What happens when a community loses its newspaper?

In Holyoke, residents still mourn the loss of the T-T nearly 20 years later

 

 Holyoke City Hall, looking up Dwight Street

For days, hundreds of callers speaking in the hushed tones more commonly reserved for funeral parlors queried switchboard operators inside the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram: “Are you open, are you still publishing?” the callers would ask. The mood in the once-proud newspaper was as grim as the Janu­­­ary weather. It was an open secret that the “T-T,” as the paper was called, had struggled for months, even years, to survive in a tough western Massachusetts economy.

Advertising revenues had cratered as local businesses cut back or fled the decaying manufacturing city. Circu­la­tion also was falling and expenses were up, completing a hellish trifecta. Many employees, sensing the worst, began taking home the photos of children and pets, packing up their personal papers, sharpening their resumes, checking the help-wanted sections of other community newspapers, and quietly emptying their desks. “But I kept my box of Kleenex,” receptionist Ann Baird admitted to a reporter. “I knew we’d be needing that when the crying began.”

This story is part of CommonWealth’s
15th anniversary issue focused on the
state of journalism.

Precisely at 10 a.m., on January 21, 1993, Don­ald R. Dwight, whose family’s ties to the newspaper went back more than 50 years, strode into the newsroom with other senior executives and summoned everyone to gather close. He looked stricken as he delivered the news to the assembled staff, people he regarded more as family than employees. His message: After 110 years as Holyoke’s only daily newspaper—“Your Hometown Newspaper,” declared the words beneath the paper’s masthead—the end had come.

“Things change,” Dwight would write in a front-page column in that afternoon’s final edition. “A city changes. And now this newspaper changes. Change is not always either good or bad, but all change contains loss within it.”

Dwight outlined a plan to convert the newspaper with roots predating the Civil War to a weekly, which would save a few jobs. He even called it a “return to its founding tradition,” a reference to its birth as a weekly cranked out on a hand press in 1849. Clinging to that hope, publisher Murray D. Schwartz told the staff, “This isn’t the traditional story of the death of a newspaper.”

But he was wrong. Three months later the owners shuttered the weekly and, as far as local journalism was concerned, the dusk turned to dark. The nearly 40,000 readers who just a few weeks before had been served by the paper were left with nothing that could be considered comparable. The Holyoke Transcript-Telegram was dead.

Top: Holyoke’s population peaked at 60,000; today it is half that. Above: An old mill building
on Holyoke’s Open Square Way.

Nearly two decades have passed since that day. In Holyoke babies have been born, raised and sent off to college or war or other adult responsibilities without ever seeing their names in a T-T article taped to a refrigerator. Thousands of local deaths weren’t recorded in obituary pages. Congressmen, mayors, and city councilors have been elected, served, and retired without knowing a hometown daily’s beat reporter. In short, all the fundamentals of civic life have continued as before, but, like ghosts, they’ve left no trace of their passage.

Holyoke not alone

Holyoke is not alone in facing life without a daily journalistic record. In New England alone, 13 daily papers have closed or gone to weekly publication. Most of those have been in Massachusetts, where six dailies have converted to weekly publication—the Clinton Item, Dedham Daily Tran­script, Haverhill Gazette, Marlboro Enterprise, Hudson Sun, Melrose News, and Waltham News-Tribune—and three—the Beverly Times, the Peabody Times and the Transcript-Telegram—have closed.

All but one of the surviving daily newspapers in New England have seen dramatic drops in circulation, some as high as 70 percent. (The exception is the St. Albans Mes­senger in Vermont). They’re part of a national story about the decline of local newsrooms. The Federal Communi­cations Commission’s recent report entitled “The Inform­a­tion Needs of Communities” estimated that newsrooms have eliminated 13,400 jobs in the past four years, reducing reporting ranks to about the same level as in 1970. A similarly dire study by Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute, an independent journalism research center, concluded that annual spending on news gathering also plunged by $1.6 billion. In a sentence, communities across the nation are being covered by fewer reporters armed with fewer resources.

And yet, does it matter?

