“The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This crack is attributed to Mr. Dooley, a dyspeptic Irish bartender who was the invention of Chicago Evening Post columnist Finley Peter Dunne in 1893.
Mr. Dooley’s prescription came to mind last week when the Boston Globe published a story by Dana Gerber headlined “Welcome to the Great Marblehead Newspaper War.” Gerber reported that in the year since Marblehead’s old paper, the Reporter, was gutted by its corporate owner, Gannett, three separate new publications have sprung up in the North Shore town: the Beacon, the Current, and the Weekly News. The Globe described this turn of events as “nothing short of remarkable — though in no small part due to its relatively affluent population, which can afford to support such ventures.” (The median household income in Marblehead was $154,000 in 2021.)
Here at the Independent, we regularly get calls from people in other towns who are interested in launching newspapers and want our advice. Many of them, as Northeastern University’s Dan Kennedy (my favorite media watchdog) points out, are in fact calling from relatively rich communities.
“These startups are highly concentrated in affluent, mostly white suburbs like, well, Marblehead, Concord and Bedford,” writes Kennedy. Why is Marblehead, with a population of under 20,000, he asks, getting so much more coverage than Cambridge, a city of 117,000?
It’s a good question. What makes it possible for a place to have a good local newspaper? Is it the wealth of the residents? I’m not so sure.
A healthy local business scene is surely important, because advertising remains the single biggest revenue source for newspapers. But even places that aren’t conspicuously affluent still have banks, supermarkets, restaurants, barber shops, garages, law and insurance offices, hardware and clothing stores that do well enough to support a paper — if those business owners and their customers see that paper as vital to their community’s well-being.
What makes people feel their newspaper is essential? The prices in the real estate ads? No, it’s the writers and graphic artists. At the Indie, it’s Kai Potter, Amy Whorf McGuiggan, K.C. Myers, Dennis Minsky, Nancy Bloom, Daniel Dejean, Abe Storer, Capt. Mike, and many others — people who reveal truths that help us understand the world and each other better.
These folks aren’t members of the leisure class; they’re working people. And newspaper work does not pay well, even when the paper is in a high-priced town.
But their distinctive voices — like Tom Kane’s in the old Advocate or Beata Cook’s in the old Banner — inspire loyalty and love. That can sustain a newspaper through hard times. And what makes a paper essential is its willingness to knock on doors, to ask questions, to dig for answers, to explore solutions for the community’s ills, to write about the vulnerable and wounded with restraint, and to afflict the powerful and the dishonest.
We’ll see how the three new papers in Marblehead manage that task. We wish them luck.