Newspaper Man

Author: Michael Blanding

It was the summer of ’69, and Matt Storin was waiting anxiously in the U.S. Capitol press gallery for the Senate’s return from its August recess. A month before, Massachusetts’ junior senator, Ted Kennedy, had driven off a bridge on the island of Chappaquiddick and plunged into a pond. Kennedy had swum free of the vehicle and left the scene of the accident, but his 28-year-old passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, was trapped inside the car and drowned.


Since the accident, Kennedy had been holed up silent in his family’s Hyannis Port compound, while rumors festered about whether he’d been drunk and why he had waited until the next morning to report the accident. As The Boston Globe’s Washington correspondent, Storin ’64 was determined to get the first interview.


“I know Teddy’s coming back, and he’s got to talk to somebody someday,” Storin says now, recounting the story over lunch at a seaside restaurant near his home in Camden, Maine. “I’m going to make sure it’s me.” Finally Storin spotted Kennedy on the floor of the Senate, wearing a dark, pinstriped suit and looking terrible. “Can you get Senator Kennedy off the floor?” he asked a page.


In those days of limited media outlets, senators were beholden to their hometown newspapers for coverage, and even a Kennedy knew where his bread was buttered. Kennedy came up, and he and Storin made small talk for a few minutes. Finally, Storin asked the question he’d been preparing — how the senator and presidential hopeful felt about Kopechne’s death. “I can live with myself. I feel the tragedy of the girl’s death,” Kennedy said. “But what I don’t have to live with are the whispers and innuendoes and falsehoods. Because those have no basis in fact.”


Storin wrote the story, giddy about his scoop at a party that night, at which an Associated Press reporter who covered the Kennedys was in attendance. “His whole job was covering the Kennedys. It was going to crush him,” Storin says. The next morning, the story appeared on the Globe’s front page under the headline, “Kennedy: ‘I Can Live With Myself,’” and was picked up by numerous other papers, including the International Herald Tribune. Kennedy’s words cemented the impression that he was unrepentant about the accident, which continued to hound him and effectively sank his intentions to run for president three years later.


It wasn’t the last time Storin would be an eyewitness to history, beating out the competition to get the story. In a 40-year journalism career, including eight years as editor of The Boston Globe, Storin racked up scoops and his paper pulled in Pulitzers through a relentless drive to be right and be first. “The dude is one of the most competitive people I have ever met,” says Greg Moore, who worked with Storin at the Globe and went on to become editor of The Denver Post. “Every day, he was focused on winning. When you came to work, you had to be ready to play and to answer the tough questions.”


By twist of fate, in 2017, twin feature films brought back to light two major stories in which Storin was involved as a young reporter: Chappaquiddick, about Kennedy’s accident; and The Post, about the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, the secret military documents leaked to the press that, some argue, helped end the Vietnam War. The occasion offered a fortuitous bookend for Storin to look back over a career of challenges and successes — and to reflect on the state of journalism in the era of fake news and Facebook.


Growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, with friends who were mostly older and bigger than him, Storin was a born scrapper. “I had to prove myself to them,” he says. His father worked in public relations for the Springfield Newspaper Company, and Storin began working at the Springfield Daily News during summers starting his junior year at Notre Dame. His senior year, he’d had a vague idea of wanting to be an FBI agent when the managing editor of the paper offered him a job.


Storin remembers the day he got hooked on reporting: November 19, 1964. While working on a story about the new interstate cutting through the city and interviewing a congressman who was a family friend, he got a tip that the Springfield Armory was going to be closed. The U.S. military’s premier manufacturer for firearms, the armory was the largest employer in the region, supplying thousands of jobs — and the morning paper didn’t have the story.


