Resurfacing in Scranton
Chiquita series. Five years later, he’s trying to breathe life into two newspapers with a combined
of 61,000 in a struggling
By Randy Diamond
It turned out to be one of the biggest stories of the year in Scranton, Pennsylvania, but you wouldn't have known it from reading that morning's Tribune on July 30. The daily simply reported that the national energy company Southern Union was expected to purchase two buildings in the city's struggling downtown.
Randy Diamond covers the New Jersey Statehouse for the Record, a daily newspaper based in Bergen County.
But at the 6:50 a.m. news meeting, Managing Editor Larry Beaupre asked editors why the front-page article didn't say more--such as hinting at the fact that the buildings might be the utility's new headquarters, then 18 miles away in Wilkes-Barre.
Weeks earlier, city officials told staffers there was going to be a major project at the site, leaving a clear impression that Southern Union was moving to Scranton. At the morning meeting, Beaupre asked that a reporter press the company on that point, so, at the very least, they could publish a "no comment" in the afternoon sister paper, the Scranton Times. Readers would know that the move was a strong possibility, Beaupre explained, even if it couldn't be nailed down.
Beaupre wasn't surprised he had to order the obvious. The Scranton newspapers, he says, are still developing and the staff still learning, creating an inconsistent product with awkward writing, misplaced pictures and factual errors.
A week later Southern Union announced its corporate move to Scranton, bringing with it up to 100 new jobs. Beaupre was again frustrated; the papers did not get the story until the official press conference. "Sometimes you feel like Sisyphus moving a boulder up the mountain, only to have it roll back down on you," the 59-year-old veteran journalist says.
It's a far cry from the Cincinnati Enquirer, where, as editor, Beaupre oversaw an international investigation that took two reporters around the world to look into the operations of Chiquita Brands International. An 18-page special section in May 1998 said the fruit company, headed by Cincinnati's wealthiest citizen, Carl Lindner Jr., had exploited migrant labor, violated environmental laws and created phony companies to bypass land-law limits overseas.
While it should have been the crowning moment in Beaupre's career, the investigative series instead led to his downfall. The lead reporter obtained some information illegally, and the Enquirer "renounced" the entire series and apologized to Chiquita. Five years later, Beaupre commands a staff less than one-third the size of the Enquirer's. The combined circulation of the morning Tribune and afternoon Times--61,000--pales in comparison to the Enquirer's 197,000 daily circulation. Never mind sending reporters to Honduras, Panama and Brussels, as Beaupre had done for the Chiquita series; the Scranton papers don't even have a Statehouse reporter in Harrisburg, 120 miles away.
How did Larry Beaupre go from being a Gannett big-city editor to a journalist in sleepy Scranton, Pennsylvania?
For three decades, Beaupre had climbed the ranks at Gannett. From a reporting job at the company's now defunct Times-Union in Rochester, New York, he became the paper's managing editor. After a stint as executive editor of Gannett Suburban Newspapers in Westchester County, New York, he took the helm of the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1992, becoming the editor of one of Gannett's largest metropolitan newspapers.
But after the Chiquita series came out in 1998, it only took 56 days for the roof to cave in on Beaupre. The Enquirer's banner headline on page one June 28 blared, "An apology to Chiquita." The newspaper said it was backing off its conclusions because the lead reporter on the series, Mike Gallagher, had illegally obtained voice mail messages from Chiquita's phone system as part of his reporting. Gannett also agreed to pay Chiquita $14 million as part of an out-of-court settlement.
(In an opening editor's note to the series, Beaupre had said the yearlong reporting effort--during which the Enquirer had obtained more than 2,000 voice mails from a trusted source--provided an accurate and eye-opening portrait into Chiquita's business practices.)
Beaupre was not charged with wrongdoing. The former Cincinnati editor says at one point during the Chiquita investigation, Gallagher told him that he had dialed into the voice mail system to confirm that the system worked the way his source had represented it. Gannett's lawyers were consulted, Beaupre says, and Gallagher was told he could proceed with the story, but that he could not access the voice mail system again. Beaupre says he had no idea that Gallagher was entering the system and taping the messages, instead of obtaining them from his source.
