Tommy Jordan was livid, enraged by something I’d written in the previous week’s Reporter editorial page. It was sometime in the 1980s—a Friday, probably, the day after the paper hit the streets. Jordan had stormed into our office on Anderson Street, pipe clenched between gritted teeth beneath his signature Greek sailor’s cap. Red-faced, primed for a harangue, he demanded face time with whatever “commie” had written the editorial to which he took exception.
That was me.
What transpired between Tommy and me that day isn’t as relevant as the fact that it happened at all. It was grassroots democracy at its finest; electoral politics head to head with the Fourth Estate. Tommy, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, had a bone to pick with the guy who ran the local paper, and he was determined to vent his spleen.
The symbiotic proximity of newspaper staff being available, to simply be present to take whatever offered—be it complaint (often) suggestions (occasionally) or compliments (sometimes)—was all part of the act of reflecting the Marblehead community in a pulp and ink mirror. We’d get the paper out each week and then wait for the critics to emerge. They wrote letters, opposing op-ed pieces, or, like Jordan, stopped by for a chat over the service counter carefully marshaled by office manager Jackie Oldham. This weekly exchange created a lovely balance, a give-and-take relationship that somehow benefited all, kept residents informed, and kept an eye on those in power.
Over the years, something broke the tenuous thread between communities and their local papers. Economically ravaged by evaporating advertising revenue and unable to halt the exodus of readers to the clutches of the internet, starting in the late 1990s papers perished by the hundreds across America. It was an unprecedented collapse of the industry that in my opinion took important aspect of democracy along with it.
The New York Times recently published an analysis lamenting the erosion of local media. “Since 2005, more than a quarter of the country’s newspapers have closed. Those that survive have shed journalists at an alarming rate: There are roughly 60 percent fewer journalists working in newspapers today than in 2005,” the Times wrote.
The Times piece quoted a recent Northwestern University study on the effects of declining local journalism which found “significant evidence that the erosion of local journalism has accelerated some of the worst trends in our civic life. In communities without a credible source of local news, voter participation declines, corruption in both government and business increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and at checkout,” the report concluded.
While Tommy loved to remind me “we’re not in Moscow” when I rebuffed his regular efforts to claim sovereign rights over editorial policy, I think the former selectman would agree that the town would have been worse off without a paper for him to brood over. He would have chosen someone else to run the paper, but that was a bitter pill he had to swallow.
Tommy would have heralded the arrival of the Current. He appreciated the importance of having a local source of information, even though he tended to view the Reporter as a misbehaving child he couldn’t bully into compliance.
Some local pols nurtured adversarial relationships by holding members of the Fourth Estate in self-righteous contempt. Others—like Tom McNulty, Helaine Hazlett and Larry Alexander—became cherished friends, respectful participants in the quirky dance that went with the media-government construct.
Our love of the town bound us together; a delicate balance of interests, ideas and motivations that created an ongoing ballet to the community’s benefit. We shared vested interest in the public works, police and fire, our schools. We’d bump into one another at local shops (I will claim to my last breath that one of Helaine Hazlett’s monologues while I was buying milk for my kids’ breakfast at 7:30 on a Saturday at a convenience store on Tedesco Street weighed heavily in my decision to find a new job). We’d exchange pleasantries on the town’s sidewalks. Toss an occasional barb across the street at one another. Share insider news (i.e., gossip) while waiting for a steak bomb at Ben Rhodes’ Super Sub.
The Reporter was the link that connected us, a role I trust the Current will assume in Marblehead.
The Reporter was an anomaly in the industry: home delivered, free (by legions of kids pulling wagonloads of three-sectioned tabloid editions, when I was editor), generally valued and respected (we won an award as the best weekly newspaper in New England one year), and profitable. Its decline over the years broke my heart, and when its current owners gave up and shuttered it, I felt the reverberations across the Atlantic from my new home in England.
How would residents keep tabs on what was going on in their community without Tweeting themselves into fits or separating into warring Facebook page camps?
Everyone benefits from a healthy, active and engaged local newspaper, particularly when it’s run by the likes of those stewarding the Current. They are experienced, smart, and (this is important) caring people with a common purpose that’s held the industry together since its nascent days: news-gathering integrity, honesty, and fairness. As a non-profit, the Current is exempt from some of the economic realities that became little more than leverageable assets when the private equity predators took over the Reporter’s parent company. That’s a good thing that will benefit the community.
Newspaper pros don’t fall into the jobs, and they surely don’t do it for the money. And they bring to the table skills and standards sorely lacking in the uneducated, ill-prepared and unrestricted wilderness of social media. I’ve always felt the role of the editor was one of the most misunderstood and unappreciated pillars of a community.
I moved from Marblehead many years ago, but some of my heart remains somewhere between Marblehead Harbor, Abbot Hall, and the places I and my family called home over the years. I’m thrilled to know Marbleheaders once again have a mirror held up to their collective face.
Newspapers create a sense of place. They highlight a community’s strengths, weaknesses, comings (births) and goings (deaths) and teach us about where we live as the de facto chronicle of local events.
Read the Current. Write to it. Complain about it.
Marblehead just restored one of its crucial foundations.
It deserves your support.
Frank Yetter is the former editor of the Marblehead Reporter.