Reporter's Notebook

Overlooking downtown Dayton this autumn
Overlooking downtown Dayton this autumn James Fallows / The Atlantic

This is the first in a series of posts on the city of Dayton, Ohio. I’ve been there three times since August and am about to make another trip.

Almost every trend affecting modern America is on display in Dayton. It was one of the earliest, and hardest-hit, centers of the opioid disaster. Its economy, plausibly known as America’s “invention capital” in the early 1900s, as the home of the Wright brothers and with the highest-number of U.S. patents per capita, has been hurt even more than other midwestern cities’ by the demise and departure of big firms. Last year a PBS documentary, Left Behind America, described what happened when the Dayton-born corporation NCR, plus others, left town. The excellent recent movie American Factory (Atlantic review here) portrayed the next chapter in that story, as the Chinese automotive-glass firm Fuyao reopened a closed GM plant. The city’s population has fallen significantly from its factory-era peak.

This past May, marchers from the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in town—and Klan opponents put on a bigger display. Just a few days later, a series of devastating tornados roared through the town. Then, in the first weekend of August, Dayton was of course the site of a mass shooting, a few hours after another gun massacre, in El Paso.

A mural in the Dayton Region’s Walk of Fame, in the Wright-Dunbar neighborhood, depicting three local sons. On the left, the writer Paul Laurence Dunbar. On the right, Orville and Wilbur Wright. In the late 1800s, Dunbar and Orville Wright were friends and classmates at Dayton Central High School, where Dunbar was the only African American student and the editor of the school newspaper. (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

But Dayton also has a wide variety of ambitious new projects under way. It will soon open a pioneering addiction-treatment center, in partnership with the Alphabet/Google life-sciences enterprise, Verily. The Dayton Arcade structure that was once the pride of its downtown is in the middle of a $90 million renovation project, similar to ones we have seen as centerpieces of transition in cities from Greenville, South Carolina; to Allentown, Pennsylvania; to Bend, Oregon. Dayton’s public-library and arts scenes are civic assets.

The University of Dayton, a research university founded by the Catholic Marianist order and with more than 8,000 students, is opening new downtown offices and research centers. Eric Spina, an engineer who came from Syracuse to become the University of Dayton’s president three years ago, has announced a strategy of making the university “the anchor institution for the entire community,” as he put it last week at a conference in Dayton I attended called “Gem City Rising.” (Why “Gem City”? Apparently not because Dayton was ever a jewelry center. One hypothesis, relayed by the Dayton Daily News, is that some outside writer called it “the gem of all our interior [American] towns” in the 1840s.)

The city’s mayor, Nan Whaley, a Democrat who is in her early 40s, was elected to the City Commission 14 years ago, while in her 20s, and is now in her second term as mayor. Deb Fallows and I have known her and followed her career for several years. She won national attention, and based on what I’ve seen wide acclaim, for her statements and appearances after the shootings in August. The exception in the admiring chorus was Donald Trump himself. While on Air Force One, headed from Dayton to El Paso, Trump began sending tweets attacking Whaley, because he felt that in a press conference she hadn’t been effusive enough about the reception he received from shooting victims he saw in the hospital.

Sherrod Brown, a Democratic senator from Ohio, and Dayton’s mayor, Nan Whaley, greeting Donald Trump when he arrived in Dayton in August to meet victims of the shooting there (Leah Mills / Reuters)

By coincidence, I was in Dayton on the August weekend of the shootings. The coincidence was aviation-related: To get back into the aerial world, I was doing flight training at Steel Aviation, based at the tiny Phillipsburg Airport just outside town, and was staying at a motel near the main Dayton International Airport. On Saturday evening, August 3, with a day’s worth of instruction behind me, I went to Dayton’s revived and thriving downtown Oregon District to walk around and, naturally, to stop in at the Dayton Beer Company to have a beer. I had just one, since I had to drive back to the motel, but I also got a to-go six-pack of their Oregon Alley IPA. (Plus, since I didn’t then know when I’d next be in town, a souvenir take-home six-pack of canned Gamma Bomb from the nearby Warped Wing brewery. )

Later that night, the Dayton mass shooter opened fire in the Oregon District. Although on-scene armed police responded within 32 seconds and killed him almost immediately, the rapid fire and large ammunition capacity of the AR-15–style rifle he brought with him allowed him to murder nine people and wound 27 others before he went down.

