‘No more real newspaper’ in Worcester

The “ghost newspaper” era has arrived in Massachusetts, and the worst is almost certainly yet to come. 

The state has not yet been hit with vast news deserts, the term of the media moment to describe areas without any newspaper presence following the closure of more than 1,800 US papers since 2004. But the land is becoming so parched of substantive news coverage as to make it the next closest thing. “Ghost newspaper” is the label researchers are using for publications that still churn out a daily issue, but one that is a shell of its former self. 

We now have these spectral offerings in abundance.

The latest chapter in the relentless hollowing out of Massachusetts media came with news that columnist Clive McFarlane, a 26-year veteran of the Worcester Telegram, was shown the door. The Worcester Business Journal says he was one of six staffers let go at the paper. 

The news prompted a blunt assessment from Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty. “There is no more real newspaper in the city of Worcester,” he told a local radio show

As MassLive reports, McFarlane’s ouster was just the latest blow to the paper covering New England’s second largest city since it was acquired by the GateHouse chain in 2014. 

Columnist Dianne Williamson quit last February after 35 years at the paper, “saying it was no longer a good fit.” In May, six staffers were axed. And Telegram reporter Mark Sullivan said last week that he’s leaving for a job at Brandeis University. 

It increasingly looks like there are two viable options at the paper: Show yourself to the door, or have the cost-slashing corporate managers do it for you. 

The bloodletting at the Telegram this week was by no means the only Massachusetts hit in the vast GateHouse portfolio. The nonprofit Poynter media center says two reporters were cut at each of three other GateHouse papers: The Cape Cod Times, the New Bedford Standard-Times, and the Fall River Herald News. The Worcester Business Journal says the Herald News now has no full-time staff photographers. 

GateHouse, which owns most of the daily papers in central and eastern Massachusetts, and Gannett, the country’s two largest newspaper chains, recently announced merger plans. New York University business professor Michael Posner predicts the merger will only hasten the continued demise of US newspapers, which have seen their business model decimated by internet advertising and online news distribution.

McFarlane, the deposed Telegram columnist, posted a message on Facebook slamming the “indignity of corporate management.” 

“After 26 years writing for this community, I was unceremoniously shown the door today by Gatehouse, deprived even of the long-established protocol of allowing a columnist to bid farewell to his readers,” he wrote.  

Telegram reporter Nick Kotsopoulos reacted with a gut-wrenching tweet, calling McFarlane a good friend, colleague, and “important voice in this community.”

“A tremendous loss all around,” he wrote. “What in God’s name has happened to this thing of ours? Another blow for local journalism.”

In 2013, the Telegram was acquired by John Henry from the New York Times Co. in a package deal with the Boston Globe. He soon made it clear he didn’t intend to keep the paper. But Worcester leaders and editors at the paper say he vowed to sell only to a local buyer, as chronicled in this CommonWealth story. “I think you need a local owner,” Henry told a newsroom gathering when he showed up in Worcester in November of that year. “This is not a forced sale.  If we don’t find the right owner, you’re stuck with me.”

Months later Henry sold the paper to a Florida-based company, Halifax Media Group, whose major shareholders were three private equity firms. The following year, Halifax was acquired by GateHouse. 

All of which has Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy wondering whether the Worcester saga involving Henry could come full circle. 

The Globe recently launched a big coverage expansion focused on Rhode Island, where the GateHouse-owned Providence Journal has seen drastic cuts. “Given that @John_W_Henry’s decision to sell @telegramdotcom to out-of-staters is what led to the current Worcester news meltdown,” Kennedy wrote on Twitter, “it would be ironic if the @BostonGlobe’s next regional digital move is Worcester.”



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State transportation officials were urged Wednesday night to maintain two tracks for commuter rail service between Boston and Worcester while construction takes place on the $1.2 billion Allston Multimodal Project. (Worcester Telegram) 

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