A sign that reads “Somewhere Worth Seeing” welcomes travelers to Ware, a faded mill town surrounded by the hills and steeples of western Massachusetts. But these days, hardly any news outlets find Ware worth a visit, even as its leaders wrangle over issues vital to its future.
Inside the brick, fortress-like Town Hall on a humid summer evening, Town Manager Stuart Beckley informed the five members of the Selectboard, Ware’s council, of an important proposal. A company was offering to buy Ware’s water and sewer services, which need tens of millions of dollars in upgrades. That’s a consequential choice for a town of 10,000 with an annual budget of $36 million. A sale would provide an infusion of $9.7 million. But private utilities often increase rates, raising the prospect that Ware’s many poor and elderly residents might face onerous bills down the road.
The Selectboard didn’t reach a consensus that night. Instead, one of the members berated Beckley for moving ahead with privatizing even though the position of town planner had been vacant since March. “We’ve been through four of them ... in less than six years,” Keith Kruckas said. “So we’re not going to blame it on COVID. We’re not going to blame it on other towns paying more money. We’re going to blame it on poor management.”
From there, the discussion descended into bickering between Kruckas and Beckley. “You’ve been harping all night, point after point after point,” Beckley said. “So is there anything that I do that you like?”
I thought Ware residents should know about the challenges their town faces and its decision-makers’ squabbling. But I was the only journalist among the six onlookers in the room, and I wasn’t there to cover the board. There was nobody from a daily newspaper in the area or from a television or radio station.
Decades ago, at least three outlets sent reporters to every session of Ware’s governing board: a weekly community paper, a local radio station and my old employer, the Daily News in Springfield, the third biggest city in Massachusetts. Daily News reporters covered towns throughout western Massachusetts and into northern Connecticut. The paper had a correspondent who focused on Ware and a few nearby towns, and he attended meetings of town officials from the Board of Assessors to the Cemetery Commission.
Today, Ware is close to becoming a news desert. Townspeople complain that the media have forgotten them, Beckley told me. What remains, he said, is “a lot of Facebook speculation, where people are guessing at the news. It’s quite rampant here.”
One reporter from the weekly paper, the Ware River News (circulation: 4,200), did watch the Selectboard meeting. Paula Ouimette caught it on Zoom because she was too busy to show up in person. Ouimette is also the paper’s editor, copy editor, proofreader, photographer and office manager, and she writes the police log. She fills similar roles for another weekly: the Quaboag Current. The papers cover a total of nine towns, and Ouimette said she can barely keep up. “If I tell people the hours I work,” she told me, “no one would enter this field.”
Ouimette wrote a summary of the meeting but said she hasn’t had the time or resources to take a comprehensive look at the pros and cons of privatizing, and what the experience of other towns has been. “It would make for an excellent story,” she said.
It’s no secret that local news is in an advanced state of decline. Since 1990, the number of newspaper employees in the U.S. has plunged from 455,000 to fewer than 90,000, even as the population has increased by a third. Repeated humiliations — most recently, a police raid on a Kansas weekly and the home of its publisher — underscore the reduced clout of newspapers.
Springfield, Massachusetts, exemplifies this trend. When I worked there from 1978 to 1981, it had two newspapers, the Daily News and the Morning Union, with a combined circulation of 150,000. They have since merged into one paper, now called The Republican, which has an average daily print circulation of 14,560. The Daily News alone employed 85 reporters, editors and photographers, about four times as many journalists as The Republican has today.
“The industry has changed so much that 1980 might as well have been 1880,” Jack Flynn, a reporter for the Daily News and its successors for 42 years, told me.
Many observers have lamented the damage wrought to communities by the diminishing of newspapers, from reduced civic engagement to the failure to hold corrupt or incompetent officials accountable. Amid a constant assault of dubious information on social media, people often know less, and consequently care less, about their local government than they once did.
As they vanish, local newspapers are taking on a halo of everything that used to be good about America. They’ve come to symbolize not just halcyon days of neighborly virtues — imagine “It’s a Wonderful Life” if Jimmy Stewart played the editor of the Bedford Falls paper — but the very “bedrock of American democracy.”