Within 24 hours, network- and cable-news crews were on-scene in Dayton. This was the look of the Oregon District late Sunday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the killings, with one network’s crews on one side of East Fifth Street, not far from the shooting site, and another across the street:

East Fifth Street, in the Oregon District of Dayton, the day after the shootings (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Again for aviation reasons, I was back in Dayton less than two weeks after the shootings. This time I went to Nan Whaley’s office at City Hall to ask her what it was like to be the center of cable-news attention for three or four days—and then to know that the 24/7 coverage would move on to the next breaking-news site.

“This has been a really important, special part of our community,” Whaley told me about the Oregon District when I spoke with her. The district—pronounced in the Midwest as Or-e-gone, versus the West Coast pronunciation Or-uh-gunhas a beautiful residential area and small stores, but during Dayton’s economic decline was dangerous and distressed. Now it’s the site of restaurants, locally owned stores, restored homes, and the general vibe of economic improvement you find in many midwestern downtowns.

A house in the Oregon District, not far from the shooting site, on the Sunday afternoon following the Saturday-night shooting in Dayton (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Whaley said that since the shooting, she had been in touch with the mayors and other leaders of communities that had suffered similar disasters. The diversely appealing nature of the Oregon District, she said, made this shooting different from some other recent massacres.

“I was talking with the mayor of Parkland [in Florida] about their high-school shooting and the mayor of Pittsburgh about the Tree of Life [synagogue] shooting,” she said. “Those were mass shootings at communities where people all belonged—they were going to school, or going to services.”

By contrast, she said, the crowd in downtown Dayton was a diverse group of people who all just happened to be there for a night out (as I had happened to be there, in the same space, a few hours earlier). “This is more like the Aurora, Colorado, shooting [at a theater], where by chance people were there at the same time.” The several dozen people who were killed or injured, and the hundreds exposed to the shooting, were “a super-diverse group, with very different stories, some of them not even from the state of Ohio, and all illustrating the kind of community we have now.”

“This was the place where the urban renaissance happened first in Dayton,” she said. Houses and apartments are in demand; the mix of businesses had changed from mainly bars to “the right number of bars, and restaurants and locally owned stores.” It was, she said, “a place for everybody—and in a kind of a grotesque way, the very diversity of the shooting victims showed that.” The nine people killed were black, and white; male, and female; older, and younger; from the area, and from far away. “One of them [Saeed Saleh] had grown up in Eritrea and walked across the Sahara desert—only to get here, and be killed in the Oregon District, which like all the stories was heartbreaking,” Nan Whaley said. “In a town that is still too separate and too unequal, the district represented more of what we all wanted the city to become. It’s a place for everybody.”

“My concern,” she said in August, “is that the shooting stops that work and that vitality and that uniqueness.” What comes next for Dayton will be the subject of the next set of reports.

On East Fifth Street, near the site of the shooting, the day after (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

“You don’t want to be known as a city where something terrible happened,” Nan Whaley told me in August—reeling off a few other names of cities now mainly identified with gun massacres. “But you don’t want what happened here just to be forgotten.” She pointed out that just two days after the killings, Donald Trump offered condolences, in comments at the White House, to “those who perished in Toledo”—one Rust Belt city apparently being hard to tell from another. “We don’t want to be a city you can’t find on the map, or even remember the name of.”

And what did she hope would come of her city’s turn in the cable-news spotlight? “I would like us to be known as a place that action came out of,” she said this past summer.

Before the killings in Dayton, there had been 250 mass shootings in the United States in 2019. (This is defined as four people shot, apart from the shooter.) “This made us No. 251. I think every mayor whose city has suffered this way says: ‘We’d like to be the place where something happens from our pain.’” She said, back then, that she thought the traumatic effect of the Dayton shooting might have an effect at least in Ohio’s state policies.

That was the mayor’s reaction, immediately after her city’s highly publicized trauma. In upcoming installments: the longer-term efforts to revive the area’s economy, deal with addiction and related challenges, connect a divided community, and in other ways move Dayton forward.

