Column: Small newspapers look to fill a void

By David Shribman

Weare, N.H.

The route to Weare is winding and rolling. This is not tourist New Hampshire, though the trees sit thick in the forest, and here and there along the way —roads once traversed by the famous white-oak-and-ash Concord stagecoaches — are the stone walls that for centuries have been part of the landscape of central New Hampshire.

But stop in what passes for the center of town — Weare is a massive place, sprawling across fields and lakes — and pop into the squat brick library, sitting there beside the historical society and beside the American Legion hall. And there, near the recent acquisitions, is the librarian’s office. It is also the town’s newsroom.

The family of billionaire casino mogul and deep-pocketed GOP kingmaker Sheldon Adelson confirmed in a statement to the Las Vegas Review-Journal that they are the new owners of Nevada’s largest newspaper, ending a week of speculation and demands by staff and politicians to know the identity of the new boss.

When Weare, like so many communities across the country, lost its newspaper, Michael Sullivan — lanky, bearded, with the air of one of Daniel Webster’s constituents two centuries ago — whirled into action, creating a weekly “newspaper” that provides the civic connection that is so important to both rural and urban communities and that is so endangered in our time.

His paper — Weare in the World, a play on the town’s name — has a circulation of 320, and Sullivan, 50, is both subscription director and principal distributor, though his email list has 1,000 names and his Facebook feed is reached by 600 people. Still, it is a small operation, but a big principle: Newspapers are the sinews of our civic society, sometimes taken for granted when they are in business, always missed when they are gone.

It is not news that the newspaper business is in grave distress. Total daily distribution of newspapers in the United States was literally decimated, which is to say cut by 10 percent, between 2016 and 2017 alone. Yes, online news consumption has grown. But the average visitor to a newspaper website spends about two and a half minutes. It takes longer to order and receive a cup of coffee, which in many places costs more than the daily newspaper.

Things are bad all over. Across the border in Maine, the Portland area still has a newspaper but is facing a shortage of carriers. “Many forces are working against the newspaper business these days,’’ wrote Lisa DeSisto, the publisher of the Portland Press Herald.” 

Weare had a paper until recently but the last edition of the Community News carried this grim message: “After getting the paper to print, energies will be focused on paying outstanding bills before formally dissolving the non-profit organization.” Many other newspapers, including the one for which I serve as executive editor, are non-profits, though not by choice.

Sullivan never went to journalism school nor attended a single class in the craft. But he is a believer, and he believes his little paper is essential reading in town, and essential for the town.

That’s especially so in a place like centuries-old Weare, named for the community’s first town clerk and a place where the official Town Report lists all the births in town. But its 9,000-odd people are distributed in an area almost identical to that of Pittsburgh, which has more than 30 times as many people.

Sullivan’s efforts extend to businesses, which get listings for free and which get preferential treatment in the pages of the paper; there’s no room for an advertisement for a pizza joint across the town line, for example, because that might hurt Dmitri’s, the local emporium, where a 10-inch cheese pizza sells for $7.50 and where a small oven-hot chicken cutlet grinder will cost you a dollar less.

There hasn’t been a town crier in Weare for centuries, though you might think of Sullivan as a modern day version. A lot goes on in small New Hampshire towns and the newspaper remains the best place to find that out, especially because Internet service is not universally available here. 

Sullivan’s paper doesn’t cultivate much of the adversarial spirit endemic to big-city newspapers, but there doesn’t seem to be much hunger for that here, only a sense of relief that there is a newspaper at all.

“We’re in the rural part of New Hampshire, and without a local, local paper it’s hard for people to get information,” said Patti Osgood, the community-relations coordinator for the local school district. “It’s been a wonderful way to create a sense of community where there’s no natural gathering place.”

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.