When Bruce Burdett first arrived in Bristol to start his new job at East Bay Newspapers in the mid-’70s, he was just two years out of college with only minimal experience working for his school …
When Bruce Burdett first arrived in Bristol to start his new job at East Bay Newspapers in the mid-’70s, he was just two years out of college with only minimal experience working for his school paper as well as a weekly and a daily in New Hampshire.
“I applied. I might have embellished my responsibility level a bit,” he said with a chuckle while chatting at his Bristol home on Friday. “I came down figuring I’d be a third-string reporter or something.”
Ros Bosworth Jr., the bigger-than-life longtime EBN publisher, had other plans for him.
“I arrived to find out that I was the editor of the Bristol Phoenix,” Mr. Burdett said, referring to EBN’s flagship weekly, founded in 1837.
That was in 1975 which means he’s been a newspaper editor at EBN for at least 45 years. Later this week, however, Mr. Burdett is saying goodbye to community journalism. In between, he’s been a writer, an editor, a manager, a calm presence in the newsroom and a friend and teacher to many professionals who have come and gone from the EBN building at 1 Bradford St., Bristol during that time.
“I’m just ready,” said Mr. Burdett, who lives in Bristol with his wife of 41 years, Jeanne, a teacher. (They both walk a five-mile loop on the East Bay Bike Path near their home every day of the year, no matter how cold.) They have two daughters, Erin and Kirstin, the older of whom gave birth to a girl, Emmy, a little over a month ago.
“It’s kind of fortuitous that we just had our first grandchild. I’ve been doing this a long time, and you just want to try different things. We’ve always sailed. We recently traded the sailboat in for a Maine lobster boat — 32 feet. We like to cruise around. We’re hoping to get back up to Maine and go all over the place. I’ve always talked about wanting to learn stuff like scuba diving, marine wiring — just take courses in things.”
Learned from a legend
The lure of the ocean is what brought him to EBN in the first place. Originally from Simsbury, Conn., he graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont in 1974. “I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I worked some on the college paper, but not that diligently. But I thought, maybe I could do that,” he said.
He went to see Ed DeCourcy, who along with Mr. Bosworth was considered the dean of New England community journalism at the time. Mr. DeCourcy edited the weekly Newport (N.H.) Argus-Champion and was also involved in the Keene Sentinel, a daily.
“He won national newspaper awards for editorials for years; he was a legend,” Mr. Burdett said. “He gave me a job that didn’t pay — proofreading — and writing a few things that couldn’t get them in much trouble.”
He learned many things from Mr. DeCourcy, such as “making a mistake in a newspaper is like climbing to the top of the Empire State Building with a feather pillow, breaking the pillow open in a high wind and then trying to pick up all the feathers.” He also learned the art of listening; when to shut up while interviewing someone who knew the topic better than yourself; and to avoid trying to be funny, as readers will decide that on their own.
His first real story was to write about a town meeting in Sunapee, one of about a dozen towns and villages the paper covered. “That was a riot because first of all, they had a potluck supper; they invited me in and fed me. Then I was furiously trying to keep up with all the things on the agenda that I didn’t understand; I had never been to a town meeting. But I loved some of the quotes I got.”
During one part of the meeting, officials were debating whether to spend a few thousand dollars to fix a rickety bridge. “This guy said, ‘I got a friend who sends his tractor over first and then walks over to get it,’” he recalled.
When he returned to the newsroom, Mr. DeCourcy “was in a stew” because deadline was fast approaching. Mr. Burdett said he was just finishing up his first draft. “He had two things to say about the story. First, he said, ‘That will be last first draft you ever write.’ But then he said, ‘Good quote — don’t hide it.’”
As much as he enjoyed working in New Hampshire, Mr. Burdett didn’t know many people there. His father grew up in Chatham, Mass., and he visited the Cape often. The waterfront is where he truly wanted to be.
“I came down to Bristol to visit a friend from college one time. Who comes over for dinner but Ros and Marcia Bosworth. As soon as he heard I was working for Ed DeCourcy, that was a better ‘in’ than had I gone to Columbia Journalism School. He said, ‘If you ever want to do newspaper work down by the ocean …” and that sounded pretty appealing to me.”