At the Dayton Beer Company in the Oregon District, with its “Gem City” logo (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

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The Shawangunk Journal offices in Ellenville, New York. Backwards sign made by artist Roger Baker.
The Shawangunk Journal offices in Ellenville, New York. Backwards sign made by artist Roger Baker. Courtesy of Amberly Jane Campbell

Here’s another installment in the ongoing series on how local news operations, especially newspapers, can devise new ways to stay in business. For previous entries—from Mississippi, from Maine, from Massachusetts, from Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area, from Massachusetts again, and from points beyond—please check these preceding links.

A theme that runs through nearly all of these reports is the importance of ownership structure. Times are tough for little newspapers everywhere, but the papers least likely to survive are those that have fallen under the control of hedge-fund and private-equity chains, which are starving them into short-term profitability and longer-term demise. The successful counterexamples are mainly family-owned, community-owned, or in some other way bolstered against the pressure to cut the publication into insignificance.

Today we travel up the Hudson River Valley to the small village of Ellenville, New York, in Ulster County, near the borders of Orange and Sullivan Counties. This is not the bedroom-community exurb part of the Hudson River Valley but instead one of the Northeast’s many declining former industrial zones. It once was famed and prosperous as the home of Schrade cutlery (later Imperial Schrade), and as the manufacturing center for Channel Master “rabbit ears” TV antennas, back in the day when TV signals were broadcast over the airwaves rather than traveling through cables or the internet.

That industrial era is past, and the surrounding communities have struggled. As in many one-time manufacturing centers in the Northeast and Midwest—and contrary to a frequent media assumption that “troubled factory town” means “mainly white”—Ellenville’s population of some 5,000 people is ethnically diverse. “This little town is surprisingly representative of the country,” Alex Shiffer, co-founder with his partner, Sharon Richman, of the local newspaper, the Shawangunk Journal, told me. (The name is drawn from the local geological landmark, the Shawangunk mountain ridge, or “the Gunks.” Among nearby features is the well-known Mohonk Mountain House.) In the Ellenville area, about half the population is white, about 25 percent Hispanic and 15 percent black, and the rest Asian or from other groups.

“The community had no newspaper, and we wanted one,” Alex Shiffer told me, about the decision he and Sharon Richman made in 2006, to start the Shawangunk Journal. Shiffer had grown up in Westchester County, closer to New York City. He and Richman met at SUNY New Paltz, and came to Ellenville in the 1990s to operate the area’s first internet service.“We resurrected an older community paper that had been out of print for a few years,” Shiffer said. “We didn’t do much more than take its name, but it was the start of something the community seemed to want too.”

Cartoonist R. Robert Pollak and publisher Amberly Jane Campbell, of the Shawangunk Journal (Courtesy of Amberly Jane Campbell)

The Journal is a print publication, now with a paid circulation of about 2,000. You can see some of its stories here—although, as I’ll explain in more detail in a moment, you need to register to read the articles. As an example of the kind of story you don’t often find in papers this small, you can look for two articles by Chris Rowley about the situations of homeless people in the area, and another by Tim Michaels on what heavyweight-truck traffic is doing to local roads.

Like other small papers, the Journal has had its ups and downs through its dozen-plus years of existence, in recent years especially downs. “Three years ago, the newspaper was in serious financial trouble,” Shiffer told me. “Around the beginning of the year, we said: We’re likely to lose $50,000 this year, and that’s money we don’t have.” Through an appeal to readers and a local fundraising campaign, it found the money to get through that pinch. “Despite the economic problems here, there’s a strong sense of community, which is why the newspaper has survived.”

And now? The paper’s ambitions, as explained to me by Alex Shiffer and his daughter Jasmine, are interesting in three ways:

1) Digitally minded from the beginning. “One of the things that was different about our origin, is that we were always interested in an online presence,” Alex Shiffer told me. “My background is tech, not journalism. But when we started, it was just way too soon to have an online platform as the main basis for local content.”

Shiffer said that he and Richman and their teammates were planning for the time when they could “use our tech experience to figure out how you can make an online publication actually work, with such a tiny market.” One significant shift was when people began using smartphones as a principal source of news and information. Another was when the Journal company began conditioning people to pay for what they read online.

