By Victor D. Infante
It’s an odd day when you wake up to discover that the newspaper for which you work is being held up nationally as an exemplar of the rise and fall of local journalism, but there I was Monday morning, scanning my news feed on my phone before dragging myself out of bed, when I opened up Jill Lepore’s New Yorker essay, Does Journalism Have a Future? In an era of social media and fake news, journalists who have survived the print plunge have new foes to face. Not being fully awake yet, I had to start the article over again to be sure I wasn’t mistaken, but no: She was writing about the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. She was also asking a very good question, which I’m not entirely sure she answered. Indeed, I’m not entirely sure it’s answerable.
Lepore – a New Yorker staff writer and a professor at Harvard who, according to Telegram newsroom sources who know things about nearly every family in the region, grew up in West Boylston – begins the essay with a childhood anecdote about delivering the Sunday Telegram with her father. It’s a great framing device, one which speaks to the most important aspect of local news: Personal connection. Lepore’s father knew the details of each stop, “each Doberman and every debt,” as she writes. It’s that personal connection that gives both local news and this essay it’s sense of importance. She then encapsulates the newspaper’s history.
“The Worcester Sunday Telegram was founded in 1884, when a telegram meant something fast. Two years later, it became a daily. It was never a great paper but it was always a pretty good paper: useful, gossipy, and resolute. It cultivated talent. The poet Stanley Kunitz was a staff writer for the Telegram in the nineteen-twenties. The New York Times reporter Douglas Kneeland, who covered Kent State and Charles Manson, began his career there in the nineteen-fifties. Joe McGinniss reported for the Telegram in the nineteen-sixties before writing The Selling of the President. From bushy-bearded nineteenth-century politicians to baby-faced George W. Bush, the paper was steadfastly Republican, if mainly concerned with scandals and mustachioed villains close to home: overdue repairs to the main branch of the public library, police raids on illegal betting establishments—’Worcester dog chases Worcester cat over Worcester fence,’ as the old Washington press-corps joke about a typical headline in a local paper goes. Its pages rolled off giant, thrumming presses in a four-story building that overlooked City Hall the way every city paper used to look out over every city hall, the Bat-Signal over Gotham.”
All of this happened before my tenure with the Telegram, of course. I joined the paper in 2002 as a copy editor, and am currently the entertainment editor, which is really a hodgepodge of other jobs – section copy editor, entertainment columnist and assistant features editor – pieces of which I inherited when people left positions through buyouts or promotions, their jobs being left unfilled behind them. This is a common practice in contemporary newsrooms, and as anyone in a contemporary newsroom can tell you, leaving a job unfilled doesn’t mean the necessity of that function disappears. Those left behind just adapt to address the need. If anything is undeniable about the state of the modern newsroom, it’s that it favors those who can adapt quickly with changing times. In a lot of ways, I’m a little old-fashioned – for example, I lament obituaries becoming paid advertisements, feeling that particular nationwide trend caused one of many rifts between us and the communities we serve – but I try to keep up with the times, with news adapting to the internet and social media. My background before the Telegram was in alt-weeklies such as Worcester Magazine and OC Weekly; before that it was in rock and poetry ‘zines, most notably Next … Magazine. My grandfather was an editor for the Los Angeles Times, so I’ve had journalistic standards and ethics beaten into my head since I was a kid – trust me, I’m a true believer – but I’ve never been terribly attached to the process. I don’t always care “how we used to do it.” I’m not terribly fond of nostalgia. It’s not a good lens for viewing history.
In her New Yorker essay, Lepore spends a bit of time detailing the Telegram’s expansion in the early 20th Century, to its consolidation from multiple products into fewer, and then its changing hands from private ownership to first the San Francisco Chronicle, then the Boston Globe and its subsequent owner, The New York Times, to both the Globe and the Telegram being sold off to Boston Red Sox co-owner John Henry, to the Telegram being broken off and sold to the Halifax Media Group newspaper chain, which was bought by the New Media Investments-owned Gatehouse News.
There’s a knee-jerk reaction to see corporate ownership as something of a corrupting force in journalism and … well … yeah. Sure. But then, there’s really not been a clean model for the medium. Most newspapers were born for their millionaire owners and their families to wield political and economic power over a city or region. Lies consciously printed in newspapers started the Spanish-American War, demonized marijuana, solidified the bonds of institutional racism. And those are the days people romanticize. Sure, some were born out of idealism: The Village Voice, in New York City, was founded by Norman Mailer and others to cover underground culture and provide an alternative to the city’s more wealth-friendly news outlets. When I started out writing for the Voice-founded OC Weekly in the late ’90s, the company was owned by pet-food magnate Leonard Stern, who despite how it sounds, was largely an excellent publisher, overseeing some daring and innovative newspapers. But time moved on. The Voice newspapers got sold to a competing chain, then an investment group, and then broken up and resold. The Voice eventually folded, and OC Weekly is currently owned by a company that also publishes Boating World, but against all odds, has retained its voice and fighting spirit, even after downsizings, changing offices and changes in editorial leadership.
