Several readers sent us an article published this week in CommonWealth magazine titled “As local news withers, we’re losing sense of identity.” The author, Bruce Mohl, reports the stories of two longtime Massachusetts editors, Rick Holmes of the MetroWest Daily News in Framingham and Bob Unger of the New Bedford Standard-Times. Both of the newspapers they worked for are now owned by Gannett, which is what GateHouse Media renamed itself after it bought the once venerable publisher of USA Today and its more than 100 other papers.
The combined Gannett-GateHouse behemoth now owns more than 1,000 newspapers, including the Cape Cod Times, Cape Codder, and Provincetown Banner.
Holmes was the editorial page editor of the Daily News, a position that no longer exists.
“I don’t believe Gannett has any editorial page editors anymore,” he said. “Even the Providence Journal no longer has an editorial page editor.” The Journal is also owned by Gannett. “So how is a paper like that, the most important media presence in the state, going to exercise any leadership if they don’t have anyone to research those topics and write about them and provide that leadership in the pages of the paper?”
Readers of the Cape Cod Times will recognize this same pattern in the recent departure of Bill Mills, the longtime and respected editorial page editor there.
“Today, we start a new tradition,” Anne Brennan, the new executive editor, announced on May 24. “The Cape Cod Times will no longer publish daily editorials — except on rare occasions.”
The reasoning behind this decision, according to Brennan’s announcement, strained credulity. It was driven by “our desire to reduce the growing confusion over the difference between opinion and commentary and nonopinion news content,” she wrote. “A media outlet’s editorial position can color how that outlet’s nonopinion content is interpreted.”
Frankly, this is an insult to readers’ intelligence. Newspaper readers are quite capable of judging the quality of “nonopinion content” by how thorough or sloppy the reporting is, how many mistakes there are, and how fair or one-sided the story is. It has nothing to do with what’s on the editorial page.
More is lost in this disaster than the newspapers’ own editorials. A skilled editorial page editor like Bill Mills makes all of the opinions expressed there sharper and clearer, by working with all of the paper’s regular and guest columnists and with letter-writers. That’s the difference between a newspaper staffed by experienced professionals and a bulletin board like Facebook, where anyone can post anything as long as it isn’t an obscenity or an outright personal attack.
Former editors Holmes and Unger say they don’t have an answer to the decline of local news. Well, we do. Just my opinion.