Friday, September 27, 2002
Independent, non-profit, and not for sale
In a sea of for-profit newspapers and newspaper chains, the Carlisle Mosquito stands out as the only non-profit newspaper around. Delivered free to 1,800 households each week, the Mosquito was founded 30 years ago on the principle that it be provided "without charge" to all residents.
"The commitment not to sell in-town subscriptions remains strong among the Mosquito's present staff," says news editor Maya Liteplo. "With each home receiving a paper, everyone is informed, even if people just have time to glance at the front page."
The Mosquito is also one of the few independent, non-chain-owned news-papers remaining. Its editorial policy says it "attempts in its policies and practices to remain a unique and independent small-town newspaper." Unique it is. Published by Carlisle Communications, Inc. (CCI), the Mosquito operates as a private, non-profit corporation.
"CCI is made up of newspaper staff and others in the town who share an interest in keeping the Mosquito a vibrant community paper," says Bob Rothenberg, chairman of the board of directors.
"Besides being a free paper, as an independent it is also a free press. It does not have outside editorial influences that can affect papers owned by a newspaper chain," says Rothenberg.
Tom Guenette of the New England Press Association, a group that promotes excellence in community journalism, says many hometown papers are being purchased by newspaper chains because of the difficulty of publishing a paper on their own. "It's an industry trend that newspaper circulation has remained the same or gone down in recent years. Papers are trying to get new readers and are being bought out by companies to get their readership."
Guenette says news web sites also draw readers away from newspapers today. Younger audiences often turn to the Internet for news updated continuously throughout the day. However, local papers have the clear advantage when it comes to covering community news. They often have more emphasis on features and include plenty of photos of local people and families.
As a non-profit, the paper cannot be sold, should a newspaper group ever see the ad revenues and income demographics of Carlisle as an attractive prospect, observed general manager Susan Emmons. The U.S. Census ranks Carlisle's median income of $129,811 in 2000 as number three in the state. With disposable income to spend, businesses in surrounding towns see the benefits of placing ads in the Mosquito.
Ads, donations provide revenue
The Mosquito operates through revenue it receives from two sources: advertisements and donations from the community. The paper is totally independent of the Carlisle town government and receives no financial support from it. Advertising accounts for 80-85% of the paper's revenue, with reader donations making up the remainder. The Mosquito is proud of the high participation rate of its readership: about one-third of households in town send in a donation to the paper's annual fund drive each year.
Not surprisingly, from a glance through the paper, real estate agencies are the largest advertisers. "Retail businesses in other towns also place ads in the Mosquito because they like that it reaches every household in town," says Emmons.
However, with the economy slowing, ads have also slowed down, says ad representative Marcy Guttadauro. The paper size reduces accordingly in weeks when there are fewer ads. It now averages 16 pages, down from 20 or 24 pages when there are lots of ads from area businesses. Production manager Penny Zezima says that 16-page papers are likely to continue for awhile, until advertising picks up again. The smaller editions may have shorter articles and she says, "While news can't be held, there will be probably be fewer features per issue."
Many for-profit papers have more ads than articles. As a non-profit, the Mosquito has guidelines in place to keep ads from outnumbering articles in its pages. The ad space policy says the paper should be "...approximately one-third advertising to two-thirds editorial space (non-ad space), with display ads occupying no more than one-half of any one issue."
Advertising policy also prohibits any ads on the first or second pages of the Mosquito. Discreet ads have started to appear on the bottom front pages of suburban and city newspapers around the country. The front-page ads are a source of new revenue to newspapers in a time of declining advertising.
Though the paper is free to all residents, it does sell out-of-town subscriptions, often to people either moving into or out of Carlisle and to college students who want to keep in touch with hometown news. That can also raise funds.
The Mosquito celebrated its 30th anniversary on August 2 with an eight-page anniversary pull-out section printed without ads. A book highlighting the last 30 years in Carlisle as seen in the pages of the Mosquito is also planned to go on sale later this year as a fundraiser.
Volunteers and nearly volunteers
Probably the paper's most important resource is its human capital: the many volunteers and near-volunteers who work to put out the paper each week. Most staff work part-time. Some are volunteers and others are paid a wage; however, the pay is not market scale. Emmons sums up what makes the paper strong: "As long as there are people in town willing to work for the paper, there will be a paper."
All major committee and board meetings are covered by reporters selectmen, board of health, school committee, regional high school committee, conservation commission, planning board, and board of appeals. A reporter is often one of the few people attending the evening meetings. The articles reporters write give an account of what happened at the meetings, where so much town business is actually decided.
Seba Gaines, long-time reporter for the Carlisle Conservation Commission, says she joined the paper to get to know the town and people and because she's interested in environmental issues. Gaines, who has experience as a reporter for the New London Day, a daily in Connecticut, says she enjoys informing people on governmental issues and helping them to become active in their government.
Many people work in the Mosquito's office each Monday to Wednesday editing, proofreading, laying out copy, photos and ads and doing other production tasks. "There's a great esprit de corps at the paper," says Liteplo. "Many also feel they're making a contribution to the community."
Bea and Hal Shneider are mainstays in the Mosquito newsroom. Bea proofreads on Mondays and Tuesdays. Her experience with the paper goes back many years. Hal works on graphics, lay-out and page design. He uses Photoshop to edit photos and modify drawings and looks at articles to see if there is a quote, photo, or graphic to use to break up text and keep the pages visually interesting.