If my own experience was any indication, the reality was considerably more complicated. The Springfield Daily News didn’t always fulfill its watchdog role. Like a doting parent, it lavished attention on its community, but sometimes with a paternalism that chose to conceal problems in the service of what it thought was a broader good. The same focus that inundated readers with information about every committee meeting, crime and high school football game fostered a certain coziness with the area’s power players. Boosterism and conflicts of interest occasionally interfered with telling the full story. It’s possible we would have done a searching examination of a plan to privatize Ware’s water system — unless we risked offending a powerful local figure or business interest.
Mark Marchand had his reality check in the summer of 1981. Marchand, who covered the middle-class suburb of Agawam for the Daily News, learned that some airplane hobbyists were upset that tiny Bowles Airport, where they flew their two- and four-seat propeller planes, was about to close to make room for an industrial park. Marchand talked to them and filed a story reflecting their concern that they wouldn’t be able to find hangar space nearby.
That afternoon, Marchand recalled, he was surprised to learn that Richard Garvey, the Daily News’ top editor, was looking at his draft. It wasn’t the kind of big scoop that Garvey normally reviewed before publication. But, without talking to Marchand, he rewrote it. “Developer Ready to Invest in Bowles Airport” ran the next day, under Marchand’s byline, touting the industrial park plan. It didn’t quote a single airplane owner.
Marchand inferred the reason for the revised framing of the story from Garvey’s final paragraph. (Garvey, like many people in this article, is deceased.) It noted that the site of the potentially lucrative development was owned by the company that published the Springfield newspapers. “I was inconsolable,” Marchand told me. “Very embarrassed. None of the plane owners called me after that.”
I belong to the Watergate generation. I was 15 when the White House Plumbers broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, 17 when President Richard Nixon resigned and about to turn 19 when the film “All the President’s Men” dramatized the exploits of Washington Post investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
I yearned to emulate them and was the recipient of what today might be considered an unneeded leg up. Ben Bradlee, the Post’s illustrious executive editor of Watergate fame, was on a list of Harvard alumni offering career advice to aspiring journalists from his alma mater. After I graduated, in 1978, I went to see him in the Post newsroom, which looked a lot like it did in the movie. Bradlee glanced at my resume, which listed my experience as a reporter for two summers at my hometown semiweekly, and growled, “What the hell is the Amherst Record?” He briefly raised my hopes by saying he might “hide” me on some inconspicuous beat at the Post, but an assistant shook her head.
Bradlee urged me to find a reporting job in the grittiest, seamiest city I could find, so I could learn firsthand about power and corruption in America. He said his own son, Ben Bradlee Jr., had started his career in Riverside, California.
The newspaper where my former Amherst Record editor was working, and had offered me an internship, fit Bradlee’s specifications. “How about Springfield, Massachusetts?” I asked.
“Perfect,” Bradlee said.
In those days and for decades after, jobs at local newspapers were seen as an invaluable training ground, an irreplaceable mix of apprenticeship and hazing. They taught the kind of tradecraft that wasn’t part of any journalism school curriculum. Reporters fresh out of college learned to high-tail it to a fire or shooting; to buttonhole officials before and after public meetings; to take notes in pencil outdoors in winter, because ink congeals in the cold; and to meet deadlines and word limits. They learned, along with their readers, about the people and institutions they covered.
And so it would be for me — that is, if I could pass the typing test. The sole prerequisite to be hired as a reporter by the Springfield Daily News was the ability to type at least 50 words a minute on an electric typewriter. The test crushed the hopes of many promising candidates, including Larry Parnass, who interviewed for a job in 1977. He barely missed the cutoff, managing 47 words a minute. Parnass deferred his journalism dreams to work as a Midwest salesman for Oxford University Press. He later became a reporter and editor and finally got a job in Springfield this year, as The Republican’s executive editor. Nobody checked his typing this time around.
Fortunately, my fingers were up to the challenge and I passed the test. In August 1978, I joined the Daily News. An afternoon paper, it pumped out six editions a day for readers from Enfield, Connecticut, to Massachusetts suburbs like Westfield and Agawam. “Late City,” with a noon deadline for copy, was for Springfield itself. Each edition carried a “Hometown” section with news and advertising aimed at places like Ware and its surrounding communities.