"I always made it a requirement to know the name of a source, and Mike told me the name of the source," Beaupre says now. "I didn't go out and personally interview that source. The editor has to trust the reporter. In this case, the reporter came back and said, 'My source gave me these tapes, here they are, here's what's on the tape.' "
As head of the Cincinnati Enquirer newsroom, Beaupre, who had supervised the editing of the Chiquita series, took the fall. (Top Gannett news executives had read the series before it was published as well.) By the end of that troubled year, Beaupre's time at the Enquirer--and possibly his whole career--was over. He was banished to Gannett's corporate headquarters in Northern Virginia, where his duties included developing an ethics code for the company's newspapers and organizing a journalism conference.
"I was in exile," he says.
Beaupre was placed on administrative leave in January 2000 after, he says, he refused to let Gannett back down from its promise to place him at another major newspaper. Four months later, he sued the company and was fired. There's no overstating the depth of his bitterness. A guy at the top of his game was suddenly unable to play in the big time. What was he going to do with the rest of his life?
"All I ever wanted was to be an editor," says Beaupre. "They reneged on it; they began talking about newspapers at a much lower level than I had been led to believe, and at the same time they did things to my salary and benefits that they said they wouldn't do."
(In a settlement of his lawsuit in January 2003, Gannett paid Beaupre a $200,000 severance and $350,000 in legal fees, while maintaining his suit was without merit. Tara Connell, a Gannett spokeswoman, told AJR that the company wants to move on now that the suit is settled and does not want to discuss the matter further.)
After his Gannett days ended, Beaupre started a journalism consulting business to help newspapers improve. In the summer of 2000, he became a consultant for the Scranton Times and its sister paper, the Tribune. But five months later, Beaupre traded in his contract for the opportunity to run the Scranton papers himself.
Like Beaupre, Scranton had fallen on hard times. Once a major coal and manufacturing center, the city never fully recovered after the mines started closing after World War II. The population declined steadily from a peak of 143,000 in the 1930s to only half that today. The Northeast Pennsylvania city once known for its proud industrial heritage had instead become the last stop for New York City's garbage in one of the largest landfills in the Northeastern United States--a dump that stretches forever alongside a tract of Interstate 81, the main road leading to the city.
Scranton's papers were also in a slump. Publisher Edward J. Lynett Jr. and his brothers, copublishers George and William, felt the papers had lost their way.
The Scranton Times, purchased in 1895 by the Lynetts' grandfather, E.J. Lynett, had a history of fighting for the little guy. In 1933, the owner's daughter, Elizabeth, a young Times reporter, went undercover to write a series of articles exposing appalling working conditions in garment factories. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize in 1946 for an investigation into judicial corruption in Northeast Pennsylvania, resulting in the removal of a district judge and the indictment of other officials.
But when the afternoon Times bought the rival morning Tribune in 1990, the race for news experienced by generations of Scranton journalists was over. The Times and Tribune still carried reports of every school board and municipal meeting along with obits, marriage announcements and high-school sports coverage, the hallmarks of community newspapers. On occasion, there was even an investigative story, such as a piece about how most of Scranton's fire hydrants didn't work.
But something was missing. "When there were two newspapers, there was a lot more competition," says Edward Lynett. "There was fear the other guy had it."
The papers' general manager, Hal Marion, says the sense of urgency had so diminished that photographers weren't even getting decent shots of raging fires because they were so late in arriving. "We wouldn't have the flames in fire photos," he says. "Television was beating our socks off."
While the papers still had a penetration rate as high as 80 percent, Lynett says it was clear they could be much better.
Many in the newsroom were similarly frustrated. Assistant Managing Editor Larry Holeva, a former city editor, remembers a day in 2000 when the Scranton papers should have had two major stories: one about NASA picking local astronaut Paul Richards to join the Discovery space shuttle crew, the second about a survey rating the Scranton area as number 196, almost dead last, among the most desirable places to live in the United States.
Neither story made the morning paper in Scranton.
