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In Carlisle, Mosquito keeps buzzing

At the Mosquito (left), general manager Susan Emmons (right) and proofreader/writer Nancy Pierce and her dog, Sylvia.

Photos by Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

At the Mosquito (left), general manager Susan Emmons (right) and proofreader/writer Nancy Pierce and her dog, Sylvia.

A few years ago, the Carlisle Mosquito had its 15 seconds of fame. An item from the lost and found column appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno:

“Lost — four chickens, last seen on Sunset Road July 14, seen being chased by a fox.”

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Leno was dubious about their return.

He got his laughs, but no bit of news is too small for the Mosquito, a newspaper sent most weeks of the year free to every household in town. Published since 1972, its first motto was, “All the news to fit, we print!” The founders, women who lived in town, believed their fellow residents should know more about how their local government, even the most obscure committees, worked.

Now the nonprofit paper is celebrating its 40th anniversary — officially, last August — by publishing a book called “Who’s Who in the Natural World” by Kay Fairweather, a collection of columns about more than 300 species of wildlife that she and others have written for the Mosquito.

The newspaper’s first copy had no name. Residents were asked to drop their suggestions in a box at the Superette and eventually, they chose the Mosquito, suggested by Kathy Coyle, a retired school psychologist, who suggested that mosquitoes had the best circulation in town.

“When I was the news editor and I’d call up the DA’s office and say, ‘I’m from the Carlisle Mosquito,’ I’d have to wait, chuckle, chuckle, chuckle,” said Penny Zezima, assistant editor. “But I’d keep telling myself, The Sacramento Bee must have gone through that at some point.”

‘I’ll bet the average length of time involved with the paper is over a dozen years.’

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Coyle, who turned 90 last month, recently retired as the writer of the police log after she had a stroke. She worked on the paper in its early days.

“We all did everything,” she said. “We did what needed to be done.”

The paper was created largely by local mothers, and publishes 43 weeks a year, taking time off for school vacations, when it is difficult to find anyone to work, and publishing every other week during the summer, when town activities slow.

The staff prints 2,300 copies of the paper and sends one to every household in town. There are some mailed subscriptions — for a while, before the paper went online, parents often bought their children subscriptions when they went off to college — and a few others are sold around town.

The Mosquito was created as a nonprofit, supported by local advertising and contributions, and remained independent even as many other community newspapers became part of chains. As the news industry began struggling in recent years, however, more media began embracing the nonprofit model, said Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

In his new book, “The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age,” Kennedy looks at the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit community journalism website in Connecticut. Many other well-known nonprofit websites — including MinnPost, Voice of San Diego, and Texas Tribune — formed between 2004 and 2009, he said.

But more recently, nonprofit media have struggled to get started because the Internal Revenue Service has not granted them tax-exempt status, Kennedy said. “Later we started to learn that the IRS had really started to put the clamp down,” he said.

A recent Council on Foundations report said that the IRS has found that some nonprofit media groups are not educational and therefore do not meet the criteria for tax-exempt status. The group recommended that the IRS update its standards.

In Bedford, a new organization hopes to follow the Mosquito’s model. The Bedford Citizen was created last year to bring more local news to the town.

“When you read the story about how they came about and how we came about, there are so many parallels,” said Kim Siebert MacPhail, one of the three women who founded the website, which posts stories most days.

The Citizen is in the midst of applying for nonprofit status. In the meantime, no one at The Citizen is getting paid for their work. The founders know the difficulty other nonprofit news organizations have faced getting IRS approval, and hope that their work training new reporters will boost their educational mission, MacPhail said.

Both the Mosquito and the Bedford Citizen are among the many community websites whose links are available on Boston.com’s Your Town sites.

In Carlisle, the Mosquito has persevered largely because people who sign on to write stories or edit often end up staying for years, or decades, taking on different jobs as they open up.

“I’ll bet the average length of time involved with the paper is over a dozen years,” said Susan Emmons, general manager.

Over the years, the paper’s staff has rented and borrowed office space around town, in homes and a church and garages. Once they rented a single garage bay with the agreement that they would not disturb an antique refrigerator. They did not know that snake eggs lay in the coils of the machine. One morning, the newspaper’s staffers arrived to find baby snakes draped across their chairs and computers.

The paper manages to inspire loyalty with little cash. No one gets a salary — editors and managers get stipends and reporters and photographers get paid by the piece. Some contributors, including everyone who works on the web page, volunteer their time.

Carlisle Communications, the nonprofit organization that publishes the Mosquito, spent about $111,000 on compensation in the fiscal year that ended in July 2012, according to forms filed with the IRS. The most highly paid editor received $14,900.

In the same year, the paper made about $141,100 in advertising and raised another $40,400 in contributions. So far, the website does not have ads.

For more than 40 years in Carlisle, the Mosquito has been filled with the details of the machinery that runs a town: Police and fire logs and building permits and real estate, including buyer, seller, and price. No meeting is too small, not the Finance Committee or the Historical Commission nor the Land Stewardship Committee.

The police log is the paper’s most well-read feature, and the editors have long struggled with how much information to divulge in the small town. Addresses are purposely vague.

May 5, 9:02 a.m. Two suspicious people at Kimball Farm Ice Cream checked okay.

May 3, 8:14 p.m. Police advised an East Meadow Lane resident regarding a suspicious text message.

May 2, 3:51 p.m. The Field Driver was notified of goats in the road on West Street.

April 29, 4:16 p.m. Police received a report of a turtle in the road near School Street and Baldwin Road. They were unable to locate the turtle.

The Mosquito occasionally has received praise from high places. Once, Senator Edward Kennedy called the office to thank the editors for a story on conservation land that he had helped secure with federal funding.

His Massachusetts accent was so strong that Zezima, who answered the phone, was convinced he was a prankster.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @KathleenBurge.
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