After an early stint in small-town New England journalism, working 72 hours a week for a $25 paycheck in the 1950s, William S. Wasserman was relieved to leave.
“I swore I’d never have anything to do with a weekly newspaper again,” he told the Globe in 1979.
Return he did, however, as he created a chain of North Shore weeklies that was a significant force in Massachusetts media for decades.
A civil rights activist and a publisher who hired women editors to run his newspapers, Mr. Wasserman died Sept. 29 in Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers. He was 94, had lived in Ipswich for many years, and had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
Though his newspapers’ focus was relentlessly local, Mr. Wasserman’s definition of “local” was expansive enough to include covering community residents who took part in newsworthy events far from the North Shore.
In 1965, he joined Ipswich residents who had traveled to Alabama to participate in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery, where Mr. Wasserman reported on the famous civil rights protest.
During a newspaper career that stretched from the early 1950s to a couple of years ago, when he re-entered Ipswich media at 92, Mr. Wasserman was avidly anti-racist before the term was much in use.
“I have spent more than 60 years as a civil rights advocate,” he wrote in 2017. “I integrated the morning, evening, and Sunday carrier force at the Fort Smith, Ark., newspaper where I worked in the 1950s. I marched in Selma, Ala. I facilitated the first hiring of a black state manager for the Dukakis presidential campaign. I have served on countless diversity committees.”
And in 1974, when his growing chain included five weekly newspapers, three were edited by women.
A Democratic activist, particularly after he sold his newspapers in 1986, Mr. Wasserman worked on and financially supported the gubernatorial, US Senate, and presidential campaigns of politicians such as Michael S. Dukakis, Deval Patrick, and Elizabeth Warren.
“He was a coach, a mentor, a critic, a friend — steadfast, honest, and even affectionate in every role,” Patrick said.
Two years after selling his newspaper chain, Mr. Wasserman wrote that he “had covered enough selectmen’s meetings to last me a lifetime, and I no longer had fire in my belly about sewer extensions.”
But after watching the newspapers he guided struggle through corporate ownerships, as cost-cutting eviscerated the staff he had proudly built, Mr. Wasserman entered the news business again.
Two years ago, he cofounded Ipswich Local News with John Muldoon, who was running a local news website and wanted to augment that with a print newspaper.
“At 92 years of age, he was out there selling ads — no joke,” Muldoon said. “He was the first ad salesperson for the paper. He was out there pounding the pavement, walking cane in hand, and he was a tough guy to say no to. And he did that for several months. He thought he’d just be doing it for a few weeks, but it took longer than expected to find a salesperson.”
Mr. Wasserman retired as consulting publisher in July 2020.
Set up as a nonprofit, his final newspaper was “in a sense his legacy,” Muldoon said. “He wanted something that would survive and be part of the community, and reflect and report on the community, and serve as a watchdog as well. And it will. It’s been a success and we’re going strong.”
One of four children, William Stix Wasserman Jr. was born in Philadelphia in 1927 and was raised in Whitemarsh Township, Pa.
“I grew up with a certain prejudice against business,” he once wrote. His father, William Sr., “was a businessman on Wall Street, and my mother didn’t know anything about business and didn’t care about it at all. She was interested in the arts and politics and newspapers.”
His parents “were liberal Democrats,” he added, and “business was sort of a dirty word in my lexicon.”
Mr. Wasserman spent his high school years boarding at the Putney School in Vermont. For a time, he imagined he might become a farmer or rancher.
At Harvard College, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1950, he majored in medieval history. He interrupted his studies a couple of times for travel and to serve in the Army Air Corps — which became part of the Army Air Forces, which was succeeded by the Air Force — as part of the occupation forces in Germany after World War II.
While there, he was in charge of setting up skiing operations for officers and for a segregated unit of Black soldiers. He also did some early reporting, writing a magazine piece about coal miners in Europe.
Upon graduating from Harvard, his jobs included working as a carpenter, reporting and editing at New Hampshire newspapers, and teaching at the Cambridge School of Weston before he moved to the business side of newspapers in Nevada, Arkansas, and Middletown, N.Y.
In 1958, he bought the Amesbury Daily News — “perhaps the smallest daily newspaper east of the Mississippi,” he wrote in an anniversary report of his Harvard class — which provided a lesson in why weeklies were more successful in small towns than dailies back then. After losing money with the daily, he moved into owning and launching weeklies.
Mr. Wasserman married Sarah Landis, with whom he had two daughters, in 1952. Their marriage ended in divorce, as did his marriage to Lucie Prinz.
In 1983, he married Mary Walker, who has worked as a freelance book editor and as controller for his newspaper chain.
“He always took the side of the little guy or the poor person or the person who was being discriminated against,” she said, adding that her husband cared deeply about diversity and “kept after people relentlessly,” including those he with whom he served on the boards of organizations: “He’d walk into a meeting and say, ‘Why are there only white people in the room?’ "
Mr. Wasserman “was a man of deep curiosity, not about abstract subjects so much as about people,” Patrick recalled.
“I think his passion for democracy — the things that made it work, like a free and fearless press, and the things that threatened it, like voter apathy or suppression — was motivated by his belief that people could be their best selves in a functioning democracy,” the former governor said. “There was principle behind his passions. He was known and respected by many for that.”
In addition to his wife, Mary, Mr. Wasserman leaves three daughters, Ellen Wasserman Miller of Amesbury, Maria Ruiz of Gillette, Wyo., and Rebecca of Boulder, Colo.; a sister, Marie Wasserman Ridder of McLean, Va.; and two grandchildren.
A service next year will be announced.
When Mr. Wasserman sold his newspaper chain at age 59, he shared the windfall, distributing $700,000 among his 180 employees, with amounts varying by years of employment. Some received about $20,000.
“They earned it,” he told the Globe in 1986. “It has not always been easy and they haven’t always been well-paid. I don’t feel that it’s a gift. If I’d been able to, I would have paid them more.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.