Springfield, best known as the birthplace of basketball and of Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, was a city of 150,000 on the Connecticut River. Once a thriving manufacturing center, which produced the Springfield rifles used in the Civil War and both world wars as well as the Indian motorcycle, it had never recovered from the Great Depression. I rented an apartment on a street that was halfheartedly trying to gentrify and rolled out of bed at 6:30 every morning to get to the office by the 7 a.m. starting time.
The bustling newsroom, which Daily News and Union staff shared, was as big as a supermarket. The air was filled with cigarette smoke and the racket of clattering typewriters, editors yelling reminders of how many minutes to deadline, phones ringing, static from police scanners and the occasional thunk of a chair thrown in anger.
My 33 months there, first as an intern and then as a general assignment reporter, provided an intensive course in local coverage. I interviewed victims of welfare cuts, evictions and police brutality. I covered anti-nuclear protests, visiting celebrities (novelist Norman Mailer, activist Abbie Hoffman, baseball slugger Hank Aaron), a tornado and a plane crash where I saw a dead body for the first time. I profiled outstanding high school seniors, a centenarian, a whittler and a slippery real estate developer who I described as walking “a tightrope of debts and dreams.”
The first and most important principle: News events — even distant ones with no connection to the region we covered — had to be given a “Springfield angle.” So when the Mount St. Helens volcano erupted 3,000 miles away in Washington state, killing 57 people, I was assigned to write a feature about the prospects for a similar disaster in Massachusetts. A phone call to a geologist ascertained that since the state has no volcanoes, we had nothing to worry about. I thought I was off the hook, but editors wanted the story anyway. It ran with a huge photo of volcanic ash billowing from Mount St. Helens, under the headline, “It can’t happen here.”
The Daily News had a proud history. It was founded as The Penny News in 1880 by two brothers, Charles and Edward Bellamy. Edward would go on to write one of the biggest-selling American novels of the 19th century, “Looking Backward,” which envisioned a socialist utopia. From the 1920s, the same local company owned the News and the Union. But they competed for scoops and endorsed opposing candidates, enabling Springfield residents to buy a paper that agreed with their politics — or complain about one that didn’t.
Newhouse Newspapers acquired the Springfield papers in 1966. Back then, big chains competed to buy local papers because they were so profitable. In 1973, the Daily News broke one of its biggest stories: that the Pentagon planned to close Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, where bombers were stationed during the Cold War and returning prisoners of war from Vietnam were reunited with their families.
“Newspapers had the resources for intensively local coverage,” recalled Steve Newhouse, who worked as a reporter and copy editor for the Union from 1979 to 1982. The grandson of S.I. Newhouse, founder of the newspaper group, he now chairs its digital arm. “You needed to do editions to serve local advertisers. It really worked out nicely.”
Despite its local focus, the Daily News staff didn’t reflect Springfield’s increasing diversity. The city was 26% Black and Hispanic in 1980, but the newspaper was overwhelmingly white. Dorothy Clark, who came in 1979, was the only Black reporter “for a few years at least,” she recalled recently. Journalism jobs were hard to come by for people of color, so, after graduating from the University of Massachusetts, Clark had resigned herself to a job as a hotel desk clerk. Then one of her journalism teachers, who was also a Daily News reporter, recommended her for a reporting position. Besides covering elder affairs, “I did dig into a lot of stories related to African American history,” she said. “That was a personal interest.”
About half of the news reporters were women, but the editors were almost all men. Generationally, the newsroom was divided between ambitious young reporters, who saw the Daily News as a stepping stone and were eager to make a splash, and lifers who at times seemed threatened or annoyed by the upstarts. “There was reverse prejudice toward me that I’d gone to Smith,” a prestigious women’s college near Springfield, recalled Kim Hessberg, who later became director of public relations at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Sam Hoffman, movie critic and Chicopee bureau chief, was more welcoming to the younger crowd. But another side of Hoffman emerged when I filled in for him once in Chicopee, just north of Springfield. It was a slow day until someone showed up with a wedding or engagement announcement, and gave me the details along with a $5 bill.
Surprised, I waved off the money. “It’s free,” I said.
“That’s funny,” he said. “Sam charges five bucks.”
