Reflections On The 10th Anniversary of the Observer

(Editor's note - the following column was written by Observer publisher John Murray in October 2003, on the 10th anniversary of the newspaper. Eight years later the newspaper has transitioned into the digital world with new computers, digital cameras and a bustling website. The drama for survival, however, continues)

  The Waterbury Observer recently celebrated it’s tenth anniversary, and although this column may appear to be the sound of one hand clapping, I’m going to stop and celebrate some of the highs and lows along the journey.

   Any newspaper across America has the responsibility to reflect the community back upon itself, and somewhere along the way the Observer morphed into the chaos of the city. As Waterbury struggles and groans to transition itself from an industrial giant there has been an explosion of social problems that has permeated the community, problems that the Observer absorbed.

   Illness and mayhem seeped through our door.

   During the past decade the staff at the Waterbury Observer has supplied me with as much drama and amusement as a traveling carnival. The more than 70 characters that have come in and out of my life represent a colorful cross section of Waterbury. There has been excellence and quality, or I wouldn’t be writing this column today. Sadly, though, the individuals with character and integrity were few and far between. I hired alcoholics, drug addicts, mental cases, felons, obsessive compulsive liars and cheats.

   Money disappeared, bottles of booze were concealed in desk drawers, and one salesperson went so low as to deliver a newspaper to a client with a used condom tucked neatly inside the fold. After his unseemly act the salesperson disappeared with all his files and contacts. He later sent me a Western Union telegram informing me that he was experiencing a mental breakdown.

   Thanks for the update.

   One summer while running a Youth Services program out of the Observer, two Waterbury teenagers had a rift and threatened to shoot each other the following day at work. They were members of rival gangs, one Hispanic and the other black. Both vowed to show up with their posse in the morning, armed and ready to settle the score. Several hours of telephone calls and an old-fashioned mediation session averted a potential tragedy.

   Another time a young black male was hired through a co-op program to work three months as a budding journalist, but the only story he wanted to write was why NBA basketball star Latrell Sprewell was justified in choking his head coach, P.J. Carlisimo. Instead, I sent him to the mall to interview teenagers about being hassled by security guards. He disappeared for several months before showing up at the office to demand a paycheck. When I challenged him to document what he had done, he exploded and launched a sharpened #2 pencil at my face. The lead point struck me in the forehead, missing my eye by about an inch.

   I decided to play Latrell Sprewell and choke the kid, but he backpedaled out of the office and threatened to shoot me for the disrespect I had shown him. A visit to the Waterbury Police Department revealed that the kid had been arrested several times for violent outbursts, but a detective informed me that the kid was just a punk, and not likely to follow through on his threat.

   Much relived, I returned to the office to tangle with the fear of dying at the hands of inner city kid who idolized Latrell Sprewell.

   The threats weren’t just from disgruntled employees either. Gary Frank’s older brother threatened to kill me for an unfavorable article published in the Observer after Chris Dodd crushed Gary in a race for the U.S. Senate. Gary had been clobbered throughout the state and had been unable to even carry Waterbury, his hometown. Apparently the article enraged Gary’s brother, because he started yelling and swearing at me while I stood naked in the shower at the YMCA. When I told him where he could stick it, he responded that I was going to die.

   Although I didn’t take his comment literally, who wants to be verbally assaulted while lathering up in a communal shower? Couldn’t he have waited until I had toweled off and dressed?

   Another exciting memory was the uproar that ensued after we published a photograph of three topless women at the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans. There were 20 photographs in the photo essay, but the only one greater Waterbury noticed was the buxom strippers baring their breasts from a window high above a mob of revelers along Bourbon Street. One reader lobbied prosecutor John Connelly to have me arrested for distributing pornography, and an irate postal worker walked into our office on Baldwin Street and threw the newspaper in my face.

   The furor lasted for weeks as calls of support and disgust flooded the office. Channel 8 even sent a news crew to Waterbury to report about the incident and promoted “Nudity in Waterbury newspaper” all afternoon on radio and television teasers. With all the important events swirling around in Connecticut, Channel 8 deemed our publication of that photograph one of the top news stories of the day. Go figure.

   But thankfully, there have been plenty moments of triumph and joy that drown out the absurdity.

    One of the most remarkable relationships I’ve had at the Observer in the past ten years is with Governor John Rowland. While we are the same age, we couldn’t be much different in appearance or political point of view. Despite our differences, or maybe because of them, he has provided me with unencumbered access numerous times during his run as Governor. I’ve shadowed him around the state on three separate election days and was the only journalist in Connecticut to be in the room with him at the moment he knew he had been elected the youngest Governor in state history.

