Alan White, Editor in Chief of the Lawrence Eagle Tribune, passed away yesterday (January 19, 2017) at the age of 68. Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, mentor to many, Alan was my first full time editor and my introduction to what it meant to be a reporter many years ago.
He was a gentle man, a keen reporter, and a very elegant editor who didn’t need to raise his voice or affect gruff bluster to command respect and inspire good work. His passing, in these dark days of journalism when daily newspapers feel so marginalized and hanging on by the thinnest of threads when they are needed the most, comes as hard news, especially given his long run at the Eagle Tribune these past forty years.
In 1983 I joined the Eagle-Tribune through my friendship with Alan Rogers, a classmate and neighbor who’s family had founded the paper in the 19th century to serve the mill city of Lawrence on the Merrimack River close by the state line with New Hampshire. I had been a student stringer for the paper during high school, but with hopes of landing a real job with a real paper I moved east from San Francisco with my future wife, rented an apartment in Andover, and started work as a cub reporter on Alan White’s New Hampshire desk.
The Eagle-Tribune’s circulation was about 60,000 and it’s footprint covered Lawrence and Haverhill, the towns along the river, and up north into New Hampshire as far as Derry. The Eagle Tribune was an afternoon paper, an anachronism today, so our presses started running in the late morning with the goal of getting the paper on the subscriber’s doorsteps by the time they came from the mills.
I was assigned Salem, NH. That was a big beat for a new reporter because it was a bit of a wild boom town for Massachusetts residents who wanted to bet on the horses at Rockingham Park, buy beer on Sunday, ride the roller coaster at Canobie Lake or get a new refrigerator free from sales tax. My life consisted of driving around the town, checking in on the district court, the police department, the fire department, and, in the evening: attending meetings of the board of selectmen, the school committee or whatever civic group was holding an event worth a few column inches in the next day’s paper. Some days I would turn in three stories. Never did a day go by when I didn’t write something.
My first story was about a very dry and uneventful sewer bond hearing. I sat in the town hall meeting room, very confused by things like the open meeting law and executive sessions; occasionally amused by the cranks in the audience who took to the microphone to vent their theories or take jabs at the board members. I had a Canon AE-1 loaded with black and white film, a blue Bic pen, and a reporter’s notebook that had the exhortation: “Accuracy-Brevity-Clarity” on the cover.
I was helpless. My handwriting is unintelligible at best when I work at it, but a total waste of ink when I’m nervous and trying to transcribe what someone is saying. Worse of all: I didn’t know how the notebook actually worked and was very confused by how the damn thing was supposed to be used because I didn’t realize the spiral binding was meant to be at the top, and not the side like a notebook I used in school. So I taped the meeting on a microcassette recorder for back up, followed every boring word and motion and vote until it adjourned at 10 pm, then finally went back to the newsroom to sit down and write my first story.
I wrote. I listened to the tape. I puzzled over the notes. I wrote some more. Eventually, after hours of work I sent the story to Alan’s queue in the Hastech editing system and went home for some sleep; knowing I was expected back the next morning to answer questions and put the story to bed.
But the next morning all hell broke loose. A police captain was shot in his bed by his wife with about 30 minutes left before the presses were supposed to run. Delaying the presses meant all the delivery trucks would have to wait, the overtime for the union drivers would pile up, and there would be hell to pay. So, with lots of urgency, the ace reporter on staff went to work while other reporters worked the phones, others radioed in on walkie talkies from the scene, and the photographers drove like mad men to snap pictures and return in time to develop them and get them onto plates. While the reporter , cigarette hanging from his lip, the editors looked over his shoulder offering edits as he wrote, wasting no time to wait for him to finish to actually edit it.
I felt useless but kind of exhilarated. Now this is News, I thought. This was a genuine catastrophe and these poorly dressed people were making something out of the chaos against the clock. For the first time I witnessed a deadline. I saw spinning headlines, editors shouting “STOP THE PRESSES”, newsboys shouting “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”
In the middle of it all, going placidly amidst the haste, sat Alan White, a substantial man with his wire rimmed spectacles, and he summoned me to his desk.
“So this story here…” He pointed at the black screen glowing green with the words I had written the night before and I tried to look eager while reading his face for some desperately needed praise. “….is about 1000 words long and I only need 150. So. I am going to do this….”
Alan did some secret Masonuc keyboard-macro-combination-thing and popped the cursor to the bottom of the story.
“.…and get rid of all of this…..” He highlighted 90 percent of my First Story and with a dismissive tap of a key, deleted it forever.. “.…then I’m going to fix the ending here….” He wrote two sentences with only his index fingers and thumbs (because no one ever was a touch typist in a newsroom), looked at them with a little pride while something withered up inside of me and died. I. Was. A. Writer. Alan read the surviving six paragraphs silently, then turned from the screen and looked at me abd through me, thought for a moment, then turned back to the computer and wrote the headline with no indecision. He hit another key, yelled at the copydesk to let them know they had incoming and dismissed me. “There. Done. See me after lunch.”
I didn’t eat lunch. I sat at my desk while trying to look busy. I read the cheat sheet for the computer’s keyboard shortcuts trying to figure out the black art of making it do the things Alan could make it do.