“We still fight the battle every day, of people saying on Facebook, ‘What, do I have to pay for this?’ And we’re on there constantly saying, ‘Yes, you do, and here’s why.’ It’s taken us this long to get people who are willing to pay for content.” Through the efforts of their publisher, Amberly Jane Campbell, the system has grown to include four other regional publications: the Delaware Hudson Canvas, the Livingston Manor Ink, Hudson Valley Livelihood, and the BKAA Guardian. “We have proven the model works for our newspaper,” Campbell said, “and it can be adopted by any independent publisher, without having to reinvent it for themselves.”

Alex Shiffer and his daughter Jasmine (Courtesy of Amberly Jane Campbell)

2) A subscription-and-micropayments business model. As you’ll see if you register (for free) on the paper’s site, NewsAtomic, after an introductory-offer period, articles from the paper for nonsubscribers cost 25 cents apiece. For as long as the internet has existed, I’ve heard journalism leaders talk about the coming era of micropayments. Here’s a tiny newspaper in rural New York that has put the plan into effect.

Subscribers to the paper, for as little as a few dollars a month, get unlimited access to its articles. Occasional visitors can sample the stories for a low price, with the hope and expectation that some of them will be attracted to become long-term readers and subscribers.

“A weekly paper publishes once a week—and provides a finished, crafted piece that often is many days ‘old news’ but is still quite relevant and desired,” Shiffer said. (In previous installments from Maine and Massachusetts, I’ve emphasized how small newspapers have turned a weekly-or-slower publication schedule into an advantage.) “The NewsAtomic system allows us to provide both to our readers—regular updates to a developing story, and more in-depth pieces where sources have had time to get back to you.” Every publication that hopes to survive in the digital age is trying to balance the variables in this equation: on-the-news immediacy versus analytical value; outside-the-paywall “free” material to draw attention and shape public conversation, versus subscribers-only items to keep the reporting-and-editing core going. The Shawangunk publications are trying to create a new model for smaller publications.

“The micropayments are for occasional readers, and, crucially, allow one publication’s readers to sample another publication’s content from time to time,” Alex Shiffer said, “especially in cases where there is coverage of a story by multiple pubs. It’s a way of spreading reader revenue across our participating publications fairly, and it puts the bulk of the revenue where it belongs: with the publisher, not the platform.”

Staffers of The Devil’s Advocate, the high-school-student-run news application from Ellenville (Courtesy of Amberly Jane Campbell)

3) The students’ own paper. As Alex Shiffer studied the Journal’s readership, he came across this blunt fact: “The main reason we lose print readers is due to death. It’s not that reading the paper is all that dangerous! It’s just that they’re old.”

To replenish the readership, and to increase student involvement in the community and interest in journalism, the print Shawangunk Journal and online NewsAtomic site are complemented by a student-run news app called The Devil’s Advocate. (It is free and available in iPhone and Android versions.)

Jasmine Shiffer, elder daughter of Alex Shiffer and Sharon Richman, is 17 years old and a senior at Ellenville High School. “When I was a freshman, the high school had a paper—but it was in print, and it only came out twice a year,” Jasmine Shiffer told me on the phone. “It was kind of pathetic.”

“Then in my sophomore year, it just completely disappeared. I thought that every school deserves a newspaper, and online seems to be the only way to get to kids like me these days. So I wanted to start a paper for the school.”

She did. Without any official involvement from or approval by high-school authorities, a group of students now put out news posts every school day on the Devil’s Advocate app. “We cover a wide variety,” Jasmine Shiffer said. “Some sports, some culture—the real stuff, and the fun stuff.

“People love it,” she said. “So much of ‘the news’ seems so boring and disconnected from our real lives. To have this school paper written by their friends, and about their friends, makes everything seem so much more accessible.”

What comes next for Jasmine, after her senior year in high school? “I’ve really enjoyed doing this, much more than I thought I would. I have seen my parents and all the struggles they have gone through owning this paper. So I was nervous about the whole journalism thing. But at least in college I want to be involved in journalism.”

Is the Shawganunk Journal/NewsAtomic/Devil’s Advocate model “the” answer for other local publications? Of course not—their combined success is still provisional, and market and civic circumstances vary city by city.

But together they offer another illustration of a range of possible solutions for local publications, and the communities that depend on them.

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City of Asylum houses on Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh
City of Asylum houses on Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh Deborah Fallows

As we’ve traveled around the country with our American Futures and Our Towns projects since 2013, my husband, Jim, and I have evolved from being skeptics to evangelists about the impact of public arts on communities. We have seen how towns’ self-image, their presentation to visitors, their marking of history or current experience, their civic engagement and quality of everyday life and interactions of residents can all be changed by the public arts.

