The semi-resignation of Telegram & Gazette columnist James Dempsey leaves Worcester's largest newspaper without one of its most vibrant voices, and its editor at war with his staff
BY CHRIS KANARACUS
Despite 20 sterling years on the job at the Telegram & Gazette, it didn't take very long - barely a week - for metro columnist James Dempsey, a writer with one of the daily's most popular and engaging voices, to be silenced. On April 25, Dempsey wrote his last column for the paper, and may be assigned to a strict reporting role or to the copy desk, where he would edit the work of others.
By now, many reading this may know the saga's basic details, as for the past week it has been featured in the T&G itself and on local talk radio with some prominence. For those who need some catching up, here's a rundown.
On April 20, Dempsey wrote a column that satirically compared an incoming priests' convention to June's planned Harley Owners Group rally (see "Biker War on Shrewsbury Street," April 13). Without going into exhaustive detail, the column contained a few barbs, but was fairly tame overall.
That, at least, is this writer's humble opinion. Some local Catholics thought less of his work. By the next day (April 21), about 40 calls and e-mails from readers had come into the T&G's offices. Dempsey estimates that they were critical by an eight to one margin.
But 40 calls, while substantial, doesn't amount to a flood of protest, does it? T&G editor Harry Whitin thought it did. Whitin wrote an apology that ran in the April 22 edition of the paper. Included in Whitin's piece were a number of slams at Dempsey's writing ability: "Let's not mince words: In my opinion, the humor failed. His column did not come across as funny or even satirical. Instead it came across as mean-spirited, anti-Catholic and crude," wrote Whitin.
"We weren't rigorous enough in the editing. The cogency-of-argument hurdle was not really cleared. The column did not make a crisp point. The parallels between the Harley owners and the priests were not so clearly drawn as to be inescapable. Because of that, its attempt at humor was unsuccessful."
"I take some of the blame personally. I had the opportunity to intervene in this process and kill the column or send it back for rewriting. I did not.
To those who were offended, please consider this our official apology. No offense was intended, but it's easy to see how offense could be taken."
Partial mea culpa notwithstanding, Whitin's position is hard to fathom, whether you work in the newspaper business or not. He is the paper's editor, and as such has final say on all its content. In this sense, to excoriate Dempsey or any other reporter in public is unfair and disingenuously downplays Whitin's role and responsibilities as the captain of the paper.
That's not to say Whitin is expected to edit every story in the newspaper - such a task would be impossible for anyone. Whitin serves in something closer to an executive role, overseeing the general course of the newspaper, rather than the minutiae of day-to-day content. For that, the T&G has a cadre of mid-level editors and copy editors. In Dempsey's (and fellow columnist Dianne Williamson's) case, city editor Jim Sacks is the primary editor. Whitin may nor may not check over the columns, too, depending on a particular day's circumstances.
In this case, Sacks first called Dempsey at suggested several changes, all of which Dempsey agreed to. Then, Sacks forwarded the column to Whitin for his perusal. Whitin read it, suggested some changes, and approved it for publication. To come out with an apology after the fact seems inconsistent, especially when you consider that sports columnist John Gearan's recent work on NASCAR racing legend Dale Earnhardt drew thousands of angry calls, letters, and e-mails.
So far, support among T&G staff has been all Dempsey. Also, Whitin has been open to criticism on his paper's own pages, as both fellow metro columnist Dianne Williamson and acerbic sports writer John Gearan weighed in on the affair; Williamson with elegant regret, Gearan with a hilarious, laundry-list like piece consisting of short apologies to every person he's ever offended.
Whitin says he's not about to back down or refute his apology. "I'm not going to get into all that. Jim has had an opportunity to say things, to respond publicly, as has Dianne Williamson and John Gearan."
[The apology] was not an attack on Jim either personally or as innuendo. Nor was it an attack on the quality of his writing. It was a simple statement that one particular column of his had failed."
There's little question Dempsey will be missed. Callers to local talk radio last week seemed mostly pro-Dempsey as well, and Dempsey himself says he's received more than 600 e-mails of support over the past week, some from as far away as New Zealand. (This is perhaps less unusual than you might think, as the Dempsey saga has also unfolded on the Web site www.poynter.org/medianews, a media gossip site bookmarked by journalists worldwide.) The phone lines have been buzzing, too. Several calls placed to him last week were fruitless: Dempsey's voicemail box was full.
