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Firsthand perspective: What has happened to your local newspaper? You can help

The Arlington Advocate has been the town's paper of record ...."

                                                                                                            -- Town website

The weekly remains valuable as an archived, historical source,
not as a 'paper of record.'

UPDATED May 21: The Arlington Advocate, a storied weekly delivering news here since 1871, is no more. As of Thursday, May 12, it became the Advocate & Star, a newspaper merger of two highly distinct towns, Arlington and Winchester.

The demise began slowly after the Jorgensen family sold the paper in 1986 to Harte-Hanks, the first of many newspaper-chain owners. The Gannett Corp. of McLean, Va., is only the latest.

As editor of The Advocate in 1994-95, I saw the early decline firsthand. Not two months after I began, two men in dark suits arrived at 5 Water St., where the paper then was located, and measured the offices, without comment. Turns out, they were from Fidelity Investments, which included the paper in its many purchases later that fall. After that, the new owner cut the share it paid for employee health benefits.

To be fair, Fidelity supported the weekly. Sometimes the paper was 36 pages deep, had a full-time editor and reporter (Marc Levy, now of and a full-time sports editor (Walter Moynihan, who died in 2013). 

One corporate step in a series

But what the suits came to measure was just one step that a series of corporations took to separate Arlington readers from its beloved weekly.

The size of its offices was an economic factor that led to the paper leaving town for good in June 1997. The paper decamped to Woburn Four Corners for a while and then went on to the offices of Minuteman in Lexington. It's tough to tell where the newsroom is now, but it has not been within walking distance of Arlington Town Hall for nearly 25 years.

The newspaper lost touch with the town it claimed to cover.

Under Gannett -- owner of USA Today, but known by industry observers nationwide as a cost-cutter -- The Advocate faced still tougher measures, reported in February.

Gannett goes regional

Dan Kennedy, a professor of journalism at Northeastern who lives in West Medford and jogs the Minuteman Bikeway, has an ongoing body of research documenting how corporations squelch local news. Read the trends in his blog, "Media Nation." 

In February, he published "Gannett’s Mass. weeklies to replace much of their local news with regional coverage." He wrote:

Arlington Newspapers, 1871-2005Click image to access >>

"Gannett is poised to take a major step back from its coverage of Massachusetts communities as it prepares to replace local news in its weekly papers with regional stories about topics such as public safety, education, racial justice and the environment ....

He continues: "I’m told that Gannett journalists have been asked to apply for new regional jobs covering their preferred beats."

Management comments

YourArlington tried to learn the fate of Ross Cristantiello, the most recent Advocate reporter in a series of them over recent years. The website wanted to know how the merged paper would cover local news without a dedicated reporter.

No one in a position to know responded immediately to explain. But on May 19, a Gannett representative told Jeff Barndt, news director at ACMi, who was following up on YourArlington's story: “Ross Cristantiello is no longer an employee, which is why you have not seen any stories by him recently.”

The Gannett rep also provided the following statement:

"Strategies for reaching our audiences have evolved significantly, as well as the capabilities of our enhanced digital platforms. We remain committed to the future of local journalism, and encourage our readers to continue supporting our reliable, accurate and community-focused news sources across all of our platforms."

A glimpse of the corporate view came a town resident who provided a copy of an email from Jason Guthrie. The vice president of customer service and subscriptions describes the Advocate & Star merger this sunny way: "The news and information you trust will now cover a larger area ensuring we are able to keep you in-the-know about all the happenings in our community."

In my experience, reporting about a "larger area" signals that whoever the reporter is will be stretched ever more thinly, and local news will continue to fade.

Town resident comments

Even before the merged paper hits your mailbox, the signs have been clear. In an email to YourArlington, a resident spelled some out.

YourArlington logo

"The 'new Advocate' is now 'Part of the USA Today Network.' There is no longer content by a local journalist assigned to Arlington. Today's newspaper [April 21] contains:

"Not one single letter to the editor;

"Nothing to even faintly suggest that Town Meeting starts next Monday;

"Here is the content: It doesn't get better. Subsequent pages include page 1, above the fold:

"'Level of climate proposals queried in infrastructure bill,'" Chris Lisinksi, State House News Service

"'Ever want to own a fun park? Carver's Edaville is on the market,' Kathryn Gallerani, Wicked Local, USA Today Network ....

ACMi News Director Jeff Barndt interviews Bob Sprague, YourArlington editor, in May 2022.

"Our 'local' print newspaper is local no more. I am appalled that it is even still called 'The Arlington Advocate.'"

No problem -- it no longer is.

What you can do to help

All is not lost for those seeking Arlington news and opinion. YourArlington, established in 2006, consistently provides what you are missing -- dedicated local reporters.

Susan Gilbert writes about the Select Board. Judith Pfeffer covers the School Committee. Melanie Gilbert follows the housing authority. Marjorie Howard provides features about local people.

The continued delivery of Arlington news comes with costs, but you can help. Consider supporting democracy and an informed public by donating to YourArlington, now a 501(C)3 nonprofit. Your contributions are tax-deductible. 

Washington Post, Nov. 30, 2021: What Happens to Democracy When Local Journalism Dries Up?Woburn loss of paper reflects national decline

The Atlantic, Oct. 14, 2021: "A Secretive Hedge Fund is Gutting Newsrooms"

This local-news perspective by Bob Sprague, who has witnessed these changes firsthand, was published Wednesday, May 11, 2022. It was updated May 12, to correct the name of the newspaper chain that bought the weekly in 1986. It was updated May 19, to add a statement from Gannett, as well as May 21, to add ACMi video window.

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Between 2005 and the start of the pandemic, about 2,100 newspapers closed their doors. Since covid struck, at least 80 more papers have gone out of business, as have an undetermined number of other local publications, like the California Sunday Magazine, which folded last fall — and then won a Pulitzer Prize eight months later.   -- Margaret Sullivan Washington Post


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