The array of art is created by everyone from professional artists to young children, bringing a rich collection of perspectives and making for opportunity for all to participate. Judgment seems to be more forgiving of arts that are public; sometimes the process of creation brings more value than the product.

It may be daunting for people to start public-arts projects: Who gets to decide? Is it worthy? Will it be expensive? And so on. But we have run across some that are imagined and executed in a very simple way. Here is one unusual example that surely qualifies as a Big Little Idea that any town could try and that has delivered a big payoff.

In 2011, Israel Centeno was living in Pittsburgh, in the neighborhood called the Mexican War Streets. It is a proud, eclectic neighborhood on the near north side of town, walking distance to a few of Pittsburgh’s bridges and the stadium, a park, and the riverfront, old warehouses in transition, and much more. Interesting people live in the neighborhood: young families who decorate their rowhouses at Halloween, creative types of all sorts, longtime residents, all of whom feel attached to their community.

In the middle of this is a small street called Sampsonia Way, which I would describe as an American version of a Beijing hutong. Attached houses, a dusty street that is not quite paved, and an intimacy among neighbors. Centeno lived with his wife and two daughters in a renovated rowhouse there.

Alphabet Fence at the Alphabet Reading Garden, City of Asylum (Courtesy of Renee Rosensteel)

Centeno is a writer and poet who needed asylum from his native Venezuela. He was offered sanctuary to live and work there for a few years by City of Asylum, an organization founded and originally funded by a Pittsburgh couple, Henry Reese and Diane Samuels, an entrepreneur and an artist.

City of Asylum is celebrating its 15th anniversary of offering asylum to exiled artists from countries like Iran, Burma, China, El Salvador, Iraq, and more. In exchange, the artists give back to Pittsburgh in the form of some kind of artistic work and public presentation. Several of the artists who have passed through City of Asylum are returning for that celebration. They will surely admire all the expansions that have happened since we first visited in 2014. There is a new park, called the Alphabet Reading Garden, also a newly renovated Masonic Temple building turned into a literary center for readings, a bookstore, a coffee shop, and performance spaces. Crowds for the artists’ public presentations have continued to grow.

Israel Centeno’s Big Little Idea is called the River of Words. Here’s how it worked:

Temperance, one of the words chosen in Pittsburgh’s River of Words (Deborah Fallows)

Centeno chose 100 words, which to him held some special meaning for Pittsburgh and his evolving experience there. Among them were all kinds of words: talent, thought, baseball, temperance, equation, horizon, ginger, nostalgia, fear, plenilunio, God. Then, the residents of the neighborhood were invited to adopt and host a “word in residence” and to display it for the public. The reaction was astonishing. People went crazy, in a good way, claiming their words. “Vortex! I must have vortex!” cried one.

A graphic artist, Carolina Arnal, and Gisela Romero, a graphic designer and visual artist, fabricated and affixed the words, from bold to lightly conspicuous, sometimes on a garden gate, by the front door, near a window.

What began as a temporary installation in 2014 remains, as residents refused to give up their words. Henry Reese told me that only a few are gone, and those because the owners moved and took the words with them. When Jim and I returned early on after the installations, we prowled around looking for the words, wondering each time we found one about the backstory of the word and the owners.

Now there is a map to follow for some of the words, which reminded me of the Map of the Stars near Hollywood.

Hosts of the words tell stories about the installations, and how curious neighbors came out of their houses to watch, and ended up asking for their own words to adopt. They talk about how the words help create an identity for the community and to share that story with anyone who happens by. Sometimes, I daresay, they puzzle, which makes people stop, think, and discuss.

City of Asylum's jazz-poetry concert (Courtesy of Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo / ArtPlace America)

We all know the power of words. They can please or hurt; indict or free; validate, disarm, declare, symbolize, obfuscate, or clarify. Sometimes they can’t be translated, so we borrow them from one language into another. Sometimes they are used incorrectly, out of ignorance or for effect. They can stand for much more than their size alone, especially single words, or short phrases. Their meanings can grow and shrink over time. Sometimes we make them up when we need them for inventions or marketing. Some catch on. Others go out of fashion or disappear. Their pronunciations change; their versions change within their grammars or social mores. Alphabets change. What have I overlooked?