   John Rowland has allowed me to ride around in his car for hours while he talked on the cell phone with the White House, or stood alone on the porch in the Governor’s mansion as he talked with former president George H.W. Bush. I was the lone journalist to witness Bill Curry’s historic concession call in 1994, but the significance of access goes beyond historic value, it harpooned the notion held by the local Republican Party that the Observer was a mouthpiece for Mike Bergin and the Democrats.

   Their theory went like this...we have our own paper, The Republican-American, and the Democrats have now launched their own - The Observer. While we knew that was untrue, the Republican response to the Observer’s emergence was like getting served a slice of burnt toast smeared with fresh cow pie.

   They found us indigestible.

   But John Rowland saw through the ridiculousness and reached his hand out to us as we toiled away in my dingy apartment above the Bunker Hill Deli. Rowland’s acceptance of the Observer opened Republican eyes in Waterbury. If the big boss was willing to cooperate, maybe we should talk with them too. Rowland’s willingness to accept the Observer opened doors to power in and around Waterbury, and gave us added credibility and respect.

   Right now the Governor is embroiled in his own controversy as the FBI is conducting a federal investigation into how state contracts have been doled out during his administration. The Hartford Courant has him reeling from “Cottage-gate”, as they probe around the specifics of how the Governor financed renovations on his private cottage on Bantam Lake. Personally, I hope he fights his way out of the corner. I have found him to be a decent man with a wicked sense of humor. His downfall, if it ever comes, would be a devastating blow to the psyche of Waterbury. He’s been the city’s #1 cheerleader and Sugar Daddy these past nine years. Many people in Waterbury, including myself, our holding our collective breath.

   Another politician that gave us immediate access and support was Mike Bergin, who, when we launched the newspaper in 1993, was seeking his seventh term as Waterbury’s mayor. Bergin and his father had long feuded with the Pape family, the long-time publishers of the Waterbury Republican-American newspaper. The Bergin-Pape feud was Waterbury’s very own Hatfields versus the McCoys, the only difference being that instead of being a couple of hayseeds, they were the two most powerful families in Waterbury.

   Bergin long felt that the Republican American had done everything in its power to upend his administration. The paper used journalistic chicanery and published absurd photographs and stories of the mayor, drawing the attention of national journalism trade magazines that lampooned the Republican-American’s tactics.

   When the Observer emerged upon the scene just a week before the 1993 municipal election, Bergin left a message on our answering machine and said that we had just published the most comprehensive and fair election coverage in the history of Waterbury. All we had done was interview all three candidates and tape-record the interviews. We transcribed the material and published them over 18 open pages in the Observer. We gave all three candidates equal coverage and endorsed no one. We just provided information and encouraged readers to vote. That format has become the signature of the Observer’s election coverage these past 10 years, a tradition we plan to continue.

   After Bergin was re-elected the Pape-Bergin feud reached a climax, and the Observer found itself in the crossfire. When the Rep-Am published slanted stories and photographs about the condition of the Palace Theatre, we published images and stories that more accurately portrayed the splendor that still existed. When the Rep-Am stopped publishing press releases from the Bergin Administration, we were contacted and asked by the Mayor why we didn’t publish the information. When we told him that we didn’t have enough money to publish everything that came our way, the mayor said he wanted to purchase two pages of advertising space in every issue of the Observer. We agreed as long as the ads weren’t self-promotional or political, and for 18 months the city of Waterbury ran ads in the Observer touting school and community news.

    The Rep-Am then tried to bury us with several front-page stories about the little tabloid paper being propped up by Bergin with taxpayer dollars. Bill Pape’s dislike of the Observer was so deep that he personally called some of our advertisers to question why they placed ads in our paper.

    Pape’s strategy backfired because nobody likes a bully, and he underestimated the community’s contempt for the Republican-American’s ongoing abuse of power. The people of Waterbury were starving for another source of news, and despite our bungling business strategy, it has been community hunger for change that has sustained us this past decade.

    Despite a rocky start with Phil Giordano - he distrusted us as a Bergin mouthpiece - we eventually had an exceptionally good working relationship with him. Former Observer editor Dave Howard and I would visit Giordano every two weeks for an in-depth bull session. We had some remarkable conversations with Giordano, and both Dave and I found him charismatic, high energy and very funny. Phil also had an ego the size of Alaska and saw his political career ending as Vice President of the United States. The only reason he saw himself playing second fiddle is that he was born in Venezuela, so he legally couldn’t be elected President. Just a minor detail.

