In January, 1750, New-York Gazette publisher James Parker wrote:
This Taste, we Englishmen, have for News, is a very odd one; yet it must be fed; and tho’ it seems to be a jest to Foreigners, yet it is an Amusement we can’t be with out.”
256 years later, that “taste for news” remains as strong as ever. It’s even intensified, if numbers are an indicator. In 2003, the number of U.S. newspapers stood at a whopping 1,456 dailies and 6,704 weeklies.
For an authoritative reporting on say, president Bush’s crackdown on illegal immigration, we may rely on a national paper like The New York Times. For celebrity gossip, we may leaf through a glossy magazine.
Where does one turn to for information about local candidates running for town hall elections?
In the good old days of the town criers, all that townspeople did was wait for the arrival of a portly man in a red and gold robe and a tricorne hat—a messenger of the monarch who’d bring news of everything from tax hikes to municipal regulations.
But this isn’t’ Medieval England. Nor is it Colonial America of the pre-newspaper era. This is the Berkshires, Massachusetts, of 2006, where there’s neither a paucity of newsprint nor is there a dearth of people with a voracious appetite for news.
And what better proof of that than the existence of five independent community newsletters in an area that’s no larger than 161 square-miles.
The four towns of Egremont, New Marlborough, Monterey, and Sheffield have eponymous newspapers called the Egremont News, the New Marlborough 5 Village News, the Monterey News, and the Sheffield Times. West Stockbridge’s is called the Local Yokel.
More than anything else, it was a keen desire on the part of the members of the community to stay connected with one another and to keep abreast of the goings-on around town that led to the birth of these grassroots-level print media.
As the name would suggest, the New Marlborough 5 Village News was started in the year 2000 as an attempt to link the five geographically distant villages of Clayton, Hartsville, New Marlborough Village, Mill River, and Southfield.
“The town is scattered all across the countryside. It requires 89 miles of roadways to link [these villages]. Each village is so far away from the next, that by the time, news traveled from one end to the other, [the event] was already over,” said Jon Swan, editor of the NM5VM.
The others too, were founded for pretty much the same reasons: to be a medium of mass communication and to act as a forum for public debate and interaction.
It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention. When the local school closed down a year or so ago, the folks of West Stockbridge were deprived of a place where they could assemble for chitchatting and comparing notes on the community.
So, an alternate platform had to be found. That was the Local Yokel, said Tina Cooper Skorput, its co-editor.
While the Egremont News, the Local Yokel, the Sheffield Times and the NM5VN are products of recent years, the Monterey News dates back to 1970, making it the oldest in this quintet of newsletters.
A brainchild of a pastor, the Monterey News started out as an ecclesiastical document. Today, it’s still published under the auspices of the Monterey United Church of Christ.
Elements common to most of them are their organizational structure, distribution, frequency of publication, content, and model of revenue generation or rather, the lack of one.
Save for the NM5VN, which has a fairly robust editorial team of 15, most others are run by a lean regular staff of no more than six. The Egremont News, for instance, is brought out by a pair of staffers at the selectmen’s office.
All these publications are the outcome of the collective efforts of the community. Not only do the area residents contribute toward the editorial input by sending in a poem or a recipe or a news snippet, they also keep them financially afloat through generous donations. Only 20 to 30 percent of the running cost is borne by advertising.
The only exception to the rule is the Egremont News, which is a taxpayer-funded bimonthly newsletter with no advertising. Its printing expenses are taken care of by the town budget (a sum of $2,700 has been allocated for the fiscal year 2007) Also, it has no reader contribution. Its editorial content is sourced entirely by the various town departments.
Out the five, only two have an online existence: the Egremont News and the Local Yokel. The rest are available only in hard copies.
One may either pick them up, free of cost, at the local town halls, the libraries, and the general stores, or have them delivered. About 1,200 copies of the NM5VN and 700 copies of the Monterey News are mailed out each month. 982 of the Egremont News go out every two months.
What news do they carry? Barring the NM5VN, which has an investigative slant, the others tend to feature dry reports on the town’s meetings, round-ups of public hearings, and a calendar of local events.
Bottom line: Whatever be their news, their stories are here to stay.