River of Words may do all these things. It also marks a moment in time in the history of this community on the North Side of Pittsburgh, which is something the residents there seem to appreciate and acknowledge. That is a lot to say about 100 words.

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"Traditionally, white gowns were for girls, blue for boys," Worth Robbins said of Harvard's high-school-graduation ceremony, pictured here in 2016. "For the past six years, seniors have voted to have the gowns distributed randomly. This year the seniors voted to have only blue gowns, a symbol of their propensity for knocking down differences and announcing themselves as a class of innovators and activists."
"Traditionally, white gowns were for girls, blue for boys," Worth Robbins said of Harvard's high-school-graduation ceremony, pictured here in 2016. "For the past six years, seniors have voted to have the gowns distributed randomly. This year the seniors voted to have only blue gowns, a symbol of their propensity for knocking down differences and announcing themselves as a class of innovators and activists." Lisa Aciukewicz / The Harvard Press

Do local public-radio stations play an important role? In big cities, from Boston and Washington to San Francisco and L.A.? In small towns, like those across Mississippi or Alaska or Maine? Do they matter in the South as well as the North? In inland states as well as those on the coast?

All the evidence I’m aware of, anecdotal and statistical, suggests that in every one of these places, the answer is a clear and obvious yes. Public radio matters; it matters all the more in remote and rural areas farther from other news outlets; and it is seen as mattering in a way that transcends normal regional or political dividing lines.

But suppose those public-radio hosts, programs, and stations were judged not by their broadest social, civic, and cultural effects but instead by the narrowest financial measures. How many would pass muster if they were held as part of a private-equity fund’s portfolio, in which each program or local station stayed in operation only as long as its return-on-equity matched that of some alternative investment, from a big construction project or a biotech start-up firm?

In those circumstances, virtually none of the stations could exist. Nor would any library. Or public park. Or museum. Or zoo. Or virtually any educational institution except for the shadiest diploma-mills. Or any of the other aspects of social life whose “returns” may be enormous but are not captured in one investor’s profit-and-loss sheets.

That’s a way of understanding the predicament of local newspapers, in a private-equity age. And it’s a reminder that a specific business model and a broader public interest can be fundamentally at odds.

Obviously small-town papers face a hyperintense version of the pressures affecting the news business as a whole. But previously in this series, we’ve discussed local papers that are for now defying the harsh economic trends—in Mississippi, in Maine, in Massachusetts, aspirationally in Southern California, and in points beyond. More reports are ahead—from Tennessee, from Michigan, from Northern California, and elsewhere.

The central message in all these reports has been that ownership structure matters. If papers are owned by private-equity-based firms, of which the most familiar examples are the MediaNews Group (better known by the trade name Digital First Media) and GateHouse Media, the prospects for community news are grim. The chains are in the news business as “just another business,” and their coast-to-coast track record is of squeezing the reporting and editing budget until there is nothing left that subscribers would want to pay for. But in the same market where a private-equity-owned paper would be doomed, some family- or community-owned papers have shown that they can make “enough” money to keep providing the news.

This brings us to the little Massachusetts town of Harvard, about 30 miles northwest of Harvard University, in Cambridge, but with no connection to it. It is the latest arena of attempts to create a paper that can be sustainable, on a non-private-equity business model.

Around 6,000 people now live in Harvard, Massachusetts (which I feel compelled to keep identifying that way, to avoid confusion with the “other” place). In the mid-1800s, it was a haven for transcendentalists, Shakers, and other spiritually minded New England Utopians. One of its current tourist attractions is its Fruitlands Museum, which tells the story of some of these groups. In modern times, Harvard’s main business has been farming, especially apple growing, plus spillover from nearby Fort Devens, until it began shutting down as part of the base-closing movement of the 1990s. It also now serves as a bedroom community, within reasonable commuting range of Cambridge and Boston.

The Fruitlands Museum in winter (Lisa Aciukewicz / The Harvard Press)

Starting in the early 1970s, Harvard, Mass., had a local paper called The Harvard Post, founded by, among others, a civic activist and news entrepreneur named Ed Miller, then in his 20s. This is the same Ed Miller who, now in his early 70s, just founded a local weekly for Cape Cod, as I described last month. In 1978, Miller, his Post co-founder Kathleen Cushman, and Lawrence Anderson wrote a how-to book on the art and science of successfully running small papers.

