Steve Kurkjian Is Still Asking Tough Questions

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By Tom Nash
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BOSTON — In a Boston Globe piece reminiscing on his experience covering the Woodstock music festival, Steve Kurkjian recalled himself as a law student “with no clear direction for my future.”
The chaos surrounding the generation-defining event helped inspire Kurkjian to decide on journalism as a career. Three years later, he had his first of three Pulitzers, awarded for exposing corruption in Somerville.

Sitting with Kurkjian over lunch, we spent hours talking about how much had changed, and hadn’t changed, in 40 years.

In 2009, the corruption in Somerville is still there. The story of hundreds of thousands of dirty people listening to rock music as the world seemed on the brink of destruction has found its way into American history textbooks.

In 2009, journalism, a field in which Kurkjian is one of its most lauded practitioners, is nearly dead.

After nearly four decades at the Boston Globe, Kurkjian took a buyout from the paper in 2007. He’s reluctant to go into details, but it is widely known that after massive consolidation moves by papers across the country earlier in the decade, executives soon targeted their newsrooms.

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But Kurkjian seems impervious to the idea that the skill-set he has spent a lifetime building would ever go out of fashion. Retirement for him has meant, in some ways, that he is busier than ever.

In the two years since taking a buyout from the Globe, Kurkjian lists a few of the projects he’s working on: authenticating an Armenian Genocide photo (“I’ve been working on it too long. Five years.”), exposing conflict-of-interest issues with Partners Health and helping take down House Speaker Sal DiMasi.

The investigative unit of the paper, known as the Spotlight Team, still relies heavily on both his ability to fit puzzle pieces of documents into a narrative and a reputation built on a fearsome ability of getting the story.

“People need this stuff, and I know how to do it,” Kurkjian explains. “People out there return my phone calls when I say ‘I’m Steve Kurkjian from the Globe.’ In both cases, the source said ‘I will only deal with you. I’m not going to give it to anybody else.’”

Around this time, Kurkjian also began teaching a class at Suffolk University on the decline of newspapers. In December 2008, when he agreed to teach the course, the thought of the Globe going under seemed impossible.

In April, the New York Times, the Globe’s owners, threatened to shut the paper down if it didn’t squeeze millions of dollars in concessions from its unions. The paper was on track to lose $85 million in 2009.

The class Kurkjian was teaching about papers everywhere else suddenly became about the paper no one thought could suffer the same fate as papers in Ann Arbor or Seattle.
“I’m telling (my students) why it won’t happen here, why the Globe is protected by its legacy within the community,” Kurkjian recalled. “I had no idea that the Globe was on the schedule of losing $85 million for the New York Times Company. Nothing is sacred in this business. It made it real to me as well as illuminating it to my class.”

The Globe emerged from the crisis, with the paper’s unions eventually giving way to the pressure from the Times. What followed was months of speculation about a probable sale, with the end of 2009 coming and the Times announcing it would hold on to the paper.

Most read that as the company being unwilling to part with a $1 billion investment for with what it’s now worth — almost nothing.

I ask Kurkjian where the sources he has cultivated are supposed to go if there’s no newspaper.

He sighs.

“My son became a sports reporter,” Kurkjian says, “There wasn’t enough money. Now he works for a website, and he’s doing better. I said, ‘Just keep in it, we’re gonna figure it out — a business model that makes it work. People are still going to aspire to get factual information told concisely.”

So Kurkjian will keep teaching the art of investigation. After all, he says, it holds practical value beyond exposing cover-ups. Everyone needs to know how to go to look up property records or find out what laws are on the books.

“It’s a very practical class. You can really use things that you know. The skill set we learn as reporters is immense in dealing with the outside world. Preparation is everything.”

Retirement

On top of the busy reporting and teaching schedule Kurkjian keeps, he is now also a full-time grandfather. His grandson is perhaps the only thing he’s more excited to talk about than the investigative reporting class he hopes to teach again.

“What I hope to be able to do is get back to my retirement,” Kurkjian admits.

What Kurkjian means by retirement at this point is analyzing an Armenian Genocide photograph. He’s been working on it for five years, with historians ranging from Hilmar Kaiser to Vahakn Dadrian. Also on the list is finishing a book about the Isabella Gardner Museum heist — a project that has been years in the making. He hints that he knows who did it, but is not willing yet to give away with any information.

He pauses for a second, as if realizing he doesn’t know what retirement really means, that most people don’t expose health insurance companies and politicians in their free time.

“It’s been a very busy one,” he concludes.

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