By Bill Densmore
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. -- The owner of iBerkshires, a news-oriented website based in North Adams, says he plans to hire two additional reporters to cover northern Berkshire County, as the region considers the impact of the closure of weekly The Advocate and daily North Adams Transcript.
Osmin Alvarez, owner of Boxcar Media, LLC., which includes the iBerkshires.com family of websites, also said during a community meeting on Wednesday that he will be unveiling two new services in coming weeks. For competitive reasons, he declined to provide details.
Meanwhile, the top editor at The Berkshire Eagle offer to provide free blogs for citizens that would be located on The Eagle's website, which he said receives millions of "page views" per month. Kevin Moran regional editor for Digital First Media, which owns The Eagle, also expressed willingness to consider adding dedicated pages for North Adams or Williamstown news. "I am extremely interested in forming healthy community partnerships," said Moran.
Moran, in an email followup to the meeting, said The Eagle has five news, sports and photo people in northern Berkshire County, and "we regularly have Eagle reporters that cover North County."
UPDATE: Tammy Daniels of iBerkshires provided this additional information in an email: "We have two full-time reporter/editors in North County and will be hiring a full-time reporter. One reporter splits his time between Williamstown and sports, and we have a sports photographer. We also have reporters based in Central Berkshire who cover North County as needed and freelancers as well. The second position mentioned at the forum is a features writer/community editor who will be based in North Adams and provide backup for breaking news and other events."
Alvarez and Morin joined more than 50 people at a circle-round "Dialogue on the Information Needs of the North Berkshire Community," hosted by the Williams Inn, adn organized by two Williamstown residents, Tela Zasloff and Harry Montgomery. In January, Digital First, The Eagle's owner, closed the century-old Transcript (circ. 4,808 daily, 5,619 Saturday in 2012), and the 33-year-old Advocate, which had a peak free circulation of 19,000.
"Are you disturbed that our North Berkshire region has abruptly lost its two print news media in mid-January?" asks a flyer the trio are distributing. "If so, please come to a public forum to discuss what our Berkshire community might do about it.
Moderator/facilitator of the 100-minute session was Bill Densmore, (the author of this account) co-publisher of The Advocate from 1983-1992, and a researcher at the Reynolds Journalism Institute in Missouri. Citizens spent about two-thirds of the evening discussion posing questions and listening to Moran, Alvarez and several other media experts. They also proposed solutions to the loss of the two print-based news sources.
Much of the evening revolved around laments by the group -- all of whom appeared to be middle-aged or elderly -- that they miss a print weekly or daily newspaper based north of Pittsfield. Moran asserted The Advocate and Transcript had become unprofitable. Alvarez said his company had no intention of starting a print news service.
However, some participants persisted.
"Could buying a subscription or some novel community ownership generate a hard-copy paper which goes to people who don't habitually log onto the Internet," asked Tom Leamon, a Williamstown resident.
Late in the meeting, retired national-newspaper editor Tom Stites, a Williams College alum who had traveled from Newburyport, for the meeting, explained his effort, through The Banyan Project, to test the idea of citizens joining a co-operative that would then own and publish a news service online. He said he had met earlier in the afternoon with representatives of Wild Oats Market, a co-operative, to discuss the idea.
"We can figure out ways where you could repackage our content into some type of newsletter," said Alavarez. "Now you can't just take the content for free, but there might be ways that we could work together."
Several participants said that online news services such as iBerkshires, suffered from lack of marketing to non-web-savvy users. And Sandra Thomas, the executive director of Williamstown's Images Cinema, a nonprofit movie house, asked online news providers to consider redesigning their websites for better usability.
The viability of newspapers, however, was questioned by Lewis C. Cuyler, who was managing editor of The Transcript during the 1970s and later a writer for The Advocate and business-editor of The Eagle. "I hate to say it but I think newspapers may be becoming dinosaurs," said Cuyler, who described himself as nearing age 80. "Our focus ought to be on the future and how we're going to have news. I had to say it because I love newspapers, the have been my career, and I'm a senior writer now."
But Williamstown resident Marc Jaffe, a retired book editor and publisher, was among those seeking print. "I know there is a real need in this community, I feel it in my bones, for a print newspaper," he said.
Moran, the Eagle news executive, said he had been "chewing over for awhile" the idea of adding special North County "split page" to The Eagle. Under such a procedure, which was once common among American newspapers, a paper's press run is split into pieces and pages of news are substituted for one another zoned for a particular area of geographic readership. For example, The Eagle might have half its newspapers contain extra news for southern Berkshire county, and the other half contain extra news for northern Berkshire County.
At one point, Densmore asked discussion participants to raise their hands if they would be willing to see The Eagle run less national and international news in order to make room for more local news. Virtually all hands went up.
Retired Williams College economics professor Roger Bolton then explained why he was among those raising his hand: "I have other substitutes," he said. "I depend heavily on television, on The Newshour, and the New York Times and other sources. But there really isn't any substitute available for the local news."
Solutions an ideas proposed toward the end of the evening:
- Sam Smith, who was annoyed that a Monday demonstration against the Keystone pipeline had gone uncovered by The Eagle, suggested the creation of a "news kiosk" service to which people with potential news could post. He suggested editors at iBerkshires, The Eagle and elsewhere, could use the kiosk for coverage tips.
- Brian Handspicker sugggested a kiosk at Wild Oats or elsewhere that would be connected to the Internet, into which a co-op owner could type their name or member number and get an immediate printout of news customized to their particular interests.
- Another participant suggested an effort to organize a community meeting with The Eagle's publishers to discuss its services.
- Jaffee said he was intrigued by Stites' co-operative idea and offered to spearhead follow up consideration of it, perhaps in collaboration with Eastwick Press Publisher Alex Brooks, who was also at the meeting. The Press is a small weekly paper serving eastern Rensselaer County.
- An offer to organize a workshop, invite local media, and conduct a training how to use their services was made by Jennifer Civillo, executive director of the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce.
The agenda and updated information about the event is available at the Greylock Citizen Media Project -- http://www.greylocknews.org.
"We are also putting in the Milne Library copies for circulation of a groundbreaking report issued in 2009 on community-information needs," said Densmore (owner of this blog). It's the final report of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. The copies may be borrowed by those planning to attend the Feb. 5 meeting. The full report is also available for reading online.