At this point, things are somewhat up in the air. While Whitin would certainly like to have Dempsey back, the columnist himself may not want the job. Dempsey's last column, published on April 25, consisted of his take on the matter and a farewell to his readers. When first contacted with for this article on April 30, his tone hadn't softened much. "I don't think the column warranted an apology. Some people liked it, thought it worked as satire, others didn't. Some people thought it was offensive. But I donbelieve it warranted a written apology where I was cast as a bungling, bigoted fool.
I suppose what I'm looking for is some type of acknowledgment that this was handled incorrectly. . . I haven't made a decision one way or another. It's just one of those situations where you want to work it out, but there's a principle at stake. You don't [take this type of stand] for other people. It's a choice you have to make yourself."
Whether the attention-shy Dempsey likes it or not, his plight has eclipsed him. Interviews conducted during the past few days with members of the T&G newsroom indicate that Whitin's apology has driven a bitter wedge between the editor and his staff, a relationship that has already been strained for some time. Whitin and publisher Bruce Bennett have long been described by many editorial employees as distant, meddlesome, ethically challenged, and focused on the bottom line over quality journalism (see "Same Old T&G," February 25). Simply put, a great number of T&G reporters have craved new leadership for years.
This time, according to one reporter, "It's the last straw. I can smell blood in the water on this one."
Perhaps. On April 27 (last Friday), a highly unusual gathering took place. Richard Gilman, the New York Times Company executive in charge of the company's New England operations (including the Boston Globe and the T&G), came to Worcester for an open meeting with Whitin, T&G staffers, publisher Bruce Bennett and Dempsey. Many staffers contacted for this article portrayed Gilman's visit as a sign the home office was taking the matter seriously.
The meeting was prompted by sports columnist John Gearan, who contacted both Gilman and New York Times Company president Russell Lewis to urge them to meet with the T&G staff.
Beyond Gearan's effort, says T&G union chief Kathy Shaw, a 45-year veteran reporter, the union has drafted a formal grievance. "Our main goal is to stand up for journalistic ethics," says Shaw. "We want a solid commitment that this is going to be front burner issue."
Shaw's tough talk notwithstanding, some may question how much will actually happen - the union, after all, has been labeled in the past as "The Gutless Guild" by other departments at the paper, and has yet to settle a first contract after more than seven years of negotiations.
"The Dempsey situation was the spark that lit this newspaper on fire. There's a storm brewing," says Shaw.
When we were purchased by the New York Times, [all employees] received a laminated piece of paper with the company's "Core Values" written on it. We were looking at them the other night, and saying to each other, "Wow, I think [management] has managed to break them all."
Such gripes, of course, are nothing new from T&G reporters. Shaw insists that this time, Whitin (and to a lesser extent, Bennett) could be in trouble. "We're seriously beginning to wonder if the Teflon is starting to wear off. . .I am confident we're going to get some real change around here."
For his part, Whitin downplays the controversy. "I think the whole thing is overblown. We've had two staff meetings. People have had the opportunity to air their grievances over this. . . It's my hope that the whole matter is behind us, and that Jim will return to his column," says Whitin.
At the center of the maelstrom, of course, remains Dempsey, who his peers describe as the paper's best writer, and an equally worthy human being. "I just don't understand what could motivate anyone in management to treat anyone that way, especially someone as universally respected as Jim Dempsey," says reporter Richard Nangle.
Adds another veteran reporter, Mark Melady: "I think Harry's apology was a disgrace. . .I've just never heard anyone speak poorly of Jim."
While the paper has a number of other writers that could conceivably fill Dempsey's role, whether anyone will accept the job is uncertain. "In general, what's being said around the newsroom is that no one is to apply for Jim's job," says Nangle, a notion backed by conversations with other T&G staffers.
Loyalty aside, perhaps the toughest thing for a successor would be to match Dempsey's consistent quality as a writer and reporter.
