by Bella Ishanyan and Matan Josephy, Centerfold Editors
graphic by Adrienne Lirio
When the Newton Tab announced the end of its print circulation on March 16, a city of 87,000 found itself without a full-time local newspaper for the first time in nearly a century and a half.
Years of financial failure culminated in the Tab’s incorporation into the corporate news website Wicked Local, drastically limiting its coverage and combining it with dozens of other municipalities. While limited reporting from The Boston Globe has persisted, the loss of local journalism within the Garden City has led to an erosion of trust in Newton’s politics, community and government.
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The Death of the Tab
The death of Newton’s newspapers came not with a bang, but with a slow decline. Newton’s legacy of local journalism has shrunk steadily since its peak nearly half a century ago.
According to records from the Newton Free Library, the first local newspaper in Newton was the Newton Journal, founded in 1866. Quickly followed by the Newton Republican in 1873 and the Newton Graphic in 1882, the Journal kicked off the golden era of journalism in Newton.
Until the Graphic shut down in 1997, Newton went over a century with at least two local newspapers covering the city simultaneously. The Tab, founded in 1979, utilized its free delivery and print services to steadily monopolize competition and become the last paper standing.
In 1996, the Tab merged into the Community Newspaper Company, owned by publishing giant GateHouse Media Inc. By the mid-2000s, it was recognized among the largest and most profitable of GateHouse’s newspapers in the region.
Greg Reibman, current president of the Charles River Regional Chamber and former Vice President of Content and Partnerships for GateHouse’s Massachusetts publications, said that he sees the decline as a long-term fall from grace from the paper’s peak around the turn of the 21st century.
“The Newton Tab had five reporters, full-time, to cover news,” Reibman, who also served as editor-in-chief and then publisher of the Tab, said. “There was an editor, there was someone dedicated just to come into schools, there was someone dedicated just to cover City Hall, there was somebody writing feature stories.”
The Tab’s robust reporting extended well into Newton’s political scene. Prominent politicians like former Mayor Setti Warren, who served from 2010 to 2018, forged a longstanding relationship with its reporters that often brought the inner workings of City Hall to the front steps of readers’ homes.
Aaron Goldman, current Associate Director of Communication and Engagement at Harvard University, worked in several capacities within the Warren administration. He said the strength of the Tab’s reporting was felt deep within city government throughout the eight years he worked within it.
“[The Tab] was everywhere,” he said. “They came into the office and interviewed the Mayor on the record once a week, every week. They covered press conferences, they held interviews, they had sources. It was a real, serious operation.”
As time went on, Goldman said, the Tab’s quality declined substantially ― a phenomenon that many community stakeholders, like Ward 6 City Councilor Brenda Noel, attribute to long-term cuts in reporting driven by corporate decision-making.
“The Tab didn’t die overnight,” Noel said. “Gatehouse Media, [the Newton Tab’s former corporate parent], had pulled money from the Tab for years … it was losing its effectiveness long before it shut down because of the pullback of reporters and the pullback of financing.”
Ward 6 At-Large City Councilor Alicia Bowman, who worked at Fidelity Investments throughout its mass buy-up of local newspapers in the 1990s, said that the same corporate cuts and consolidation principles seen nationwide drove the Tab out of business.
“It was a push to make [the Tab] profitable, and have them fit into a sort of standard return model,” Bowman said.
The decline of local press outlets like the Tab is far from unique to Newton. Research from The Washington Post found that more than 2,200 local print newspapers shuttered operations between 2005 and 2021, meaning that approximately one local paper shut down every three days. As much as this trend extended to Newton, so too did its consequences.
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The Bigger Picture
As the final edition of the local paper landed on front lawns last May, Newton entered an era with little precedent; where the city’s local press once shined a light on the inner workings of government and politics, the current lack of reporting has resulted in a decline in public confidence in elected officials, government workings and policy decisions.
A 2019 report by the Strauss Institute at the University of Texas at Austin found that closures of community newspapers directly correlated with lower local election turnout and competition. Adverse consequences like the expansion of governmental mismanagement and incumbency advantages within political races were found to increase as a result. In Newton, similar impacts are felt deep within the community.
Former Ward 2 City Councilor-at-Large Amy Mah Sangiolo said that the city government felt increasingly unaccountable and opaque throughout her tenure, which spanned from 1998 to 2017. Many of her and her colleagues’ voting records, Sangiolo said, remained uncovered by local media, leading to less public knowledge about elected officials’ standpoints, and, ultimately, a lessened sense of accountability.
Lisa Gordon, Executive Director of the Acton Food Pantry and longtime community activist in Newton, said that the pandemic exacerbated many issues of accountability.
“Because of the pandemic, many [public] meetings were held online,” she said. “Rather than being held as a community forum where people can see who’s involved or who’s attending, which is a natural outcome when people come together to go to public meetings, they put it on webinar view, so nobody knows who else is there. Nobody can interact with each other or have any kind of side conversations. It’s all orchestrated. ”
Such circumstances, Gordon said, have led to less public input in government processes.