Here’s the truth: Throughout the entire history of newspapers, the agendas of owners have come and gone, but the inevitable tack back toward truth and accountability has always risen out of its newsrooms. It gets tarnished from time to time, but it always reasserts itself. It’s inherent to the sort of people who want to do that sort of thing with their life. It’s baked into the culture of a newspaper.
The Telegram has been, quite understandably, shaken by its constant transitions. Looking at the aforementioned list of exchanges, how the newspaper moved from one owner to the next, it seems almost clinical, but the truth is, each of those transitions was intensely painful for the whole newsroom. It was The New York Times that oversaw the shuttering of our downtown office, arranging for us to move to the Mercantile Center across the Common. That, and the closing of the bureaus in the small towns surrounding the city, lead to a feeling of displacement that put the staff off-balance. Mind, we weren’t stupid. We knew it was probably a necessity. Anyone with even the slightest idea of how much it costs to keep a large, half-empty building heated in New England could see that. But home is home, and for those of us who’d spent years working there, saying goodbye hurt. There was some sense of release when John Henry bought us, but that proved short-lived: The Boston billionaire only visited the Worcester newsroom once, to tell us he was looking to sell us, preferably to a local owner. He was clear he wouldn’t sell us to a company like Gatehouse – the specific example he used. He said, when asked what would happen if couldn’t find a local buyer, that we would “be stuck with him.”
He was lying. A group of local wealthy business owners was never allowed to put in a proposal, and we were sold to Halifax. The transition between the ownerships was the single worst day of my professional life, nicknamed “Bloody Monday,” when the entire staff, even those working out in the hinterlands, was summoned to the office to wait as, one-by-one, a giant chunk of the newsroom was called to the fifth floor to be let go. It seemed an endless procession … 40-year veterans, including the woman who officially hired me, were gone in an instant. There were tears and rage and, somehow, despite it all, a valiant effort to still put out a newspaper. “What happens if something comes on the police scanner?” asked one reporter, while all this was happening. We were literally being gutted, and yet still doing the damn job. We still put out a newspaper, as we had every day since 1886. We didn’t have time to grieve.
We desperately needed to grieve.
John Henry also kept our aging printing press in Millbury, a sort of fuck you on his way out that forced us to keep paying him to print the paper, eventually shuttering it. He recently sold the land for $5 million.
The Telegram’s Bloody Monday isn’t even the worst horror story I’ve heard in the annals of local news restructuring. That honor goes to a California paper which in the late ’90s summoned 30-something of its community news reporters – each one covering a different city in the county – and laid them all off without warning … except one. That one – an old friend of mine from high school, actually – had to continue working for a while longer, covering all of the towns by himself, and if he quit beforehand he wouldn’t get his severance pay.
Lepore discusses the consolidation of newspaper ownership over the course of the century, but in doing so her essay moves in tone from a more personal narrative to what is essentially a business story, the human debris left in the wake of each transaction being held in abstract. For those of us living inside the constant convulsions of local news, however, it’s always personal, and has become something of a norm. Indeed, the major mistake Lepore’s essay makes is that, when it should be training its eye down on the state of local and regional news, it instead widens the lens to the national news industry, abandoning local news altogether save for a brief coda at the end.
There’s a sort of symbolism in that omission … it almost illustrates the situation for local news perfectly: Everyone wants to talk about Trump, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Schrödinger’s border wall. National news, particularly national politics, takes up almost all of the culture’s bandwidth, leaving little air for zoning board meetings or school committees. I talk to intelligent, educated people on a regular basis who know nearly nothing about their local government, or the happenings in their own town. One once told me, in all seriousness, “Oh, if something important happens it’ll be on the TV.” She watches Fox News, which I sincerely doubt has a correspondent in her small New England town. Sometimes, people ask me why they should care about the “little stuff.” I try to tell them that “little stuff” more directly effects their lives than most national news, and if they don’t believe that, I quote Dar Williams’ great song, Mortal City: “One city got bad planners/one city got the plague.” There really isn’t any “little stuff.” All the “big stuff” began somewhere small.
