A Newspaper Grows in Holyoke

HOLYOKE–Mary Signet’s afternoons felt empty after the daily Transcript-Telegram newspaper folded three years ago.

She would climb the stairs to her home in Holyoke’s Highlands after teaching grammar school all day, feeling almost lost without an evening newspaper to read.

The Transcript had served as companion and chronicler for her five decades in Holyoke. On shopping trips downtown as a girl, she watched through the paper’s first floor windows–rapt as presses rolled out that afternoon’s edition. Sometimes her mother’s cousin–a Transcript classified salesgirl–would hand her mother a free copy.

When Signet graduated high school, the Transcript made note of it. Her wedding was reported in its pages, and later the births, school plays, honor roll appearances, field hockey and soccer team feats of her three daughters. Students she taught in school wound up in the paper, too, sometimes for achievements, sometimes for criminal activity.

Reading the Transcript made Signet feel connected. “You don’t realize what you have until it’s not there anymore,” said Signet, 57. “Even if you didn’t agree with the Transcript, it was comforting to have it around. Just the idea of it. At least you knew someone was there minding the store.”

She wasn’t the only one who noticed the void. With the newspaper’s closing in January 1993, Holyoke became a city with 43,704 people and plenty of news–but no one to tell it. Civic leaders struggled to spread the word about charity drives. People missed public hearings, wakes and funerals. Youth baseball playoff games went unreported.

The death of the newspaper became a symbol of the mill city’s crushing social problems and disputes arose about who was to blame.

A cover story in The Boston Globe Magazine in 1994 detailed the disappointment longtime residents felt about the Transcript‘s shutdown and the erosion in civic life. And it moved one young newspaperman from the Berkshires to try to change things.

A new arrival

Justin Prisendorf had been apprenticing at his family’s Great Barrington-based weekly, the Berkshire Record, for five years, filling slots from sports writer to page designer.

In 1994, Prisendorf, his brother Alexis, and his parents–former Bergen (N.J) Record reporters Anthony and Donna Prisendorf–were sitting around their kitchen table in Mill River discussing Holyoke’s problems and the Globe Magazine article.

They drove the 45 minutes to Holyoke, looked around and decided they could help fill the city’s news hole.

On June 16, 1995, after nearly a year of exploration, meetings with business leaders and former Transcript readers, they launched the weekly Holyoke Sun.

Operating out of an abandoned luncheonette downtown, they produced a newspaper with four-color photographs and an obsessive devotion to local news, from dog bites to catfish derbies.

Justin, then 28, served as publisher. Alexis, 24, ran the advertising department.

The first year has gone well, by all accounts. The Sun has earned respect for its fairness in covering the city’s mayoral election, and praise for its diligence from initially skeptical locals. With a circulation of 5,500, it’s making money, the Prisendorfs say.

But like any new business in Holyoke, the Sun’s future depends on the success and stability of the city. And that remains a gamble.

Holyoke’s population has dwindled since the Transcript was at its peak and its once-humming manufacturing mills are mostly idle. One in four residents lives in poverty, many of them Hispanic. One in seven residents cannot speak English well.

The Sun has struggled to attract advertising dollars from stores at the Holyoke Mall, the region’s largest shopping center and Holyoke’s biggest taxpayer.

And the city remains sharply divided along race and class lines, with some white residents still blaming Hispanics for the death of the daily newspaper in 1993.

Justin Prisendorf believes Holyoke is slowly shaking off its social and economic woes. Prisendorf is convinced the city hit bottom during the last decade, and he wants the Sun to be a part of its future.

“The late ’80s was a dark hour in Holyoke,” said Prisendorf, a Bowdoin College graduate and gourmet cook, who lived for a year in an apartment above the Sun‘s office on High Street, a mostly blighted boulevard. “The city was going into the red. There was crime, there was arson. Holyoke was contending with issues other cities in the country of its size are only beginning to realize.”

