Our local Gannett weekly has given way to a mash-up of regional news

Like COVID or an overdue tax bill, the debut issue of The Transcript & Journal made its unwelcome appearance in our home earlier today. The weekly paper is a mash-up of Gannett’s Medford Transcript and Somerville Journal, a move that was announced earlier this year as part of the chain’s decision to eliminate 19 Massachusetts weeklies and merge nine others into four.

Last week’s final issue of the Medford Transcript had local news on the front page — a story about a debate among city council members on whether they should continue to meet weekly or switch to every other week and a report on efforts to build a replacement for (or substantially renovate) Medford High School.

But the front of The Transcript & Journal, as promised, replaces all that with regional news such as the Fair Share proposal to implement a statewide tax on millionaires and the opening of new restaurants in far-flung locales such as Brighton and Kingston. Meanwhile, there’s nothing on a story reported by The Boston Globe earlier this week on a civil-rights complaint filed against the Medford Police Department in which two Black residents say they were unlawfully stopped.

There is one Medford article on the front — a feature on a 10-year-old walking loop that recognizes the city’s historic landmarks. It’s a good story about something I wasn’t familiar with. It was also written by a journalism student at Endicott College. Now, journalism students are some of my favorite people. But we see what’s going on here, right?

And that’s it for the A section other than press releases, obituaries and a story about restaurants at the Burlington Mall. The B section, devoted to local sports, seems pretty much unchanged, but it was thin to begin with.

At a webinar earlier this week organized by the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School, Mizell Stewart III, vice president of news performance, talent and partnerships for Gannett and the USA Today Network, described the move as an attempt to drive digital subscriptions and to focus on local news that has a greater impact on people’s lives.

“Covering local news continues to be very labor intensive and very expensive,” Stewart said. The idea is to take “a more regional approach” and focus on “commonalities and trends.” But isn’t that why we have regional media like The Boston Globe, public radio and local TV newscasts?

This will not end well.

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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Daily papers in Medford and Malden, long in extremis, finally give up the ghost

The Malden Evening News. Photo via Wicked Local, from the News' now-defunct Twitter account.
The Malden Evening News. Photo via Wicked Local, from the News’ now-defunct Twitter account.

Two venerable Greater Boston daily newspapers, the Malden Evening News and the Medford Daily Mercury, have ceased publication, according to Wicked Local. In recent years there was little news in either one. But they were good papers under the ownership of the late David Brickman, who bought the Mercury in 1947 and eventually owned both papers as well as a third, the Melrose Evening News.

According to an obituary of Brickman that appeared in The Boston Globe in 1992, he was a driving force behind the state’s open-meeting law and served on the state’s Ethics Commission. He also served in various political capacities under governors Leverett Saltonstall, Christian Herter, John Volpe, Endicott Peabody, Foster Furcolo and Ed King, all while continuing to publish his newspapers. That’s not exactly what we would consider ethical journalism today, but it wasn’t that unusual at the time.

In the early 1980s my wife, Barbara Kennedy, was a freelance photographer for Brickman’s papers. We lived in Medford back then, and the five-days-a-week Mercury was a respectable source of goings-on around the city. Even then, though, there were signs that Brickman was having financial difficulties (freelancers are always the first to know), and he sold his papers in 1989.

According to this well-sourced Wikipedia article, in 1990 Brickman’s successor, Warren Jackson, combined all three papers, as well as an Everett edition of the Malden paper, into one entity known as the Daily News-Mercury. In 1996 the paper was acquired by its last owners, the Horgan family, who revived the separate Malden and Medford nameplates.

When Barbara and I returned to Medford in 2014 after 30 years on the North Shore, we discovered that the Mercury had fallen on hard times, as its contents consisted almost entirely of press releases from Malden. We began reading GateHouse’s Medford Transcript, a Wicked Local weekly, which does a respectable job with its extremely limited staffing.

As sad as it is to see any newspaper go under, perhaps the not-unexpected demise of the Malden and Medford dailies will open up an opportunity for someone to start an independent journalism project to give GateHouse some competition, either in print or online. Medford is already the home to several vibrant online communities and to a website called Top 10 Things to Know in Medford Right Now, which suggests that the demand is there.

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