A March 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press asked two related questions. The first: “If your local newspaper closed, how much would it hurt civic life?” The second: “How much would you miss it?” The response to the questions, according to the Pew press release, was akin to a collective “shrug.” Barely four out of 10 respondents said that missing the newspaper would hurt the community’s civic life, and just three of 10 said that they would personally miss reading the paper.

That’s a long way from attitudes 50 years ago when newspapers seemed tightly stitched into the fabric of American life. In the summer of 1945, the newspaper deliverers for New York City’s eight major dailies—you read that number correctly, eight major dailies—suddenly went on strike. For a populace familiar with the constant cries of newsboys yelling “Extra! Extra!” and to gorging on a daily feast of all the news they could digest and more, this was a stunning event. For 17 days, with the exception of radio news (which then, as now, depended on the newspapers for content), New Yorkers went cold turkey. Re­nowned sociologist Bernard Berelson seized the moment to explore what then was a new question: “What ‘missing the newspaper’ means.”

Hardly a collective shrug, many New Yorkers fell into a serious funk. Among the comments captured by Berelson: “I am lost and nervous. I’m ashamed to admit it.” Or, “It’s like being in jail not to have a paper.” And, “We’re at a loss without our paper.” Some said they felt that without knowledge of the news they had nothing to talk about with colleagues and friends. Others missed columnists, the comics, the gossip, the status of carrying a particular paper tucked under their arms, or simply the pleasure of reading.

When a similar strike hit the city in late 1958, students and faculty at the Graduate School of Journalism at Col­umbia repeated Berelson’s survey to see if attitudes had changed, especially with the advent of television, which some thought might lessen the loss. That wasn’t the case. Nearly 9 of 10 New Yorkers told researchers that they missed their papers; two-thirds of those said they missed them dearly. “Being without papers is like being without shoes,” one said. “I’m utterly lost,” said another. Men said they missed being informed about local and world events. Women said they felt they were going shopping “blind.”

Only a few found a silver lining in the time they didn’t spend while reading: “I’m getting a lot of work done,” one said. “No more excuses not to get down to work.”

Granted, there’s an apples-to-oranges criticism to be made between a city that was denied newspapers for a few weeks, and one like Holyoke that lost its only daily entirely. A more apt opportunity to study the question of what happens to a community that loses its primary news source came more recently in Cincinnati when the Cincinnati Post ceased publication, although more with a whimper than a bang. The Post’s owner, E.W. Scripps Co., had announced years before that it intended to close the afternoon paper in December 2007 at the end of a joint-publishing agreement with its much stronger competitor, the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Although the Enquirer, with a circulation of 210,000 at the time, was many times bigger than the Post, with a circulation of just 27,000, the papers over the years had carved out distinct geographic audiences with little overlap. The Enquirer concentrated on the city and its nearby western and northern suburbs. The Post, by contrast, was the dominant paper and news source across the Ohio River in the northern Kentucky suburbs and towns. This separation enabled a pair of economists from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to study the impact of the Post’s closure much as they might have studied a city like Holyoke that depended on a single newspaper.A study in Cincinnati found the loss of a newspaper sent the communities it served into a funkWhat they found had implications beyond just a few ex-readers in a funk. Indeed, the communities themselves seemed to fall into one, at least as measured by several indicators of civic health. In the 12 months encompassed by the study, which included the 2008 election cycle, the authors found that fewer people offered themselves for local offices, fewer incumbents faced challenges, and voter turnout fell. The authors rightly cautioned that the study’s inherent limitations—a relatively short time span and the continued existence of another paper in the region, al­though not in those particular suburbs—made it more anecdotal than conclusive. Nonetheless, they cited the work of another scholar who argued that the newspaper industry’s decline “raises practical questions for anyone concerned about the future of Ameri­can democracy.”

Practical questions, such as who, if not journalists, will hold politicians and governments to account? Who will inform citizens of problems in the community that might not be in plain sight? Who will train a spotlight on corrupt or incompetent public employees and office holders? Steven Waldman, who wrote the FCC’s report on the infor­mation needs of local communities, stated the obvious in a speech at Harvard in September, saying that the absence or weakening of a local press enables those who are already in the power structure to essentially make their own news. “The result has been a shift in producing news away from journalists and toward government and institutions.” In short, those in the power structure can tell citizens what they want to tell them, in the way they want to tell them—that’s, of course, if they tell them anything at all.