 “I take notes, and then I go up to the city desk, and there are bells and whistles going off — you’ve got to get this, you’ve got to get that,” says Storin. “It’s my story, because I got it.” Before he knew it, he was heading to Boston in his ’57 Ford to cover a union meeting, and then accompanying a union delegation down to Washington, D.C., to meet with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. “We were standing outside McNamara’s office in the most secure part of the Pentagon,” he says. “There probably hadn’t been a reporter there in 15 years, and I am only 22 years old.”


Blanding1Photos by Brian Bloom


The stories he wrote about the closing caught the attention of someone from Griffin-Larrabee News Service, and a month later, Storin was Washington-bound. “I was packing my little 6-month-old and my wife in my car — now a ’59 Ford, because the ’57 died,” he says. “It was the biggest piece of luck in my career.”


That heady experience was followed by a headier one. Over the next six years, Storin spent nearly every working day at the Capitol or the White House, first for the news service, and then for the Globe. In those days, the elite Washington press corps was a boys club with the exception of Helen Thomas, and to a man they were conscious of their role as news interpreters for the country. “We could feel the growing power of television, but looking back, newspapers were still in their golden age,” Storin says. He stood in awe of the older reporters, who would sometimes invite him and the other cubs to their three-martini lunches a block from the White House at the Roger Smith Hotel.


Often his scoops came from the Kennedys, such as when he was the first to report that Robert F. Kennedy would run for president in 1968. A few months later, Storin was one of the journalists who rode the “long, slow train” carrying Kennedy’s body from New York City to its burial in Arlington National Cemetery.


Eventually, Storin made his way back to Massachusetts, taking on increasing responsibility at the Globe. In the 1970s, the paper’s strong advertising base gave it enormous power and money, a far cry from the industry today. “I could be standing in the city room and one of my editors would come down the aisle and say, ‘Look, I’ve got to send so-and-so to Poland tonight,’ and we wouldn’t even check with anybody,” Storin says. “We’d just do it.” Under the lead of editor Tom Winship, the paper was also known as being knee-jerk liberal in its news and editorial pages. “God love him, he couldn’t help himself,” Storin says. “He was a lefty from dawn to dusk.”


It was only natural, then, that in 1971 former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg had chosen the Globe as one of a few newspapers to receive the Pentagon Papers, a classified report revealing over thousands of pages the United States’ disastrous missteps in the Vietnam War. The New York Times and The Washington Post had already published extensive stories on the papers when Storin and a few other reporters and editors filed into a hidden conference room in the Globe offices to see the documents. Another editor came in bearing a red plaid suitcase he’d received in a secret drop. The reporters stayed up until 1 a.m. sorting through the papers, and Storin was in the cafeteria eating beef stew when the news came over the loudspeaker. “A guy comes on and says The Washington Post was enjoined from publishing further reports of the Pentagon Papers,” Storin says. “I am sitting there saying, I know something you don’t know.”


The Globe was the third newspaper to publish the secret documents — catapulting the paper instantly into the realm of top newsmakers. “That was my finest moment in the newspaper business,” Storin says. “I just felt so good about that.” By 1975, the Globe made Time magazine’s list of the 10 best newspapers in the country.


His next proudest moment had to do with something the paper didn’t publish. At the time, the Globe’s highest aspiration was to beat its crosstown rival, the Boston Herald, a conservative tabloid. In 1983, when Storin was the paper’s managing editor, Boston’s four-term mayor, Kevin White, was playing Hamlet with whether he’d run for re-election when the Herald came out with a scoop, blaring it with three words that took up most of the front page: “White Will Run.” The editors at the Globe were kicking themselves — how did they miss this? As the day went on, however, Storin started getting suspicious. “It’s funny, nobody called us to say, ‘You guys really got screwed here.’” Something’s wrong, he thought. The Globe laid off the story, and sure enough, White went on television that night to contradict the Herald story, saying he wouldn’t run. Storin and his metro editor stayed up into the early hours of the morning so they could be the first to read the Herald’s mea culpa for missing the story. (The reporter accused White’s press secretary of deliberately misleading him.)


