IPSWICH — John Muldoon said there are two reasons to explain why a person would choose to start a print newspaper in this day and age. The shortest is “madness.”
Muldoon is Irish, so re-read that word in a brogue. Now to the longer version of Muldoon’s story: Picture a guy from Ireland in his early 50s who moved to Ipswich with his wife in 2015 so she could care for her sister, and almost immediately created a local news website about a town he had known for minutes, in a climate where local news outlets were folding by the day.
As a young man, he’d worked in journalism in the United States, starting at the Wellesley Townsman in the late ‘80s and later at the Conway Daily Sun in New Hampshire, where he met his wife, Kristen.
Muldoon left journalism when they had children, but says the bug never left him. “That was really my problem.”
So in Ipswich, starting fresh, he decided to just try it on his own, with a basic website and a hyper-focused name: The Ipswich Local News.
In Ipswich at that time, something else was happening, which was that the Ipswich Chronicle was withering and dying. “With that, we started with a fair wind,” Muldoon said. But in this civically engaged town of 13,000 on the Great Marsh, the Local News would have to earn its place.
Muldoon said he knew immediately that he was in the right spot. “This was no sleepy town.” And from the beginning, building a reputation from scratch, Muldoon said his only goal was to report hard and without agenda.
By 2019, readership had climbed and then hit a ceiling at 4,000 pageviews a day, so they attempted two major changes. The first was to become a nonprofit. The second was to start a weekly print publication, thanks heavily to the help of veteran North Shore newspaper publisher Bill Wasserman, who at age 92 gave $100,000 to get it all rolling.
For the first year, the Muldoons took zero pay. Kristen Muldoon, who is the deputy editor, worked elsewhere to pay the bills.
“I remember our first issue, where we finished at 2:30 in the morning, and thought, ‘Thank God that’s over,’ and then you realize you have to do it again,” John Muldoon said.
More than four years later, the Ipswich Local News is delivered free of charge each Wednesday to 9,300 homes in Ipswich and Rowley.
The newspaper recently hired a second full-time reporter, no small accomplishment, joining Trevor Meek, the first staff writer. He and Muldoon have spent the past several months reporting relentlessly on the many questions around a half-billion-dollar proposal to fund a new building for Whittier Tech, the biggest issue to hit the area in some time. When the votes were counted, Ipswich came out 90 percent against it; Rowley was 93.
Since the mid-2000s, local news has been a world that is failing and being reinvented simultaneously, the internet come to kill it and save it. But the nuts and bolts remain the same — independent eyeballs at local school board meetings, going through the police blotter, obituaries, high school games, plus photos of the veterans being honored at the library.
It’s small work with big implications. In “news deserts,” which includes shockingly large chunks of the country — 2,900 newspapers have closed, including 2.5 per week in 2023. Economists say the decline in local reporting has been linked to an increase in political corruption and fiscal mismanagement.
Sliding into the void have been many other information sources, and plenty of Facebook gossip, but fact-based reporting remains an unglamorous, invaluable necessity for a well-informed society.
Hyperlocal newsrooms — many of them nonprofits — have been a bright spot at a time when local newspapers across the country continue to falter. In New England, the Plymouth Independent, Brookline.News, and the New Hampshire Bulletin have launched in recent years.
“This is what the founders envisioned, which is a lot of little newspapers in all the little towns in New England,” said Ellen Clegg, who recently coauthored, with Dan Kennedy, “What Works in Community News.” Clegg, a former editor at the Globe, helped found the Brookline News.
“We all live our lives locally. It’s where we educate our kids. It’s how we plow the streets. It’s where we look to see what’s going into a vacant storefront,” Clegg said. “That all needs to be reported on and paid attention to.”
For The Ipswich Local News, the decision to go back to print immediately “made people sit up a bit more and see that it’s a real news source,” Muldoon said. Meanwhile, the nonprofit model opened the opportunity for donations that could fund Muldoon’s goal of being news-heavy. “We did it backward, but it was the right step without a doubt.”
The Local News newsroom itself fits almost too neatly into this story, as it consists more or less of a large table in the living room of a tiny apartment in town. The Muldoons live upstairs. A scanner is always on.
“I’ve been here for about a year, and I can tell you people care deeply about knowing what’s going on, no matter how small,” said Meek, one of the five employees coming and going in the living room. “Everyone has a sign in their yard during election season. Everyone has an opinion on beach parking stickers.”
It will remain ever difficult to keep the Ipswich Local News afloat and in mailboxes every Wednesday, but the Muldoons are believers, purists. “This is the essence of democracy, informing everybody, not just those who can pay for it,” Kristen Muldoon said.
Or, like her husband said, it’s madness.