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Outgoing publisher recounts newspaper's victories

BETHE DUFRESNE

Published December 22. 2001 9:00AM   Updated April 29. 2009 3:29PM
Outgoing Editor and Publisher Reid MacCluggage says the region's economic transition was the biggest story during his tenure at The Day.

New London –– Shortly after The Day's reporters and editors gathered this week to choose their top 10 local news stories for 2001, The Day's outgoing editor and publisher, Reid MacCluggage, was asked to do more or less the same for his 18-year tenure.

In both cases, filling out the list wasn't easy. But it was a snap to choose No. 1.
For the newsroom's choice, readers will have to wait.

For MacCluggage, the top story was easily the region's changeover from a defense-based economy to one based on casinos and tourism. It was a big story for the nation as well.

When MacCluggage was hired to lead The Day in 1983, no region in the nation was more dependent on the defense industry than southeastern Connecticut. Now, it hosts the two largest casinos in the world.

Yet for all the influence wielded by those major entities, MacCluggage said he regards this independent, mid-sized newspaper as the single most powerful organization in the region.

It's the region's major source of local news, and in some cases the only source, MacCluggage noted. Looking back, the biggest challenges he faced, he said, were challenges to The Day's ability to deliver that news to the public.

And some of the most memorable characters he faced, including Mashantucket Pequot tribal leader Skip Hayward and city crusader Claire Gaudiani, were those who one way or another tried to block the newspaper's mission.

In the mid-1990s, Hayward banned sales of The Day on the Pequot reservation, ostracized Day reporters and cancelled advertising in the paper. All this was in response to articles in The Day reporting that the tribe's Foxwoods Resort Casino had hired or done business with some individuals who had ties to organized crime.

In time, the tribe sought to renew its advertising. But MacCluggage refused, despite the loss of a six-figure income, until the newspaper could be sold again on the reservation. The standoff went on for almost two years before Hayward relented.

The big issue for The Day wasn't advertising, said MacCluggage. “The tribe was free to advertise with us, or not.” Nor was it reporter access. “We were well-sourced,” he said, even without the cooperation of the tribe's public relations department.

Hayward framed the dispute as a challenge to tribal sovereignty. But for The Day, said MacCluggage, the big issue was First Amendment protection.

The public, on the reservation or off, should have access to The Day, “or any other newspaper, ” MacCluggage said.

When the newspaper tangled with Claire Gaudiani, head of the New London Development Corp., it was “almost for the same reasons,” said MacCluggage. Gaudiani didn't want to open the NLDC's books to the public, claiming that, despite a hefty infusion of state funds, the NLDC was a quasi-private organization.

The Day won its case before the state's Freedom of Information Commission and, after Gov. John G. Rowland also weighed in on its side, prevailed.

While The Day has a responsibility to protect freedom of information, MacCluggage said he never sought or personally relished confrontation.

Some say journalists thrive on opposition. But MacCluggage asks, “How does it help us?” as a community.

There's a big difference, he says, between the bully on the street and the kid who will fight for his principles. The Day should be the kid who fights back when the public is threatened or deprived of information, MacCluggage said.

He was pleased when The New York Times once described The Day as “feisty.” But he never set out to change the world, he said, describing himself in simpler terms as a man who has always loved telling stories, and whose aim was to provide information.

The consequences of doing otherwise can threaten our world, MacCluggage said, citing safety lapses at the Millstone Nuclear Power Station that might have gone undetected but for The Day's investigative reports begun in the 1980s.

Some people have tried to characterize The Day's quests for information as attacks on the organizations in question. But MacCluggage said he's confident that most people appreciate that the paper is protecting their right to know.

In a parting message to Day employees this week, MacCluggage put The Day's preservation as one of the nation's last remaining independent newspapers at the top of a list of accomplishments during the last 18 years. The paper's status as a “spit-interest” trust was challenged by the IRS soon after MacCluggage arrived in New London.

“The community depends on that independence,” said MacCluggage, who was born in Norwich in 1938 during the week that Theodore Bodenwein's will was signed, turning The Day over to a perpetual trust that would return part of its profits to the community.

As for his own future role in this community, MacCluggage, who will divide his time between homes in Groton and in Florida, said he doesn't know precisely what it might be.

It won't be anything like the role he's played as editor and publisher, he said. That role belongs to Gary Farrugia now.

It's likely, however, that he will continue to be active in three local organizations that mean a lot to him, the Garde Arts Center, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Scholarship Fund and the Sports Foundation.

MacCluggage describes the annual Martin Luther King scholarship dinner as the most “electric” night in the region, an event that brings out the community at its best.
For the first time in his life, MacCluggage, a former managing editor at The Hartford Courant, is leaving a job in journalism without having another journalism job to go to. “I don't know yet how that's going to feel,” he said.

He may teach, and he may write.

Most of all, he said, “I hope I find something in retirement that completely surprises me.”

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