   Phil also had a penchant for lying and we caught him in several whoppers, but no matter how we reframed it for him, he wouldn’t change his tune. As it turns out Phil was far more than charismatic and funny; he was a corrupt, womanizing, pedophile who is now serving 36 years in federal prison. Like almost everybody else around him, the secret life of Phil Giordano caught us completely off-guard.

    Who could of guessed?

    Besides politics, the Observer focused much of its energy these past ten years writing about the underdogs in Waterbury - Blacks, Hispanics, the homeless, rape victims, battered women, prostitutes and those infected by the HIV virus. It became our mission to shine a light into the darkened corners of the city - into the shadows - to explore people, issues and events largely ignored by the Republican-American newspaper. There was much to cover.

    We explored the neighborhoods and wrote the first in-depth features about the histories of the Black and Hispanic communities in Waterbury. We also documented the Italian, Irish, Albanian and Jewish experiences in the city. We plumbed through Waterbury history to provide our 30,000 readers with stories about the geology and history of the land, the Native American experience, and the coming of the white European settlers and the hardships they faced in trying to establish the Mattatuck Plantation 320 years ago.

    Our curiosity didn’t stop at the Waterbury town line. During the past ten years Observer writers have traveled throughout the world and provided Waterbury with in-depth stories about Alaska, California, Hawaii, the Deep South, Israel, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Chile, Nicaragua, China and India. Many Waterburians believe there is a bubble over this city that separates Waterbury from the rest of the planet. It is our belief that we are all connected, and we bring national and international stories to our readers to expand horizons and lance the parochial bubble.

    There is indeed a big and beautiful world outside of Waterbury.

   Last Spring I wrote several columns against the impending war on Iraq because the local and national media wasn’t expressing what was in my head and heart. The country was intoxicated with nationalism, entranced by the drumbeats of war. But there were alternatives to George Bush’s race to war. Many people in America agreed with the United Nations, France and Germany, that we should uncover every peaceful possibility before invading Iraq. Although railing against the war in the Waterbury Observer might seem like a piddle of energy thrown at a hurricane, it’s all we could do, and we did it.

   There are several stories that we have run in the past ten years that I am especially proud of. Here are a few of my favorites -

   • Hiking the Hood - Friend and journalist Dan White and I spent 14 hours walking on foot along Baldwin Street, South Main, North Main and Walnut Street exploring the toughest neighborhoods in Waterbury. We talked with gang members, drug dealers and bartenders. We wandered in and out of shops and homes, and we’re warmly greeted by nearly everyone we met. Most people were astounded that two journalists had wandered into the neighborhood and wanted to ask their opinion.

   • Eileen Hosier and Her Dogs - David Howard and I entered Eileen Hosier’s house 90 minutes before city officials, and the statewide media, surrounded her home to remove more than 30 dogs that lived with her in her house. The inside of Hosier’s house reeked of dog urine, but it was her house, and we defended her right to live the way she wanted. Dave Howard later described the situation as what it might of felt like to be inside David Koresh’s compound in Waco, Texas - on the inside, looking out - surrounded by police and media.

   • Survivor - The incredible story of Donna Palomba who was raped in her Overlook home and then victimized by a bumbling Waterbury police officer who accused her of fabricating the story and threatened to arrest her. Palomba fought back against the Waterbury Police Department and eventually won a lawsuit against their prehistoric behavior.

    • Radium Girls - A heartbreaking story about dozens of young women who worked at the Waterbury Clock and Watch Company 80 years ago and were poisoned by the radium they painted on glow in the dark watches. The tragedy occurred at two other plants in the United States, but the horrific series of events that unraveled in Waterbury had never been reported in the local media until free-lance writer Ann Quigley profiled the women in the September 2002 Observer.

   • The Struggle - The first in-depth story ever published in Waterbury about the history of the black Community. The story began with the memories of Samson, a rugged laborer in the 1830s who recalled being abducted from the shores of East Africa as a child. For decades the most frequently published photographs of blacks in Waterbury was of a black man in handcuffs being led off to jail. We tried to change that and document the positive impact Waterbury’s black community has had on city history.

   • Citizen Pape - In the midst of the 1995 municipal election the publisher of the Republican-American, Bill Pape, conducted a witch-hunt of historic proportion in his attempt to oust Mike Bergin from the mayor’s office. Pape’s actions were so out of bounds that we dedicated an entire issue to uncovering the Republican bias that had been jammed down Waterbury’s throat for nearly 100 years by the daily newspaper.

