In Dan Kennedy’s hometown of Medford, there is a newspaper owned by GateHouse (the national chain that just completed a merger with Gannett), that doesn’t have a single full-time reporter to cover that small city’s news. No one on staff to report on the mayor, the city council, or school committee.
At least his town still has a newspaper. GateHouse, in the past year, has closed some newspapers and merged others in cost-saving moves, with even more slashing predicted after the merger. You need look no further than Cape Cod to see a newspaper with a continually shrinking staff. The Cape Cod Times, a GateHouse daily, has suffered repeated layoffs and buyouts, leaving the newspaper with holes in its coverage.
Media experts say it’s a loss of revenue from advertising to places like Google and Facebook, as well as the dip in classified advertising as it moves to platforms such as Craigslist, that has newspapers all across the country struggling mightily.
The Martha’s Vineyard Times is not immune.
That’s why as of Jan. 2, The Times will ask readers to begin paying for New England’s best weekly newspaper — both the print edition and online. The price for a year’s subscription for print delivery and unlimited web access is $40, $1 on the newsstand. (See the answers to frequently asked questions about the change.)
It’s not a decision taken lightly by owners Peter and Barbara Oberfest, but they believe the community will find value in playing a role in keeping The Times newspaper and website as a robust source of Island news.
“Truly healthy communities depend on strong newspapers, and strong, always-improving newspapers depend on a stable financial base. The change we are announcing today will propel The MV Times toward an important new model of reader, advertiser, and community support,” Peter Oberfest said.
The Times began as a paid-subscription newspaper in 1984, but switched to a free model two years later. That made sense at the time, Doug Cabral, the former Times editor and publisher who made the decision in 1986, said.
“The idea actually came to me from Phyllis Hughes, publisher for MPG [Newspapers],” Cabral said. “I seized on the idea and implemented it.”
The idea was a simple one — get the newspaper in the hands of readers, and provide them with must-read content. It provided a good vehicle for advertisers to reach those same people.
“It changed things dramatically,” Cabral said, noting that the fledgling newspaper became profitable. “We tried to be the Islander’s newspaper rather than the summer visitor’s newspaper. We worked hard to try to claim that ground and protect it. It was a success. It was a risk. But 1986 is a lot different from 2019.”
In recent months, The Times has been exploring the idea of a paid model to help with revenue and to reduce the costs and waste associated with printing up to 15,000 newspapers each week for an Island with only 17,000 year-round residents.
“I would say the idea of having a total-market-penetration free weekly was a really good way to support journalism at one time, because even though you weren’t getting any circulation revenue, there was just so much advertising out there that if you could tell businesses that every household is going to get the paper, that was a pretty attractive proposition to them,” Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and media expert, said. “But given that everybody from the New York Times to the Washington Post, right down to The Martha’s Vineyard Times, is losing advertising to platforms like Facebook and Craigslist, then everybody has to think about persuading their audience to step up to the plate and pay for the fairly substantial amount of money that’s needed to put out the paper and the digital version of that paper. You just hope that people at the local level understand the value of what they’re getting, and they are willing to step up and pay.”
When newspapers stop publishing or are gutted, readers lose.
“Well, I think they lose an awful lot, but unfortunately in the climate that we’re in, I worry about whether people really understand what they’re losing, because we have this enormous interest in national news, being driven by the Trump administration, and so therefore we see the New York Times and Washington Post growing by leaps and bounds,” Kennedy said. “But what really affects us in our day-to-day lives is what’s going on at the selectboard meetings, the school committee meeting. Not only would we be losing that, I’m not even sure a lot of people these days appreciate how important it is. I don’t think we’ve done a good job; I don’t think the schools have done a good job with civic education, so that people understand how important what happens in their local communities really is.”
Kennedy also talked about the community social media pages that have popped up, mostly on Facebook. People think they’re getting informed, but they’re not really getting what they need there. “Yeah, you get some sociopathy, but you also get some people who are really well-meaning and are trying to contribute to the conversation in the community,” Kennedy said. “But what are you getting? You’re getting a lot of, ‘Does anybody know what’s going on with such-and-such?’ Instead of, ‘This is what’s going on with such-and-such.’ That’s why we need this kind of hyperlocal journalism.”
What Kennedy is getting at is that communities need the types of journalists who not only report what’s happening, but ask probing, informed questions of the people with answers, and dig deep by seeking and obtaining public records — a process that takes time and training. A good example is Times reporter Rich Saltzberg pushing for the U.S. Coast Guard to release documents that show it knew about lead contamination at its West Chop housing — a discovery that’s led to a national investigation by the federal agency.
The situation with local news is so dire that Kennedy is part of a legislative initiative to study the state of Massachusetts journalism. The bill was filed by state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn, and had a hearing earlier this year. The proposed 17-member panel would research the issues and look for possible solutions for the industry. It’s nothing as ambitious as what New Jersey did last year by creating a panel that actually has $5 million in public funds to pay for reporting projects.
Ken Doctor, who writes a column called “Newsonomics” for the Nieman Lab, told The Times the newspaper industry has been in steady decline since before the great recession of 2008. “Then it rapidly accelerated after the great recession,” he said.
Daily newspapers have lost $30 billion since 2005, and haven’t enjoyed a single positive revenue year since before 2008. Much of that ad revenue has been lost to Google and Facebook, digital advertising that now surpasses television, Doctor said. “The No. 1 strategy on the revenue side is to focus on digital subscriptions, figuring that the direct relationship with readers who appreciate and value local news … will pay.”
Doctor is so bullish on local news that he is launching Lookout, which is geared toward providing coverage in communities that are now underserved. The location of the launch will be announced sometime in January, and will happen this spring. “If we create robust local news products, backed by very good local journalism, written by people who actually know the community, and then deliver that mainly via the phone, in a way that is useful, and attractive, and fast, then we can ask citizens locally to pay for high-quality local journalism. Again, advertising would be strong, but a secondary support,” he said. “We’re looking to test out the model and change the conversation of how much loss and how are we going to stanch the loss to create new models that really propel local communities and democracy forward in the 2020s.”
Doctor is looking to fill some of the news vacuum described in a recently published Boston Magazine piece, Chris Faraone, editor and co-publisher of DigBoston, wrote about the demise of journalism in Boston suburbs, even as larger news outlets like the Times and Post flourish. “Maybe you’re on Twitter, or you catch the nightly news, and have a pretty good take on the hot-button topics of the day: climate change, gun violence, impeachment, tariffs,” Faraone wrote. “You can even rattle off the names of at least the top half of the Democratic presidential field. But, for the sake of argument, do you think you could explain over cocktails what your local government has been up to lately? Or even who (and no cheating here) is charged with running your little part of the world?”
On Martha’s Vineyard, The Times is looking to continue its commitment to covering the news, the boards, and the issues that matter to the Island’s six towns.
“As publishers, our jobs are to protect and expand The MV Times’ unique culture and quality,” Oberfest said. “We believe that Islanders value the voice of The Times on all our platforms, and will welcome the opportunity to share in this financial realignment with us.”