GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 17, 2009

Still the best avenue for speaking to the local community

Why Did My Newspaper Do That?

The night that Capt. Gail Kulisch, commander of U.S. Coast Guard Sector Boston, came to Gloucester to visit for the first time with local officials and the families of the victims lost in the Patriot tragedy, she and Coast Guard Station Gloucester Cmdr. Nathan Knapp also came to visit the Times.

They met with me and briefly with Times reporter Richard Gaines — who, of course, had broken the story about the Coast Guard's delayed response to the Patriot's distress. But they didn't talk about our coverage. Mostly, Capt. Kulisch talked about how best to keep the lines of communication open between the Times and Coast Guard, and how to get the word about what the Coast Guard was doing out to the community.

I simply told her and Cmdr. Knapp that they should use the Times to speak to the community at large. Four days later, after additional stories on the Coast Guard response, we received and printed a letter to the Times from Rear Adm. Dale Gabel, the commander of Coast Guard District Boston, who expressed condolences to the families and explained that the Coast Guard would carry out an evaluation of all aspects of the Patriot disaster.

In most cases, an admiral offering any comment on a fishing boat tragedy that claimed the lives of two local fishermen might be used only in a news story — and would have been issued as a press release. And in those cases, we might have printed just a few lines of the full statement in a news story while also getting back to others involved the story for their reaction.

So, why would your community's newspaper choose, in this case, to run the admiral's entire letter? And on the Opinion page?

For one thing, our news stories over those days had included comments from the fishing community as well as the Coast Guard about the Coast Guard 's response, and about its investigation. But in this case, the admiral had sent in the extraordinary 600-word piece to be run as a letter — even beginning with the phrase "to the editor." And, perhaps more importantly, I very much believe the Opinion page of the Times — and the Times in general — indeed offers the best chance for the Coast Guard, or anyone else, for that matter, to communicate with Gloucester and Cape Ann's residents on a large scale.

The whole idea behind the Opinion page, as we've noted in the past, is to give readers the chance to air and debate their views on any number of community issues. But in addition to serving — along with the lively online comments posted on stories at www.gloucestertimes.com — as a community discussion forum, this page truly is a way for officials, like Mayor Carolyn Kirk, whose regular Saturday column appears at right, to speak to the entire community in a timely fashion. That's good to think about — especially today.

You see, more and more it seems we hear about how newspapers are struggling, how newspapers are a dying industry, And when I think of our role as a community newspaper, I realize just how much that's a bunch of baloney. The fact is, community newspapers such as the Times continue to play an absolutely vital role in reaching the largest sector of the local population on a single day. And it's scenarios like this that show others recognize that as well.

Yes, Adm. Gabel could have tried to speak to the people of Gloucester by simply posting a letter in the Coast Guard Sector Boston's Web site — but how would he be sure many people would see it? And what's the point of addressing a letter to the people of Gloucester if indeed it could be just as easily viewed by people living anywhere else?

Yes, he could have tried to present the letter on Boston-area TV or radio, but it might have been difficult to find time for the full piece.

So he chose - right so, I'm proud to say — to send the letter to the local community newspaper, where readers could check it out and review it several times over, whether in the print edition of the Times or online at www.gloucestertimes.com.

Yes, newspapers and newspaper companies are struggling all over the country — but no more or less so than other media companies, from large-scale newspaper companies such as the Chicago-based Tribune Co., to "new media" giants such as Google and Yahoo. And media companies don't seem to be struggling any more — indeed, are struggling less — than other industries, from automakers to investment banks.

These are hard economic times, but when we emerge from these times, those industries that provide relevant and essential services to their consumers will be the ones that will emerge very much alive. And I'm convinced community newspapers are among them.

That's because they are indeed still the best way for anyone — from mayors to admirals to local advertisers - to reach out and speak to an entire local community. And they offer the best way for residents of that community to spread the word — about whatever they want to discuss.

As always, let me know what you think.

Questions? Comments? Is there an issue or topic you'd like to see addressed in a future column? Contact Times Editor Ray Lamont at rlamont@gloucestertimes.com.