The irony is that Lepore’s vantage shifts from the hyper-local to the hyper-national presumably as she becomes less personally familiar with the product. By the time the discussion reaches the present, she is too removed from Worcester to discuss its media. Which, again, seems almost a too-perfectly illustrated point to let go. The shame of it is, taking a closer look would have proven far more illustrative of the shape of local news than the macro-view proves, because the struggle down here on the ground is real.
The Telegram & Gazette has long owned Coulter Press, which publishes The Clinton Item, but more recently, the paper’s corporate parent, Gatehouse, has purchased The Landmark Corporation, which owns newspapers including the nearby Holden Landmark and the alt-weekly Worcester Magazine. Separately, Gatehouse also purchased the Gardner News, the end result being the majority of newspapers in Central Massachusetts now falling under one corporate aegis, as do other regional newspapers such as The MetroWest Daily News and The Providence Journal.
This is a recent state of affairs, and to be perfectly honest, it’s one everyone involved is still figuring out how to navigate. It’s not all dire – I’m pretty sure at least one paper in this shopping spree was saved from oblivion, by all local rumblings – and there’s never been any real political agenda pushed down from the upper reaches of the corporation, not like when colleagues of mine at a then-privately-owned California daily weren’t allowed to print anything, even wire stories, that were unflattering to George W. Bush. Still … uncomfortable.
It’s a situation I’m uniquely sensitive to, having written for Worcester Magazine in my youth, landing at the Telegram years later. I’ve worked for both the “mainstream” and “alternative” press, and can see the value in both co-existing. With this situation, the questions pile up pretty quickly: How do you retain the unique voices of the periodicals? How do you maintain the roles they play in their communities? Do we share resources or remain independent? Does it make sense for smaller newsrooms to be reporting on the same things, even if it means ceding stories to reporters who were once competitors? It’s very easy to see how The Telegram’s larger staff could lend a hand with some of our new sibling papers, but each step in that direction erodes independence and uniqueness. Eventually, hard choices will have to be made, and I am very thankful I’m not the one who has to make them.
Corporations – and the hedge funds and stockholders to whom they answer – are driven by profits. That’s just an immutable fact of a capitalist economy. It is what it is. Newsrooms, however, are driven by mission. I look across the Telegram’s newsroom, and I see a diverse group of people from different backgrounds whose beliefs and priorities fall across the political spectrum. Their belief in the newspaper, in the importance of local news, is probably the only thing they have in common, and indeed, probably the only thing they have in common with their counterparts at The Holden Landmark or Worcester Magazine, or even The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly or any other paper.
Some years ago, I sat across a local cafe from a now-former editor of Worcester Magazine, and they asked me what I thought should guide a newspaper’s decisions. My answer hasn’t changed: “You give (in our case) Worcester what it needs.” “What it wants?” they replied. No. What it needs. They’re not always the same thing, but “want” is mutable and fickle. “Need” is solid and dependable.
Here’s the one big truth I’ve learned in twenty-something years of working in newspapers: The communities you serve will complain about you endlessly. They will rail and gnash their teeth and say all sorts of nasty things about you on Facebook or in poorly written blogs. They will belittle you at length complaining how things were better in the good-old days. And maybe they were. But every once in a while, there comes a moment when they need you. When they need local journalism which they know has, in its earnest, sometimes flawed way, always served to be honest and dependable, to speak to things the community it serves needs to know. When those moments happen, that’s when you know what you do is important, and necessary. That’s when you have to show up, no matter how bad the horizon looks. The best you can do sometimes is to put aside the noise and overwhelming state of the industry and focus on the things that matter: The lives of our readers, the things that they need to know to live their lives, and the things that makes their lives worth living.
Lepore ends her narrative returning to the paper route of her youth, sharing an anecdote of an elderly woman, one of her father’s customers, dying in front of her while she stood helpless, unsure what to do. I don’t have an answer. I can’t even say definitively that things – as painful as they’ve been – haven’t played out for the best, under the circumstances. I can’t really influence the actions of the corporations and billionaires who own most of the country’s local newspapers, but I can tell you this: You could eliminate every single local newspaper tomorrow, and the need for what they do would still be there. People would try to fill it with Twitter or blogs or something, but it wouldn’t work. At the end of the day, someone has to tell the stories of who we are, and those people need experience and skills, need to be paid a living wage for their work. They need to be familiar with every family in West Boylston. That, too, is an immutable truth. The whole thing might need to be reconfigured, might even stop being published in actual newsprint all together sometime soon, but the actual need remains the same.
Local newsrooms everywhere are wounded and suffering from untreated PTSD, but they’re not actually dead yet, and until we are, we still have a job to do.
Victor D. Infante is the Editor-In-Chief of Radius.