Portrait of a Journalism Junkie as a Young Man
Second in a series of occasional essays on the current state of local news in the U.S.
My news addiction started innocently enough in the third grade. I loved the Bruins even though I could not skate, and I loved the Red Sox even though I was terrified of the 35-mile-per-hour fastballs I was facing in Little League. And I loved Garfield and Peanuts and, I shudder as I type it, I loved the Family Circus.
So I started stealing the funnies and the sports section from the Boston Globe my parents had delivered to our house in Melrose every morning. In those pre-Internet days of the mid-1980s, I was fascinated that photos and write-ups from a game that had ended after I went to bed the night before had been tossed on our front porch before I woke up. Guys like Bob Ryan and Will McDonough were my first writing teachers, offering a master class in how to show what happened with simple words and declarative sentences. Anyone who believes a picture is worth a thousand words hasn’t read the prose of a talented reporter working on deadline.
By middle school I was starting to sense the wrapper for those precious pages was also worth a look. The front section with world and national news helped me understand the context of the images I was seeing on television news. Why were those people shot in Tiananmen Square? Why was the wall in Berlin falling, and why was it falling now? The op/ed pages gave me a head start on learning how to build the arguments for the essays I’d be assigned in high school and college. The Globe’s Metro/Region section explained the parts of Boston that were not on the itineraries for field trips and family outings. That was a place marked with tragedy and seemingly unsolvable problems, but also a place with lots of characters: gangsters with names like Whitey and the Rifleman, crooked politicians, art heists and FBI agents on the take. The business section, with page after page of tiny stock quotes, seemed intimidating, but I also sensed its importance. I didn’t spend a lot of time with Living-Arts, but valued it for its movie listing and the occasional profile of a favorite band.
Still, the older I got, the more time the Globe took out of each morning. And that became a problem when Duane became our paperboy.
Duane was a neighborhood kid three years younger than me. He was a nice enough kid, but also the type of kid who got relentlessly bullied during a time when bullying was seen as “kids being kids” and not the crippling threat to social development. Duane was also not a morning person and, at that hour, completely unpredictable: our paper might arrive at 6:30 or it might get delivered at 7:30. On the worst days, it might not get delivered until after school.
From the second floor window of our house, I could watch Duane slowly trudge around the neighborhood, silently cursing him with each step as I realized I would not have time to read all my favorite parts of the Globe before I had to leave for school.
Something I noticed on those mornings as I watched Duane walk his route — but something that would not seem important until decades later — was that Duane delivered a copy of the Globe to each of the 15 houses I could see from our second-floor window. At the time, I took it for granted that everyone in the neighborhood was starting their morning with the same set of facts.
Not every person in every one of those houses read the paper, and I assume no one read every single article. Some of those people might have supplemented the facts in the Globe with magazine subscriptions or by grabbing a Boston Herald or a Wall Street Journal for the train ride into Boston. Some families watched local news on Channel 5, others on Channel 7 and still others, like mine, on Channel 4. The system was not perfect, and its biggest problem was that the decision of what was and was not newsworthy lay with the people who owned the printing presses and the TV broadcast towers.
But in the limited media universe of the 1980s, it was easier to accept the facts as presented and build your opinion from them than it was to make a few mouse clicks and find the “facts” that supported the opinion you had already formed.
The other newspaper that hit most every doorstep on Clifton Park was the Melrose Free Press, the local weekly that seemed to touch on everything worth mentioning that happened in Melrose. It came with the mail on Thursday and would be the first thing I ran for when I got home from school. News stories ranged from church luncheons to local (mostly petty) crime to school committee decisions big and small. The op/ed page had dueling letters and columns over whatever hot button issue was before the board of aldermen. Coverage schools wasn’t limited to copying-and-pasting each quarter’s honor role, with features about interesting class projects, full=-page spreads of high school graduation photos and coverage that highlighted what was at stake for each side in the annual budget battle. You couldn;t die in Melrose without getting your obituary in the Free Press, And the sports pages were filled with staff-written stories about the high school teams and parent-submitted updates on local Little League and youth soccer teams.
It is telling that in 2004, when my parents moved out of Melrose after 40 years, they kept their subscription to the Free Press. They would no longer live, socialize or shop in Melrose the way they had but, even then, the Free Press was still relevant enough to allow them to still feel like they were part of the community where they spent most of their lives.
If the cancer diagnosis for my father — which forced my parents to give up the massive Victorian house I had grown up in — had come in 2012 instead of 2004, I doubt they would have seen maintaining their Free Press subscription as a necessary step on the moving to-do list. By that point, it was no longer the one-stop read for all things Melrose. And if the diagnosis had come in 2022, keeping the Free Press subscription would not have even been an option.
The Free Press published its last print edition on Thursday, July 29, 2021. Gannett, the paper’s owner and the corporate giant that decided to pull the plug after 120 years, called it a cost-cutting move. There were no layoffs as there were no dedicated staff members assigned to the paper. Anyone who worked on producing and editing content for the Free Press also did it for several other Gannett-owned papers.
At the time, just 639 people in a town of 11,329 households still had a subscription to the print edition.
Gannett still maintains a Website dedicated to Melrose news. On a whim, I looked at it on a slow morning in July 2022. None of the stories on the site’s front page even mentioned Melrose. There was a general story about mosquito and tick season in Massachusetts, a roundup of (somewhat) recent restaurant openings and closings in the state and a roundup of “local” events and activities, the closest of which was a 25-minute drive from Melrose. There was no Melrose police log, no recap of votes by the board of Alderman and no coverage of the ongoing debate on the push to replace the Red Raiders nickname that had divided the city for more than a year.
If you read all this knowing I oversee news coverage in Massachusetts for Patch.com, including the Melrose Patch site, the obvious question is “What are you doing about it?” I’ll try to answer that question in subsequent posts in this series, but for now the short answer is a tepid “We do the best we can.”
Patch’s ambitious mission statement is to find a profitable business model to deliver reliable, useful local news in the more than 1,200 communities we serve in the U.S. Right now, that does not allow us to be the “paper of record” in any of the communities we cover. That was the strategy of our previous owner, AOL, and that was the strategy whose failure forced AOL to spin it off to our current owner, Hale Global, in 2013. We cover as much as we can, and we will eventually cover the most important stories in any town where we have a journalist assigned, but that is far short of doing everything a paper like the Melrose Free Press did for all of the 20th century.
Until April of 2022, Patch’s Mike Carraggi was, in my biased opinion, providing the best coverage of Melrose out of anyone covering Melrose. He lived in Melrose. He worked the phones and covered meetings. He took all sorts of photos and knew all the key players. But his job at Patch only allowed him to devote about a quarter of his time to Melrose. And since April, when Carraggi took a new, non-editorial position at Patch, it’s been tough to find someone as smart and as driven as him, who is willing to work as hard as him for the salary we can currently offer.
Like I said, we do the best we can. But I’ll be the first to admit that if we’re going to be the only news organization in a city like Melrose, we need to find a way to do much better than that.
Previously in this series: Who Will Cover America’s Cultural Civil War?