An Author's Advice

February 20, 2013

A Pulitzer prize-winning former Boston Globe investigative reporter, alumnus Gerry O'Neill (left) is the co-author of the new, critically acclaimed study of Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger.

The book "Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss" is the third in a trilogy on Bulger, the Boston Mafia and corruption in the FBI.

At Stonehill, O' Neill studied English and history, and wrote for the Summit. After he graduated, he made his way to the Boston Globe. Starting as a copy boy, he worked his way up to lead the paper's elite Spotlight investigative team for 25 years. In addition to his Pulitzer and many other national writing awards, O'Neill became the first Stonehill alumnus to receive the College's Outstanding Alumnus Award in 1973.

Given his success as a journalist, editor and author, we recently asked O'Neill, a member of the Class of 1964, if he had any pearls of wisdom to share with aspiring student journalists and for some insights on Whitey Bulger and his background. On journalism, he shared the following:

Pacing: The biggest issue for beginning journalists is "too much too fast." Pacing the information into a readable flow should be the goal. The "who, what, when, where and why" frequently get dumped into a tangled impenetrable paragraph, sort of a bad check list. 

Pruning: That said, I'm a prime offender about my own rule, over packing sentences and paragraphs. Invariably, one of my main tasks is pruning "finished" copy to let it breathe easier.

: Another rubric is to work the best quote into the top of the story to keep it "moving." Journalism isn't an art form so much as it's a craft that can be taught and learned.

Slogging: Investigative reporting is just a lot of hard slogging. Most of it is painstaking research in public records. There's nothing glamorous about it.

On Whitey Bulger, O'Neill said the work has spanned a quarter century, a "career" story that has produced a body of work. It started in 1988 with a Globe series on the Bulger bothers that revealed Whitey was an FBI informer. Ten years after that came "Black Mass," a book about how Bulger corrupted the Boston office of the FBI. Most recently, there's the new biography that traces the family roots back two centuries and examine's Whitey's psychopathic personality. On Whitey, he shares the following:

Two Boaters
Contrary to conventional thought, the Bulger family did not follow the usual immigration pattern of fleeing the west of Ireland for Boston during the mid nineteenth century Irish famine. They were "two boaters" who got to Southie after a generation as cod fishermen in Riverhead, the Irish slum in St. John's, Newfoundland. Whitey's grandmother only arrived in Charlestown at the end of the 19th century.

Tough Background

Whitey's father was abandoned by his mother at age six to be raised by in-laws. At 12, he left Newfoundland and headed to Boston to join a new family as a step child. At 15, however, he ran away from home, hopping a freight train in Providence. However, he fell between two cars, crushing his left arm which had to be amputated.

Contrary to popular belief, Whitey did not first become an informer for the FBI as a crime boss in the 1970s. O'Neill and cowriter Dick Lehr discovered records showing he first began informing for the FBI in 1956 when he turned on four bank-robbing partners.


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