Much of the staff enjoyed another perk. The Eastern States Exposition, a 17-day annual fair in West Springfield, provided a hefty roll of free tickets to the Daily News, which covered the “Big E” as assiduously as London newspapers cover a coronation. The publicity included a daily listing of events, front-page articles touting record-breaking attendance and frequent features.
When fewer free tickets filtered down to the newsroom one year, city editor Jim Powers was livid. He assigned our premier investigative reporter, Ed Fogarty, to dig into the fair. “We were going to crack open the story,” Fogarty recalled recently. “Whatever it was.” But he couldn’t find any impropriety — unless you count the free tickets.
My former Amherst Record boss, John Bart, headed the Daily News copy desk. As he showed me around on my first day, he nodded toward Fogarty and said approvingly, “He’ll ask anybody anything.”
I hoped to be praised similarly someday. But my early assignments were light features: a horse-drawn covered wagon that passed through town, a couple who were married in a balloon. I snuck into fraternity parties to compare real-life drunken hijinks with those in a hit film, “Animal House.”
A white-haired copy editor named Austin Kenefick noticed my efforts and wrote a gracious note. Much as minor-league teammates revered catcher Crash Davis in “Bull Durham” because he had spent 21 days in the big leagues, Austin was respected by colleagues because he had worked as a reporter for The Washington Post — until, he recalled recently, he forgot to make a standard check for police news one night. The Post missed the capture of a notorious criminal. Kenefick was fired, and he ended up in Springfield.
“This is a very frustrating game,” Kenefick wrote. “You won’t be given enough time to go over a favorite piece ‘one more time.’ You will have to write with incomplete information. The printers, or layout man, or copy-cutter, or someone, will lose that critical, qualifying, third paragraph. Withal, there is nothing else quite like newspapering … and the strong ones, the resilient ones, the persevering ones, benefit and grow and prosper.”
I worried that the editors on the city desk didn’t trust me to cover news. I tried to impress them, and allay any resentment of my Ivy League degree, by working extra hard. My shift ended at 3 p.m., but I often hung around the newsroom afterward, looking for an opportunity. One came on election night in 1978. The editors had neglected to assign anyone to the local campaign of an underdog candidate for the U.S. Senate, Paul Tsongas. When early returns showed him winning, I rushed to his victory party, interviewed his campaign manager and others, hurried back to the newsroom and wrote my first lead front-page story.
That same fall, a seemingly trivial assignment would turn into another break — one that would help propel me from intern to staff reporter. The kindly assistant city editor, Ab Hachadourian, asked me one day to find out what home heating oil would cost that winter.
This was not a subject I was familiar with. But the Yellow Pages contained a sizable roster of home heating oil dealers, and I began calling them. They told me that they expected the price per gallon, then 50 cents, to skyrocket. I wrote a story reflecting their prediction. Hachadourian promptly stashed it in his desk. I didn’t ask why, but Daily News editors tended to err on the side of timidity. Hachadourian probably felt that if such important news was happening, a 21-year-old intern wouldn’t be among the first to find out.
I was disappointed. But the dealers were right; in fact, the price would climb to 84 cents the following fall. Soon major newspapers vindicated me by proffering similarly dire assessments. I freshened up my draft with a new angle — that the oil price hike would popularize wood-burning stoves — and Hachadourian ran it.
Suddenly I was the Daily News’ energy expert. Calling the U.S. Department of Energy, I was shuttled to an official who suggested chatting off the record. I was thrilled. Woodward and Bernstein had their Deep Throat, who had guided the Post’s Watergate investigation from the shadows of a parking garage (and decades later was revealed to be a top FBI official). Now I had my own!
Fed up with government policy, my source anticipated widespread gasoline shortages. I channeled his alarm in such articles as “‘Gas’ Demand Could Result in Major Shortage: Station Closings, Shorter Hours Loom.”
Some nerve-wracking moments ensued. A press official from the Department of Energy guessed my source’s identity and warned me not to trust him. But Deep Oil proved prescient. By the next spring, some states were rationing gasoline, service stations were reducing hours or closing, and cars were lining up around the block to refuel. I reported the story day after day, on an almost gas-station-by-gas-station basis. At the peak of the crisis, I called stations in northern Connecticut as soon as I got to work, asked how long the lines were, and filed a story for the Connecticut edition’s 8 a.m. deadline. Then I phoned stations in Palmer and Ware, and folded the new material into the existing story. I did the same for the other four editions, pushing Connecticut further down until it dwindled to a couple of paragraphs at the bottom of the Late City version. It was the ultimate realization of local coverage: the same news, rejiggered for each circulation zone.
