The Cambridge Chronicle lives. But the city still needs a lot more coverage.

News coverage in Cambridge — or the lack thereof — got a lot of attention recently when Joshua Benton wrote in Nieman Lab about the departure of Amy Saltzman as editor of the Cambridge Chronicle-Tab.

What drew national notice was Benton’s warning that maybe Saltzman wouldn’t be replaced and that Gannett would allow it to sink into the ranks of ghost newspapers. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, although Gannett has gone on a spree of shutting down print editions recently. Saltzman’s successor, Will Dowd, introduced himself this week. But Benton’s larger point still holds. Cambridge, a well-educated, affluent city of about 118,000, is covered by just one full-time paid journalist.

Saltzman edited the Chronicle for nine years, which is about 150 years in Corporate Chain Journalism Time. In her farewell column, she writes that she had more resources at her disposal back when she started — in addition to herself, there were one and a half reporting positions, an editorial assistant, a freelance budget, several photographers and an office in nearby Somerville. Four years later, she found herself alone. Yet she adds:

So as I leave my post, I have one plea: Support local journalism. Subscribe to the Chronicle. The paper’s survival as the oldest continuously run weekly newspaper in the country continues to be against all odds and should be lauded.

Well, now. Should Cantabrigians support the Chronicle? My answer would be yes if they’re getting value from it. But I don’t think anyone should feel obliged to support a paper that’s been hollowed out by Gannett and its predecessor company, GateHouse Media, especially when it could almost certainly be run profitably with a bigger staff and a more imaginative approach to the business of journalism. At this point, the closest thing the city has to a news source of record is the Cambridge Day, a mostly volunteer project. It would be nice to see some resources put into the Day, or perhaps into a nonprofit start-up.

Then again, news coverage in Cambridge has always been a puzzle. According to legend, at one time it was the largest city in the country without a daily newspaper, a fact that was usually attributed to its proximity to Boston. Yet neither the Globe nor the Herald ever gave more than cursory coverage to Cambridge. The alt-weeklies — The Boston Phoenix and The Real Paper — actually devoted quite a few resources to Cambridge coverage since that’s where a lot of their readers lived. I remember covering a few Cambridge political stories myself. But those papers are all gone.

When I was a senior in college, a friend of mine who lived in Cambridge and I made serious plans to launch a weekly after we graduated that would compete with the Chronicle, then owned by the Dole family. As we immersed ourselves in the details, though, we discovered that the Chronicle was actually selling its ads at prices well below those listed on its rate card. Realizing we’d be undercut, we got about the business of finding jobs, and that was that.

Later on, Russel Pergament launched the Cambridge Tab, a free paper that was part of a chain of Tab papers in the western suburbs. Pergament sold out to Community Newspaper Co. in 1996, when it was owned by Fidelity Capital. The Chronicle and the Tab were eventually merged.

Which brings us back to the present. Saltzman enjoyed a solid reputation, and I know that Dowd was respected for his work at Gannett’s North Shore papers. But one person can’t cover a city of nearly 120,000 people. It’s long past time for someone to step in and provide Cambridge with the news and information it needs.

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Things are looking up at Gannett. But will that translate into more journalism?

USA Today is Gannett’s flagship. But what about the weeklies? Photo (cc) 2008 by Mossmen.

Things are looking up a bit at Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, which controls the vast majority of weekly and daily newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts and environs.

Rick Edmonds of Poynter reports that digital subscriptions are up and debt is down, and that the company’s bottom line will be bolstered if the Local Journalism Sustainability Act becomes law. Frankly, I’d rather see the act written in such a way that it benefits only independent local owners. But in many communities, the Gannett paper is the only choice, so if it helps them do a better job then that’s not entirely a bad thing.

It’s difficult to know exactly what is going on in Massachusetts, where Gannett closed about a half-dozen papers during the summer. Joshua Benton recently observed in Nieman Lab that the Gannett-owned Cambridge Chronicle had lost its only full-time journalist. But I hear that she will be replaced soon, indicating that the company has at least some level of commitment to one of its larger communities.

Likewise, in Medford we went a year and a half without a single full-time staffer at Gannett’s weekly Transcript — until about six months ago. Coverage has improved considerably since then. Of course, communities the size of Cambridge and Medford could benefit from more than just one reporter apiece. But at least fears that Gannett was going to run them as ghost newspapers have eased.

The big question: What does the future hold for Gannett’s weeklies, especially in smaller communities? “In recent months, the company has sold a number of weeklies and closed a few others,” Edmonds writes. “They no longer fit with Gannett’s strategic plans.” The company’s current strategy is to focus on its dailies, with USA Today as its flagship.

If Gannett’s numbers are improving, maybe the company will start putting more resources into its papers. My fear, though, is that it may have driven way so many readers with its parsimonious approach to journalism that it could prove impossible to bring them back.

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GateHouse’s latest downsizing claims Somerville office

Earlier today I broke the news that GateHouse Media is closing its office in Somerville and laying off staff, with the Somerville Journal to be run out of the company’s Danvers office and the Cambridge Chronicle out of Lexington.

That prompted this tweet from the Journal:

The Boston Business Journal followed up with additional details, including the fact that Wayne Braverman, a longtime GateHouse employee who’s a group managing editor, would be losing his job.

You need a presence in the community—a place where folks can drop in with an obit, a press release, or to give someone a piece of his or her mind. Local newspaper offices have become a rare species over the past 40 years, though some papers—no longer encumbered by the need to have their printing presses close at hand—have been reversing that trend.

I don’t expect readers of the Somerville and Cambridge papers will notice much difference, and I should note that the Medford Transcript is already run out of Danvers. But I moved from Danvers to Medford a little over a year ago, and let’s just say that the two communities are not close. And Somerville is probably another 10 minutes farther away. The Cambridge-Lexington connection isn’t quite as absurd, but how can a city as large and engaged as Cambridge not have its own newspaper office?

We’ve been having a robust conversation on Facebook about GateHouse’s latest move to squeeze out every last drop of blood from its hardworking employees. Please join in.

A most unfortunate juxtaposition

The Cambridge Chronicle, like other GateHouse papers, often runs sticky-note ads on the front page. This one didn’t work out so well. Here’s the Chronicle’s story on the alcohol-fueled imprisonment and resignation of former state senator Anthony Galluccio.

Update: Statement from GateHouse group publisher Greg Reibman.