Paula Lyons wrote her senior college thesis in 1967 on “Jude the Obscure,” a Thomas Hardy novel, at the former Newton College of the Sacred Heart, now a part of Boston College. Writing about 19th century social strata in England, on the cusp of societal change in her own generation, she did not know that as an ambitious women from a sprawling Irish family in Milton, she would not live an obscure life. Nor could she see the paths that rapid social change would open to her.
On Oct. 13, nearly 50 years later, Paula Lyons will be inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Association (MBA) Hall of Fame, joining only 127 men and women who have previously received the honor. Her induction ceremony begins at noon at the Marriott Hotel in Quincy.
Ms. Lyons has been well-recognized for her investigative reporting and consumer advocacy, receiving local media reporting awards and national awards from the Consumer Federation of America and from the National Press Club. She spent four years (1989-1994) as a consumer editor for the ABC network show “Good Morning America” (GMA) before returning to consumer reporting on Boston television for Channel 4.
Recently retired from a second career teaching executive communication, Ms. Lyons retains her fierce advocacy skills. She now spends time with her husband of 35 years, multimedia wordsmith Arnie Reisman, tending a vigorous Vineyard Haven garden, and contributing her beliefs on journalism to the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.
On the eve of her induction, Ms. Lyons spoke with the Times, summarizing her career, life, and times.
How does it feel to be a Hall of Famer?
It’s delightful, but a little funny. I haven’t been to one of these [MBA inductions] before. It’s a great honor to receive from your peers. Who doesn’t like being recognized?
Was a career in broadcast journalism always a life goal for you?
No. There were virtually no women on-air in TV then. Shelby Scott [an MBA Hall member] was a rare female on TV. Like a lot of people coming out of college, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I thought of magazine writing, but even then moving to New York City was very expensive. I taught school, then worked in administration at Boston College for a couple of years, but nothing was jelling.
So how did it happen?
I spent a couple of years teaching in Argentina, where I learned both Spanish and how to live on my own. I found that a revolution had happened when I got back in the early 1970s. Women were on TV. As soon as I saw it, I knew that was for me. I told myself, “I can do this, I want to, I will.” Others weren’t as hopeful, and it took five years to get a job. They told me to go to a small city, get a job, and work up, but I thought, “This is my city. I know this city, and I have no value to another place.”
After many rejections, I strategically took a job in the Kevin White mayoral administration, a good place to be noticed. Stations auditioned with real stories in those days, gave you three story ideas and six weeks to research and report on videotape. A Channel 5 consumer reporting job opened up. Bruce Marson, a programming exec there, a wonderful guy, said I would fail “like all the others” without preparation.
I went into training, lost 20 pounds in six weeks, even bought new underwear. I rented a studio to film the video, watched and rewatched it, had friends watch it with a critical eye. I didn’t know you had to spend money to apply for a job. And Jim Thistle [Channel 5 news director, and another MBA Hall of Famer] hired me in 1977. I was 33 and worked there for 11 years until GMA, then worked for WBZ, Channel 4 from 1994 to 2003.
Your era was regarded as the golden age of television reporting by Boston working press. You broke stories, and we all paid attention to TV reporting. How did that happen?
I worked for Jim Thistle, a dedicated, ethical newsman who taught me to be fair and balanced. And all the stations had investigative teams and good reporters: Sarah Ann Shaw, Janet Wu, Mike Taibbi, Peter Mehegan, Jorge Quiroga, dedicated, hard-working reporters. You could build a following. You can’t fake who you are on a daily basis, and prejudices break down. Look at the work Liz Walker [a top-rated African-American Boston news anchor] and Jorge Quiroga did. Some people will never accept change, but most people will.
We don’t see much of that now. Why?
There were three stations. No cable. No Internet. Example: We were working a story on salmonella in chicken, and Perdue called Jim Thistle and threatened to pull their ads if it ran. He refused and told them they might not be welcome when they came back. We could afford to do that. Today advertisers have a lot more options, and more control. Reporters now have trouble doing a simple story on how to buy a car.
What’s your sense of journalism today?
I don’t know whether I’m qualified to answer that. I was talking to a young online journalist recently, and I didn’t understand much of what he was talking about. But the Internet is an important part of the future of journalism. They are still sorting it out. There are good journalists out there, but they are paid poorly unless they are stars. I don’t watch much TV, and not cable at all. The cable channels are so obviously positioned.
I love my life. I’m the luckiest person in the world. I had work that I loved all my life, opportunities to grow and change, and an extremely happy personal life. So to be recognized like this is icing on the cake.