Not quite a year ago, the local news outlook in Marblehead appeared bleak. Media giant Gannett had recently shifted the North Shore town’s longtime weekly, the Marblehead Reporter, from local to regional coverage, leaving the community of 20,000 without a dedicated newspaper for the first time in more than a century.
Then, in June, a resident-led news organization sprang up, calling itself the Marblehead Beacon. Later that month, a nonprofit called the Marblehead Current came online, launching a website and then a print edition. And by the end of the summer, the Marblehead Weekly News, a print publication from the same group that publishes The Daily Item in Lynn, was in the mix.
Today, these three outlets — adhering to three different business models — are in the unexpected position of battling it out for the readers of Marblehead and wresting back hyperlocal news from corporate control. At a time when independently owned news organizations in the area are few and ever-dwindling, the landscape in Marblehead is nothing short of remarkable — though in no small part due to its relatively affluent population, which can afford to support such ventures. What remains to be seen is how long this renaissance will last.
“I don’t know whether three different entities can survive for the long term, but it certainly shows that there’s a lot of energy and a lot of interest out there,” said Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University who specializes in local news. “In many cases, if you just get the corporate, chain-owned publication out of the way, you see that entrepreneurial spirit unleashed.”
The first of the bunch to arrive on the scene, the Marblehead Beacon, is also, in another way, the newest of the three. The online-only outlet’s three founders, Lena Robinson, Jenn Schaeffner, and high school senior Jared Lederman, have no background in news but were incensed by the void the Reporter had left behind, particularly when it came to covering local government.
“We felt that we had a network of sources — frankly, hundreds of sources — that we could go to, as we try to uncover and dig down into what’s happening,” said Schaeffner, who was an elected member of the Marblehead School Committee until 2020.
The Beacon grew out of conversations the three family friends had about “the fact that we were seeing things going on in our town that didn’t seem right, and we had a lot of questions about, and nobody was reporting on it,” said Schaeffner.
So the Beacon launched in early June with a focus on investigative coverage, reporting in-depth on campaign finance in the six-way primary for state representative. The Beacon doesn’t have subscriptions or a paywall; its for-profit model depends solely on ad revenue. But it’s essentially a three-person volunteer operation. ”The product is us,” said Robinson.
By contrast, the Marblehead Current, which also debuted online in June, is something of a reincarnation. Managing editor Will Dowd and consulting editor Kris Olson worked at the Marblehead Reporter before it was regionalized, with Olson serving as the paper’s top editor for more than a decade.
“I think we’ve built up the trust and those relationships long before we founded the Current,” Olson said. “Hopefully that’s paying off for us now.”
The team decided on a nonprofit model, which depends on a mix of advertising (they’re averaging about $4,000 in weekly print ads), individual donations (more than $20,000 so far), and grants (more than $100,000, mostly from other local nonprofits), according to board president Jim Bryant. Those funds cover six paid staff members, as well as volunteers and freelancers. On Nov. 23, the Current published its first print edition, delivered free to every household and business in Marblehead.
The Current is looking to be a “full-service” publication, said Olson, with plans for fleshed-out arts and sports sections. Stories in a recent print edition ranged from a piece on the possibility of Marblehead police officers adopting body cameras to a profile on comedian and Marblehead native Rob Delaney.
“I want to get back to the point where we’re basically doing what the Reporter did in the good old days,” said Olson.
The last to enter the ring was the Marblehead Weekly News, which published its inaugural print edition on Aug. 19 and is largely the product of “happenstance,” said publisher Ted Grant. Grant, a former editor of the Daily Item who leads an investment group that bought the paper in 2014, said readers would often suggest more stories than The Daily Item (which covers several North Shore communities) and the 01945 quarterly magazine, which is focused on Marblehead, were able to accommodate.
Eventually, Grant said, a reader asked, “Why don’t you just start a newspaper?”
“The opportunity seemed to be just sitting there for us,” said Grant.
The Weekly News, also sent free to every household and business in town, is essentially a print-only product, though a PDF is posted weekly to marbleheadweeklynews.com. Stories, which are written by The Daily Item’s general staff, always have a focus on Marblehead.
Ad sales, said Grant, are “very good,” and, like the Current, the Weekly News benefits from occasionally carrying the state’s legal notices — a boon in Massachusetts, where the notices must appear in a print publication. (The Reporter also still accepts legal notices, according to a Gannett spokesperson.)
“All we have to do is hold a mirror up to the town,” said Grant. “There are a gazillion good stories there. We just have to pay attention and write them.”
The coexistence of these three locally focused publications harkens back to a time when many communities, even ones far smaller than Boston, had two or three thriving newspapers. Michael Goldman, a political consultant and longtime Marblehead resident, said the new papers are the talk of the town. It’s “the fact that there are so many of them,” he said.
“The reality is you needed a place like Marblehead to be successful with this thing,” he said.
But Marblehead is not alone in benefiting from a rebirth of local, independent news. Publications have sprung up in Provincetown, Concord, and New Bedford in the past several years, with more on the way in places like Newton and Brookline.
“What makes it at least possible today to try to have two or three different outlets is that you suddenly have a variety of different business models that you could draw on,” said Kennedy.
The concern, said Kennedy, is that a divide will emerge between places where local news flourishes and where it does not. Locales like Marblehead — where the median household income tops $150,000 a year — will thrive, while lower-income communities will miss out.
“What we’re seeing in Marblehead is promising, it’s encouraging, and it’s hopeful,” said Jennifer Preston, a fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. “What we need to be mindful of is the importance of ensuring that people in less affluent communities don’t get left behind.”
As for the trio in Marblehead, there is a competitive spirit among the three nascent publications, but there is also a sense of gratitude from each that they are not the sole keeper of the news.
As Bryant, the board president for the Current, put it: “We think this is the golden age of journalism for Marblehead.”
Dana Gerber can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @danagerber6.