In Haverhill, from a newspaper war to a “news desert”

Haverhill’s historic shoe district

Banyan Project founder Tom Stites refers to Haverhill and cities like it as “news deserts” — that is, as communities so underserved by local journalism that government accountability and civic life are harmed. He and local activists hope to launch Banyan’s first online news co-op, Haverhill Matters, later this year. (I touch on Banyan in the Epilogue to “The Wired City.”)

Two generations ago, though, the mid-size industrial city, located in the Merrimack Valley near the New Hampshire border, was the scene of a daily newspaper war. According to an account recently published by the city’s online nonprofit radio station, WHAV, a newspaper strike led to years of debilitating rivalry between the established Haverhill Gazette and the upstart Haverhill Journal.

The Journal was started by the notorious William Loeb, owner of the Manchester Union Leader (now the New Hampshire Union Leader), in December 1957. The Gazette had temporarily ceased publishing after it was struck by members of the typographical union. And Haverhill merchants, worried that they had no place to advertise their Christmas wares, went to Loeb and asked him to do something. He published a couple of free shoppers, and then decided to start a full-fledged newspaper.

The WHAV article, by Tim Coco, is full of colorful details, especially concerning the federal antitrust case that grew out of the rivalry. In a nutshell, Loeb secretly paid businessmen to buy ads only in the Journal and to badmouth the Gazette at every opportunity. And the Gazette sold ads below cost, which can in some circumstances be illegal. But it was great for readers while it lasted. As Coco puts it at the beginning of his essay:

News media competition helps ensure the inner workings of every government department are exposed to the light of day and held accountable, every service club talk is covered and every military personnel homecoming is treated with reverence.

On the other hand, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Wyzanski, who presided over the antitrust hearings, concluded it was impossible for two daily papers in a city the size of Haverhill to operate profitably unless they offered “limited news coverage” and “inferior general quality.” The Gazette quickly ran into trouble, and in 1958 it was acquired by a consortium of newspaper publishers. The unstable rivalry persisted until Loeb shuttered the Journal in 1965.

Eventually the Gazette was acquired outright by The Eagle-Tribune, headquartered in North Andover but traditionally associated with Lawrence. The Eagle-Tribune started a daily Haverhill edition and converted the Gazette to a weekly. In 2005, The Eagle-Tribune and its affiliated papers on the North Shore were bought by CNHI, a Birmingham, Ala.-based chain. And as Coco notes, in March 2012, The Eagle-Tribune closed the Gazette’s Haverhill offices.

“After 191 years,” Coco writes, “The Haverhill Gazette no longer had a physical presence in Haverhill.”

Now, nearly a half-century after daily newspaper competition came to an end in Haverhill, the city is on the verge of becoming a hotbed of experimentation in community journalism. In addition to the Banyan Project, WHAV has launched something called the “Democracy, Independence and Sustainability Project.”

I’m hoping there’s going to be a lot more to come as 2013 unfolds.

Update: After I posted a link to this on Twitter, John Dodge let me know that another, lesser-known daily paper called the Independent published in Haverhill in the late 1970s. Begun by longtime Gazette staffers, Dodge says the Independent couldn’t survive because the DeMoulas supermarket chain wouldn’t buy any ads.

Earlier:

Photo by Marc N. Belanger via Wikimedia Commons.

8 thoughts on “In Haverhill, from a newspaper war to a “news desert”

  1. Mike Brough

    Not just small local “News Deserts” – many large cities have the same problem – and just look at the national “news” media in the U.S. – yes the internet is making it easier for news groups to get started – the consolidation of “news” and other media in the U.S. is on the way to killing democracy by making what the people see and hear uniform crap that reflects what a few Billionaires want the masses to see and hear.

  2. Milton Taylor

    What is really bothersome is that good stories and hid on page 5 or some odd numbered page because your eyes always drift to the right hand page wwhen opening. The Tribune is a company paper not a people paper. We need another paper to get the news we want to know, not what they want us to know. Competition is good !! Demoulas is evil. Remember when they bought out the A&P in Riverside?.

  3. Pingback: Haverhill Voices» Blog Archive » New News Source on the Horizon

  4. Len Stuart

    The resource starvation due to CNHI’s continuing brutal cutbacks at the Tribune is largely responsible here. No matter what the bean counters think, you simply can’t cover a city of 60,000+ with two reporters and one editor and expect to do anything more than skim the surface.

  5. Lou Gawab

    Thoughts:

    1.) Also is should be known that the AM radio station has been moved out of town, and is in a language that most of Haverhill cannot understand.

    2.) 92.5-FM “The River” has recently changed it’s City of License/Service from Haverhill to the higher class Andover…meaning they cover nothing abotu Haverhill anymore.

    3.) **And the Gazette sold ads below cost, which can in some circumstances be illegal. **

    Why would this be illegal?

    4.) **Remember when they bought out the A&P in Riverside?.**

    No. Care to explain?

    5.) **Demoulas is evil.**

    Wha? Huh? LOVE Demoulas!

    6.) **CNHI’s continuing brutal cutbacks at the Tribune**

    Does anyone know CNHI is doing (beyond the anecdotal?) Have they had any financial figures that would indicate they are in trouble?

  6. Len Stuart

    Lou: Re your point #6: The CNHI chain is a private company, a wholly owned investment of the Retirement Systems of Alabama. They own 200+ papers, and they don’t break out income by investment, let alone by individual property. But the entire newspaper industry is pretty much in a death spiral these days, with advertising revenues down about two-thirds in the last five or so years. CNHI’s solution to keeping a high margin in the face of cratering revenues has been to keep chopping staff headcount. They’ve cut at least 125 jobs since 2008 and let attrition empty a lot more seats. Newsroom staffing is about a third of what it was less than 10 years ago. Prospects for improvement are slim to nonexistent.

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