Shortly after that incident, in 1985, Storin left the Globe when he was passed over for editor, but he returned in 1992 and soon was named to the paper’s top job. By that time, Boston — like the newspaper business — was in flux, becoming more cosmopolitan and diverse.


One of Storin’s first goals was to change the perception of the paper as a liberal mouthpiece. He published a high-profile story on an immigrant and welfare mother who had brought more than 70 relatives into the country, all of them landing on the welfare rolls themselves, and a front-page interview with a leader of Operation Rescue, a passionate anti-abortion group. “That sent the signal that we were going to play things down the middle,” says Storin. The days of journalism as an exclusively white, male profession were also long gone; Storin professionalized hiring, rooting out nepotism and diversifying the staff to bring in more women and minorities, including making Greg Moore, who is African American, his managing editor.


“He changed my life,” Moore says. “I’ll never forget it.” Storin’s competitive drive forced everyone in the newsroom to bring their A-game to beat the competition, Moore remembers. “He hated the Herald — it was legendary,” Moore says, laughing. “His intensity could sometimes wear you down a little bit, but mostly it kept you on your toes and kept you focused.”


That competitive streak extended beyond the newsroom to include his alma mater, where Storin had proudly served as a student manager of the football program. “On letter-of-intent day when high schoolers sign on with college football teams, all of us paid attention to who was going to Notre Dame,” Moore says. But he learned from Storin’s thoughtfulness as well. “He was very fair and patient. We would discuss things for two or three days before making a final decision on anything. That’s when I learned, if you have time, take it.”




They didn’t always have that time, as was the case with another story involving the Kennedys, who were still enormously popular in Massachusetts. In 1997, Robert’s son Michael announced he was divorcing his wife. At the same time, the Globe received a tip that Michael Kennedy had carried on an affair with their babysitter, starting when she was 14. Kennedy initially denied the claim, and the newsroom agonized over whether to run with the story. Ultimately, they printed it. “That was one of the bravest stories we ever did,” says Moore. “I never saw so many editors standing over a story — we left the office saying, ‘Nobody is going to get any sleep tonight.’” The decision started a firestorm of controversy over whether Kennedy was guilty — and whether the Globe was right to air his family’s dirty laundry. Eventually Kennedy admitted to the affair, though he denied the girl was underage when it started, and she declined to press charges.


Storin faced an even more difficult decision the following year when the Globe fired African American columnist Patricia Smith, who admitted she had fabricated stories. That firing caused an uproar among some readers, who had long harbored suspicions of fabrication by the paper’s Irish American star columnist, Mike Barnicle, and decried the racial double-standard. When, two months later, Barnicle was found to have lifted jokes without attribution from a book by comedian George Carlin, Storin demanded he resign. Barnicle refused to go, and Storin backed down in the face of a concerted effort by readers and a prominent advertiser who threatened to pull subscriptions and ads if Barnicle left, suspending the writer for a month without pay instead. “It divided the newsroom by age group, and to some extent by gender,” Storin says. “Mike was very popular among people our age, especially men.”


Within two weeks, a retired Reader’s Digest editor credibly accused Barnicle of making up an anecdote in a 1995 column. Storin again demanded Barnicle’s resignation, and this time he got it. The incident — along with another case of fabrication by The New Republic’s Stephen Glass — sparked a national conversation about accuracy in journalism that led to tightened standards. For his part, Storin regrets how he handled the situation. “I survived, but there are things I would have done differently,” he says. “I probably should have fired him outright.” If there is one thing he learned from the scandal, it was not to hire columnists who hadn’t been trained as reporters.


Of course, the most painful part of the affair for Storin was watching the Herald gloat over the embarrassment. He had the last laugh: Under Storin, the Globe won four Pulitzer Prizes, including awards for beat reporting, commentary and architecture criticism, while the Herald earned none. And even after the scandal, his fellow editors in 1999 voted the Globe into a sixth-place tie on a Columbia Journalism Review list of the best newspapers in the U.S.