But newspaper readers nearby, in Wilkes-Barre, knew all about them: The daily Times Leader ran both stories, forcing the Scranton papers to play catch-up.
"We lacked aggressiveness," Holeva says. The staff, he explains, ignored the NASA press release because they initially couldn't contact the astronaut.
The Lynetts asked Ed Baron, a Virginia newspaper consultant advising the family on advertising and circulation matters, if he knew an editorial consultant. Baron, a former Gannett director of training, had met Beaupre during their days at the newspaper chain and knew he needed a job.
"Larry struck me as a guy who was very solid on the basics of what you do to cover a community," says Baron. But, he says, the publicity about the Chiquita saga had probably made Beaupre one of the last people who would be hired among a list of qualified candidates. "In some parts of the journalism world, he was untouchable."
However, the soft-spoken Beaupre, Baron says, works well with people--a good match for the family-owned Scranton newspapers. "He's not a Howell Raines type who threw his weight around," says Baron, referring to the ousted New York Times executive editor.
General Manager Marion says Beaupre tried to explain Chiquita, but Marion told him that wouldn't be necessary. "I'm not interested," he says he told Beaupre. "You were recommended by a friend whom we respect in the industry."
The Scranton papers hired Beaupre as a consultant in August 2000, and he began talking to as many people as he could in the 93-person newsroom. His quick conclusion: The editorial staff was without leadership. "The dissatisfaction was vocal," he says. "They weren't afraid to talk about it."
While there were many talented midlevel editors and reporters, Beaupre says top editors weren't pushing reporters or getting them excited about good stories. "Management of the newsroom was simply absent. The paper just came together twice a day, morning and evening."
Beaupre says the news meetings were so perfunctory that the content of the stories wasn't even discussed. "The meetings would last five minutes tops, and not everyone who was supposed to be there was there."
He started developing guidelines for how to run a news meeting and what was expected of reporters, photographers and editors. He drafted tip sheets, such as a five-page primer on how to do enterprise reporting.
Much of the advice was basic. The handout on enterprise reporting cajoled the editorial staff to use alert observation and social contacts to come up with ideas, seemingly something out of Reporting 101. "There were a few people who grasped it," Beaupre says. "The main problem was with the senior editors who didn't, and as a result they didn't encourage it. They didn't expect it, they didn't understand it themselves, and a lot of reporters who had only worked at this paper were never exposed to it."
Edward Lynett became so impressed with Beaupre's work that he asked him if he would be interested in the job of managing editor, the papers' top news spot. But Beaupre turned him down, saying his stay in Scranton would only be temporary. "I had never worked for a newspaper this small," Beaupre says. "I didn't think it was the kind of place [I wanted] to be."
But in October 2000, Edward Lynett says the family asked Managing Editor Bob Burke to leave. (Burke says he was moved into another position, and then he resigned.) Beaupre agreed to serve as interim managing editor and coordinate the search for a replacement. He came up with a list of 26 candidates, but none was interviewed. At the same time, Beaupre was becoming increasingly attached to the papers.
"It grew on me," he recalls. "There are a lot of advantages to being at a paper this size, working directly with the owners of the newspaper, cutting through all the corporate bureaucracy and gamesmanship that exists at corporations, and I find it personally rewarding as a journalist."
The announcement was made in the newsroom in late January 2001: Beaupre would be the permanent managing editor. But while many in the newsroom were looking for leadership, there was also apprehension about the Chiquita fiasco, says political reporter Borys Krawczeniuk, who has been at the paper since 1988.
Krawczeniuk asked Beaupre at his first staff meeting: "Could you tell us a little bit about what happened in Cincinnati?"
Beaupre responded that mistakes were made, Krawczeniuk recalls, saying that he respected the editor's frankness. "I asked him if he stood by the story. He said it was a painful episode, but that the story was right."
In an interview with AJR, Beaupre had more to say about Chiquita, explaining that he "never backed off the quality of the stories themselves, and no one has ever showed anything to be inaccurate about them. The sin of Chiquita was that the reporter broke the law and lied to his editors, lawyers and senior management of Gannett about the nature of a source, and it was a horrible, terrible thing to do. It was a very dark chapter in not only the Cincinnati Enquirer, but in journalism, that happened."
