More than 20 local communities, particularly in suburbs west of Boston, will lose the print edition of their local weekly papers. The papers' print editions are shutting down in May due cost-cutting decisions by parent Gannett, the newspaper behemoth that took on a lot of debt after some recent acquisitions including with GateHouse Media.
The largest community to be affected is Newton, whose Newton Tab had 22,386 weekly print subscribers in 2021, according to a Boston Business Journal article, "Gannett kills several local print editions." We take issue with the word "several" because that seems to indicate a handful while more than 20 is significant.
The Boston Globe also covered this story in an article with a more-dramatic headline that better captures the situation, in our opinion:
‘It’s devastating.’ As Boston-area weeklies close, towns ponder civic life without local news.
Gannett plans to fold or merge two-dozen print papers in Eastern Massachusetts in shift to more digital, and regional, coverage of local news.
We agree with that conclusion.
Here's a list of local papers whose print editions will close or be merged in May:
- Newton Tab – making Newton, with 89,000 residents, the largest city in the state without a local newspaper
- Brookline Tab
- Dedham Transcript & Bulletin, which also covered Westwood and Norwood
- Sharon Times Advocate, which also covered Walpole
- Needham Times
- Weston Town Crier
- Wayland Town Crier
- Waltham News Tribune
- Bellingham County Gazette
- Saugus Advertiser & Melrose Free Press Observer will be merged into the Free Press & Advertiser
- Medford Transcript & Summerville Journal will be merged into the Transcript & Journal
- Arlington Advocate & Winchester Star will be merged into the Advocate & Star
Keep in mind: these are not the only communities being affected. Gannett has been cutting costs, and staff for some time. Only three Gannett weeklies -- in Cambridge, Plymouth and Provincetown -- will retain dedicated staff. The others will share resources, as many Gannett weeklies have done for more than 18 months.
Here are some observations and lessons learned:
- Some of the community weeklies had strong print subscribers. Approx. 1/4 of Newton's 89,000 residents subscribed to the Tab. So the decision to shutter some print editions has nothing to do with the number of subscribers, even though subscriptions to the Tab fell 20% from five years prior -- that's probably similar to most other print subscriptions.
- Western suburbs are primarily being hit but we suspect that the decision will be rolled out to other communities.
- Longtime Boston journalist and journalism professor Dan Kennedy told the Globe, "To eliminate local beats at all but three of their weeklies is really unconscionable. The loss is really to civic life. The loss is to accountability journalism that all of us need to know about what’s going on at City Hall or Town Hall, the school committee, even connecting with our neighbors.”
- Gannett said its mission is to move print readers to digital platforms. But we know that print subscribers tend to be older but we don't know that they will successfully transition to checking out community news online -- and neither does Gannett. It means that a certain percentage of local residents will be disenfranchised when it comes to local news and events.
- Some online sites do a better job pushing news out. The Patch is very good at sending daily updates via email, especially with local news. We've been less impressed with Wicked Locals from that perspective.
- The loss of hyperlocal print editions makes it harder for marketers to reach local readers. On our staff, we tend to check out hard news on our local online community news sites, while ignoring lifestyle news because, for example, we expect to have seen any health and wellness news in the Globe, the New York Times or other national news outlet.
- For those of us who stopped subscribing to the "dead tree" edition, but still care about our communities, it still takes extra effort to remember and click onto our "online news destination." Our guess is that instead of checking out community news each week when the paper edition reached our homes, we check out local news randomly, a couple of times a month at most. In other words, at a time when national and international news flow is overwhelming, most of us are not checking local news regularly but we did more when we had the reminder of the print edition.
- Because of the constraints of shared resources -- i.e., reporters who cover a region, not a specific community, many online sites are cluttered with news about other communities. In this respect, the Patch newsletters don't do a good job; they aggregate news so that only when you click the link do you find out that the headline refers to some town that could be an hour away. That's not really helpful when you're interested in local news. By the way, that's not a rare occurrence; to us, it feels like that happens on a daily basis because there's just not enough news being generated from each of our home towns.
- We also see that, because there's not a lot of new articles being produced, that many online news sites continue to list news that's several weeks old. So that when you click onto the site, it looks like lots of coverage but many stories are old and just haven't been displaced by new content. Please note: This is not to slam reporters. We know there are fewer of them and they have a lot more to cover. This is a problem that can be resolved by hiring more reporters. But it makes it harder for residents to find current news because there's not as much being written or posted.
- Marketers need to find new ways to reach communities. That may mean doing more than issuing a press release or submitting a potential hyperlocal news story. That may mean taking out ads in community newsletters or finding ways to partner with local businesses or organizations like chambers of commerce or local churches, synagogues and libraries, that also have newsletters to committed and interested members. But that will will likely require ad fees and additional coordination. This may not be feasible for nonprofits looking to get the word out about events, programs, etc. so we need to be more creative in approaches.
We're advising some clients about how to reach out to hyperlocal communities that are losing their community print editions. There are opportunities but they will require a willingness to try new things and more budgets and resources to support events.
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