Robert Whitcomb: Reporting in pre-glitz Boston

Soon after I had graduated from college, in June 1970,  a friend suggested that I try to get a job at the Boston Herald Traveler (RIP), an old Yankee establishment newspaper that also had a lucrative TV and radio station.  I applied, but first, the city editor, the always unflappable and wry Bob Kierstead, said that I should report and write a research project  -- a little book -- for the paper to prove I could report. The book, on Boston politics, history and demographics, was meant to help the paper’s reporters cover the next mayoral and other local elections.

Mr. Kierstead found  the little book useful enough to hire me a reporter. I wish that I could find what I wrote and compare the reporting in it with the very different (much glitzier and more Manhattanish) Boston of today. Back then, Boston had a down-at-the-heels quality that evoked the Thirties, or even Dickens’s London.

Then began a crazy year of covering all kinds of stuff – from train derailments,  murders, industrial-strength arson, potheads lost in the White Mountains, race and student riots,  the start of Boston’s busing/desegregation crisis and the opening of Walt Disney World. It was one of my most vivid periods and showed me what I could do on deadline and often in considerable chaos on the road.

I thought that it would be just an occupational side trip, whence I would return to school to perhaps get a doctorate in history or start a small business. But I found I had a talent for quickly if roughly understanding people, places and situations and concisely writing down fast what I had so quickly learned. What’s more, back then, I liked to travel (much more than now). Journalism spoke to these things. A college history major, I looked on my work as writing current history. Or, as the late editor of The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, put it, “history on the run.’’

But I knew I couldn’t stay at the Herald Traveler because it was likely soon to lose its FCC license for its very profitable TV station, which, with its sister radio station, had been subsidizing the newspaper. The case went up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the owners lost for good; the paper's assets were sold shortly thereafter to Hearst, for whose  sensationalist Boston tabloid, the Record American, I had worked in a summer job as an editorial assistant/gofer.

So I applied to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, was admitted, got an economics fellowship and off I went, at the end of the summer of 1971, to New York. This was just after the Pentagon Papers were printed and Nixon took America off the gold standard. The latter led me to interview  for the Herald Traveler a covey of famous economists, most notably Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith, shortly before I left for Manhattan.

It was fun  to have such access to celebrities.

And it was a relief to leave the stuffy walkup apartment I was renting on the Cambridge-Somerville line from the brother of a former girlfriend.

Robert Whitcomb is editor of New England Diary.