In September 1973 Kathleen Cushman and I launched the Harvard Post, a weekly newspaper for the town of Harvard, Mass., population circa 3,000. I was 24. Kathleen was 23. We had moved to Harvard a year earlier. We knew hardly anyone in town.
So you can imagine the skepticism and disdain with which most townspeople regarded us. (The Unitarians gave us a warm welcome.) We loved newspapers and we conjured up a job we thought needed doing. We would write stories about life in a beautiful, historic town, its local politics and eccentric characters.
We wrote, but also sold ads, set type, and pasted up the pages ourselves. We struggled through that first year, getting more and more subscribers but very few display ads. What did we care about capitalism? We were journalists.
But advertising dollars were then — and remain to this day — the lifeblood of independent local newspapers. This is something we’ve been studying, finding that many start-ups in the movement to revive local news are nonprofits, counting more on donors than advertisers, and publishing online only, not in print. We still believe in print, and in advertising, and have chosen a hybrid path.
The Post was in danger of folding when my big brother Dan came from California to help us. He had started a successful small restaurant in a seaside town called Cambria, south of Big Sur. Now he became the Post’s advertising sales director.
He was the perfect man for the job. He understood the trials of the small business owner. He visited and talked with each one, asking questions about their goods, services, and customers, appreciating their work and their roles in the community, and coming up with appealing and clever ways that an ad in the Post could draw in readers. That foreign-car repair shop on Route 111 was actually a lifesaver for anyone who drove a BMW. The natural food store in West Concord was the only place that carried brewer’s yeast.
“You’re not selling a product,” he told us. “You’re meeting a need.”
The need he understood so well was to connect people to each other in ways that benefited all. That was his genius. He saw the value and brought out the best in the most ordinary of goods and the people making and selling them. His warmth and sense of humor didn’t hurt.
The advertising contracts multiplied, and the Harvard Post survived and grew. We and our neighbors learned from Dan that local businesses and local newspapers are intertwined as vital parts of healthy civic life.
I think every day of those times, as Dan Miller, now 87, smiles over the crossword in the Independent. He knows, I hope, that this newspaper wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t come East to lift up his little brother and show him how to do things the right way.