The press started. The entire building rumbled and shook. All the shouting over the cop shooting vanished as if it hadn’t happened. One second the place was nuts. The next it was Alan White eating a sandwich out of a brown bag and reading the first edition with his feet on his desk. When I saw he was finished I went back as requested.
“Look. I know you worked on that thing for hours, but you got to understand one thing this isn’t a short story about your grandmother’s funeral. Okay? Nothing personal, but when you don’t write tight then I have to spend all my time time cutting things back, looking around in there for good quotes and I just don’t have the time. So… Tomorrow. Do better. Write less. Write fast. Write tight. Okay?”
“Yes Mister White.”
“It’s Al. Get out of here and go knock on some doors. Any questions?”
I had lots of questions, foremost was how the notebook thing worked. So I asked him. He stared balefully at me then took my notebook out of my hands and looked at my notes from the sewer bond hearing. “Whoa. Were you dropped on your head as a baby? Is this shorthand or hieroglyphics?”
I explained I wasn’t sure how to use it. His deadpan answer: “You write in it.”
I explained I didn’t know how to hold it. It was long and thin and the spiral was on the narrow edge, not the long one. Alan squinted, genuinely puzzled by the question. He handed the notebook back and said, “Show me.”
So I demonstrated my lack of technique and tried to explain the notebook was poorly designed and maybe I should go buy a more traditional one with my own money and, well, sorry, I’d be fine. I wanted to get away from the embarrassment before I totally confirmed to him I was a cretin.
“Wait. Show me that again.” I wrote some more. Flipped a page, wrote on it to the bottom. Flipped the page again. Wrote on it.
“No. No. No. Not like that. Where did you go to college? Whatsamatta U? You’re wasting half the pages.” He grabbed it back, folded the thing open onto itself so there was a blank sheet on either side and then demonstrated that the technique was to flip the notebook over — scribble down one side, give the whole thing a flip, keep scribbling, then turn the page over and voila, two more blank sheets. Flip it, write, turn the page. Flip it, write. Turn the page.
I was enlightened. Alan handed it back. “Want to know why it’s that way?”
“Please,” I said.
“So you can stuff it in your back pocket.”
Three months later, while I was sitting at my desk covered with vending machine coffee cups with poker hands printed on the side (hole card was underneath the bottom), Alan came by, grabbed a waste paper basket, and cleared away my collection of carefully stacked and completed notebooks I had been saving for some future reference. I freaked out over the invasion but Alan kept grabbing stacks of notebooks and throwing them into the trash. “Um. I was saving those for….”
“For what? We don’t save notebooks.” Alan said.
“We don’t? I mean, shouldn’t I keep them just in case…..”
“In case of what? You want to frame them? Want to know why I throw away notebooks?”
“Yes. Of course…”
“Because the DA can’t subpoena a landfill.”
In six months Alan White taught me enough of the trade that I was finally doing some real investigative reporting that made the front page on a regular basis and wasn’t six inches of deathless prose about the Salem Kiwanis luncheon buried deep inside of the New Hampshire edition along with the other little blurbs from Plaistow and Atkinson and Londonderry. In eight months he decided I was good enough to cover the 1984 New Hampshire presidential primaries and trusted me — me, a callow 23 year old kid — to ride around the Granite State asking Jesse Jackson and Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan and George McGovern and Gary Hart questions that would wind up with their answers printed on the front page.
Alan White taught me how to push for the news. He pushed me to get the courage up to ask a dead kid’s mother for a picture to run next to the story of her son’s tragic death by a hit and run driver while she was insane with grief, but still get the goddamn photo. He taught me how to cover a fire, a car accident, how to make cops like me and let me cross the police tape. And most importantly, Alan taught me how to maintain my objectivity, always challenge everything a politician told me, and for god’s sake learn to spell a person’s name right. The man was tough. The man was fair. He made me want to be better.
He was wickedly funny, took joy in the news we couldn’t print (Alan reveled in newsroom gossip), and was always the best election predictor in the newsroom, Alan was always ready to talk about fishing, his deep abiding passion, specifically striped bass which he hunted from his home base on Plum Island in Newburyport.
I realize now, as I do the math, that the Alan White I knew, the New Hampshire editor, was only 33 years old at the time I worked for him. His patience, his confidence in his reporters, his unrelenting standards for accuracy, all are the things that led him to become the editor in chief of the entire paper long after I moved on to other papers and the rest of my career. But Alan loyally stayed in that newsroom, even after the Rogers family sold it to a chain and it was absorbed into the great contraction of the news business that killed off lesser papers by the hundreds over the last 20 years.
He won two Pulitzer Prizes. Two. And through it all he patiently schooled hundreds of reporters — many of whom are still my good friends to this day, a couple of whom followed me from the Tribune to PC Week and Forbes like Dan Lyons and Russell Glitman.
Alan would have wanted to be remembered as a reporter. He wasn’t a “journalist.” Alan was a reporter from Worcester and proud of it. He knocked on doors, questioned everything, but did it with a grace and focus I can only wish I could begin to channel today.I bet he would have edited this post down to half its size.