, Newburyport, MA

January 15, 2014

Big stories often start in small newsrooms

Al White

---- — MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow opened her show the other night with a rare admission for a broadcast journalist: “We really depend on local newspapers.”

Maddow went on to praise the local reporters who doggedly pursue stories that turn into national news when bigger papers, TV stations and networks take notice.

“Anytime you see a story on national TV that starts in a small town, odds are that story began with local reporters who would not give up and who reported it right and aggressively ...

“And so it is with today’s bombshell news about the administration of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the world’s busiest bridge and the manufactured traffic jam that choked the little town of Fort Lee. That story started with the local newspaper, The Record of Bergen County.”

Maddow then introduced the reporter who broke the Christie story for The Record: Shawn Boburg.

Shawn got his start with The Daily News of Newburyport’s sister paper, The Eagle-Tribune, and ran up an impressive record as a reporter before moving on to The Record in 2006.

He was one of the lead reporters on The Eagle-Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the drowning deaths of four boys in the Merrimack River in December 2002. A photo of Shawn and other staffers gathered at Columbia University to collect the prize is on my office wall.

Shawn also helped produce a string of investigative reports for The Eagle-Tribune, demonstrating the same resourcefulness and persistence that resulted in the Christie “bombshell.”

One was an expose of the epidemic of auto insurance fraud in Lawrence, reported and written with Mark E. Vogler and Marjory Sherman. That won a national Society of Professional Journalists Public Service Award.

Another was a series on chronic teacher absenteeism in public schools across the North of Boston region, a problem that robbed students of important learning time and cost schools hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That series, written with David Joyner and others, appeared in The Eagle-Tribune, The Salem News, The Daily News of Newburyport and the Gloucester Daily Times.

The “Bridgegate” story first attracted the attention of the Record when it became clear there was something fishy about the nightmarish traffic jams that for days afflicted Fort Lee, at the foot of the George Washington Bridge.

Boburg’s beat at The Record is the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the bridge.

“As you know, the official line in the beginning was that this was a traffic study,” Boburg told Maddow. “But the more we asked questions, the more things didn’t quite measure up.”

That’s what good reporters do: ask questions and keep asking them when the answers don’t make sense.

Last week, after a “relentless” pursuit of public documents over several months, Boburg wrote a story based on some of those documents.

They showed that officials in Christie’s administration orchestrated the gridlock by closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to retaliate against the mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to endorse Christie’s re-election.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” one official emailed Christie’s man on the Port Authority.

Christie at first laughed off the growing scandal, mocking reporters like Boburg who dared question him. But he was forced into a humiliating press conference last week in an attempt to salvage his hopes for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Shawn was and is a terrific reporter. He’s one of many who have worked for or continue to work for The Eagle-Tribune and our sister papers. We’re proud of them.

They do great and important work, as do countless journalists for hundreds of community newspapers like ours. Without their work, many, many stories would never see the light of day.

It’s nice to see that recognized. So, thank you, Rachel Maddow.


Al White is a Plum island resident and the editor of The Eagle-Tribune.