"There's a wonderful group of educated people working for the paper," Hal says, "We discuss what goes into the paper and what shouldn't go into it. The paper shouldn't be just a bulletin board where people send in what's happening. It expresses the points of view in town and we try to get a cross section of opinions."
The paper is always looking for people who can report on meetings or cover subjects of interest in town. For many, working for the Mosquito is their first time working for a newspaper. Mothers, retirees, and people who used to work full-time in corporations enjoy the flexibility of working for the paper part-time. Most reporters write their articles at home and e-mail them into the office. Reporters attend staff meetings during the year to brainstorm new story ideas for upcoming issues.
Reporter Cecile Sandwen, mother of two, enjoys the flexibility of the work and believes in the community-building aspects of the Mosquito. "In a town where there's no coffee shop, it's nice to know what's going on. I like making a real contribution to the community."
The Mosquito web site, www.carlislemosquito.org, was started last year by volunteers and now carries archives of all issues dating back through 2000. The web site also displays photos in color and some extra photos that don't fit into the printed version.
The paper also operates in part due to the generosity of those who have housed it over the years. The current spacious offices on Westford Street are leased from Carlisle residents Grant and Helene Wilson. Before that, offices were housed in the garage of former longtime resident and newspaper friend Mary Diment of South Street from 1983 until she passed away in 1998.
Local newspaper chains
Each of the town newspapers around Carlisle is owned by the Community Newspaper Corporation (CNC) including the Concord Journal, Acton Beacon, Bedford Minuteman, Billerica Minuteman, Chelmsford Independent and Westford Eagle. CNC was bought last year by Herald Media, Inc., owner of the Boston Herald.
CNC is a group of nearly 100 papers assembled by Fidelity Capital in the late '80s and early '90s when the mutual fund group acquired many suburban Boston papers. Its venture into the newspaper publishing business was not the best investment for Fidelity, because it did not see the revenues from advertisers it had anticipated. Fidelity did consolidate many local papers' departments under CNC, combining business such as classified ads, billing, and subscriptions, along with other positions to reduce operating costs.
In a Boston Business Journal editorial in February 2001, editor George Donnelly said the CNC newspapers have had problems due to "turnover and the pressure to cover more turf with fewer people."
The Concord Journal has three people covering Concord: an editor, a staff reporter, and a sports editor. Free-lance correspondents also contribute some articles to the Journal and production, ads and other business functions are shared with CNC's other papers. Though a direct comparison isn't possible because the Journal is part of a chain, the Carlisle Mosquito has a group of nearly 80 people associated with it, including writers, editors, photographers, advertising reps, production people, corporation and board members and others.
Kathleen Cordeiro, editor-in-chief of the northwest paper division of CNC, which has 19 papers including the Concord Journal, maintains that the papers have become more local since the Herald took over CNC from Fidelity. "Each paper is about its community. There's more of an emphasis on local news and on being a local paper." One of the benefits of having other sister papers within the CNC group, she said, is to take a good story idea from one paper and use it in another one, with reporters making the story local to their own town.
About 500 Carlisle residents also subscribe to the Journal for additional area news. Along with Concord news, the Journal covers major Carlisle events such as Town Meeting and the negotiations over the Concord-Carlisle Regional High School budget this year, along with some Carlisle features. The Journal costs $48 for an annual subscription.
Nashoba Publishing in Ayer is another chain that owns several weekly community papers in the north central Massachusetts towns of Ayer, Groton, Harvard, Pepperell, Shirley, and Townsend. The community papers share a lot of the same articles and the same editorials appear in each of the six weekly papers, giving the papers a regional, rather than a town, flavor. Nashoba Publishing itself is owned by a larger group, MediaNews of Denver, which also owns The Lowell Sun and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.
Harvard, Bolton papers close cousins to Mosquito
The Harvard Post and the Bolton Common are the papers that most closely resemble the Mosquito in look and spirit. The Post, a weekly along with its sister paper the Bolton Common, have a total circulation of 3,500 homes. Most subscribers get both the Harvard and Bolton papers. The towns each have populations close in size to Carlisle's approximately 5,000 residents and have similar high-income demographics. The papers are also folded-tabloid size and are printed at the same printer, Mass. Web in Auburn, as the Mosquito.
The Harvard Post and Bolton Common differ from the Mosquito in one important way: they are privately owned. Kathleen Cushman founded the papers along with Ed Miller in 1973 at about the same time the Mosquito was started. The papers operate on revenues from ads and from paid subscriptions, with the majority of their income coming from ads. As with Carlisle, there is very little industry in these towns; however, businesses in towns near Harvard and Bolton place ads in the papers.
Like the Mosquito, the Post and Common are staffed mostly by part-time people who cover board meetings and town events. Editor Bill Latimer says, "The people who write for the paper have a lot of community spirit. They're not doing it to make a living."
Latimer, who has been with the Post since 1988, says the papers are committed to community journalism and the concept of a free, independent press. Though there have been some inquiries from a buyer interested in purchasing the papers, he says the owner remains fiercely independent. "The papers are dedicated to small town, independent journalism. They were founded by people who were idealistic," he said. The editors wrote a book in 1978, How to Produce a Small Newspaper. Now out of print, it has been used by many communities starting newspapers of their own.
For local community coverage, nothing beats having a hometown paper. Wayne Davis of the Carlisle Conservation Foundation says, "The Mosquito makes us both a functioning community and a functioning democracy because no matter what your point of view, you can reach people."
Though newspapers are being bought up around New England and the country, many small town papers will remain independent for years because of their low operating costs, says Guenette of the New England Press Association. "The independent papers are a benefit to their readers. It's not all about making money."
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito