More Gannett papers end print publication in favor of digital

As I noted earlier this week, Gannett is ending print publication of The Middleboro Gazette in favor of digital-only distribution. It turns out the Gazette is not alone. Here is a list (which may or may not be comprehensive) of other Gannett papers in Eastern Massachusetts that are also abandoning print.

Ironically, Ipswich does have a print newspaper — the nonprofit Ipswich Local News, co-founded by the late Bill Wasserman, who sold his Ipswich Chronicle in the 1980s to a chain that ultimately morphed into Gannett. Several other communities on this list have independent local papers as well.

As I wrote the other day, this isn’t necessarily the worst move Gannett could make as long as the company is serious about not cutting back on news coverage. Ending the cost of printing and distribution is smart as long as the money saved is invested in journalism. But Gannett executives are going to have to prove that they mean it.

Legendary North Shore newspaper publisher Bill Wasserman dies at 94

Bill Wasserman. Photo by Jim Walsh. Used by permission.

Legendary North Shore publisher Bill Wasserman has died at the age of 94. The founder of the Ipswich Chronicle, which he built into a group of about a dozen papers comprising North Shore Weeklies, Wasserman sold in 1986 and later became an outspoken critic of corporate chain ownership.

Several years ago, GateHouse Media — now Gannett — folded the Chronicle and merged it into a paper called the Chronicle & Transcript, which covers six North Shore Communities. Wasserman did something about it, becoming a consultant and ad salesman at a nonprofit startup, Ipswich Local News, which appears to be going strong.

Starting in the early 1990s, Wasserman’s former papers became part of larger groups — first Community Newspaper Co., owned by Fidelity and later then-Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell, and then GateHouse. Wasserman lamented the cuts that were implemented at his old papers. In 2008 I wrote about GateHouse for CommonWealth Magazine; Wasserman was among those I interviewed. An excerpt:

After 20 years of consolidation, it’s fair to ask if corporate ownership of community newspapers makes sense — not just journalistically, but financially. Take Bill Wasserman, who built North Shore Weeklies and sold the group in 1986 to investors who, in turn, sold to Fidelity several years later. Wasserman says the main problem with corporate ownership is a failure to understand that, even in the best of times, community journalism is little more than a break-even proposition.

“I was paid a salary, which was modest,” says Wasserman. “The reward was not in the profit. The reward was having a lot of fun putting out a community paper.”

Earlier this year Wasserman was honored by the Ipswich Rotary Club. Even in his 90s, he was looking to the future, saying:

The Ipswich Local News, which is surviving despite all the reports of failing local newspapers, is doing well because of its small but dedicated staff led so ably by John Muldoon — a Rotarian — and the broad support of both the local business community and the residents. It is a joy to be part of this effort to keep local news and its watchdog component alive.”

Wasserman retired from the paper a little more than a year ago, saying, “I will be 93 in two weeks, and I would like to pay more attention to my family and sleep without a deadline. There’s enough news and concerns in our town to keep busy 24 hours 7 days a week.”

I last saw Wasserman several years ago. He looked well and was as sharp as ever. His passion for community journalism was undimished. It’s fitting that toward the end of his life he came full circle — helping to found a newspaper in Ipswich to take the place of a once-thriving paper shut down by a corporation for whom the bottom line is always the bottom line.

Here are three new reasons to be optimistic about local news

Note: Make that four reasons. See update below.

The crisis in local news won’t be solved all at once. Rather, it will be solved community by community as entrepreneurial-minded journalists seek to fill the gaps left behind by corporate-owned chain newspapers. Here are three new reasons to be optimistic.

In Maine, the Portland Phoenix, the last of the great Phoenix alternative weeklies, is scheduled to relaunch this coming Wednesday under new ownership after ceasing publication earlier this year. The free paper and website are part of New Portland Publishing Co., headed by Marian McCue and Karen Wood.

The relaunch was announced Oct. 22 by Marian McCue and Karen Wood, principals of New Portland Publishing Co. McCue will serve as the editor and Mo Mehlsak, most recently executive editor of The Forecaster, American Journal and Lakes Region Weekly newspapers, will be managing editor.

“While we always admired the energy of the Phoenix, and the strong entertainment coverage, our focus will be more on news and analysis, and in-depth investigative stories that explore the challenges facing this area,” McCue said in a press release announcing the new venture.

Added Wood: “We’ve had a very positive response from early conversations with advertisers and people in the community. We are convinced that a free distribution newspaper will be successful, and provide an effective forum for our advertisers.”

The new Portland Phoenix has a stiff challenge ahead of it in the form of the daily Portland Press Herald, the flagship of a Maine-based chain. The Press Herald is considerably more robust than papers owned by the national chains, and the publisher — Lisa DeSisto — is an alumnus of The Boston Phoenix who knows how to put out a paper oriented toward arts and entertainment. (Note: I worked with Lisa at the Phoenix for several years.)

Still, it’s fantastic news that someone is going to try to revive the Phoenix in Portland, which is the sort of smaller city that ought to be able to support an alt-weekly.

***

Bill Wasserman is one of Eastern Massachusetts’ legendary local newspaper owners. Founder of the Ipswich Chronicle, he built that into a chain of about a dozen North Shore papers and sold them in 1986. Those papers eventually were acquired by GateHouse Media, and Wasserman has been grousing about what happened to them ever since. Earlier this year, GateHouse got rid of the Ipswich Chronicle as a standalone title, merging it with two other papers.

In an interview for CommonWealth Magazine in 2008, Wasserman told me the main problem with corporate ownership was a failure to understand that, even in the best of times, community journalism is little more than a break-even proposition. “I was paid a salary, which was modest,” said Wasserman. “The reward was not in the profit. The reward was having a lot of fun putting out a community paper.”

Now Wasserman has gone back to the future, lending his expertise as a consultant and ad salesman to a start-up called Ipswich Local News — a free paper and website that is seeking nonprofit status. The editor and publisher is John Muldoon.

***

Jenn Lord Paluzzi holds the distinction of being laid off by two national chains — GateHouse (at The MetroWest Daily News) and MediaNews Group (at The Sun of Lowell). Now she’s launched a community news site in her hometown of Grafton called Grafton Common that is loaded with local news.

Some years back, Lord Paluzzi was involved in a startup called Greater Grafton. But that venture ended up getting sold to a chain of local websites that ended up going out of business. Best of luck to her as she goes off on her own once again.

Update: And a fourth — how could I forget the recently launched Provincetown Independent?

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