“Local journalism in our country is in dire shape,” warns Kyle Pope, editor-in-chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, in his introduction to the spring edition. In May, the Review came out in strong support of local journalism, dedicating an entire issue to the topic. Pope cites a steady decline in reporting and readership at the local level.
“This is not just a problem for journalism,” he writes. “These issues have real-world, global consequences.”
Though prospects are less than ideal, they are not hopeless. President Donald Trump’s antagonism toward reporters has sown distrust in some Americans, but it has inspired others to support the free press more actively and generously than ever.
But the cost of losing local journalism became clear months before Trump took office. According to Pope, who advocates for greater investment in local papers, a lack of local reporting infrastructure contributed to coverage failures leading up to the election.
At the end of his note, Pope asks readers to think seriously about the future of the press and its atrophying local limb.
“Is it fixable,” he asks, “or are America’s local newsrooms going away for good? What are the implications for open records, for accountability—for our democracy?”
This summer, I went home to rural Massachusetts to talk to some of the people working in those newsrooms.
About 6,500 people live in Harvard, my quiet hometown located in Central Massachusetts. Last month, Curbed Boston described our downtown as “achingly quaint,” earning a few good-natured eye-rolls from residents.
Our paper, The Harvard Press, serves about two-thirds of the town, or 1,200 households. Several neighboring towns also have their own papers with local offices. Others are covered by regional news sources like the locally-based Nashoba Valley Voice or the more corporate Wicked Local, a Massachusetts news site owned by the national brand, GateHouse Media. A few are not consistently covered at all.
Thinking back to my days writing for The Press as a high school student and making a generous twenty-five dollars per 300-word article, I wondered how the paper made money. How do small town papers like The Press stay afloat, and why should we care?
In his first “Publisher’s Corner,” publisher and co-founder Worth Robbins called The Press a “labor of love,” crediting the paper’s creation and continuation to a “love of Harvard and a commitment to ensuring Harvard has a strong, locally owned and operated paper dedicated to Harvard news.”
Though The Press has published papers weekly for eleven years, it has never been financially self-sustaining. The founders knew they would be operating at a deficit from the beginning, and the paper continues to rely largely on donations. Fortunately for The Press, Harvard is a wealthy town, with a median household income of $131,563. Back in 2006, the paper acquired $70,000 in seed money after soliciting donations for only two weeks, receiving four $5,000 donations and one $50,000 gift.
Today, The Press once again faces a substantial deficit. But Robbins does not seem too worried. When asked how long the paper had left, he said there was no hard end date and felt fairly confident that the paper would receive enough gift money to continue. Robbins is considering opening up ownership of the paper to community members, with the stipulation that news coverage would remain impartial. In the short term, such a move would mean added income; in the long term, it would boost residents’ personal and financial investment in the paper.
But for many neighboring papers—even ones that cover comparably well-off towns—donations are not enough.
Several papers in the cluster of small towns surrounding Harvard have been absorbed by GateHouse Media, a for-profit company that buys local papers and takes over their financial operations. One of the largest publishers of locally-based media in the country, GateHouse Media reports ownership of 125 daily papers, over 600 community publications, and more than 555 local market websites.
In 2006, GateHouse Media bought Community Newspaper Company (CNC), a regional newspaper group that published papers in the Boston area. After the acquisition, GateHouse Media created a website called Wicked Local to coordinate its Massachusetts papers and consolidate online coverage.
Acton’s paper, one of the weeklies bought by GateHouse Media in 2006, fared well. Regional Director of News and Operations Kathy Cordeiro has edited The Beacon since 2001, and it continues to flourish under her leadership. When asked about changes in operations under GateHouse Media, she cited the paper’s use of technology and increased online presence.
But not all local papers thrive under the management of larger companies. Before The Press, Harvard had The Post, which started publishing town news in the early seventies and continued into the early 2000s, when its long-time owners decided to sell. A group of Harvard residents founded The Press after The Post was, in Robbins’ words, “pretty much destroyed” by CNC.
“Initially they maintained the existing staff…but that started to change almost immediately,” Robbins told The Politic.
“It wasn’t an all-at-once degradation. It was just over time you sensed that there was much less local content, much less local management, and certainly much less local writing and editing.”
The Post has since been discontinued altogether.
