Journalism that’s still alive and well

Once a journalist, always a journalist … so BoomerCafé’s co-founder and publisher David Henderson found it to be irresistible to visit one of America’s most celebrated newspapers during a recent trip to Martha’s Vineyard. And, he had a chance to chat with the publisher.

The newsroom back at CBS News when I worked there never looked like this. The newsroom at The Washington Post back in the glory days of Watergate never looked like this. So baby boomers take some comfort …

Despite all the attention these days on the internet and all the focus on diminishing audiences for television stations around the country and, for that matter, all the noise about “fake news,” I visited a newsroom that is alive and well and working out of a remodeled and updated house that dates back more than 250 years. A real newsroom in small town Edgartown, Massachusetts.  Nothing fake about it. 

The Vineyard Gazette’s newsroom early on a Tuesday morning.

It’s the Vineyard Gazette on Martha’s Vineyard. The paper was founded in 1846. And, despite the paper’s relatively small size — a staff of 30 and weekly circulation of 12,000 — it has a reputation that’s both legendary and respected in the newspaper industry.

The house, now owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, was built in the 1760s by Benjamin Smith, a militia captain in the Revolutionary War. Home to the Gazette since 1938, the building still retains eight original fireplace mantels and brick hearths, wide pine flooring, and wainscoting trim on the walls.

The Vineyard Gazette

In 2010, Jerome and Nancy Kohlberg, longtime seasonal island residents and quiet philanthropists, bought the newspaper with the stated goal of preserving its high standards of community journalism into the future. The Kohlbergs hired Jane Seagrave, an Associated Press executive in New York, as its publisher in 2011.

Jane Seagrave, publisher of the Vineyard Gazette.

Seagrave — who was born right in the middle of the boomer generation — told me she had been looking at what the next step in her career would be. She was thinking long term— beyond her demanding responsibilities at the AP. She had a tough commute from her home in Philadelphia where her husband was a university journalism professor.

“In newspaper circles it’s (the Gazette) legendary. The idea of joining it was a fantasy, a dream come true,” Seagrave told me. Besides, she had grown up in New England, a region that is “part of my soul.” Everything about the job at the Gazette appealed to her.

She and her husband visited Edgartown in the cold of January … walked down a quiet street with its historic houses, gas lights, snow on the ground … and, they had the same reaction. It was a perfect place for the next chapter in their lives.

“What’s happened to the news media in America and what news outlets can be trusted?” I asked.

Seagrave’s response was clear, incisive, and reflected a veteran in journalism.

“It’s kind of a terrifying time in media. The democratization of distribution channels though the internet has allowed anyone to say anything and for it to be spread around without regard to its factual basis … and that’s a huge problem.

“You are in a better situation at a local newspaper where you are probably running into the people you report on at the grocery store. I would like to say I would never have come here if it were not on an island, off the mainland, and with a tradition of respect for the media, a lot of people who care very deeply about quality, literature, and writing. Our (Martha’s Vineyard) audience is unusual that way.

“I think community newspapers will endure because they have to be responsive to the community. And you hear about it if what you are reporting is wrong or unfair or selective. You hear about it instantly.

“It is a challenge … some of the things happening at other newspapers is happening to us. Advertising is moving out of newspapers. People seem to be getting their information on Facebook. There are a number of trends that affect us. We’ve held on because we do have a community of readers and advertisers to support us, partly because we’ve been here for many years but we also spend a lot of time giving back to the community in other ways. Sponsoring events, having open forums, things that are important to the community,” Seagrave said.

Jane Seagrave holding a rolled newspaper and accompanied by some of the Gazette staff during a holiday parade.

The Gazette is a weekly newspaper. The 45-year-old Goss newspaper press, located in a garage structure connected to the 250-year-old house, rumbles into action every Thursday night. And Jane Seagrave is there with her staff to see another edition of the Vineyard Gazette come to life.

“Few newspapers still have a press on site, and I feel so lucky that the entire production of the paper begins and ends here, because you can really see the product of everyone’s work.”

“It’s part of what we do — we are employing people to print the paper, to deliver the paper, to report the news … we are an integral part of the community. So, watching the paper come off the press is sort of a coup de grâce of doing good work … sort of an exclamation point that I didn’t have at the AP.”

Seagrave has found that publishing the Vineyard Gazette is her ideal career-capper. It’s like being the conductor of a small orchestra with two of every instrument with every personality type doing many things, she told me.

I came away admiring Seagrave’s good fortune at this stage of her life … to depart from the rat race of the big city and take over the helm of a famed journalistic enterprise located on one of America’s most beautiful islands. That’s called baby boomer good fortune in my book.

[Editor’s note: The Vineyard Gazette’s website is updated several times each day, and a terrific read.]

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