However, Ward 1 Councilor-At-Large John Oliver said that the City Council still has a degree of accountability. Even without a local press, he said, councilors still work to hold each other accountable.
“The people who are going to hold me accountable, most directly and most frequently, are my other city councilors, whether they vote with me or against me or agree with what I think or don’t,” he said.
Still, Oliver said that he notices a lack of public attention towards the City Council.
“I feel like there are fewer people aware of what I’m doing,” he said.
Beyond political accountability and transparency, the ramifications of local journalism’s erosion within Newton extend to the core of city politics. As the city’s press whittles down, Gordon said that complex discussions and debates have become increasingly uninformed and polarized. She said that recent discussions surrounding Newton’s zoning policies provide an example of such a phenomenon.
“Rather than all of our councilors coming together to work out really great solutions for how we should move forward in Newton, it has cut down to being extremely divisive,” she said. “If there were local press, we could get a greater diversity of opinion out there instead of really loud voices.”
Similarly, Ward 2 Councilor Emily Norton said that zoning is one such complex issue that remains unexplained in the absence of an independent journalistic establishment to cover it.
“[Village zoning] is really complicated. It’d be so great if a newspaper was reporting, ‘This is what’s under consideration, and this is why.’ Then everybody could be starting from the same set of facts. But that’s not happening,” she said.
NewtonSTEM chair Bruce Henderson said that such a reduction in information can lead to a more toxic political environment.
“With a lack of intelligent news coverage, you lose nuance,” he said. “And when you lose nuance, people tend to get on one side of the river or the other and yell at each other. It splits people apart.”
The end result, Goldman said, is that the public becomes less aware of what happens within their community.
“It’s incredibly important that every single person has access to information about what’s going on in the city … It doesn’t matter if your family has lived here for four generations or if you’ve been here for three weeks,” he said. “If you live in the city, you deserve to know what is going on in the city.”
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An Attempted Rewrite
With the collapse of dedicated journalism in Newton, private citizens, new nonprofits and elected officials have rushed to fill the information vacuum.
As independent outlets like the Tab became less accessible to the public, the burden of local government reporting shifted to politicians themselves. By The Roar’s count, nearly a dozen city councilors offer their own regular newsletters. Combined with Mayor Ruthanne Fuller’s own email list and the City Council’s official updates, Newton’s politicians have an established method of information dispersal ― one that has taken on even more significance amidst the collapse of outside coverage.
The differences between government sources and a proper citywide press remain apparent, and politicians who run such sources, like Norton, are aware of them. Norton said that, while she strives to keep her constituents informed, her coverage is limited to her own perspectives.
“I put out a newsletter once a month. It’s my slant,” she said. “I’m not an independent reporter, and I don’t pretend to be.”
In response, Sangiolo and Henderson founded Fig City News, an online, volunteer-run news resource. With its origins in her subscriber-based newsletter, Sangiolo said that Fig City News was born out of a public desire for comprehensive, unbiased news.
“I just wanted to make sure that people were informed about how they could participate and become more civically engaged,” she said.
While Fig City began with a focus on government meetings and reports that would have otherwise gone unnoticed by the general public, Henderson and Sangiolo eventually expanded its operations into coverage of Newton Public Schools, letters to the editor and community notices like obituaries.
Sangiolo said that a large part of Fig City’s mission is to make otherwise obscure or inaccessible information on Newton’s government easily available to the public. While public records and reports are available on the City of Newton’s website, Sangiolo said they are not well organized.
“It’s really important to have a news source that points people in the right direction and gathers [public information] all in one place,” she said.
Beyond Fig City News, community members are attempting to form a dedicated local press within Newton called The Newton Beacon, an online news source still in its pre-launch phase.
The Beacon’s founders plan for it to be published by the Newton News Foundation, Inc., a recently-established nonprofit organization. In contrast to Fig City’s volunteer-based structure, the Beacon aims to be a fully-staffed and funded source of news, with a predicted launch date in the spring of 2023.
Reibman, who has worked with The Newton Beacon’s board of directors in an advisory capacity, said that the Beacon’s professional structure is a core part of its mission and brand.
“The plan for the Beacon is to raise enough money to hire professional journalists to cover the city and to be sustainable long term,” he said. “We want this publication not to just be around to cover what happens in the news next year or the year after, but for generations to come.”
On August 21, 2022, The Beacon’s board of directors announced that the organization had submitted an application to the City of Newton for $100,000 in start-up funding from Newton’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. The newspaper currently relies primarily on tax-deductible donations to fund its operations.
Goldman, a member of The Beacon’s board of directors, emphasized the role of professional journalism in reversing the industry’s decline.
“To really reverse the trends that we’ve seen in the decline of journalism, it’s important to have a fully-staffed, paid, professional, nonpartisan news outlet in the city,” he said.
As independent news in Newton faces its steepest decline in decades, its future remains to be shaped. The rise of new outlets like The Newton Beacon or Fig City News provides a potential solution to a yearslong issue that may lead to a more informed and engaged population.
Sangiolo said that what matters is simply getting more people to engage with their community and government.
“My whole point is to get as many people as civically engaged as possible. That’s what I want,” she said. “Shape your own future.”