For papers that are floundering, companies like CNC and GateHouse Media can offer financial stability and support. But there are other ways to save a small town paper that do not jeopardize coverage and on-the-ground reporting.
Papers in the towns of Bolton and Stow combined offices after CNC bought and then stopped publishing The Bolton Common. They managed to stay financially viable by maintaining a small staff. Together, The Stow Independent and The Bolton Independent are a one- or two-person operation, according to Robbins.
If merging does not succeed, going non-profit might.
The town of Carlisle’s paper, The Carlisle Mosquito—cited by Robbins as “the best example we are in touch with of a good local paper doing a good job”—is a non-profit publication. It is distributed town-wide free of charge, and it runs on donations.
Though going non-profit cuts costs, making a paper eligible for lower postage rates, tax breaks, and public grants, it can be limiting. Non-profit papers are not allowed to endorse candidates or editorialize on political issues. The Mosquito publishes opinion pieces written by residents, serving as a platform rather than taking a position.
Susan Emmons has managed The Mosquito since its founding in 1972, back when it printed its papers on a borrowed church mimeograph machine. According to her, most paid staffers and contributors consider themselves semi-volunteer. They work for their own enjoyment and the cause, not for the wages.
“Without a truly local news organization, it’s hard to have an informed population,” Emmons said in an interview with The Politic. “Local news enables residents to make informed decisions at the polls and at our town meetings.”
A form of local government native to New England, town meetings function as direct democracies, with residents meeting annually to legislate policies and vote on budgets. In towns like Carlisle and Harvard, the local paper plays a crucial role in not only informing residents but also boosting interest and attendance.
John Osborn, editor of The Press, similarly suggested that local journalism is important because local government is.
“We’re kind of like a watchdog, although I don’t feel like [one]. I feel more like we’re watching and reporting what’s going on and then trying to explain it the best we can,” said Osborn, referring to decisions made by selectmen as well as issues discussed at town meetings.
He emphasized the importance of an independent news source in a town that values democracy.
“The danger for us is that we’re just communicating [a resident or a group of residents’] point of view. A piece of journalism has to be vetted,” he said.
One of The Press’ primary functions, he added, is to give readers the information they need to participate in local politics and stay self-governing.
In addition to reporting local issues, small town papers build community. Osborn stressed the value of the current events section, which includes a calendar of events and meetings held by civic groups. He also noted that local journalism matters to state legislators and officials, who use small town papers as platforms to disseminate information during their campaigns and while in office.
Local papers are the connective tissue of rural and semi-rural Massachusetts. Bringing citizens together in Town Hall and on the town green, they inspire excitement about civic issues and interest in local and state government. They communicate more than they compete: Emmons recalls meeting with members of the Press staff for strategic advice; Robbins maintains that competition has not contributed to his paper’s financial troubles. And local papers, at least in Massachusetts, generally have constructive working relationships with politicians.
In his Columbia Journalism Review article, “Trump and trickle-down press persecution,” Press Freedom Correspondent Jonathan Peters suggests that Trump’s presidency has put those kinds of relationships in jeopardy by “setting a new anti-press standard.”
And indeed, Valley Voice editor Jennifer Paluzzi noted an uptick in antagonistic comments online.
“If someone doesn’t agree with [something written in an article], the first comment is ‘fake news,’” she told The Politic.
Trump’s modeling, Peters worries, could make state and local officials more likely to limit press access and obstruct investigative reporting. Even so, he sees hope in the insulating power of papers’ ties to communities and to each other.
Returning home after a year away, I thought about what it would be like to live in Harvard without a paper. I decided that my town would be much less for it. It would be less of a community and more of an unassociated collection of houses, humans, horses, and trees.
In The Press’ first blog post back in 2009, Robbins called the paper a labor of love—just as he did six years later in his first “Publisher’s Corner” and two years after that in his conversation with me. And it has been since the beginning.
Small town papers inform, excite, and connect. But they also shape town identity and nurture a love of home—a sentiment that washed over me as I climbed the steps to the Press office on the third floor of the General Store.
After detailing his plans to chronicle The Press’s beginnings in blog posts, eight years ago Robbins looked ahead:
“With the history behind us, we’ll then focus on here and now, and the future…and [the paper’s] continuing role in the life of Harvard.”