Digital news is faster – not better

Local coverage has suffered in the move online

I GUESS YOU could call it a bribe.

An old fellow and his wife tottered into the newsroom, where I was editor of the Somerville Journal, and proudly said their son had won a commendation for his heroic actions at a fire in a public housing building. Would I run the item? Sure, I said. He handed me the commendation letter, and as he shook my hand he slipped a tightly rolled up bill into my cuff, shooting it up my wrist with his finger. It was quite a trick. I quickly extracted the money and handed it back.

Although I rarely faced random monetary offers 30 years ago at the helm of the paper, I tell the story to illustrate a throwback era when local journalism was a bit more face-to-face and physical. People would regularly walk in with items for the newsroom. Reporters connected with the editor from rotary pay phones. I was once punched at a campaign party.

The paper was produced by hand, not computer. I like telling younger people, as their eyes glaze over, how an editor couldn’t meet deadline without a knife, specifically an implement called an X-Acto knife, designed with a small pointed razor at its end. We used the knife to cut and paste the plastic columns of type, arranging our newspaper-to-be on thick paper sheets during the final stages of producing the newspaper. Everything was held together by wax and tape.

And here’s the really crazy part: When residents of Somerville opened their newspaper on Thursday mornings, it was all news to them: the machinations of the Board of Aldermen, who was arrested for OUI, birth announcements from Mt. Auburn and St. Elizabeth hospitals, obituaries, weddings, high school sports. This was well before the internet usurped such ancient print communication channels. Personal computers were embryonic and no one had a smart phone.

People used to wait for the news, its arrival coming all at once on inert newsprint. And the way they forwarded it to a friend was to clip out an article and mail it. Now we share news in a heartbeat, but on the community level, there’s not nearly the same amount of local information to share. The demise of the daily newspaper model has been well chronicled, but it hasn’t been properly mourned at the very local level, where weekly community newspapers also have lost much of their heft. In other words, the analog age of old, slow, and physical more than held its own in comparison to instantaneous and ubiquitous information.

The Somerville Journal of 1987 was still a formidable institution, the paper of record in a community of 76,000. All the same, management at Dole Publishing, a family-owned chain that also published the Cambridge Chronicle and Watertown Press, promoted me to editor that year even though I had no editing experience. It was a fluke – I was still in my twenties and had been a reporter at the paper for two years. When my editor was let go for publishing a controversial cartoon (it was meant to be humorous but was perceived as being anti-Catholic and thus spurred an uproar) I was placed in charge. I would have to learn on the job.

It was an age without email to wade through or phones to stare at. Reporters got on the old-fashioned landlines or went to meet people. Two reporters for a city of 76,000 may not seem like a lot, but in retrospect it was a luxury. Their beats were largely confined to processes and controversies in the city government and schools. Back then crime was a preoccupation, but not only on the streets. A federal undercover sting operation had netted indictments against a handful of elected officials, and as a reporter I covered trials in the old Boston federal courthouse of a former alderman and an assessor. Both were convicted.

That little nucleus of reporting power – including some extra money for stringers – made the paper a force, especially when a talented journalist walked through our door in Davis Square. Not long after I became editor, a Northeastern graduate student asked if he could do a little freelancing, and I said sure. His name was Duncan Adams, and journalism was a second career for him. He had already earned a masters degree in psychology counseling and had worked as a therapist, which he didn’t particularly like. He was from the south, had a slight Virginia drawl, was slightly taciturn and a natural-born observer.

Soon enough Adams joined the Journal staff and was covering the election for mayor – the seat was open with longtime Mayor Gene Brune deciding not to seek reelection. It was the fall of 1989.

As the election drew near, Adams arranged to write features on the two finalists for mayor: Mike Capuano, then an alderman-at-large, and John Buonomo, the Ward Four Alderman.

Adams may have rejected a career as a therapist, but it wasn’t because he lacked skill as a listener or the capacity to elicit emotion. In the Capuano profile, Adams captured the candidate in the throes of a crucial life decision: as a teen-ager on his way to a rumble with a knife in his pocket. The adolescent Capuano was caught up in being a street tough, and he had an epiphany.

“By carrying a knife he was courting an awful outcome – in the heat of battle with kids from a rival Somerville neighborhood, foes similarly armed, he might be compelled to use it.”

Capuano said he went to the rumble, and fortunately didn’t use the knife. “Around here it was tough. Could you give a punch? Could you take a punch?” Capuano told Adams. “ I was never the toughest guy. Don’t get me wrong. But I was tough enough that people didn’t bother me.”

The other candidate, John Buonomo, grew up poor in the projects — part of a big family. Adams took him back to the projects, walked around with him, and on the return drive the candidate’s eyes were welling with tears as difficult memories flooded back.

For a few minutes near the end of a two-hour tour of Buonomo’s life – a walking-driving trip back through 38 years – Buonomo could neither talk nor drive. Eyes glistening, Buonomo pulled out of traffic and stopped at a Highland Avenue curb.“This hasn’t been easy,” Buonomo said after a minute or two when the only sounds were the rhythmic slap of windshield wipers and the low hum of passing traffic. “It’s very painful to look back.”

Nearly 30 years later, it still impresses me how Adams had the presence not to speak in the car. He was a grownup going tete-a-tete with a man within reach of becoming the next mayor of a sizeable city.

Adams’ profiles didn’t decide the election, which Capuano won by about 350 votes. But his work was an act of high-quality community journalism, adding depth to the most important civic event of the moment. Everyone was talking about those profiles. In the digital age they would have gone viral.

But the odds are low that in the digital age those profiles would be written in the first place, not for a community newspaper at least. The Somerville Journal and thousands of small papers like it have suffered through the steady erosion of the traditional publishing business model, losing resources to support in-depth reporting.

Thirty years later, the Somerville Journal survives, although its office has been moved to Danvers and its local news hole, judging by a recent issue, seems to have shrunk considerably. One important element of the Somerville Journal from 30 years ago that has since evaporated was several pages of help wanted ads, then a primary and lucrative revenue source and now an analog remnant.

Mike Capuano served as Somerville mayor for most of the 1990s before winning election to Congress, where he is today. John Buonomo became Middlesex County Register of Probate, a position he held until he was caught stealing change from state copying machines.

Duncan Adams left Somerville for a reporting job in Montana and eventually returned to Virginia, where he reports for the Roanoke Times.

Thirty years later, Somerville is remarkably transformed. It’s still the most densely populated city in New England, only its population is more filled with millennials, PhDs, and professionals who can afford some of the region’s highest home prices.

Meet the Author

George Donnelly

Vice president, Northwind Strategies
The city’s size and complexity merit at least the level of coverage that my team of reporters and contributors gave it so long ago. But the digital age doesn’t have a ready answer to the community newspaper business-model dilemma. Almost anyone can start a local online publication, but they can’t afford to have someone like a Duncan Adams working there.

George Donnelly is a communications consultant at Northwind Strategies and the author of The Boston Economy: Understanding and Accessing One of the World’s Greatest Job Markets.