State Rep. Lori A. Ehrlich fears for the future of the newspaper industry.
She is not alone. She said that since 2004, nearly 1,800 newspapers have stopped the presses. The carnage is not only measured in jobs lost, but in communities that are not being informed on issues important to them.
“Not everybody has the time to go to every School Committee meeting,” Ehrlich told Bob Oakes of WBUR’s Morning Edition Thursday.
Where else are people going to get this information if it is not conveyed in a local newspaper, she asks.
Toward that end, she and state Sen. Brendan P. Crighton have filed a bill that would authorize a commission to study the problem in hopes of finding a solution to what has become a growing problem: the acquisition of local papers by national chains that have turned around and gutted their newsrooms.
“Obviously, a press — and especially local media — are essential to a democracy,” Crighton said, adding that “local papers do a tremendous job in keeping us accountable. But unfortunately, the local coverage isn’t there for some communities.”
Ehrlich simply wants to come up with a solution to an issue that troubles her deeply.
“I don’t come at this with preconceived ideas one way or the other,” Ehrlich said Thursday. “I just want to put experts together in hopes of getting answers.”
What has happened elsewhere could have happened here. Fortunately it did not.
I have worked at The Item since April of 1979. In the beginning, without the competition of the internet and the presence of social media, The Item was the only source of local information. It had a staff that was big enough to assign a reporter in every community we covered. In those days, those communities included Lynn, Saugus, Swampscott, Marblehead, Peabody, Lynnfield, Revere and Nahant. In addition, we had our own State House reporter, general assignment people for night meetings, a fulltime Lifestyle editor, a Sports department of nearly a dozen full- and part-timers, a layout/editing desk of six people, and — perhaps most of all — a thriving advertising department.
Slowly over the next 35 years, things declined. Advertising lineage dropped, as did circulation. And there is sort of a symbiotic relationship between the two elements because when circulation drops below a certain figure, national firms stop purchasing ads.
As a result of the lost revenue our staff shrunk — as was the case for newspapers nationwide.
The descent to 2014, when we were left with four full-time reporters (not including Sports), was torture. People who had been fixtures at the paper were let go. Attrition shrunk some departments down to nothing. And there were times when you walked into the building not knowing what to expect when you got there.
None of this is to indict The Item or its previous owners. Many things — such as the advent of the internet and the ease in which businesses could advertise online — affected the industry’s bottom line as a whole. The Item, just like other small, independently-owned publications, got caught in the squeeze.
We would have been ripe for what happened to the Boston Herald last year, when it was purchased by Digital First Media — one of several conglomerates that have bought up small community dailies (Gatehouse, with 555 papers nationwide, is another) — and a major exodus ensued.
“I didn’t fully realize how rare local ownership is these days,” she said. “I really fear for local journalism.”
The Item took a different route, one that gives Ehrlich cause for optimism.
Unlike some other papers that have either been swallowed up by chains that have little interest in local journalism, or gone through multiple ownerships, The Item was fortunate in 2014 when seven investors, all with local ties, formed Essex Media Group and purchased the paper from the Gamage family, its previous owners.
“We all have feelings for the communities where we grew up,” said Michael H. Shanahan, CEO of EMG. “We recognize the important role newspapers play in our cities and towns.”
For EMG publisher Edward M. Grant, it was even more personal.
“I began my career at the The Item,” he said. “It helped me establish relationships that enabled me to grow professionally.”
Grant started the Lynn Business Partnership and later established a public relations and publishing company.
“I felt an obligation to give back to The Item and the community what it gave me,” he said.
Ted Grant, Mike Shanahan, and Edward L. Cahill, John M. Gilberg, Gordon R. Hall, Monica Connell Healey and J. Patrick Norton are the EMG Directors and are, Ehrlich says, “angel investors who have a stake in their communities.”
And she sees what has happened at The Item as a template for the future survival of the local media.
If the New York Times shut down tomorrow, there would be someone, somewhere to tell us what President Trump did, or said. We would not be out of the national loop.
But when a local paper falls by the wayside, a valuable and unique conduit of news and information falls with it. Where else would you find the results of a crucial school committee vote?
The Item is by no means back to the staffing levels of 1979, but it is reporting local news six days a week, and tackling serious and complex issues as well.
I give Ehrlich and Crighton a lot of credit for bringing this to everyone’s attention — especially in an era where the media are pilloried daily. Regardless of what comes out of this effort, it’s heartening to see someone who recognizes the necessity of the local media.
And, like Ehrlich, I hope that more “angel investors” pool their resources to help resurrect a facet of the media that is dangerously headed for extinction.