Friday, May 23, 2003
Tough times for small newspapers
For the past 30 years the Harvard Post and the Bolton Common were owned and run by Kathleen Cushman of Harvard. They were two community newspapers, much like the Mosquito in format, content, and spirit, that chronicled the people and events in their small towns. Recently we noticed some changes. Some of the same reports would run in both papers; ads began to fill a very large portion of each page, crowding out the stories and photos. Last month both newspapers were sold to Herald Media Inc., which owns the Boston Herald and the Community Newspaper Company, publisher of 100-plus local papers in Massachusetts, including the Concord Journal and the local newspapers in all our surrounding towns.
It is easy to see why this consolidation is happening all over New England. Publishing a small-town weekly is not the road to riches. Personnel, printing and distribution costs can be very heavy for a newspaper with a necessarily small circulation. Subscriptions and advertising revenues are rarely or barely enough.
What happens when a local paper becomes part of a conglomerate? From an editor's viewpoint, decision-making authority moves far away from the community office. From a reader's viewpoint the number of local stories diminishes as the number of local reporters is cut. By the way, the CNC Web site lists the Concord Journal as serving Concord and Carlisle.
The Mosquito is fortunate that our local and regional advertisers see Carlisle as a wealthy town where advertising is cost-effective. But the Mosquito could not afford to publish 16- to 24-page issues if we had to live on advertising revenues alone. (Subscription revenues, of course, are exactly $0.)
The Mosquito survives and thrives only because of the contributions of time and money of Carlisle residents. Perhaps because every mailbox in town receives the Mosquito, we enjoy very broad support. Over 50 people contribute directly to its publication, in both its paper and Web editions (www.carlislemosquito.org), as reporters, typists, editors, proofreaders, photographers and technology specialists. There is a team that downloads e-mails on Tuesday morning, another that delivers the paper to the Carlisle Post Office on Thursday, another that spends hours putting the new issue up on the Web. While most Mosquito reporters are paid for their stories, the hourly rate is less than what teenagers earn for babysitting. Others contribute their time. In addition, our annual fundraiser brings in about 20% of our annual income. Approximately one-third of Carlisle households contribute an average of $25-50. This is awesome community support. We are also grateful to many others, including our landlord Grant Wilson, who allows us to rent a wonderful office complex in his building, and Tim Pierce who contributes Web server space.
The Carlisle Mosquito could not exist without this community effort. And maybe Carlisle would be different if our only local newspaper were the CNC Carlisle Journal.
In our back yard
A few days before Town Meeting, I had the pleasure of hearing Judge Guido Calabresi of the Second Circuit speak on equality. Early in his career Judge Calabresi clerked for the Supreme Court during the era in which desegregation cases were making history. He recounted a dramatic moment during an oral argument in a case that determined whether the National Guard could be called in to enforce an order allowing blacks to attend public school. At one point, one of the justices asked the lawyer defending the case, "Would you concede that the presence of soldiers in the classroom compromises education?" The lawyer, who was not used to public speaking and trembled through most of his presentation, stepped back from the podium and slowly turned around three times before he replied, "Yes, and I further concede that the presence of soldiers could compromise life itself. But there is something more precious than life and that is equality."
At the risk of shifting too abruptly from the sublime to the ridiculous, the next point Judge Calabresi made turned my thoughts toward cell towers. Equality, the judge said, is easy to espouse when it is someone else's first grader who is learning to read in the shadow of a soldier holding a gun. In other words, it's simple to support a common good if someone else pays for it. When I personally feel the sacrifice, when the burden falls in my back yard, then how willingly do I embrace the common good? Think of the rancor described by Anthony Lukas in Common Ground because a judge living in Wellesley dictated the terms of school integration in Boston. We don't have court-ordered busing or the threat of violence in the Carlisle Public School, but we do have what amounts to a federal mandate for cell towers.
Most public goods are recognized in Carlisle. Many people who never set foot on an athletic field nevertheless supported the Banta-Davis project. Older citizens continue to support public education. Private donations of Halloween candy to town center residents offset the disproportionately heavy ghost and goblin traffic in this neighborhood. But the price of candy is small potatoes compared to the touted economic harm of a cell tower close to your house.
The town probably needs no more than a handful of cell towers to satisfy its coverage obligations under the law. Rather than breathing a sigh of relief if our immediate neighborhood doesn't happen to be prime cell tower real estate, perhaps we should devise some method of compensating the few people who are sharply affected. If the tower site happens to be located on private (or even town-owned) land, well that's great for the owner who collects the rent, but what about the neighbor who gets nothing but a view of the tower?
As far as I can tell, no one lives on the wrong side of the tracks in Carlisle. We are equal in that we all live in nice neighborhoods. Shouldn't satisfaction of the town's legal obligations at least be economically neutral to everyone in town? Isn't there a moral responsibility to prevent some neighborhoods from being more equal than others?
© 2003 The