I usually wrote fast, oblivious to distractions. But once I froze on deadline. As the minutes ticked by, assistant managing editor Wayne Phaneuf, a restless dynamo with a Mark Twain mustache, hovered, waiting for my copy. Finally he said to no one in particular, loud enough so I would overhear, “Wouldn’t you think a Harvard graduate would know how to tell time?”
Every morning, stringers — reporters who weren’t on staff — would call the city room from nearby towns, looking to dictate their stories to someone. And when the caller was Brad Smith from Ware, 25 miles northeast of Springfield, I often volunteered. Tapping out his prose on an IBM Selectric typewriter, and getting to know Ware’s personalities and problems through his eyes, it felt almost as if I were covering the town myself.
Bradley F. Smith was one of the Daily News’ most prolific bylines. He wrote mainly for the Metro edition, which covered Ware, Palmer and the nearby hill towns, though if the stories were important enough, they ran in every edition. He was well sourced in Ware, and he delivered plenty of scoops. After a fire destroyed two businesses in a former mill complex, putting 125 people out of work, he broke news on the arson investigation and insurance negotiations. Another child of Watergate, Smith enjoyed chiding town officials. If the town of Ware had considered selling its utilities on his watch, he told me recently, “I would have looked a lot deeper.”
But municipal meetings were his mainstay. Since he was paid by the number of meetings he covered and column inches he generated, he subjected readers to all of them: Selectboard, School Committee, Finance Committee, Board of Assessors, Conservation Commission, Cemetery Commission, Parks and Recreation, and more.
“I can remember driving to three towns in one night on a regular basis to get to three or four meetings,” recalled Smith, who’s now a drummer in Florida. “Then I’d write the stories until midnight.” By covering so many meetings, Smith became the first Daily News stringer to earn more than $1,000 a month, equivalent to about $3,500 today. Then, as now, local news was not known for lavish salaries.
We called it the “Springfield Journalism Revue.” Most Friday afternoons, Phaneuf and a group of reporters would unwind at the Hotel Charles on Main Street. The Charles, which burned down in 1988, was a rundown relic of Springfield’s glory years, with a grandiose lobby, mildewed burgundy carpeting, cheap food and flat beer.
We had a regular table and the waitress would ignore our sometimes unruly carousing. Everybody had to buy a round. I was a slow drinker, so four or five beers would soon be lined up next to the one I was nursing. Somebody always drank them.
Most Journalism Revue participants were young reporters, eager to soak up lore from Phaneuf and his pals. One veteran political reporter, Don Ebbeling, often regaled us with the latest sexual and financial shenanigans at City Hall or the Statehouse. But he rarely included such juicy fare in his column, “People and Politics,” As dry as a train schedule, it listed fundraisers, retirement parties and the like. A typical item: “State Sen. John P. Burke, D-Holyoke, chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, will be holding office hours in Holyoke and Westfield on April 11.”
At first I wondered if Ebbeling was too old school to divulge secrets, or couldn’t nail them down, or feared losing access. Then a simpler explanation occurred to me: perhaps that the paper’s bigwigs liked his column the way it was. They tolerated Smith’s assaults on officials in an outlying small town, but they didn’t want such scathing scrutiny of Springfield’s politicians and businesses.
David Starr, a Newhouse executive and publisher of the Springfield papers, didn’t subscribe to the post-Watergate ethos of adversarial journalism. He believed the papers’ primary purpose was to guide and collaborate with city leaders. The bow-tied Starr was president of a downtown redevelopment organization and a political kingmaker. “He felt that if the papers were going to be a success, Springfield had to be a success,” Phaneuf told me.
Starr once wrote that urban revitalization depended on a “true working partnership” between elected officials, businesspeople and media. But less advantaged groups often felt left out of the partnership. “We still deal with the impression that this newspaper is in bed with the power structure in Springfield,” Parnass, The Republican’s executive editor, told me. “I don’t want to be chums with anybody.”