Nearly three years later, the Scranton dailies are vastly improved. In the summer, the papers began reporting on improprieties at the county jail, including charges of guards beating inmates and the warden using prisoners to do work on his own home. Those articles led to the warden's firing and a series of continuing government investigations into corruption at the jail.
Other investigative stories in the last year have looked at hate groups in Northeast Pennsylvania, the inability of Interstate 81 to handle increasing traffic (Beaupre's idea), deteriorating finances at three area hospitals and how a local employment agency had lured residents of Puerto Rico to move to Scranton with misleading promises of good pay in local factories and decent housing.
Thomas W. Gerrity, a professor of education at the University of Scranton, whose brother Edward covered City Hall for the Scranton Times in the 1940s and '50s, says the city's papers are now writing about previously taboo subjects, such as racial issues. "They would have never looked at such things before," he says.
He says the papers also have a broader feel, while maintaining their local focus. The series on hate groups, for example, explained the impact the organizations have on the Scranton area while placing the issue in a national context.
Krawczeniuk says Beaupre wants his reporters to think big. "We're now at the point where we're trained to run; we're no longer walking." He cites the continuing investigation into corruption at the county jail as an example. At least four reporters have followed the story on a regular basis since last July, producing dozens of stories, with others staffers, including Krawczeniuk, brought into the fold on occasion.
Under past newsroom regimes, Krawczeniuk says, reporters would have written several articles on a hot story and then it likely would have been dropped. But Beaupre "wants his reporters to think big, broad issues, what are the consequences," he says. "He's beat us to death with the phrase 'enterprise stories.' "
Other changes by Beaupre include a Sunday business section, which was launched in May, a joint venture with the Citizens' Voice, a Wilkes-Barre daily also owned by the Lynetts. The section brings local business news to the Sunday newspaper on a regular basis for the first time. Beat coverage of such issues as health care has also been aggressive. One 24-year-old reporter, Mary Jo Feldstein, a University of Missouri graduate, has tackled the malpractice insurance crisis in Pennsylvania. Her stories have regularly beaten big-league competition like the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Feldstein, who is from the Chicago suburbs, is one of about a dozen staffers hired since Beaupre took over. The staff had been overwhelmingly male and Irish, most fixtures in the newsroom for decades. The papers hired their first minority reporter, a black man, last year. Since then, two women of Indian descent have also joined the staff. Staffers now come from all over the Eastern and Midwestern United States--a departure from the past practice of hiring Scranton-area natives. "If it's the only way you hire, you're doomed to a very parochial staff," says Beaupre. "My real goal is not to get geographical representation; my real goal is to hire the best people I can."
Still, some veterans resent the new atmosphere. Not everyone has accepted Beaupre's direction; some are upset about the increasing demands for enterprise stories while they are still expected to cover spot news. Others are not happy with Beaupre's style--official and direct, with little small talk--not the kind of editor you would have a beer and discuss the basketball game with.
They long for the time when the staffers all knew each other and also knew the community: every Catholic Church, every cop, every cunning politician. "We've become a little thin on institutional memory," says copy editor James Haggerty, who has been at the Scranton Times for 21 years.
A few longtime reporters and editors have left voluntarily or have been asked to leave.
Beaupre's predecessor, Bob Burke, had worked at the Scranton Times for 34 years. Burke says he is very proud of what he accomplished in Scranton, noting that the papers won numerous journalism awards during his six years as managing editor. Investigative reporting, he says, was a priority. "Looking back, my only real regret is that the Scranton newsroom lost several quality people and solid journalists due in large measure to the transfer of power from me to Larry Beaupre," says Burke, now managing editor of the 15,000-circulation Valley Independent in Monessen, Pennsylvania.
Some in the newsroom were unhappy when one 30-year veteran reporter was fired in December 2001. Editors said that he was dishonest because he told them that highway accident statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation were not available for a story he was writing. However, an arbitrator who came in at the Guild's request ordered the reporter reinstated last summer and determined that management had not proven its case.
