Editorial: Neighborhood newsman Chris Lovett signs off from TV role

Chris Lovett

There was a notable transition in Boston’s journalism world last week. Chris Lovett, the longtime anchor and news director of BNN-TV’s Neighborhood Network News, closed the program last Friday with breaking news of his own: This was his final show on the longtime cable access network where he had been the lead anchor since 1987. Now age 68, he plans to continue to contribute to local journalism, but has decided that it’s time to step away from the grind of producing a nightly news program.

“I’ve been a full-time staff member here for 34 years,” Lovett noted. “For this kind of work, that’s a very long time.”

His career in community journalism predates BNN-TV. A Dorchester native, Chris cut his teeth as a reporter and photographer for the old Argus-Citizen, then a lively neighborhood newspaper that was part of a chain owned by the Harwich family, based in Hyde Park.

The son of a Boston fireman who rose to be a district chief, Lovett was a Boston Latin alum fresh out of Columbia University with a degree in comparative literature. He wanted to be a writer and followed that muse into newspapering. He found his groove on his home turf, chronicling the drumbeat of life in Dorchester and churning out stories and images not unlike the content found in the product you hold in your hands.

When cable TV came to town in 1983— and an access station formed— a nightly news show was conceived not long after. Chris gravitated to its early ranks along with other reporters from community papers. He was intrigued by the medium and its potential to lift up civic life in Boston.

His first “package” for NNN focused on an idea advanced by a guy named Bill Walczak to build a “flyover” inside Savin Hill’s Red Line station to give Dot commuters a chance to board trains on the Braintree leg that were otherwise passing them by. Eventually, such a design was employed at the JFK-UMass station in Dorchester.

His producer, Kate Raisz, patiently taught him the tricks of trade —”I thought I knew more than I really did,” he recalls — and soon his creative wheels were spinning. In the Savin Hill T story, for example, Chris noticed how B-roll footage they’d shot of a young man air-drumming while killing time on the platform captured an element of the story that a newspaper feature would struggle to convey.

“I realized — for all my lack of admiration for TV —there were some things that TV could do more powerfully than print,” he said.

Chris took over anchor duties in 1987 and has powered the show and its team— many of them aspiring journalists in BU’s College of Communication— ever since. His newsroom churned out TV journalists who pepper studios across America. In the Boston market, they include current talents like Rhondella Richardson, Kathy Curran, Kria Sakakeeny, and Dot native John Monahan.

The high-water mark of the program’s impact was likely around the year 2000, Lovett thinks, before the Internet gang-tackled most media norms. There was at the time “a really nice convergence of an audience that really needed the channel to get information and the people who needed the platform and developing journalists who needed the experience there.”

The studio and the hallways around it on Commonwealth Avenue— in those days also managed by Charlie Rassmussen— was a sort of “nerve center” for political and civic life. On my own bi-weekly visits to summarize Dot Reporter-gathered news items, I’d invariably see the leading newsmakers chit-chatting off set, often while Mayor Tom Menino was on camera with Chris for regular debriefs. Every political player in this city over the last 35 years passed through those doors and sat across from Chris Lovett. For most of them, it was their first experience on TV— and Chris and his team took pains to make as pleasant as possible, without holding back on the tough questions.

But for all the “bold-faces” who trooped through the NNN set, Lovett says the guests who “got him up in the morning and kept him coming back” were not the politicos with an axe to grind or an election to win.

The people he has enjoyed chatting with the most, he says, were everyday Bostonians, some of them survivors of violence or some other grave trauma, who sat across from him to share their stories of struggle.

“What I appreciate with people like that was not just that they were taking time to be interviewed,” said Chris. “But that they were overcoming some great hurdles to talk about what they’re going through.”

And that was the mission from the get-go. By keeping its viewfinder— and its guest list— trained steadily on Boston’s neighborhoods, Lovett and his compatriots moved the needle in Boston’s neighborhoods in ways that are not yet fully appreciated.

“At our best,” Lovett said in his final show, “we narrowed gaps between communities, cultures, and political differences, but also between the experience of life and how it was represented. I consider that a plum assignment.”

We’re a better Boston because Chris Lovett took on that assignment and stayed for all of these years.

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