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Rumbling press plants and the vibrant orchestra of ringing phones, incessant keyboards, and the booming voices of nosey characters have long faded to silence in many of the local newsrooms that once brought word of the essential and eccentric to the people of Massachusetts.
The story of how it happened, for those reporters left to write it, is well known: The Internet killed advertising revenues for traditional print media.
And that’s true. But there’s always more to the story.
“A lot of the problems that we’re seeing in local news are exactly the kinds of things that we know about — the Internet killing advertising, basically. But I think at least half of that is the terrible effect that corporate chain and hedge fund ownership has had on these papers,” said Dan Kennedy, a media commentator and Northeastern University journalism professor. “They suck out what little revenues are left and use it to pay down debt and enrich their owners, and so there’s no money to pay for more journalism. There’s no money to invest in whatever it would take to transition to digital.
“So in a lot of cases, you’ve just got these giant print newspapers with terrible websites, and everyone is fleeing them — readers and advertisers.”
In Massachusetts, many of the state’s local papers are owned by Gannett, the national chain best known for publishing USA Today and a few of the region’s local daily newspapers, including the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, The Cape Cod Times, and the Framingham-based MetroWest Daily News.
And Gannett has had a rough year: Earlier this month, the company announced yet another round of coming layoffs in its news division, with an estimated 206 out of 3,440 employees expected to lose their jobs in early December.
The news follows a disappointing third quarter for Gannett, which reported a net loss of $54.1 million in revenue. The company reported similar losses the previous quarter as well.
News of the last round of job cuts — coupled with other measures such as forcing workers to take a week of unpaid leave in December — prompted hundreds of Gannett staffers to go on a one-day strike from newsrooms around the country at the start of November.
Although those demonstrations didn’t make their way to Bay State newsrooms, Gannett-owned local papers have had their own shake-ups to navigate.
According to Kennedy, who regularly tracks the shifting local media landscape, earlier this year, Gannett closed at least 19 print weekly newspapers that served, at minimum, 26 communities in eastern Massachusetts, and merged another nine weeklies into four publications. The company also reassigned nearly all of their weekly reporters to regional beats.
“They just keep shrinking,” Kennedy said.
But that trend is being replaced by another.
In the past year especially, as Gannett has shuttered papers, some communities around the state have seen new media outlets rise out of their news deserts — the pockets of cities and towns left abandoned by the mega-corporate fourth estate.
Their formats vary. Many use a non-profit approach for keeping their operations running amid the vulnerabilities of the old ad-driven model. Many are online-only.
Kennedy, who keeps a running list of independently-owned news outlets in the commonwealth through his Media Nation blog — more than 270 of them, and counting — notes the idea is not exactly new. Some forms of these nonprofit digital news reporting projects around the country have stretched back into the early 2000s. But he acknowledges Gannett’s actions over the past two years have apparently triggered a “wave of launches in response” back here in Massachusetts.
“There is a real consciousness and awakening on the part of the public, the community, to the need for a strong local news operation if democracy and community are to be served,” said Barbara Roessner, a founding editor of one of those initiatives, The New Bedford Light, which launched last year. “It’s just an integral part of the whole system of government and community.”
These are the stories of two of those publications, as they work to make local news sustainable once again:
Kris Olson left his post as editor of the Marblehead Reporter in 2015.
But he was never far from his old haunt.
He remained in close contact with his successors and, naturally, heard of Gannett’s shift away from the hyper-local to regional beats at his old paper earlier this year.
Soon enough, he met up with the Reporter‘s staff at a local Chinese food restaurant to collectively lament about the state of the industry and “to drown our sorrows in hot and sour soup and fried rice,” Olson recalled.
And somewhere between bites and grievances came an idea: What if they launched one of those nonprofit, online news sites that has become a new frontier — of sorts — for local news?
“We were aware that there were a couple of these already around that had been quite successful … or successful in the sense of being able to get something up and running and being sustainable,” Olson told Boston.com.
A team emerged: Editor-reporter Will Dowd, a former Reporter reporter and an editor in Swampscott and Cambridge; Rotary Club of Marblehead Harbor President Jessica Barnett; retired chief of the Associated Press Boston Bureau Ed Bell; local freelance journalist Leigh Blander; and Olson would launch what is now called the Marblehead Current.
The site started up in June after the founding staff set a deadline to report on the town elections and Town Meeting that month.
“There was basically no news coverage of it whatsoever, from any news outlet,” Olson said. “And people were just out of their mind sort of thinking about, you know, how is this possible?
“To make a long story short, (it) will lead us to say, ‘Okay, well … come hell or high water, we’re going to help people make decisions for that, for that June election.”
But Olson and crew were not the only ones inspired to act due to the lack of local reporting.
Indeed, now, in Marblehead alone, there are two other new publications in addition to the Current, and all three launched operations in this year alone.
In early June, a trio of residents launched the Marblehead Beacon, a news site that follows a for-profit model but nonetheless set out to serve the same demographic as Olson’s operation.