That’s why, he believes, he was hired as editor and not a starting reporter. “I think because I worked for Ed DeCourcy, (Ros) figured I much have learned something along the way. It was kind of a shock.”
One of his first assignments was covering the biggest event in town. “My very first Bristol Fourth of July Parade, they had a riot,” he said, noting it may have been the 1976 Bicentennial. “They were arresting people by the dozen. It was a huge parade, tons of people and a hot day. People still drink along the parade route, but not like then; it was completely out of control.”
Camera in hand, he remembers people “running down the street” in the opposite direction of the parade route, with police in pursuit, some getting tackled by police.
He recalled many other big stories the Phoenix and the other weeklies covered, such as the night a big tanker came up the bay in the fog and knocked out a leg of the Mt. Hope Bridge. “It’s amazing that it didn’t collapse. For the better part of the year, it shut down the link between Newport and Bristol counties. You had to go into Massachusetts to get from one to the next. It kind of snuck up on you on how bad it was.”
For pure enjoyment while reporting, he remembers riding down Narragansett Bay with an East Providence harbor pilot on a 600-foot ship outbound. “At the end, when you get outside Newport, you have to climb down the rope ladder over the side into the pilot boat. One minute the pilot boat is right beneath you, and then it’s 15 feet beneath you in swells.”
There were other stories — when containers fell from a barge in Little Compton, covering the beaches with teddy bears (he still has two), sneakers and furniture. Or when that same town came out against the U.S. Air Force and its GWEN post-nuclear attack communication towers (not to mention the movie, “The Witches of Eastwick”). Then there was the time he interviewed a woman who had lost her daughter to suicide on the Mt. Hope Bridge. By chance, several years later, she came upon another woman about to jump off, and she managed to talk her back from the edge. How about that infamous night when two Portsmouth Town Council members nearly came to blows while tiny Dorothy Edwards, later a state representative, held them apart?
Paste-up a chore
Along the way, technology evolved rapidly. Before the 1990s, putting a newspaper together was a real chore that relied on many different workers — unlike today’s downsized newsrooms in which a couple of people can pretty much get the paper out the door. When he first started, he was using an old manual typewriter — the kind where your fingers got caught between the keys.
“If you make a mistake, it’s like 15 minutes to fix it. You’d type it out, and then give it to a typesetter, who’d type it again. Then a machine would spit out the columns of paper. You’d wax them and paste them on the page. You loved and hated the proofreaders, because if they found a mistake, you’d end up cutting the word out, pasting it on while trying to keep it straight. Everything had to be typed — every obituary, every letter. If you couldn’t read a name, you couldn’t look it up online. There were people constantly coming up from the press to remind you that you were two hours late. Every picture had to be developed in the darkroom.”
The actual press used to be located inside the Bradford Street office. “The rule was, if you missed deadline, you had to stay and jog (sort) the papers, which was another couple of hours of hot labor.”
Movers, shakers and characters
One of his favorite parts of the job was meeting so many great local characters. The late John T. Pierce, Portsmouth’s former police chief, was one of them.
“He owned a tiny semi-submerged island in Blue Bill Cove, and the town would charge him $20 a year in taxes, which he’d bring down in pennies. He declared war on Tiverton one year, figuring he’d get defeated pretty easily and then he’d collect reparations,” he recalled.
He fondly recalled the late Barbara McLaughlin, who chaired numerous Portsmouth committees including Town Council and School Committee.
She was sharp as a tack, he said. He recalled the hearings to redevelop the former Weyerhaeuser property for waterfront housing. Teams of lawyers for the applicant emerged from their limo in the Town Hall parking lot to be cross-examined by Ms. McLaughlin on every point until, tails between their legs, they left humbled and defeated.
He has great admiration for the East Bay’s remarkable boatbuilders, such as Eric Goetz — he built America’s Cup boats for two competing syndicates at the same time — and Shannon Yachts’ Walter Schulz and his endless supply of big ideas.
