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In N.H. city, a hard-to-fill void after paper closes

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By Johnny Diaz and Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / August 14, 2009

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CLAREMONT, N.H. - As she gingerly placed chips on her Bingo board, 72-year-old Carol Bishop reflected on the recent closure of the city’s only daily newspaper, the Claremont Eagle Times: “It feels like I lost a good friend.’’

At Farros Deli, owner Terry Peck said he feels “disconnected’’ from his community since the Times shut in July: “I don’t know what’s going on.’’

And outside her office, Mary Krueger, president of the board of the local shelter for battered women, worried about who will jump-start the group’s annual fund-raiser with a front-page story: “No one will give us the same attention.’’

The Times, a 175-year-old daily that covered Claremont, N.H., and Springfield, Vt., is the latest victim of a recession and advertising slump that has hurt newspapers nationwide. The closure highlights the challenges that readers - and advertisers - in small towns face when their only daily newspaper shutters: Who will step up to cover the mayor’s speeches, school board meetings, and other local stories that matter most to them?

“When a newspaper goes away, whatever replaces it has far less reporting capacity,’’ said Lou Ureneck, chairman of Boston University’s journalism department. “I am not aware of any successful experiment that matches the capacity of a good community newspaper.’’

It is difficult to track how a community fares once it loses its only daily. Often, major papers in nearby big cities or local TV stations expand coverage. Sometimes new weekly papers pop up to cover the city’s neglected news stories. And more recently, former journalists or everyday citizens have started websites to pick up the slack.

That is what is happening in the southeastern Michigan town of Ann Arbor. Since the Ann Arbor News said in February that it would shut down as a daily after heavy losses in revenue, two new media outlets have popped up, including one online venture.

A weekly called the Ann Arbor Journal launched to cover local news and features. And former Ann Arbor News editors reinvented the Ann Arbor News into a media company called AnnArbor.com, with a hyperlocal website and a twice-weekly print edition published on Sundays and Thursdays. The bare-bones website - which offers news, sports, and entertainment - posts updates almost every hour, such as the closing of a local restaurant or concert tickets going on sale. One section is dedicated to community discussions.

Ann Arbor’s mayor, John Hieftje, said he is not sure the site will provide residents with the news coverage they need.

“It’s too soon to gauge,’’ Hieftje said. “One problem is that the new entity does not appear to be offering state government coverage. . . . A person can’t understand local government without state coverage.’’

Tony Dearing, chief content officer of AnnArbor.com, said that the Sunday print edition offers a six-page section with world, nation, and state news, but that the website focuses entirely on local coverage.

“In the online world, you do what you do best and link to the rest,’’ Dearing said. “There are many sources for national and state news. We are giving readers what they’re not going to get elsewhere: local reporting.’’

In Derby, Kan., a bedroom community southwest of Wichita with 20,000 residents, GateHouse Media shuttered the 47-year-old Derby Daily Reporter in February. But residents are not going to go without an adequate printed source of news, Mayor Dion Avello said.

Avello points to The Wichita Eagle, a larger regional metro with an average of 74,802 daily circulation. The Eagle has a beat reporter assigned to Derby, which is 6 miles from Wichita. Avello said residents also get good coverage of the school board, business, crime, and city hall from the city’s weekly, the Derby Weekly Informer, which has a weekly circulation of 2,600, compared with the defunct daily’s 900.

“We are very well covered,’’ he said.

Informer publisher Jeff Cott said his paper, launched 10 years ago, has always offered an alternative to the daily.

“It’s not to say that a small daily cannot make it in this community,’’ Cott said. “They just have to serve the community much better.’’

Back in Claremont, a community of 15,000 with a large constituency of retirees, media outlets also are trying to fill the gap left by the Times, which had 8,000 in circulation.

