Lamenting the loss of local journalism

Forty-two years ago, the city of Newton had four local newspapers: the Newton Graphic, the Newton Times, the Waltham Tribune (which also served Newton) and the Newton TAB. Residents had to work hard to be uninformed about local government and community comings and goings. As a reporter, then political editor of the Times, I thought local news, in one form or another, would endure—the inky version of local cracker barrel confab. How wrong I was.

The Graphic was the establishment voice. It conveyed a Chamber of Commerce view of Newton the Garden City, untroubled by divisive issues, the clarion of comfort and self-satisfaction rooted in the 1950’s Ozzie and Harriet era. The Times was capitalized in 1970 for a shockingly low $25,000 by a group of anti-Vietnam activists outraged that the Graphic wouldn’t even carry press releases about anti-war rallies and fundraisers. The Times, published in its earliest days by volunteers, ruffled a lot of feathers as it covered every nook of city government and cranny of community activism. It was a spunky paper analogous, on a smaller scale, to The Village Voice.

The distinctly local papers were big-footed in 1979 by The Tab, the brainchild of Russel Pergament,
Dick Yousoufian, Steve Cummings and others, including Jim Carlin and Jim Kerasiotes. The company, started in Newton, would eventually own 14 newspapers and be sold and resold. Perhaps inevitably, the chain grew in size and in distance from the local roots of its component communities.

The TAB‘s business model was to be a freebie, delivered to every driveway in the city, while the Times, the Graphic and the Tribune were all subscriber-based or newsstand businesses. The Tab could deliver more eyeballs to advertisers. Independent newspapers of, by and for locals couldn’t compete. Sadly, the plucky Newton Times quietly went away in around 1980 after a robust decade of local coverage. (By then, I had moved on from the Times to The Boston Phoenix, WGBH-TV and eventually WCVB-TV.) The Graphic, which had started more than a century before as The Newton Republican, the Newton Transcript and the Town Crier, was absorbed by the TAB in 1997. The Tribune had become part of the chain in 1980. The remnants became part of Gatehouse Media, with a presence in 38 states (sound local to you?), and, in turn, of Gannett in 2019. The behemoth owns something like 100 dailies and 1000 weeklies.

With each corporate restructuring came “efficiencies of scale,” meaning laying off of local reporters, shrinking local coverage, and providing less information valuable to local residents. Many readers, of course, complained about the shortcomings of the TAB, comparing it unfavorably to earlier brands of solid local papers. Despite the valiant efforts of the Tab’s local editors, who frequently oversaw coverage of more than one community and functioned as sole reporters for the publications, the profit orientation of the owners hollowed out the journalistic product.

Yesterday came the penultimate nail in the coffin. The headline screamed “A change in the delivery of the Newton Tab.” It should have read “Newton Tab ends print edition.” It will, of course, be available online, and print copies will be available at designated “single copy locations,” like certain banks, drug stores, and markets.

But readers, already accustomed to a cookie cutter news product, will have to work even harder to find the greatly diminished local stories. They won’t have the pleasure of spreading out the newspaper and seeing their neighbors weigh in on the issues of the day, or catch up on community events, election issues and City Council actions.

Consolidated ownership should worry anyone who values the free flow of information in this country. Northeastern University Professor Dan Kennedy has written extensively about the decline of local journalism, saying local news isn’t dying, it’s being murdered by greed. He has been covering the issue for years, pointing out the occasional initiatives (including non-profit models) that could help resuscitate local news. Author of several books, Dan’s Media Nation blog is worth checking out.

It’s a testament to how dire the situation is that several members of Congress, including Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar (daughter of a newsman), have filed a bill to create a study of the status of local journalism.  There was a time when such a move by elected officials would have stood any reporter’s hair on end, and prompted demands that they mind their own business. Now several highly regarded news associations have endorsed the idea.

Maybe it’s time for some civic-minded Newton residents to take a page from history and create a substantive locally owned and operated Newton paper for today- even if it must be an online publication only.

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4 thoughts on “Lamenting the loss of local journalism

  1. There is a very important story brewing in Newton right now relating to school committee elections, and in particular the candidacy of Paul Levy. As the lawyer who successfully sued on behalf of Dr. Carol Warfield when Levy was CEO at the BIDMC (Google Boston Globe/Carol Warfield)I have a rich background on Mr. Levy’s true nature. Guys like Cuomo will rise again and again into positions of power without investigative journalism, and the voters in Newton need to have access to facts that would educate elective choices. The Globe is hanging back on this story until “closer to the election”, but it is already obvious that Levy’s well funded campaign will overshadow the race. My own background in journalism, and as a lawyer very concerned about getting this story “out”, sooner rather later. Any suggestions?

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  2. Pingback: There they go again: Gannett shutters the 119-year-old Melrose Free Press – Media Nation

  3. Alice Ingerson

    Totally agree. The loss of critical or investigative local journalism (vs. the reprinting of press releases, whether from government, businesses or nonprofits) also reinforces the way our school systems rarely if ever teach anything about local government after the early elementary grades (when kids learn mostly about fire fighters, police officers & crossing guards). This “the older you are, the bigger your geography should be” approach leaves most Americans poorly prepared to participate as adults in the level of government that is most accessible to them, and that they can most influence.

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  4. Matt Kramer

    Same thing is happening with the Brookline Tab too. The loss of oversight of local politics, school systems and civic groups is horrible. There are some local sites such as Village 14 and Patch but the end of print publication means that access to the news will be limited. The news won’t come to your doorstep- you’ll have to go onto the web and actively seek it.

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