Says Boston University journalism professor Chris­to­pher Daly: “You have to ask yourself what happens to the coverage of City Hall in places that have suffered a real cutback in reporting troops like Holyoke.” And the effects don’t stop at City Hall. “I would also assume,” adds Daly, “that this is some kind of golden era to be a chief of police,” with no cops reporters watching over your shoulder.

Boom to bust

The Holyoke Transcript-Telegram’s troubles were clearly connected to the city itself. And what happened to Holy­oke is the now too-familiar story of hundreds of other communities in the northern industrial states that traced an arc from birth to boom to bust, or nearly so, and now are struggling to come back in some reinvented way.

Holyoke owed its rise to its location along the Con­necticut River, which cut through the Pioneer Valley and tumbled over Hadley Falls, the steepest drop on the river and the ideal location for a dam generating hydropower. That natural asset lured the early investors in New England’s textile and paper industries who, in the mid-19th century, envisioned and built what local historians claim was one of the first planned manufacturing cities in the nation.

The developers laid the city out in a grid with its sections fed by man-made canals powering dozens of mills lining the banks. Well into the 20th century, Holyoke’s paper mills were the most productive in the country, if not the world, giving rise to its nickname as The Paper City. Successive waves of immigrants—Irish, French-Canadian and, more recently, Puerto Rican—worked in those mills. The city lays claim to being the birthplace of volleyball and boasts among its museums the Volleyball Hall of Fame.

But in the 1930s, as alternative energy sources were developed and manufacturers sought cheaper locales for newer factories, Holyoke’s population peaked at about 60,000 and hovered there for the next three decades. Today it is barely half that. And the composition of that population also changed dramatically. The city that once claimed the nation’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parade is now 40 percent Hispanic. In a cruel twist of fate, the wave of Puerto Ricans hit the city just as the mills were closing and jobs disappearing. The urban woes often associated with unemployment enveloped Holyoke, scarring both the city and the psyches of many of its residents.

“People began to look at Holyoke as a scary place,” says local historian and businessman Craig Della Penna. “In the 1970s, Holyoke was the fire capital of the world; all kinds of fires, arsons, spontaneous combustion. Holyoke looked like Dresden in 1945.”

 

 

 Top: A building for sale at Dwight and Main. Above: A mural next to City Hall.

Most of the mills either burned, were bull-dozed, or both. Graduates of Holyoke High typically left the city, never to return. By 1993, with businesses fleeing the city (some for the Holyoke Mall on the outskirts), the population shrinking and becoming less likely to read English, the economic headwinds were too much for the newspaper. On its final day, the staff that once included about 100 had been steadily cut to 69.

In the wake of the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram’s demise, two free weekly tabloids have emerged, the Holyoke Sun and Hello Holyoke. But neither has shown either the ability or ambition to practice accountability journalism. The nearby Springfield Republican opened a nine-person bureau in Holyoke in the mid-1990s in a bid to fill some of the void. But that bureau closed in 2009 and coverage of Holyoke today is left to the Republican’s roving regional reporter, who can rarely make scheduled meetings, much less dig for enterprise.

Lifelong Holyoke resident James Sutter, who owns a local jewelry store, says the newspaper’s death “left an enormous void in Holyoke. The T-T wasn’t The New York Times. But it had the time and people to do some real investigating.”

As in the Kentucky suburbs studied in the wake of the Cincinnati Post’s demise, the Holyoke residents I interviewed uniformly lamented the absence of civic energy. “Not having a newspaper lowers the caliber of political discourse,” says Sutter, the jeweler. “There isn’t a place for serious discussion, for candidates’ platforms to be developed and debated. Elections here are like running for senior class president: they are all ‘he-said, she-said’.”

Della Penna also says the city misses a less obvious role filled by the T-T: that of educator and critic. To the very end the newspaper was a progressive voice for renovating the riverfront and saving the city’s many historic structures, he says. Indeed, in 1988 the T-T was named New England’s best newspaper by the New England News­paper Publishers Association.

