Andrew L. Pincus: Recalling old Eagle as new day dawns

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LENOX >> "I want you to make this paper a little New York Times," Pete Miller told me. "We can't give people the Times' in-depth coverage but we can give them the essential news of the day that they're not getting from their television sets."

I'm quoting from memory, of course. But that was the charge that Pete, then The Berkshire Eagle's co-owner and chief editor, gave me when he hired me as an editor in 1967. A lot of others and I must have been doing something right because, in Time magazine in 1972, national press critic Ben Bagdikian pronounced The Eagle one of the three great newspapers of the world, along with The Times and Le Monde of Paris. Then there was the 1973 Pulitzer for the editorial opposing the Vietnam War before everybody opposed the Vietnam War.

The return to local ownership and the ideals of old is a boon all around. But how many people remember what the old Eagle really was?

The Eagle was a great paper, first of all, because Pete and his brother Don, then the publisher, made it both a profession and a passion. Under them, the reporting and editing staff — large for a paper the Eagle's size — took care to get the story (as journalists say), and get it right.

Fortunately, The Eagle was in a monopoly position that allowed it to be a little New York Times when it could have settled for less. It did battle with not only far-off Washington but also here-at-home GE. It supported the Berkshires' cultural and natural attractions. The Eagle had style. It had class.

You can still see the Miller thumbprint on the editorial and op-ed pages. Then as now, they carried thoughtful editorials (with a liberal slant), provocative columns (many then staff-written) and a melee of letters to the editor (legend had it that Pete would occasionally write pseudonymous letters to spice things up). Pete valued good writing and he recruited Berkshire literati and Williams professors for opinion pieces.

I am a veteran of the glory years. From 1967 to 1985 I was the telegraph editor, meaning I handled the news that came in over "the wire" — AP, UPI, New York Times and others. The title is meaningless today but what it entailed at The Eagle was being Page 1 editor and filling as many as 10 inside pages with a carefully chosen budget of national, international and state news.

If you've seen the famous newspaper movies — "The Front Page," "All the President's Men" and now "Spotlight" — you know that newspaper editors can argue hot-headedly over coverage. So it was at The Eagle when the then managing editor (Rex Fall and then Tom Morton, for old-timers who remember them) and I clashed over local stories for Page 1,which, in accordance with Pete's vision, was weighted toward national and world news.

"It's b---s----!" I remember yelling at Tom on a slow news night when, lacking anything better, he proposed a local geezer story for Page 1.

"Yeah," he yelled back, "but it's good b---s----!"

I think he got his way, but I wouldn't swear to it. The point is, we cared. We weren't perfect. We blew stories. But we cared.

You can't put out a little New York Times anymore. With television and digital media spewing breaking news at all hours of the day or night, a local newspaper has to be a community newspaper first. But by the same token, community news back then meant that, short of murder, gore and mayhem went inside and reporters dug for issues-based stories of importance to community well-being.

The old paper had its quirks. The pay was barely adequate and Pete fussed with hyphenation and was big on New England oddities (he once tried putting out a New England magazine). Type was cramped and hard to read.

But esprit was high. The reporting staff consisted primarily of men and a few women (remember the times) in it for the long term. Up-and-comers stayed for a couple of years and, with the Eagle cachet and experience behind them, moved up, making The Eagle a virtual farm team for bigger papers. Print journalism was a coveted vocation.

This is no knock on the current staff, which does as we did — put out the best paper you can with the resources at hand ("go with what you've got," in the parlance of the trade). But the Miller years in the old flatiron building on Eagle Street were indeed a bygone era. Typewriters rattled in the smoke-reeking newsroom air. Copy went to the shop (composing room) in pneumatic tubes. Linotype machines clattered in the fume-filled shop, where compositors hammered lead slugs (type) into chases (page forms).

To beat TV into homes, offices and bars, the paper went from afternoon publication (I reported for duty at 6:30 a.m.) to morning publication (I showed up at 3:30 p.m.). Computers came in. The sounds of newsroom and shop were muffled. Pete died in 1991. The chain came in. Layoffs and cutbacks followed. Circulation fell. The voice of a once-great paper, despite headlines that screamed, was muffled.

It's a new day. Long live the old Eagle.

Andrew L. Pincus is a classical music writer for The Eagle.


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