   • The Byar’s family - When Crosby High School student Tisha Byars was suspended for refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag, it triggered an outpouring of racial slurs aimed at the student and her family, who are black. Listening to Tisha’s father, Dennis, explain his rationale was a mind expanding experience and I found myself agreeing with him. There never was “liberty and justice for all” so why mouth empty words? When we put Tisha on the cover of the Observer and explained the Byar’s stance we quickly became the target. Advertisers pulled ads; I was called a “Nigger lover”, and much worse. But in the past ten years I haven’t met a more impressive family than the Byars, they challenged the community, and the Observer, to think.

   • Across Thin Ice - The story of a 13,000 mile trip to a Tibetan Refuge Camp in the jungles of South India where I had the extraordinary opportunity to listen to the Dalai Lama for five days as he taught 10,000 monks in a prayer hall. It was a once in a lifetime experience.

   Some of my favorite characters that we have written about are Ziggy the Flagman, who has paraded through Waterbury for five years dressed like Captain America, and several community activists; Andy Michaud, Dave Gilmore and Jimmy Griffin.

    Both Michaud and Gilmore morphed from Observer subjects to Observer columnists, and during the past seven years each of them has written columns that uncovered information about the inner workings of city government that scooped the local and statewide media. Along with the dogged effort of another Observer columnist, Jim Szynkiewiz, it goes to show that you don’t have to have a degree in journalism to reveal the truth. Passion goes a lot further.

    While the editorial side of the newspaper was an immediate home run, the business side has been a daunting challenge. The Observer is free to readers, but there is a definite cost to printing and distributing it. Our advertisers, mostly small businesses in greater Waterbury, have covered those costs and they have provided the octane to fuel the Observer these past 10 years.

    While we have many excellent clients right now, just a few have been with us for most of the past decade. The Shaker family has been a tremendous supporter for buying the back page of the Observer for nine and a half years. Atty. Tim Moynahan, Dr. Steve Rosa, Martin and Rowland Insurance, the Old Corner Cafe, Schmidt’s & Serafine’s, Ann’s Deli, Della Pietra Pharmacy, Lana Ogrodnick, Red’s Stump Removal, The Connecticut Dance Theatre, Staywell Health Center, Fascia’s Chocolates, The Big Dipper, Tequila’s, TC’s Pawn Shop, Bank Street Dental, and Hank Paine at The Connecticut Store have provided the glue that’s held this paper together.

   They are all small businesses and have provided me with personal encouragement as I have stumbled my way along the path. These businesses are all top notch, but other less scrupulous businesses have tried every flim-flam known to mankind. We have absorbed loses well over $150,000 from businesses that placed ads, but for a variety of reasons, then refused to pay for them. One highly visible local attorney placed $1000 worth of ads and then dared us to sue them to collect. We did, and we eventually got our money. What was the point?

   Another highly prominent business in Waterbury is currently withholding a $1000 payment until the Observer writes a feature story about them, which they will never get. The editorial content of the paper is not for sale.

    While it’s tempting at times to name these unethical business owners in print, I hesitate to use the Observer as a forum to dole out punishment. Unlike another newspaper in town, the Observer is not a tool for revenge.

    In closing there are several individuals inside the Observer family that I would like to publicly thank for their contribution this past decade....

   • Marty Begnal - Marty was my partner when we launched the Observer in 1993 and the Waterbury Observer was his idea. He worked 100-hour weeks for two years before he left Waterbury to pursue other interests. Marty’s mother and father were both instrumental in helping us launch the paper as they helped sell ads and deliver newspapers. The Begnal family was key to the paper’s success. Marty is now married and working as an editor at a small daily newspaper in Michigan.

    • David Howard - Dave, Marty and I worked together at the Register-Citizen newspaper in Torrington for three years before Marty and I left to start the Observer. Dave eventually worked at the Republican-American for two years before launching a freelance career and joining the Observer as our editor. After two memorable years, Dave followed his heart to Manhattan, where he has written for National Geographic Adventure Magazine, Outside, Travel and Leisure, the NY Times, Connecticut Magazine and written a book about adventure activities in and around NYC. He currently lives in NYC with his wife, Ann Quigley, and they are expecting their first child in the Spring of 2004.