Today, continues Della Penna, “The people who are running this city don’t do a good job—and not because they don’t want to, but they don’t know any better. There’s no local newspaper to show them how other communities do it better.”

In many communities where newspapers have declined or died, alternative news sources have emerged on the Web. In some places, such as Seattle, Denver, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, these news sites are staffed by veteran journalists from the deceased newspapers who have been relatively successful in filling the void.

That’s not the case in Holyoke, at least not yet. Com­munity organizer Mary Serreze launched a site based in the neighboring city of Northampton called northamptonmedia.com. She and her editor, David Reid, are attempting to spark a revival of accountability journalism on the Web that has been lost in traditional media. The site has enjoyed some success, primarily by focusing on one story of public interest at a time and reporting on it intensely. But she and Reid admit that their efforts, as well as those of the free weeklies and the Springfield Republican, fall short of replacing what has been lost in Holyoke.

That city, she says, “is fascinating and story-rich, but there’s not sufficient coverage and there’s nobody doing real news with our standards of objectivity and accountability.”

Reid, who was on the Holyoke beat years ago with the Republican before it cut back, says the reality is that only rarely these days does any reporter attend a Holyoke government meeting. “And when no reporters go to these meetings, or on a daily basis ask questions of city officials, government can operate in the dark. The citizens are not informed and they don’t know how to make decisions.”

Again, that repeats the story in other communities facing similar circumstances. The FCC’s report found that, in contrast to the more than 13,000 jobs lost by the traditional media’s down-sizing over the last decade, online nonprofit sites have hired relatively few back. Twelve of the most influential nonprofit news websites disclosed at a gathering that they employed 88 full-time staffers. Where news organizations have cut $1.6 billion in annual spending, new online operations have added $180 million—trading dollars for dimes—according to the report.

Still, the Holyoke story is not without the possibility of a happy ending for both journalism and the citizens. Holyoke can boast some impressive assets, led by its hydro­electric system. That asset attracted the High Perform­ance Computing Center to Holyoke, which is run by a consortium of high-technology companies—Cisco, EMC. and Accenture PLC—and universities—Harvard, MIT, UMass, and Boston University. Its location near the intersection of Interstates 91 and 90 makes it a hub for ground transportation. And the nearby Mount Tom Range is a magnet for outdoor recreation.

The prospect of leveraging this into a bright future may lie with a fast-growing citizens’ group gathering under the acronym CRUSH—Citizens for the Revital­ization and Urban Success of Holyoke. The group’s ambitious mission is to “maximize Holyoke’s potential to reclaim its historic infrastructure and its reputation as an innovative, diverse, culturally vibrant and sustainable city.” Its virtual meeting place is an energetic website, www.crushonholyoke.org.

In its relatively brief lifespan, CRUSH has enlisted 885 dues-paying members and has emerged as something of a hybrid of political party, social network, and information conduit. Members can take tango lessons, attend film festivals, contribute to covered-dish suppers, and—perhaps most importantly­—demand that aspiring office holders explain their views on a variety of issues. In the most recent mayoral election, CRUSH hosted a critical candidates’ debate just days before the primary and posted video and blogs on the website.

Adding to the group’s potential is its membership of mostly young, Web-savvy professionals fluent in the Web’s social media. Under discussion among the leaders is whether CRUSH should more formally adopt some of the functions of a journalistic enterprise, such as doing original reporting rather than relying on the occasional blog posting by a member who may have a particular bias. Sutter points out that an advantage of being a Web-based organization is that “there is ample opportunity for citizens to join the discussion.”

If the site becomes attractive enough to local businesses to draw advertising, Sutter says he could envision it supporting a professional reporting staff.

Still, the cloud left by the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram’s demise remains. Even the most optimistic of the city’s young activists aren’t yet able to predict that a replacement will be found for it.

Meet the Author
“I think Holyoke could do great things,” Sutter says. “I’d love to be here to ride that wave. But if it doesn’t start happening soon,” he says, his voice trailing off, “I don’t know.”  

Tom Fiedler is the dean of the Boston University College of Communication.