Shelley Lawrence photo
Richard Asinof, an Advocate editor in the very early days, predicted that the paper would become "one of those publications that's famous for being the place where talented people used to work." Here's a case in point.
In the early '80s, the Advocate got a new managing editor. A young writer who had made a name for himself as an investigative reporter at the New Haven Advocate was brought in from Connecticut and spent two years here. Jonathan Harr moved on from his short tenure at the Advocate to work for New England Monthly, then to fully dedicate his time to writing.
Harr has since produced two non-fiction books: the national best seller A Civil Action, which was made into a feature film starring John Travolta, and the New York Times best-seller The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece. He has contributed to The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. He lives part-time in Northampton. The Advocate spoke with Harr recently about his time at the paper and how it influenced his subsequent choices.
Advocate: Can you tell me how long you were at the Advocate and a little about your time here?
Harr: How long was I there? Long time ago, so it's difficult to remember. I think I came in 1981 from New Haven, from The New Haven Advocate, where I worked for a year, and I left in 1983.
How did your time here influence your nonfiction writing and reporting since? Did you find that you garnered any valuable or applicable experience?
You know, I was an editor. I was the editor of the Valley Advocate. So it doesn't apply to writing. The thing I learned there is that I didn't want to be an editor, I wanted to be a writer. It was a different organization, it was a different time—I think there were four reporters and then there was a culture editor. So there were quite a few people to work with and the news coverage was pretty extensive of local events and events in the Valley. It was just the headaches of a managing editor, you know? You're doing 30 things at once and thinking about putting out the paper. It was a six-day-a-week job. & And I'm not good at doing 30 things at once. I like to focus on one thing, which is writing the piece that I'm writing. That's more or less what made me realize that wasn't the direction in which I wanted to go.
What role do you think the Advocate has played and how has it, or how have "alternative" newspapers in general, contributed to American journalism?
If you go back in time, the Advocate played an absolutely seminal role. I think in the late '70s, when it began, through the '80s it was really a good local news organ. I've been away for a while, so I don't exactly know what it's like now. I used to think what we did was important, but probably people mostly picked it up for reviews and listings of where music was playing and movies and stuff. I think that's always true—that's a big service that newspapers render.
Alternative newspapers give you the idea that they give you an alternative to the point of view of traditional, mainstream media. Before the age of the Internet, when there were tens of thousands of different views out there, it was vitally important. Some [alternative newspapers] are obviously better than others. Some are simply shopping vehicles or listings vehicles and some are better that have news staff, which is difficult to do nowadays. Traditional mainstream media is cutting back on news staff, even the New York Times, certainly the LA Times. So it's difficult for a small paper that is free and relies on advertising, it's difficult to carry an editorial weight.