End of 220-Year Journalistic Era
Proposed Sale of the Gazette
Raises Key Media Questions
By Edward Shanahan
I was checking my e-mail at an Internet café in Paris when I was topped cold by a message from our son Mark, a reporter for the Boston Globe. He suggested I might be interested in the wire service story he was sending along for my attention.
In this shrinking world of communications, that’s how I learned about the intended sale of the Daily Hampshire Gazette to a newspaper company in New Hampshire, a company with which I had some familiarity.
Having been editor of the Gazette for 15 years and then for several years after that a columnist and sometime critic of the newspaper, I was stunned by the news. As we continued with our travels, Ann asked a couple of times how I felt about the sale of Northampton’s hometown paper. I replied that I actually did not know how I felt, and I still don’t.
But if my own experience in more than 30 years of newspapering is instructive, I knew instinctively that the Gazette sale ultimately was inevitable. Since becoming a reporter in 1961, all of the other publications I have happily toiled for – the Berkshire Eagle, Congressional Quarterly. The Winston-Salem Journal, Detroit Free Press, Quincy Patriot Ledger and Torrington (CT) Register Citizen, all once locally owned, had been sold and in some case resold to chains.
Lacking family members trained, committed or prepared to continue publishing a local newspaper, the choices are not too complicated: look around for a suitable outside buyer to purchase the paper and take over its assets, its income producing power, and the hardships associated with newspaper publishing in this day and age.
It used to be the rule of thumb in the heyday of the 1960s and 1970s, when chains were gobbling up local daily papers, that the buyers were paying somewhere around $1 million for each 1,000 circulation. Thus, if the Gazette has a circulation of 18,000-plus and throwing in the Amherst Bulletin and considering the income levels of readers in Northampton and Amherst, the robust Five College economy, adjusted for inflation, the Gazette sale might amount to some $30 or $35 million.
Hard to walk away from that kind of money, with no heirs on the horizon to continue a long family tradition. Even the Taylor family, which for some 100 years owned the Boston Globe, a large, well-established and powerful newspaper, could not turn down the $1 billion the New York Times paid for that influential paper several years back. Family members often want their money now rather than later.
That said, it still is sad that the locus of power – especially budget and balance sheet decisions - will shift from Northampton to Concord, N.H., an estimable city but no Northampton. And ultimately, of course, soon the owners will have to strip away that proud statement that appears under the Gazette masthead each day: “Locally owned since 1786.” That’s a very long time. And don’t you suppose the buyers will have to make some very fine budget calculations to recover the cost of buying the paper, and then return a profit on top of that?
Yet, my own experience as worker in the vineyard and observer of newspapers is that there is no guarantee that local ownership in itself necessarily produces a better newspaper than one owned by the large corporation.
In fact, historically some daily papers that were locally owned were venal in every way, dominated by outside interests that had access to timid local owners and publishers, who suppressed negative stories about their friends and hyped news about advertisers, all in the name of press freedom. The late Holyoke Transcript Telegram comes to mind.
And some media conglomerates which are still privately held by powerful families – the Newhouses, owners of the Springfield Newspapers, and the Hearsts would fall into that category - on the whole produce lousy newspapers, but make tons and tons of money.
In some ways local ownership versus outside ownership cuts both ways. It all depends on the quality and commitment of the local owners or the professionalism of the chains. And, of course, we won’t know how that all plays out for the Gazette for some time to come, at which point most of us who read the Gazette with some care each day will be long gone.
For many years I bought into the notion that a newspaper, protected as it is by the first amendment to the Constitution, and virtually subject to no regulatory constraints, other than those that are self-imposed, were exceedingly special aspects of our democratic society. I actually subscribed to all that romantic stuff about the public’s right to know, the press as the fourth branch of government, the press as watchdog for the citizenry, the role of a newspaper being to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, and so on and so forth.
But over the years, newspapers adopted the model of the highly successful and hugely profitable (each year’s earnings report always is at least 15 percent better than the year before) Gannett chain, architect of USA Today. They became more enchanted with what was trivial or ephemeral rather than what was important, or tackled issues that were difficult, time consuming and thus expensive to report and explain.
Increasingly, I found that my dreamy fantasies about newspapers were being punctured by the realities of newspapering, which had become all part of something called the media, for which many Americans had developed an intense love-hate relationship.
It was difficult to give up my own ideals about newspapers, and I still involuntarily have dreams many nights that involve newspapers, reporting stories, working on deadline in tandem with others in a newsroom somewhere, but often at the Gazette. But, when I wake up I realize that it was only a dream and that those days will not come back, and I and others have to move on with our lives.
That’s what the people who worked for the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram and its readers in that city had to do when the fine, upstanding locally-owned New Hampshire company that will wind up possessing the Gazette killed the Transcript in 1993 when times got tough in the Paper City.
I recall reporting and writing a magazine article for the Globe about the death of the T-T and what led to its demise. The employees and citizens of Holyoke did not execute the Transcript-Telegram, it was the out-of-town family members in their comfortable environs of Concord, N.H. that pulled the plug, as the Holyoke population changed from working class Irish, Polish and French, to poor Hispanic. Can’t make much money with that kind of “demographic,” I understand.
The 15 years I spent at the Gazette working as rookie editor for Charlie and Peter DeRose were not easy, for anyone who has had dealings with either of the brothers, or dealing with both simultaneously might realize. And, I’m sure it was anything but easy for them working with me. But it was a period when we all grew up together and learned a lot about ourselves and what a local daily newspaper is and can be.
In the end, I wonder how much all of this matters. Newspaper circulation around the country has been in free-fall for years and there is little likelihood that it is going to be reversed. How many young people read newspapers? Virtually none. The future of newspapers increasingly appears to rely on capturing the growing audience that obtains its information, news, entertainment, and opinion on line from the Internet, a trend that has been explosive in its impact in a very short period of time.
For example, some of the largest newspaper companies now gain more advertising revenue from their on-line news sites than from their print editions, and that is expected to be where the action is for the short and long term. Newspapers, in other words, have managed to make themselves all but obsolete, and are now scrambling to shift to a different way of operating.
Local is still important for those of us who want to keep in touch with our community and its neighborhoods and our friends and neighbors. For those of us generationally weaned on newspapers and the lore of the free and inquiring press that may be an impossible adjustment. But that change not only is coming; it is, in fact, already here. Downstreet.net is one very small example. Need I say more.
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