Prisendorf talks about new things happening in Holyoke: a young energetic mayor who toppled a crusty septuagenarian; a police bicycle squad for high-crime areas; the potential city takeover of the hydroelectric dam, which could generate millions in revenue.

And, of course, the Sun.

With four full-time editorial staffers and a network of stringers, from local historians to high school students, the paper hustles to collect everything that happens in a week.

The Sun usually publishes 44 pages. But it’s not afraid to go overboard. The city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade was previewed in a 24-page special color supplement, and recapped the following week with a 20-page supplement.

After the selection of the 1996 Grand Colleen–the young woman who best represents the Irish community–a reporter was dispatched to track the lass’s every movement on parade day–from 6:15 a.m. when she strapped on her sash.

The football team’s season opener received complete coverage: two reporters, two photographers, and a statistician.

“Our focus is to cover this city so intensively that virtually anything about Holyoke, if you want to find it, you’re going to have to take a look at our paper,” Prisendorf said.

From the start, Prisendorf wanted the Sun to be talked about. He moved publication from Friday to Wednesday shortly after launching it, fearing people were tucking it under their arm for the weekend and forgetting it by Monday.

Now the Sun is trying to let Holyoke know it’s here to stay.

The Prisendorfs purchased the former luncheonette building they had been leasing for Sun offices. They say the newspaper may increase its publication frequency to two or three times a week, but a decision is at least a year away.

A new publisher has been hired to take over daily duties from Justin, who moves this fall with his brother to launch a weekly in Coral Gables, Fla.

Around Holyoke, Prisendorf–an athletic and boyish-looking 29–hears small but meaningful indications that the Sun has caught on.

“At first, people called us the Holyoke Sun,” he said. “It’s kind of long and cumbersome. Then it became just the Sun, as in, ‘Did you see the Sun today?’ Now, we’re just the paper. ‘Did you see what the paper had to say today?”’

“Now, we’re just the paper,” says Justin Prisendorf.

The Paper City

Of course, the Transcript-Telegram had been ‘the paper,’ too, a daily fact of life in Holyoke for more than a century. Among the challenges facing the Sun is to blaze a different trail than that used by the Transcript-Telegram, which had saturated, flattered and occasionally irritated Holyoke with exhaustive coverage and editorial bluster.

Fresh out of Amherst College, William G. Dwight founded the daily in 1882. It was an explosive time in the city’s development. Holyoke was shedding its sleepy farming parish roots and rising into an industrial center.

Boston capitalists poured money into the city, hiring Irish immigrants to build the Holyoke dam, then four miles of canals with pick and shovel. Mill owners harnessed the water power of the 60-foot river drop at Hadley Falls to run paper factories.

Around 1900, 50 mills employed thousands of workers who churned out products from silk to bicycles. But paper was king–especially fine writing stationery–and Holyoke gained national renown as The Paper City.

The Transcript-Telegram prospered along with the city. Holyoke’s population climbed from 28,000 in 1885 to 65,000 in 1920.

The Dwights believed names sold papers and turned the Transcript into a virtual encyclopedia of small-town accomplishments: honor rolls, birth announcements, scholarship awards and girls’ softball championships.

William Dwight Sr., publisher from 1959 to 1974, wasn’t afraid to flex his editorial muscle. The paper did more than endorse political candidates, it embraced favorites and ignored or attacked others.

Still, people knew it cared. “It was the glue of the community, whether you loved it or you hated it,” said David Bartley, former Massachusetts House Speaker and an occasional target of editorial wrath. “They were honest. They were fair. I guess we got a little spoiled with our own daily newspaper.”

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Transcript‘s ambitions increased. The Dwight family established the Newspapers of New England corporation, and bought up other dailies, including The Recorder of Greenfield, and the Concord (N.H) Monitor.

Some trace the demise of the Transcript to a move from its downtown office to an expensive new printing plant on the outskirts of Holyoke. Others say it was the sacking of William Dwight Jr., grandson of the paper’s founder, who was removed in 1981 by a board that included his father, his brother, his sister, his brother-in-law and his cousin. Dwight was replaced with out-of-towners.

