babysitting woes.)

Still, the distinction between the two alternatives is, in some ways, blurring. At Worcester Magazine, homegrown editors Della Valle and Crockett eventually chafed under Fletcher’s rule and the financial realities of weekly newspapers and took off. The current editor has solid professional credentials but no local roots; he, too, will be departing this summer, after a two-year tour of duty. And last year, Moynihan took his political column to the T&G‘s op-ed page. “Overall, we’re very good,” says Fletcher, 52. “But there’s been somewhat of an erosion of the local flavor, that born-and-bred love of Worcester leaching out of every word.”

There’s no question that Worcester would be the poorer for losing either one of these repositories of narrative storytelling. The miracle is that both survive. Each one doubts it about the other, but Worcester Magazine and the Worcester Phoenix both claim to be profitable (though barely). WoMag has Fletcher’s hometown commitment and deep pockets to guarantee its longevity, while the Worcester Phoenix has its place in a growing Phoenix empire to justify its existence. And now, with the T&G in the hands of a wealthy new owner that sees it as part of a regional “clustering” strategy, Worcester is likely to enjoy the luxury of three-newspaper attention for a long time to come.

“Six or seven years ago, I might have said that’s not possible,” says Peter Kadzis, editor of The Boston Phoenix. “But today, in this age of niche publications, it appears the community is able to support all three.”

More of the same

But niche publications are what they will likely remain, with the journalistic virtues of each consumed separately, if not by separate readers. The T&G remains Worcester’s paper of record. With its daily circulation of 106,748 (and 133,170 on Sunday, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations), the T&G defines the news for the central Massachusetts area. Worcester Magazine and the Phoenix each pass out 40,000 copies weekly, but with little overlap in readership.

There has been little cross-fertilization among the three publications, in either staff or news culture. Unlike Boston, where a steady stream of former Phoenix staffers has taken a bit of alternative journalism to the Globe and Boston Herald, few Worcester Magazine alumni ever got picked up by the T&G in 24 years of publishing. For its part, the T&G rarely–Harry Whitin says about twice a year–leavens its relentlessly daily coverage with a multi-part series on a civic issue or a big takeout on a lifestyle trend.

Former mayor Jordan Levy is one who laments the lack of in-depth coverage in his hometown daily. “We’ve got stories to be told,” he says. “We have a political base here that’s rich…. It would be nice to see something more than the Wednesday-morning pickup of the city council meeting.”

“It would be nice to see something more than the Wednesday-morning pickup of the city council meeting.”

Among T&G staffers, there’s appeal in the alternatives’ long-form writing and analysis, but little opportunity to practice it. Kathleen Shaw, a 35-year veteran of the T&G and leader of the union, acknowledges the alternatives have done a lot more in-depth reporting. “Every Wednesday, when they come out, they’re all over the newsroom,” she says. “I’d read the Phoenix, read the WoMag, and wish we could do that. We’ve got some tremendously talented people up there. It’s not for lack of ability. It’s lack of manpower.”

Meet the Author

Whitin says he doesn’t spend much time thinking about what he would do with more manpower. But asked to indulge that fantasy, he says, “I would probably have a small but stable investigative team, and a rover, someone who could cover some of the big stories around New England instead of relying on the wire services.” But mostly, he’d do more of what he does now. “I could never have enough local news reporters. There are never enough news gatherers.”

Not if that’s the be-all and end-all of the newspaper. And that’s where the Times Co.’s hands-off declarations are less than reassuring. The T&G could use the variety in reporting and storytelling–not just daily news items but background pieces that put events in perspective, profiles of key figures in the news, and sustained investigations of civic problems–that’s standard fare in The New York Times and The Boston Globe. In Worcester, it seems, that’s bound to remain the exclusive province of small-circulation alternative papers.