Creating News Deserts

March 29, 2016

GateHouse Media New England’s closure of its Somerville office is the latest move in a growing newspaper trend: smaller, more corporate, fewer reporters. What does that mean for some of Massachusetts’ largest cities and towns?

Alex Bloom
Director Alex Bloom

Later this year, GateHouse Media New England will close its Somerville office and move reporters and editors for the Cambridge Chronicle & Tab and the Somerville Journal to offices in Lexington and Danvers.

It’s the kind of news that causes more uproar for ink-stained journalists than it does among the larger public. And that’s understandable, because we haven’t lost the newspapers. Ideally, reporters need only a laptop and an internet connection to work remotely from city hall or at a coffee shop downtown.

But the move is emblematic of the direction that many regional newspaper companies in the U.S., including GateHouse, have taken over the years: smaller, more corporate, fewer reporters. In their place, citizen journalism is growing stronger.

And the decision to take local reporters out of their cities will change things.

“Being able to walk through that town means a lot,” said the Boston Business Journal’s David Harris, who edited the Cambridge Chronicle & Tab for six years and broke the story about the Somerville office closure. “It changes the dynamics of what gets covered, whether it’s a business or a person that you run into on the street versus getting a press release via email.”

The Cambridge Chronicle & Tab will move 10 miles away to GateHouse’s downtown Lexington office, which is already home to the Lexington Minuteman, the Belmont Citizen-Herald, the Arlington Advocate and the Winchester Star. The Danvers shop will now be home to the Somerville Journal and more than a dozen other titles, including the Cape Ann Beacon, the Melrose Free Press, and the Newburyport Current.

That makes sense for a corporation that now operates more than 100 newspapers across the Commonwealth. Putting more titles under one roof means fewer offices. Additionally, GateHouse has centralized newspaper design in Austin, Texas, helping them save money on design staff.

But from a “community journalism” standpoint? It is counterintuitive that a national media company, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2013 to buy the Cape Cod Times, the Providence Journal, and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, is pulling money and staff out of Massachusetts’ fifth and twelfth largest cities. Cambridge and Somerville are two of the wealthier and more highly-educated cities in New England and could conceivably sustain more local news. This move is taking place in the middle of a growing economy when other media companies like the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald have taken steps to expand their offerings.

However, moves like these do seem to be working at least at the bottom line. GateHouse’s parent company New Media Investment Group led the newspaper chain to turn a profit for the first time in more than a decade. It’s encouraging to see that a newspaper company that is so important to local journalism in Massachusetts is making money.

But these moves are already transforming journalism in local cities and towns. When Patch and The Boston Globe (through “Your Town”) stopped using local reporters in 2014, their exit left GateHouse weekly newspapers as the sole newspapers of record in some of the state’s largest cities. For some of those cities, like Cambridge, the GateHouse weekly became the main source of municipal news.

Here is how newspapers in some of those cities and towns – home to 500,000 residents – are staffed:

Largest MA cities Population GateHouse news reporters and editors on staff
5. Cambridge 109,694 2
11. Newton 88,287 3
12. Somerville 78,901 2
15. Waltham 63,014 2
17. Malden 60,859 1
18. Brookline 59,334 3
20. Medford 57,437 2

With limited staff, these newspapers rarely make political endorsements and don’t often hold editorial boards. They don’t have columnists to deliver compelling human interest stories or crystallize key city issues. But Harris isn’t ready to declare these cities as news deserts yet.

“There’s a fear that that is happening,” Harris said. “I don’t think we’re completely there yet.”

That’s because residents are doing what they can to launch their own efforts to deliver citizen journalism. In the absence of big Boston newspapers, these citizen journalists are taking up the role of digging into city hall, the local police department, and the business community.

There is also a dedicated team of journalists working for the alternative press, led by DigBoston, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the Bay State Examiner, and they are bulldogs on public records.

But it’s unclear how long local journalism can depend on reporting from part-time citizen journalists. In Cambridge, home to multinational corporations, world-class universities and high profile residents, journalists are vital to providing info on Planning Board approval of a sprawling new development or Google’s appearance before the City Council.

“There are stories that are probably going to slip through and probably have slipped through,” Harris said. “But there are some enterprising reporters out there who will find those great stories no matter what.”

In 2011, CommonWealth Magazine profiled the decline of newspapers, providing print circulation numbers for the state’s largest dailies. Here’s where some of those subscription numbers stand today. GateHouse numbers come from New Media’s latest annual report.

Newspaper Daily subscribers in 2000 Daily subscribers in 2015
Boston Globe 469,878 115,000
Boston Herald 261,017 65,000
Worcester Telegram & Gazette 103,054 46,634
Patriot Ledger 68,387 23,800
Cape Cod Times 50,106 29,750
The Enterprise 41,197 13,314
The Standard-Times 37,151 16,993

Alex Bloom is a director in O’Neill and Associates’ communications practice. Connect with him by email at and on Twitter at @AlexBloom_05

Share This