It was again a Kennedy story that gave Storin the first hint that the golden age of newspapers was over. When Princess Diana died over Labor Day weekend in 1997, the Globe sold a record number of papers by Tuesday. When John F. Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash during a July weekend in 1999, however, sales remained flat. What had changed in two years was the surge of news on the internet: “I saw the handwriting on the wall,” says Storin. “I began plotting my escape at that point. I had ridden that baby up, and I was not riding it down.” Storin left journalism in 2001, and the story of newspapers in the 21st century is well-chronicled: the cratering of advertising, the buyouts and layoffs, the closures and acquisitions, the belated attempts to enforce paywalls to recoup revenue.


None of it was readily foreseen. “The internet comes along, and we think, ‘Oh, what a novelty, we can get our stories out there,’” Storin recalls. “Even though in a part of our brain we knew they were also eating our lunch with advertising, we just never got that we ought to charge for it. It was a horrible mistake, and every newspaper did the same thing. We just gave it away.”


The possible loss of the kind of unbiased, accurate news coverage that newspapers represent is a real danger, Storin says. Few cities have two newspapers anymore, and many smaller cities don’t have even one, breaching an important public defense against corruption and graft. Storin points, for example, to a conspiracy in a small California city where officials scammed residents with hugely inflated salaries. One administrator made $1.5 million in salary and benefits. The city had no newspaper of its own, and by 2010, when the corruption was reported by the Los Angeles Times, it had gone on for years. “I’ve always said, readers get the coverage they deserve,” Storin says. “What I think is happening now — and Trump isn’t helping — is that people still take news coverage for granted. In fact, younger people think it should be free. We’ve got to go through a period of change where the public begins to crave better coverage.”


That doesn’t mean newspapers are dead. After all, shortly after Storin left the Globe, the paper broke the biggest story in its history — the systemic child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. And it’s still The New York Times, The Washington Post and other stalwarts reporting the big investigative stories today.


“I’m kind of a cockeyed optimist,” Storin says. “I think that journalism in the form we like to think of it, as probing, accurate, balanced news coverage, will survive, but in a completely different paradigm.” Outside of a few large newspapers such as the Times, the Post and The Wall Street Journal, he speculates that smaller newspapers can survive as experts in community news, while more nimble, internet-based publications will dominate the national scene. “There will be, for a lack of a better word, these duchies spread all over,” he says. Within the next 10 years, he suggests, some could be supported by foundations or academic institutions that value independent journalism. “South Bend is a city of 100,000 people, and it has a newspaper that is struggling. On Monday morning, it’s like tissue paper,” he says. “Yet Notre Dame — and there are so many college towns like this — is heavily invested in the community.”


After he left journalism, Storin came home to Notre Dame, where he served as a communications executive and taught journalism classes from 2002 to 2014. Now retired from the University, he presides over the Camden Conference, a nonprofit organization that brings experts and international leaders to Maine every year to discuss foreign policy.


Working at Notre Dame, Storin says, was a breath of fresh air after the intense cauldron of newspapers. “I still don’t like cocktail parties, because I am so used to people either wanting something from me, or wanting to criticize something the Globe did,” Storin says with a laugh. “Notre Dame allowed me to live in the present tense.”


Over the past decade, he claims to have mellowed his competitive streak — even though he hasn’t given it up completely. “Anyone who has seen me play pickleball or golf knows that,” he says. One thing that he will never get about the digital age, though, is seeing reporters tweet out adulations of each other’s stories. “It’s amazing to me that on Twitter, a New York Times reporter might post a Washington Post story and say, ‘Good job by so-and-so,’” he says, shaking his head. “We never would have done that.”


Michael Blanding is a Boston-based investigative journalist and freelance writer whose work has appeared in WIRED, Slate and The Nation. His profile of physicist and science writer Chet Raymo ’58, ’64 Ph.D. appeared in our winter 2017-18 edition.