Heralding a change
published in the Brookline
October 12, 2000
Note: This column remains unpublished. The TAB's
editor declined to run it.
The Boston Herald is buying the Brookline TAB. It's also buying the rest
of the TABs, plus the Cambridge Chronicle and Concord Journal and a bunch
more--every eastern Massachusetts paper owned by Community Newspaper Company,
which itself is owned by Fidelity Investments. The Herald says they don't
know yet what they'll do with us. Here's my advice, which the new owners
haven't asked for: surprise everyone by transforming our hundred or so community
papers into models of excellent journalism.
I know that too many newspapers these days are just businesses like any
other, owned by people more interested in monopolizing advertising dollars
than enhancing news coverage. That's why it was no surprise over the past
decade when, in community after community, CNC's TABs and Journals and
Chronicles became the only local papers in town. Fidelity's proven even
better at homogenizing the American landscape than other corporate chains
like Starbucks and McDonald's.
With the competition gone, Fidelity could underfund its acquisitions
despite widespread complaints, which escalated a couple of years ago with
increased cost-cutting measures. The chain merged papers and eliminated
local offices. It paid editors and reporters so little that turnover surged.
And the people at the top fretted a whole lot more over page size and
other doodads designed to bring in more advertising than they did over
bringing readers a better paper.
Now don't get me wrong. I've had only positive experiences working with
my three Brookline editors (in just 14 months!) and the TAB's new and
newer reporters. I'm glad our paper has more substance to it than many
others I've seen. But frequent turnover requires repeated time-consuming
efforts by new staff to familiarize themselves with local history and
issues. The lack of a physical presence in town, not enough reporters
to uncover all the ever-present dirt, and too many decision making layers
take their toll.
Will things improve under the new regime? The cynic in me says no. All
the excitement in Herald publisher Patrick Purcell's early statements
revolved around money: the prospect of selling more ads to companies trying
to reach both the Herald's urban readers and CNC's higher-income suburbanites.
That will help the Herald's bottom line, but it would have been comforting
to read that Purcell also aims to improve quality.
Purcell might close down some CNC papers. That's not necessarily a bad
thing in communities with two CNC papers like Cambridge (the TAB and Chronicle).
But the last thing we should want in Brookline is to merge our only remaining
newspaper with Newton's. We have different issues. We need our own editor
On the bright side, although the Herald's a business, at least it's a
news business, not an investment portfolio. Its audience and style differ
from the Boston Globe's, but it does some things pretty well. Sometimes
it even does a better job than the Globe, as in covering opposition to
There's always a danger the Herald could make things worse. For example,
it could dissolve the CNC papers into a weekly Herald "suburban supplement"
that competes directly with the similar approach of the Globe (itself
owned by the New York Times). Without any remaining community-based papers,
we'd be worse off than we are now.
But if enough readers demand that the new owners bring back true community
newspapering, and if Purcell commits himself to reversing recent trends,
the switch from Fidelity may turn out to be a blessing. Renaming us the
Brookline Herald or the like is less important than making sure we have
the resources to do a better job.
More resources won't resolve the broader problem: increased domination
of public discourse by corporate-owned media, from television and radio
to major Internet sites to our own community news. Regardless of what
happens to the Brookline TAB, town residents should develop more avenues
for unmediated discussion and debate. We need more neighborhood newsletters,
more email discussion lists, more resident-initiated websites.
We could even use another newspaper, especially if the Herald keeps its
eye on the ads rather than on the news.
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