Local journalism then and now

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If “All politics is local,” as the legendary pol Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill averred, the same bromide should apply to journalism. It certainly does in my experience.

I started my writing career in 1973 at a content-challenged weekly newspaper in rural New Hampshire. It didn’t have an editor or a reporter. I was hired to be the ad salesman, but spent most of my time writing stories and editing press releases. I wasn’t selling many ads so there was a lot of white space to fill.

The aptly named Pittsfield News no longer exists. It didn’t need any help from this century’s digital virus to expire. The weakest link in a chain of weeklies, its overarching mission was not truth, or even information, but revenue. Its ad salesman/editor was an erratic, at times hilarious speller. Few mourned the paper’s passing.

After a six-month apprenticeship up north, I migrated to Connecticut to launch a new weekly newspaper with some friends. The Old Lyme Gazette would be everything the Pittsfield News was not: feisty, informative, and solvent. That last, of course, was the most important, and I spent most of my time as an august, 24-year-old publisher selling ads.

We knew next to nothing and that was our greatest strength. If we’d had the least inkling of the road ahead and how much we had to learn, we would have quit after the inaugural issue, which contained a misspelling in a front page headline. It had taken us more than a month to get it out and the next one was due in less than a week.

We soldiered through the first two years with fear and despair as our constant companions. The winters were the worst except for the fact that the beer stayed cold outside the office window.

Slowly our little newspaper improved and became everything the Pittsfield News was not. When we had extra cash in the bank we hired another underpaid 20-something reporter; most graduated to bigger and better jobs in journalism. We expanded into four neighboring towns. Our peers named the Gazette the best weekly in New England for its circulation size (6,000 + subscribers). We bought another little weekly for a song.

Then the IRS came a calling. The auditor couldn’t believe that we were grossing that much money without declaring a profit. We thought that simply taking a modest salary was reward aplenty. Besides, all of us were getting care packages from home.

We eventually sold our little newspapers to a giant corporation. What took us more than eight years to build they demolished in five. Both publications went the way of the Pittsfield News — again, well before the arrival of the internet and all that digital jazz.

They would have died eventually, you say. Print is dead. Everybody says so.

I beg to differ with everybody.

Just up the road from Old Lyme, a new print-only weekly, the East Haddam News, is three years old and has been paying its bills from day one. Four local citizens (I signed on later) decided that their town had been an information desert long enough.

We don’t do ersatz news. Like the overwhelming majority of newspapers, great and small, we do straight reporting and that doesn’t sit well with everyone. If readers don’t like what they read, we urge them to write a letter to the editor, signed — no trolls or bots in the print universe. And you can’t delete a letter to the editor once it is published, so people tend to put more thought into them. And since everybody pretty much knows everybody in town —and appreciates that those who disagree with them are not the devil’s spawn— civility is more in evidence here than on the national stage.

People still complain because people love to complain and because we do make mistakes. A few attribute motives to us that don’t exist. It comes with the territory. A newspaper, even a small one, is a powerful thing and some people wish it mirrored their views. When complaining fails, they can start their own little newspaper, of course, but hardly anybody does. It’s too darn hard.

The continued modest success of our newspaper is not assured. A free press doesn’t exist by divine right or because it gets a passing mention in the U.S. Constitution. If we can’t give our readers something worth reading every week, then our publication will die, too.

And after 45 years in journalism, I submit to you that the day to worry in earnest about fake news is the day you and I get all our information from the government, or Facebook.

David Holahan is a freelance writer and the president of the East Haddam News Board of Directors.

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