It took a few days to contact Dempsey for an interview. When we finally connected, something occurred to me. Despite having been a regular reader of his column for over 15 years, I knew nothing about him. The same could be said, I'm willing to bet, for most of his readers.
The first surprise was Dempsey's lilting British accent. As it turns out, he's a native of Liverpool, England. Dempsey came to Worcester about 25 years ago to attend Clark University, where he received a master's degree in medieval literature. Diploma in hand, he was suddenly at a loss. "There really weren't a lot of options for that field of study around Worcester," laughs Dempsey. "But then a reporting job at the paper opened up [in 1979]." Although he makes his home in Hopkinton these days, Dempsey has chronicled all things Worcester ever since. "What can I say? The city really grew on me."
He started in the T&G's Whitinsville news bureau (of all places), but quickly moved on to the city room in Worcester. In a testament to his talent, Dempsey scored his column in 1982. In the world of daily news reporting, columnists' jobs are coveted, bringing higher pay and the type of artistic freedom disallowed by straight newswriting.
Dempsey generally wrote three columns per week, on occasion taking one off to work on a monthly newsletter for a writer's workshop he led at the paper, the only one of its kind.
"One of the great things about the job is that you can take so many ways of looking at the city." Dempsey says he finds many story ideas simply by jumping in his car and driving around, looking for something new.
"I take real pleasure in translating the physicality of something into words," says Dempsey, referring to mid-1990s column in which he crept through a shattered, pre-rehabilitation Union Station and took notes on what he saw, to vivid and compelling effect.
Dempsey, exhibiting the modest streak his co-workers say he's known for, was reluctant to name his favorite columns, save for a late 1980s series concerning a young Rodney Street boy who was scalded to death by a family member.
I can think of a few more examples, however. Take his January 17 column that lampooned this year's jargon-saturated "State of the City" address written by city manager Tom Hoover. Dempsey reprinted outtakes from Hoover's masterpiece, such as this one: "Economic development has been and will continue to remain in the forefront. The administration has undertaken several key initiatives designed to facilitate economic development in Worcester." Then, he translated it for the rest of us: "There's nowhere to even to buy a hot dog at Union Station, but we'll get the bids out."
Humorous columns aside, what I've enjoyed most about Dempsey's work is not the strong sense you have of him as a true participant in Worcester's city life, not simply a detached, acerbic commentator or someone bent on dragging the place down. Take his September 2000 column on a former Burncoat High School classmate of mine, a young woman named Rachel Gordon. Dempsey traced Gordon's adult life from her days as a struggling teenage mom (and honor student) to her eventual graduation from Smith College, to her current situation, as a research scientist and New Jersey homeowner in just 850 lyrical and evocative words, with a depth of detail that showed Dempsey's remarkable personal investment in his writing. The column's closing passage seems particularly poignant this week: "When [Gordon] talks with such passion about the sting of disdain and the importance of inspiration, you realize the complex pressures there are behind her ascent and how close, despite her glowing resume, she may have been to failing, to still being a single mother in the projects struggling to get by, her mind and her talents wasted."
To me, something about that tells me that right now, it's not what Dempsey's done, but what he'll do next that is crucial. "Everybody, from the editor to the publisher to my co-workers to readers, has said they want me to go back to the column. . . .when you have kids [Dempsey is a father of three teenaged children] you learn early on that you should never make ultimatums, because then if you go back on them you lose your credibility," says Dempsey. "I'm not sure what would make me happy. I've got to stop and think about it for a while."
Barring a return, says Dempsey, there doesn't seem to be many attractive options. Two possibilities, he says, are that he'll be sent either to the copy desk or to the Fitchburg bureau, both of which would be startling demotions. But Whitin says that isn't so. "Other options? That's not even under consideration at this moment," says Whitin. "The goal is to have Jim return to his column."
Judging from Dempsey's tone, negotiations could continue for some time. Not to mention his relationship with Whitin will need repairs.
"I've been around. It's not like I'm a starry-eyed young reporter just out of J-school. There's a reality about journalism that I've accepted, that it's a business and a public service at the same time. A newspaper is part of the community. At times, there's a church-and-state friction that occurs, and you have to make a choice about which side you're on," concludes Dempsey.
Chris Kanaracus can be reached at ckanaracus[a]phx.com.