After two Hispanic residents complained within a week in March 1980 that police had bashed their heads in, a colleague and I began exploring police brutality in Springfield. During our reporting, I learned that Springfield received 102 brutality complaints in 1979, far more than comparable cities, and hadn’t disciplined a single officer. Those findings became the core of a four-part series, sealed by a powerful quotation supplied by Hampden County’s crusty district attorney, Matthew Ryan Jr.: “It irks me when a man of average size or smaller with his head bandaged like a swami is brought in by a six-foot, 200 pound policeman with a gun who doesn’t have a mark on him and says he was assaulted.” The editors let the series run largely as written, albeit with a weak title: “Police Brutality: Fact or Fiction?”
Ryan had his own dark side, though you wouldn’t read much about it in the Daily News. Soon after I left the paper to work at The Boston Globe, a political foe accused Ryan of protecting a mobbed-up friend, John Francis McCarthy, who allegedly shot at two police officers. I decided to poke around. I drove to Springfield and examined documents in the county courthouse — Ryan’s domain — before heading to McCarthy’s bar, The Keg Room. When I introduced myself, McCarthy said, “I heard you were looking up my file.” He then walked away, communicating that the conversation was over. I ignored the hint and followed him to the basement of the bar. McCarthy turned to face me. He was known as “Ox,” and from his massive dimensions and menacing air, the nickname appeared apt. As I gamely tried to question him, he hoisted a large bag of ice and began pouring a cascade of cubes closer and closer to my feet. Belatedly realizing that our dialogue was unlikely to be productive, I retreated up the stairs and returned to Boston.
In 1990, the Globe reported that Ryan had “intervened repeatedly” in cases “in ways that benefited Mafia figures and their associates.” Editors at the Union-News — the Daily News and the Union had merged in 1987 — conceded that they had been aware of Ryan’s Mafia associations but didn’t run the damaging material because it couldn’t be substantiated. Ebbeling told the Globe that the Daily News had killed negative stories he had written about Ryan dating back to the late 1960s.
I hadn’t known about the history between the Daily News and Ryan, and wondered if I had benefited from it. If the paper hadn’t been so kind to Ryan, perhaps the DA would’ve been less inclined to help a young reporter — me — by denouncing police abuse.
The newspaper still occupies the same building, on Main Street in Springfield, that it did when I worked there. But part of the first floor, where the business offices used to be, is now a marijuana dispensary.
The odor of cannabis wafted up the back stairs toward the cavernous, second-floor newsroom. There I saw the ghosts of editors past: Garvey humming happily as he strode past my desk; Carroll Robbins, the dour managing editor, scolding me for misusing a semicolon; Powers, long-faced and grumpy, handing me an obituary that a reporter had written for herself before she died of cancer, and ordering me to pare it down.
Parnass showed me his “time capsule”: ancient newspapers retrieved from unoccupied desks that he cleaned out when he arrived in February. The Springfield newspapers used to be “the primary generator of news for the four western Massachusetts counties,” he told me. “It is not that organization any longer. … At some point in the future, this newspaper can’t defy what’s happening everywhere: the diminution of print.”
The picture is not entirely grim. Several sources supplement The Republican’s revenue and readership. Its presses print 141 other publications from Maine to Pennsylvania. The company owns a chain of 12 free community weeklies that mostly sell ads to “tiny guys that never would advertise in The Republican,” publisher and CEO George Arwady told me. MassLive, an online outlet of Newhouse’s Advance Local, is growing statewide, he said. Articles by The Republican’s staff appear first on MassLive. Both the weeklies and MassLive also have their own reporters. “We’re doing just fine,” Arwady said. “More people read our journalism today than ever, even when you were here.”
The Republican still produces significant work, especially about my old preoccupation, police brutality. Its reporting helped spur a 2020 U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found that the Springfield Police Narcotics Bureau engaged “in a practice or pattern of using excessive force.” Two years later, under a consent decree with the Justice Department, the city agreed to improve training and supervision.
Stephanie Barry, an investigative reporter who leads the police brutality coverage, said she appreciates Arwady’s exertions to keep The Republican afloat. “I would hate to see the paper fold,” she said. “It would break my heart. But if I’m still doing journalism, whether digital or in print, it’s all about the work for me.” For now, at least, she can still do that at a daily paper.