    • Maureen Griffin - Maureen helped transition the Observer through two of its toughest stretches. Hired as a graphic designer, she became our entire sales department when we lost five full time salespeople following the ruckus surrounding the infamous Mardi Gras photograph. Within two weeks Maureen sold more advertising space than the entire previous sales force combined. It showed what a professional, honest and conscientious individual could accomplish. Maureen carried the business side of the Observer on her back for three years and for that I will always be indebted. Without her the Observer would have crashed and burned six years ago.

    • Jesse Grant - Jesse was the first bonafide salesperson at the Observer. He had a hunger for customer service and a passion to spread the word about the newspaper through the community. After 18 months at the Observer, he left in 1995 to relocate down south. After stints in Florida, South Carolina and Atlanta, Jesse returned to the Observer nine months ago and continues to spread the word about the Observer. He’s a gem.

   Additionally, I would like to thank Sonja Blass, Patrick Dowling, Kerri Graham, Quajay Donnell, Anthony Vargas, Peggy Tehan, Bill Masone, John Houston, John Acerbi, Trish Eastwood, Chuck Puskarz and Bob DeZinno for saving my behind at one time or another. Quajay saved me more than once. You da man.

    Everybody listed above has come and gone through the Observer’s revolving door. The only enduring presence at the Observer these past ten years has been my family. My father, Stuart, has balanced the business checking account every month and prepares my tax returns. He has helped finance the purchase of camera equipment and slipped me a few dollars to plug the holes in my empire of Swiss cheese.

    My mother, Sarah, was our first investor when Marty Begnal and I were just a couple of knuckleheads howling at the moon. She has continued to be the Observer’s biggest supporter, mailing newspapers all over the world to her family and friends. The monthly postage bill drives my Dad nuts, but she sends the paper to congressmen, senators, governors, and even corresponded with Bill Pape a few years back. Bill Pape’s father, and my mother’s father, were classmates at the United States Naval Academy in 1923. What a small world.

    In addition to conducting her public relations blitz every month my mother has continued to encourage me through some of the darker moments in Observer history. The vacillating Observer has morphed from 12 employees at some times, to just me at other times. It’s the moments when I find myself totally alone - a newspaper of one - that I rely on my mother’s message of “you can do it”.

    My ultimate inspiration, though, has been my daughter, Chelsea. She is the one person on the planet who has continually been at the Observer for ten years, and it soars beyond the fact that she is my daughter and can’t get away from me. She was immersed in the paper from the beginning, snuggled between Marty and me as we drove around the city talking about starting our own newspaper.

    Chelsea was five years old when the paper started in the dining room of our Bunker Hill apartment. She helped deliver the first issue of the Observer handing out copies to pedestrians along Bank and Grand Street. “Read my Dad’s paper,” she said. “It’s cool.”

    For two years the Observer was based inside her home as we grew from two employees in the dining room, to five in the living room. Andy Michaud used to come in and out of the apartment trying to spin the news one way or another, and Chelsea became his friend. She sat in on interviews with Mike Bergin and Phil Giordano and helped me follow John Rowland around one day from Stamford to Meriden. Chelsea even started taking her own notes at age eight when we went to Dennis Byar’s home to talk about the Pledge of Allegiance.

   Four years ago the Observer downsized from seven employees to two, and began publishing once a month, instead of every two weeks. The move was based on a conscious decision to spend more time being a parent, and less time being a bad manager. And the time spent going on field trips, helping with homework and watching Chelsea play soccer has been intensely rewarding. It’s been a rich and wonderful time in my life. And now Chelsea is writing a monthly column in the Observer, covering the wild, wonderful and wacky world of teenagers in America.

    Several times during the past four years the downsizing went a little too far and I found myself publishing a monthly community newspaper alone; selling the ads, making the ads, writing the stories, taking the photographs, laying the paper out and delivering it. At times the process was overwhelming and every once in a while I threw myself a little pity party, but all I needed to get me going again was to look at a photograph of my daughter. If I didn’t suck it up and go, my house of cards was going collapse.

   And I would go.

   At times I would go to provide home and food and clothing for my family, at times I would go because I was energized about the feature story and the greater truth I hoped it revealed to Waterbury, and at times I would go because I knew the alternative was unthinkable.

    Sometimes I feel like the Chinese student who stood defiantly before a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square, only in this case the tanks represent all the reasons why the Observer should have collapsed years ago. But like the student who stood up against the tanks, I am not alone. While the student represented millions of Chinese who clamored for change, the Observer is backed by tens of thousands of people in greater Waterbury, readers and businesspeople, who want a different voice in the city, they want another newspaper.

    It's been a wild and kooky ten years, but we’re still here, and for that I’m thankful.