A "Philanthropist" Dies  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April 1997

A "Philanthropist" Dies   

By James Brann
James Brann, a veteran reporter, teaches journalism at Boston University.     


When newspapers buy out or push out too many old guys, they risk losing their institutional memories. That's why veteran Boston reporters so enjoyed the following line in a January 29 Boston Herald obituary of 99-year-old Dr. Harry Sagansky, a Brookline dentist: "Dr. Sagansky enjoyed a lifelong interest in sports."

He certainly did. But he was better known as a legendary Boston bookmaker who once went to a federal pen at age 91 rather than testify against young Mafia punks (now in prison) who shook him down for $500,000.

Doc was a power in Boston from the '20s on and was investigated by Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver, who conducted racketeering hearings during the '50s. But the words "bookmaker," "gambler," "gangster" or "federal pen" were not to be found in the Herald obit. The Boston Globe ran only a paid death notice on the day following Doc's death. Two days after his death the Globe got around to running an obit that described Sagansky's career in crime and also carried a marvelous column by Mike Barnicle on the good dentist and his exploits.

So the Herald, which apparently had amnesia concerning the colorful antics of the dead dentist, ran a puff piece, and the Globe missed it entirely on the day following Doc's demise (unless we count the paid death notice).

The Stanetsky Memorial Chapel in Brookline, which handled Doc's last rites, faxes obits to the Globe and the Herald daily. The laudatory obit in the Herald had the earmarks of a Stanetsky obit, well-written and attentive to the family's desires. "Among his many philanthropies, in the 1950s Dr. Sagansky gave Tufts Dental School one of the largest donations in the school's history..."

Herald editors declined to comment on the Sagansky blunder. One Herald reporter says obits at the paper are handled by editorial assistants, young staffers who are usually recent college graduates. When newsworthy people die, the city desk is supposed to assign those obits to a reporter rather than an editorial assistant, but the Sagansky assignment fell through the cracks.

On Friday (Doc died on a Tuesday), the Herald played catch-up by covering his funeral and carried a Howie Carr column in which Carr chided his own paper for running a "press release" obituary and took the Globe to task for dropping the ball on the death of one of Boston's most notorious citizens.

Both newspapers, like many across the nation, have offered incentives in recent years to encourage the departure of veteran reporters and deskpeople. So how can newspapers avoid similar embarrassments if most editors and reporters are too young to recognize major local figures from our rapidly expiring century?

Aside from the easy and obvious solution of checking the paper's clips, newspapers could pay consulting fees to retired journalists to read the newspaper on their home computers before it is put to bed. But editors hate to take advice from anyone except members of focus groups.

I'm certain that my editor friends would say: "But those old guys will nitpick us to death. It would be hell to get on the phone with them every day."

Granted, those old guys probably would nitpick, but they would never allow a Doc Sagansky to slip through as a philanthropist. And they could send e-mail every time they found a Lenin spelled as Lennon.

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