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Nov. 1, 2021, 2:59 p.m.

What happens when the news desert is in your own backyard?

Cambridge, Massachusetts — a rich, educated city home to some of the world’s most powerful institutions — is at least for now without its last full-time local newspaper reporter.

Apologies for a little extra localism here at Nieman Lab dot org today. But our hometown of Cambridge, Mass., has become a noteworthy example of a phenomenon happening nationwide: the hollowing out of local news.

Cambridge is home to the oldest weekly newspaper in the United States, the Cambridge Chronicle. It’s been the running record of the city since 1846. But that record has gotten sparser and sparser as the Chronicle’s staff has dwindled. For the past few years, there’s been only one journalist working there: editor Amy Saltzman. And now she’s gone too.

City councillors paid tribute Monday to Amy Saltzman, as of Friday the ex-editor of the Cambridge Chronicle, and expressed sorrow that corporate ownership of the paper had hollowed out its staff over the years.

The Cambridge Chronicle has been the city’s weekly newspaper since May 1846, and claims for itself the mantle of being the oldest surviving weekly newspaper in the United States.

Saltzman had been at the Chronicle for nearly a decade — since November 2012 — as the paper went from one corporate owner to another, seeing its staff shrink from the levels it saw under Dole family ownership until 1990. Chronicle offices moved to Somerville and then Lexington, by which time Saltzman was the paper’s only full-time employee.

It’s possible Gannett will hire a replacement for Saltzman. Or maybe it’ll use the occasion to shrink further, perhaps smooshing it together with the Somerville Journal; most of that paper’s recent stories are republished from other Gannett weeklies. (At this writing, its most recent “local” “Somerville Journal” story is “Zodiac Killer(s): What do astrological signs and murderers have to do with each other?”) In its most recent circulation filing with the Alliance for Audited Media, the Cambridge Chronicle claimed a total of 365 paid subscribers; the Somerville Journal has all of 400. The Chronicle last tweeted 10 days ago.

But at least at the moment — and someone correct me if I’m wrong — I believe that leaves Cambridge without a single full-time newspaper reporter dedicated to covering it. And quite possibly not a single full-time reporter in any medium.

The Chronicle was owned by the local Dole family for more than half a century, until 1991, when it was sold to the financial firm Fidelity. Fidelity then conglomerated it and some other local papers into something called the Bay State Newspaper Company. A few years later, Bay State became part of the larger Community Newspaper Company. After that, Community was sold to the parent company of the Boston Herald, which then sold it to what became GateHouse Newspapers. Finally, in 2019, GateHouse bought (and assumed the corporate identity of) Gannett, creating by far the largest newspaper company in America. Gannett now publishes something like a thousand daily and weekly newspapers nationwide, including 90 here in Massachusetts.

All that conglomeration means a corporate quest for efficiencies, a.k.a. cost-cutting. Ten years ago — by which time there had already been plenty of cuts from the good ol’ days — the Chronicle had three full-time reporters and an editor, a Cambridge office, a full-time assistant, and “plenty of freelance cash” for stories and photographers. By 2013, that was down to 1.5 reporter FTEs and 1 editor. Then the office got moved to neighboring Somerville, then not-so-neighboring Lexington. (A drive from Lexington to Cambridge city hall is 25-30 minutes in ideal conditions, 45 or more in traffic.) Eventually, there was only one journalist left at the Chronicle, Saltzman.

To be fair, Cambridge isn’t exactly a news desert. The Boston Globe pokes its head in every so often, but it’s the sort of local coverage you’d expect from a major regional daily hoping to expand its reach across New England — it’s sporadic and attuned to stories that will have a wider interest region-wide. By my count, the Globe has mentioned Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui 15 times this year — but of those, only a handful are what I would consider local stories about Cambridge, as opposed to regional stories that mention Cambridge as one example among many. City manager Louis A. DePasquale — arguably the most powerful political figure in town — has been mentioned once in 2021.

The most impressive Cambridge news source, to my mind, is without a doubt the online-only Cambridge Day, which has been around more than a decade. (It’s the site that produced the story about Amy Saltzman leaving that I quoted above.) The Day’s homepage features a very local-newspaper-like mix of stories, none of which are embarrassing junk about how many serial killers have been Capricorns.1 But it’s closer to a labor of love by owner Marc Levy than a profit center. You can buy all of the site’s ad units for $300 a week. Levy has a day job as an editor at a site called Cheapism. He takes donations.

It’s a tiny miracle a site this good exists without much of a business model to back it. But it’s one you see across a number of Boston suburbs — the sort of well-off, highly educated places where a certain kind of hyperlocal blogger is more likely to flourish. The suburb where I live, Arlington, is much better covered by a site called Your Arlington than by the Gannett weekly.

Still, it shouldn’t take this much volunteerism and dedication to have someone covering a city the size of Cambridge. If you have any image of Cambridge in your mind, it’s probably connected to the two extraordinary universities based here, two subway stops apart, Harvard and MIT. But even beyond them, Cambridge is a city of 118,000, fourth-largest in Massachusetts and ninth-largest in all of New England, a global center for biotech with a surprisingly diverse population. It’s also an incredible concentration of money and power.

It’s an interesting and important place! Interesting and important enough that it shouldn’t be this hard for someone to make a living covering it.

  1. “Despite the fact that water signs dominated the list, with 46 victims per sign, the serial killers with the most victims overall were Capricorn with ‘a total of 813 people. On the other hand, Taurus killers account for just over 200 murders,’ the study said.” The “study” being a blog post by something called Astrology-Zodiac-Signs.com. ↩︎
POSTED     Nov. 1, 2021, 2:59 p.m.
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