And the Marblehead Weekly News, a primarily print for-profit newspaper under the aegis of the Lynn Item, is also serving the same cohort of readers. (The Current, until recently, was called the Marblehead News. But after confusion over the two outlets reached his newsroom, Olson and his team opted for a change.)
Naturally, this all raises the question: Is Marblehead big enough — is there enough news in a town of just over 20,000 people — to warrant all that coverage?
“Journalism has always been competitive,” Olson said. “In a way, we embrace that. We welcome that. We’ve already seen how having that competition can motivate you to hustle a little bit more to get a story.”
Meanwhile, since June, the Marblehead Current has seen plenty of stories grace its homepage, from a historic victory for the high school boys’ varsity soccer team to voter guides, obituaries, arrests, and well, just about everything else happening in Marblehead.
There is even a print edition. The first issue arrived at 9,800 addresses through the mail on Wednesday.
For those who’ve heard “print is dead,” there is ample reason to believe the opposite is true. Olson confirms what many local journalists already know: There is still money in old school newsprint.
And plenty of advertising revenue poured in for the first issue — the community’s literal buy-in of what the Current is trying to do.
“It’s amazingly encouraging,” Olson said.
Plus, many of the early financial supporters of the Marblehead Current wanted a print copy, something to hold in their hands, Olson said.
“So, you know, we felt some responsibility and duty to bring that to them.”
So how does Olson measure success in this new venture?
“It’s all about sustainability,” he said.
“Two newspapers carried Marblehead through the past 150 years,” he added. “We’re trying to build the institution that takes it through the next 150.”
But since its launch last year, the online news outlet has churned out a steady stream of high-quality, analytical, investigative, and deeply curious journalism centered on the challenges of its namesake city — the stuff reporters know is not easy to pull off.
Take the outlet’s investigation in partnership with ProPublica, that spells out how foreign private equity latched its claws into the port city’s lucrative and storied fishing industry.
“I can’t think of anything more important than to really dig into what’s going on — who’s winning and who’s losing,” Roessner told Boston.com. “And of course, who’s losing are the little fishermen.”
It’s that level of storytelling, mixed with a potent sense of community, that’s driving the Light, a shining example of the local news industry’s latest experiment: A publication powered on a nonprofit engine.
Steve Taylor, the Light’s founding publisher, says under the hood, the outlet runs on the “true nonprofit model,” not dissimilar from the foundations of public radio and public television.
Funding comes through individual donors, businesses, sponsors, foundations, etc., and the journalism comes subscription-free for readers.
Taylor, after all, knows the mechanics of the industry better than most in New England. The former president of Boston Globe Electronic Publishing and executive vice president of the paper’s print edition, Taylor pioneered online news with the inception of Boston.com in the mid-1990s.
As he tells it, the story of the Light begins with the shrinking scope of the Gannett-owned Standard-Times in New Bedford.
Residents were left concerned what the lack of a robust fourth estate would mean for their city of approximately 95,000. The situation became so concerning even Mayor Jon Mitchell reportedly begged his constituents to support their local paper.
Several of those citizens banded together in pursuit of quality journalism — a team that included experienced editors and reporters that once graced the Standard-Times newsroom.
The Light now has a board that boasts among some of the best talent in the industry, not only Taylor and Roessner, a Pulitzer Prize-winner former managing editor of the Hartford Courant, but also Walter V. Robinson, the Globe‘s former editor of its Pulitizer-winning Spotlight investigative team.
By the measurable standards, the outlet doesn’t seem to just be surviving — it’s thriving.
The paper boasts three editors, a designer, and seven full-time reporters and “a bunch of freelancers,” Taylor said. By the end of 2021, the free-to-read Light had nearly $1 million in the bank after bills — a sum that more than eclipsed their hopes of a $600,000 fractional first-year budget, he said. It was all made possible through voluntary donations, not subscriptions.
“I think in some ways the city was ready for it,” Roessner said. “You know, great things are happening in New Bedford. There are also very, very difficult … like, gruesome challenges in New Bedford: poverty and health care and childcare and education, housing. I mean, you name it. The stories are ripe for the picking.”
Bur Roessner adds she’s worked in cities like New Bedford for most of her career, and the Light “really thought broadly and creatively from moment one about who we are.”
“We are not the newspaper of yore,” she said. “We’re not about replicating something that is gone, that has passed. We’re trying to seize the future.”
The future, especially in print media, has been hazy for some time. Roessner has been in the business for 45 years; she rode ridden the journalism highs of the post-Watergate era, “the golden days” that followed, and then the descent into the downward slide, as the Internet ate into print profits and national corporations bought up local news only to sell off newsrooms in piecemeal.
For local news to have some of its bite back — that is, for a local newspaper to be able to have a true impact on a community — has been a wonderful thing, she said.
“Is this model the future of the fourth estate? I don’t know. I just don’t know,” she said. “I think so. I think it’s working now. I don’t know what it’ll be 20 years from now. But at this time, in this place, with this vision and the support we’ve gotten, it’s quite an exhilarating experience.”
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect Gannett’s estimate of the number of employees affected by pending layoffs, and the headline was updated to better reflect the focus of the story.
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