Then there’s Gilbert Fernandez, who devoted his life to bringing osprey back to the Westport River with stunning success. Roger Chandanais, Westport owner of Roger’s Welding and a former Army diver, created a sort of submarine that he used to salvage a massive anchor off Martha’s Vineyard and almost killed himself in the attempt. (He also created a Texas-style dance hall in the backyard for his wife, who loved to dance.)
A team of Tiverton and Little Compton engineering students designed and built Scout, an unmanned solar powered boat that may still be out there trying to find Portugal. Colin Cook is still a world-class surfer despite losing a leg above the knee to a shark in Hawaii. His Tiverton and Little Compton friends, the same ones behind Scout, have designed a series of ever-improving carbon fiber limbs for him.
Editorials and ‘Waterfront’
Although he’s won numerous Rhode Island and New England writing awards, Mr. Burdett is perhaps best known to many for writing the former “Along the Waterfront” column for The Bay Window (now known as the Life section), as well as his astute, reasoned and persuasive editorials.
The “Waterfront” column started some time in the ‘80s. “Writing about the waterfront was a great excuse to go sailing on a Friday afternoon,” he joked.
As for editorials, Mr. Burdett said acquiring the skill to write a convincing op-ed piece actually improved his reporting. “Some people question how you can be objective in your news reporting when you clearly have an opinion about it in the same paper. I’ve always thought it’s easy to do that. You’re wearing two different hats. I felt that if I was going to write an editorial on something, I’d better make sure that every opposing viewpoint was in the story, otherwise there might be something to that criticism.”
Competing with the big boys
While covering the big stories and the small ones before the advent of the internet, Mr. Burdett and other weekly editors found it challenging to compete with dailies such as The Providence Journal, The Boston Globe, and The Newport Daily News.
“It was frustrating, and at a certain point (The Providence Journal) was quite good at local coverage. They certainly outmanned us. On the other hand, I think we had the advantage of knowing people in the community better. He recalled a rare murder in Portsmouth when Dennis Seale was police chief. “The TV stations were there, reporters from the Boston Globe and everything else. He made a point of coming over to me and saying, ‘Give me 15 minutes and I’ll come talk to you.’ To me, we kind of earned that.”
A Westport woman was a stewardess on a plane that flew into the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. The family home, with the husband and children inside, was inundated with media. The husband eventually came out and recognized the EBN reporter, and invited her to call him later. He appreciated her restraint.
While Mr. Burdett originally envisioned himself working for a niche speciality publication such as Wooden Boat Magazine, the more he got involved in community journalism, the more he was hooked.
“It’s harder to get closer to a constituency than that,” he said. “The people you’re writing about, you know them and you have to answer to them because you’re going to see them around town. The things you write about affect them deeply.”
At a small community paper, you have an obligation to treat a subject or story with more sensitivity, he said. “If you’ve hurt somebody in some way, you’re not leaving for some other state … They’ can walk right into your office the next morning. It’s a very personal thing. I like that about it; you get immediate reaction.”
For many years, Mr. Burdett was managing editor at EBN, but left that job to become editor of The Sakonnet Times, and then Westport Shorelines. “To me, I wasn’t able to do as much of what I like to do in that role,” he said of his managing editor stint, “which is writing and getting out in the community.”
That’s what he’ll miss most in retirement — not three hours at a school committee listening to “curriculum modalities,” “innovative communities or “pod-based core teaching.” And despite the downturn in the industry, he holds out hope for small community newspapers.
“These are certainly challenging times for newspapers but when I get concerned about that, I pick up any one of our papers or visit our website. For all their sheer volume of stuff, I don’t believe Twitter and the rest approach what we do in terms of local reporting. They don’t go to Planning Board meetings, they don’t celebrate the accomplishments of interesting people in town, they don’t talk to the people displaced by a fire, they don’t sweat much over accuracy, and they seldom seek out the several sides of a story. And, there are clearly many people who still value that.
“There’s something in all of us that likes to tell people stories, and this was my way to be able to do it.”