The new crew had grand journalistic visions, and forgot the Transcript‘s local roots, residents say. The publisher sent one reporter to China, another to Poland to cover the labor Solidarity movement.

“They saw it as a more metropolitan type daily, a more sophisticated newspaper,” said William Dwight Jr., now an aide to Congressman John Olver. “The result is they added enormous expense to the newspaper and it was not covered by the income.”

At the same time, demographic changes shrunk the paper’s market. Manufacturing jobs disappeared, Puerto Rican migration increased, and whites left the city. During the recession of the late 1980s, the city declined further and the paper suffered huge losses.

Its parent company made one last attempt to recapture a local feel in 1991 when it brought in a 29-year-old editor named Kirk Davis, who vowed to emphasize nuts and bolts community coverage. But it was too late. Newspapers of New England announced in January 1993 it would shut the Transcript down. The company tried circulating a weekly, but that flopped, too.

That left Holyoke in a virtual news blackout – with only a gossip sheet called Hello, Holyoke remaining for local media. Many started writing Holyoke’s obituary.

“It hurt,” recalled Bob Lastowski, 44, an English teacher and football coach. “If you have a daily newspaper and it dies, it’s another sign the community is on the wane rather than on the right track.”

Puerto Rican community

The Sun‘s future may be brighter if it can solve a puzzle the Transcript-Telegram never did: how to reach the city’s sizeable Hispanic community.

The weekly’s initial steps in that direction have been timid, though it has committed to conscientious coverage of Puerto Rican events and issues.

Its growth strategy targets the whiter communities of Chicopee and South Hadley, rather than the central city, where Puerto Ricans live. The paper employs no bilingual reporters.

The Sun‘s first issues included a column of news briefs translated into Spanish inside page 2. But that was quickly abandoned when both whites and Hispanics objected.

For whites, it was too much. For Hispanics, it wasn’t enough.

“We found that divisive,” Justin Prisendorf said. “And also, it was seen as a little bit of pandering. Someone suggested why not print every article in two languages. That’s cost prohibitive, number one. And two, one of the ideas of a newspaper is to unite people.”

Added Michael Bradley, the Sun‘s newly hired publisher: “Ultimately, we’re all Americans. We’re all going to function with the language we have as Americans, and that is English.”

English only? “Ultimately, we’re all Americans,” says new publisher Michael Bradley.

William Dwight Jr. had tried a similar experiment two decades ago at the Transcript. Though the Hispanic community was smaller then, the results were similar. “The reaction among the Anglo community was so anti-,” Dwight said. “People were furious we would even deign to print anything in Spanish. Maybe they thought we were going to sneak stories over on them.”

The 1990 U.S. Census estimates 13,573 of Holyoke’s 43,704 residents are Hispanic. Some locals put the number higher. In public schools, Hispanic students are the majority. The Hispanic birth rate is the second highest in the state. About half of the Hispanics do not speak English fluently, according to the census.

Though relations among younger whites and Hispanics are improving, older whites openly express resentment of their new neighbors. Some still blame Puerto Ricans for the demise of the Transcript and the city.

Standing outside city hall one afternoon, Rudy Mikszewski, 73, explained Holyoke will never thrive again because Puerto Ricans don’t share the values of longtime residents.”They don’t believe in it,” said Mikszewski, who worked in the paper mills and as a carpenter before retiring. “Their customs are very different. The music is all different now. And it’s all loud.”

Puerto Ricans first arrived in Springfield and Holyoke in the 1950s to work seasonal jobs on the the Connecticut River Valley’s tobacco farms. Some stayed after the harvest, and found low-skill jobs in the remaining factories.

In the mid-1960s, a massive urban renewal project in Springfield leveled block after block of tenements, forcing Puerto Rican families to find low-cost housing elsewhere. They found it on the lower wards of Holyoke, which the children of Irish and Polish immigrants abandoned for more affluent neighborhoods up the hill.