But Beaupre has many supporters. Political reporter Krawczeniuk, who as Guild president led the effort to get the reporter who was fired his job back, says he agrees with most of Beaupre's moves. "He has been terrific in picking talent," says Krawczeniuk. The changed staff has "made me have fun again, reinvigorated me. It's very easy to have fun when you have people who are enthusiastic about what they are doing."
John Murphy, assistant managing editor for news, who joined the Scranton Times in 1981 as a clerk typist, says Beaupre has taught him to be demanding of reporters. "There were times in the past when good enough was acceptable," he says, citing both papers' coverage of school boards and city and town council meetings as an example. In the past, Murphy says, the papers would publish a 20-inch story about the meetings even if nothing happened. Now, the meetings are still staffed, "but we're not going to write a 20-inch story just because we were there."
Staff writer Jessica D. Matthews, who joined the paper in 1999, says the "old boy network" is gone. And Beaupre is one tough editor, she says, explaining how he grills reporters who have written investigative pieces to make sure their stories hold up. "When he recognizes the potential, he will be on your side to get it done," Matthews says.
Beaupre says it has always been his style to personally make sure the investigative stories are right, but he admits to being even more cautious because of Chiquita. "I can only liken it to if you have been in a terrible auto accident while you're driving," he says. "You're going to be a little bit more worried every time you're on the road."
But as the Scranton papers' chief news executive, Beaupre has more than investigative reporting to worry about. Stories sometimes are hard to understand. Occasionally they read like ads--an article about the opening of a local supermarket seemed as if it were taken straight from a press release.
In an embarrassing incident, the papers published a story in October that said the University of Scranton was investigating allegations that an initiation ritual of freshman cheerleaders required them to drink alcohol until they became sick and to perform oral sex on a male athlete.
The allegations were in an anonymous letter sent to the Scranton newspapers and to the president of the university from someone purporting to be the parent of a freshman cheerleader. The university said it was investigating, and the newspaper published the story without being able to confirm any of the allegations.
Two days after the Scranton Times and the Tribune ran page-three stories on October 1, the newspapers reported that the university had concluded the allegations were untrue. The next day the papers published an "apology and clarification," saying the initial story didn't meet their standards for publication.
Still, on many days, the Scranton newspapers carry strong, original reporting on their front pages. After Bob Hope died, the papers ran a compelling story detailing how in 1975 Hope, faced with a scheduling conflict, had arranged for a 3 a.m. charter to fly him from the West Coast to Scranton so he could honor his commitment to be the keynote speaker at a University of Scranton commencement.
Turning the papers around has been a challenge, though. Larry Holeva, assistant managing editor for design, points to the miniature Matchbox Mustang on his desk, a gift from Beaupre. "He told us the story that periods of change are never easy, and the analogy was if you were in college and you were tipping cars, the car would be really, really heavy on the way up," Holeva says. "But if you got to a certain point, the down side would be pretty easy." However, on some days, he says, the car doesn't reach the tipping point.
It's unclear how long Beaupre will stay in Scranton. Many staffers wonder whether the papers are just his stepping-stone on the road back to a larger publication. Beaupre has told Krawczeniuk that he plans to make his career in Scranton, but, says Krawczeniuk, "some people are skeptical. They feel it's a place for him to rebuild his career. It's his rehabilitation."
Publisher Lynett doesn't count on Beaupre staying either. "I would love for him to stay until his retirement," he says. However, he predicts a major newspaper will snatch him up.
The editor wouldn't rule out a chance to be at another big-city paper but says he loves community journalism--where he's directly involved in every aspect of the paper, from writing heads to editing investigative series. "There is an irony in the sense that I wouldn't be here today if it hadn't been for the horrible things that happened in Chiquita, or in the larger sense, not just Chiquita, but the horrible things that happened to me [at the hands of] Gannett after Chiquita," Beaupre says.
He says he used to think the bigger the paper the better, but he has learned that satisfaction can come at all levels. "I can't say that I feel ashamed or humiliated or down in the minors at all," Beaupre says. "Every paper of any size has the capacity to do big-league work." ###