The Times was a tough local act to follow. The paper was best known for its coverage of the school board, city hall, and high school sports. The paper, which typically consisted of two sections - news and sports - with a special arts section on Thursdays, also printed photos of children and fireworks that were submitted by readers; profiled local residents; prominently displayed obituaries; and previewed upcoming school concerts, senior events, and community center meetings.

“We tried to put our focus as much as possible on the everyday community and let the larger issues, whether state or national, go to the other papers,’’ said Patrick O’Grady, a Times reporter and editor for 16 years who this summer wrote a three-part series on the history of the mills in downtown Claremont, where a $25 million redevelopment project was recently completed.

The Times did not have any layoffs prior to closing, but there were other subtle cost-cutting changes, such as dropping color printing for several editions each week as a way to save money. The Times, which had 11 editors and reporters, at one time produced about 24 pages in total, but by the end, the news section was eight pages, O’Grady said. He said he has been hired as an editor for a new weekly called The Claremont Village, which will launch in September.

To fill the gap and better cover news unique to Claremont, the Claremont City Post, an eight-page paper that has published every two weeks for the past five months, hopes to become a weekly, said City Post editor Chris Shaban. He said he also is looking to expand coverage to neighboring towns.

“We want to grow it smartly,’’ said Shaban, one of two part-time employees of the paper, now with 3,000 readers. “We had to make adjustments to try and fill the void.’’

Some other media outlets have, too. The Valley News, based in Lebanon, N.H., added a reporter to cover Claremont and plans to expand sports, business, obituary, and the calendar section to include Claremont, said editor Jeffrey Good. In front of the Tumble Inn Diner last week, a Times box stood empty next to the Valley News stand. There, plastered across the front, is a new yellow sign: “Claremont, we’ve got you covered.’’

But on that day’s paper, absent from the front page of the Valley News was any mention of Claremont.

The regional Union Leader in Manchester, N.H., reassigned a correspondent to cover Claremont. The Rutland Herald in Vermont said it is planning to add at least one stringer to beef up coverage of Springfield, which borders Claremont. And WCAX-TV, a CBS affiliate in Vermont, is also evaluating similar options.

“More people may reach out to us for their coverage, which in turn might mean that we cover more there,’’ said Anson Tebbetts, news director at WCAX.

Several newcomers also have emerged. Among them is the Claremont Compass, a weekly started by Jeff Rapsis, co-owner of the popular HippoPress weekly in Manchester.

Rapsis, who started his first reporting job at the Times 20 years ago, said he recognized the need - and a business opportunity. Within two weeks, Rapsis had published a preview edition, an eight-page paper that he showed off at the Greater Claremont Chamber of Commerce meeting on July 23. He had 1,500 copies that were quickly snatched up across town.

“We can make a quality paper work that is appropriate for a smaller community that can’t support a daily paper in the 21st century,’’ Rapsis said as he drove up to Claremont last Thursday to deliver the latest edition of the Compass - this time with a run of 6,500 copies.

Claremont native Nancy Brown has launched a news website yourclaremontpress.net from her home in Virginia to help fill the news gap. The bulk of the website’s content comes from people in the community - or citizen journalists - although Brown is looking to hire a reporter. She also is seeking business partners interested in starting a weekly print version to cater to the elderly.

“This is for the community,’’ said Brown, 49. “I can’t even imagine how they are feeling.’’

Some of the Time’s former advertisers are using the new outlets to get their messages out. Candace Crawford, senior vice president at Claremont Savings Bank, said the bank used to advertise up to three times a week in the Times but now is increasing spending with the Valley News and looking at some of the new ventures.

Dave Lantz, owner of MJ Harrington jewelers in Claremont, advertised at least once a week in the Times for the past 20 years and said it was one of the best ways to reach customers. He has moved some of his marketing budget to the Valley News and the Claremont City Post.

“This newspaper was very much a part of us - residents and businesses alike,’’ Lantz said. “Now that it’s gone, I feel like there is a fundamental piece of who we are that is missing. It was the heart and soul of the community.’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com. Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com