Diosdado Lopez, the city’s first elected Hispanic councilor, said the Sun would have achieved better results if it offered at least one full page of stories in Spanish. Hispanics are hungry for news, Lopez said. “You have a community not being aware of what’s going on in politics,” said Lopez, a social worker. “There’s a lot of stuff they’re not getting.”

Others believe as younger Hispanics move into the mainstream of civic affairs in Holyoke, they will naturally gravitate to newspaper readership in larger numbers.

Newly elected Mayor Daniel J. Szostkiewicz has appointed the first Hispanics to the park and recreation department, the planning board and the board of fire commissioners. His campaign last year targeted wards one and two, where many Hispanics live.

The mayor appears monthly on Spanish language station WSPR. During this summer’s Hispanic Family Festival, he showed up and read a congratulatory proclamation in butchered Spanish. People laughed, but seemed to appreciate it, Szostkiewicz said. “I’m sick of living in a divided city,” Szostkiewicz said. “This us and them is just lousy.”

Lopez gives the Sun good grades for reaching out. Despite its small staff, the Sun dutifully attends Hispanic functions. “It’s trying, it really is,” said Lopez. “I see them every time I go to an event. That’s the key.”

Weaknesses, and strengths, of a weekly

Despite its well-received beginnings, there are some information problems in Holyoke the Sun cannot solve.

Like getting people to wakes and funerals.

Former Transcript readers–especially older ones–mention obituaries as a key feature missing since the daily folded. The Springfield morning paper, the Union-News, doesn’t always publish obits in time, and it doesn’t always get them right, locals gripe. The weekly cannot keep pace with funeral arrangements.

The need is so acute that Hello, Holyoke, a gossip sheet catering to older Irish residents, set up a 24-hour telephone hotline with recorded information on recent deaths. The obituaries are presented in folksy style.

“You can call up and make sure you’re not dead yet,” joked Doris Ransford, president of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce.

Residents also miss the regular connection they felt with their daily, which may take longer to develop with a newspaper that comes out just once a week. Some, especially the politically active, simply feel their issues demand more attention than a weekly can provide. “You miss the government coverage, you miss the state legislature,” Bartley said. “I miss the covering of events, the variety of charities…

“Can western civilization go on without a daily paper in Holyoke?” he added. “Sure. But when you go from a daily to a weekly, it’s like going from a steak to a yogurt.”

Mary Signet and her husband Carl still hunger for more daily news. They often pick up the Daily Hampshire Gazette in nearby Northampton. Signet said she occasionally reads the Sun, but does not make a point to buy it each week.

“A weekly newspaper, it just leaves me cold,” Signet said of the Sun. “The news is old. And if you don’t buy it the very first day, then it’s really old.”

The Springfield Union-News reportedly has boosted its circulation to more than 8,000 readers in Holyoke since the Transcript shut down. The Union-News distributes a Holyoke Magazine feature supplement every Thursday, and more Holyoke stories are landing on the Union-News front page.

Still there’s something to be said for a media outlet that only cares about your town.

Just ask Anthony “Bubba” Lacus.

He’s the 14-year-old boy in Holyoke who, still ailing from an appendectomy, showed up at Crosier baseball field with a doctor’s note this summer and pitched a near shutout for the Holyoke Water Power team.

Though his surgical stitches separated after five innings, Lacus earned his team a championship and earned himself a story in the Holyoke Sun.

It’s a story that almost certainly would have been overlooked before the Sun‘s arrival.

Meet the Author
Lacus was sidelined for the playoff games. But he showed up to sit on the team bench anyway, clutching his hometown newspaper and pointing out the story that had made him feel like a big star: “LACUS SHRUGS OFF SURGERY TO LIFT WATER POWER TO JUNIOR TITLE.”

Carolyn Ryan is the State House Bureau Chief for the Quincy Patriot Ledger.