After the Post served Harvard, Mass., for 30 years as a locally owned community newspaper, it was unexpectedly sold in 2003 to a chain called Community Newspaper Company, or CNC. For a little while, CNC kept the paper’s journalistic and civic role mostly intact. But soon the cutbacks began, the local coverage thinned out, and local readership waned. The paper’s office was moved out of town to a regional center; CNC itself became part of GateHouse; and by 2013, long after it had ceased to be a significant part of local affairs, The Harvard Post officially shut down.

As their existing paper caved in—really, as it was dismantled by design—four local residents decided to take matters into their own hands, and to start a paper to play the part that the Post had in its pre-chain days. One of the four, Worth Robbins, explained on the website of the new paper, The Harvard Press, what happened next. The chain-owned Post, he said, “stopped being a local paper, by and for Harvard residents.” And in response:

The Harvard Press was born when four Harvard residents decided to band together to produce a high-quality, locally owned newspaper, like the town once had.

In early October 2006, we put finishing touches on a rudimentary business plan with assumptions about subscriptions and advertising (the two sources of revenue for any newspaper), and cost estimates for equipment, printing, and distribution. We would operate initially in the home of one of the partners … The owners/partners would take token compensation for the first year. The business plan projected a first-year deficit in the range of $50,000 to $100,000; we would need financial help to make it happen.

We decided not to organize as a nonprofit, because of inherent constraints. We wanted the paper to be fully independent, free to engage with the town without restriction; therefore support contributions would not be tax-deductible, nor would they confer any special privileges or influence.

We expected it would take several months to attract contributions to enable us to get started, and initial plans called for a January 2007 launch. We were fortunate, however, to receive significant support from a small number of longtime residents, who shared our belief that Harvard needed a good local newspaper. Less than a week after we began looking for help, we had received commitments for enough money to begin, and we set November 17, 2006 as the target for the first issue—less than six weeks away!

What’s happened since then is chronicled in a large number of update posts, mainly by Worth Robbins, collected in the “Economics of Local News” series at The Harvard Press’s main website. It’s also analyzed in an article in the Yale journal The Politic, by Lily Moore-Eissenberg, who grew up in Harvard, Mass., and was a high-school reporter for the Press before going to college at Yale.

The short version of these accounts is: The Press has operated on a shoestring, with borrowed and donated equipment and low-paid or volunteer labor; it has steadily increased its role and presence in the town, now with paid distribution to over two-thirds of the town’s households; and having operated it for more than a dozen years, its owners are now considering how to make it viable for the long haul.

“Most of us who started the paper and are still here are in our 70s,” Worth Robbins told me when I spoke with him on the phone last month. “We’re doing it for love of community. We’re not going to keep doing this forever. People are being paid, but not a lot. So we want not only to put the paper on a sound financial footing—and be prepared to pay more meaningful salaries to attract younger people to work here.”

Harvard residents stand in line during the annual peach festival at Carlson Orchards. (Lisa Aciukewicz / The Harvard Press)

Robbins said that the paper’s staff had made a point of including and training students and young people from the community. But he and his colleagues realized that to entice any young resident to return, the paper would need a different business basis. And so they were trying to move from just enough community funding to survive to a large enough budget to allow the paper to grow.

“Three years ago, I put a story in the paper saying, ‘We’re getting low on funds, we could use some help,’” he told me. “One person wrote in saying, ‘I love the paper, and I’ll put in $5,000 to match $100 donations from other people.’” That campaign led to about $12,000 in total donations. “Then we came up with this idea of ‘sustaining subscribers,’” he told me. “People who would pay $100 per year, rather than $30 or $40—and if they could pay for five years, at $500, in advance, please do so!” Since the beginning of the sustaining-subscriber campaign, the paper has gotten about 240 people to support at that level, “and 40 of them for five years!” he told me.

I asked Robbins—who grew up in Kentucky and came to Harvard, Mass., in the 1970s for a tech career—what difference it had made to his community when it lost its paper, and as one has reemerged. “The town was so damaged by the loss of the Post,” he told me. “We’ve lived through the experience of having a great paper and losing it, and we do not want to let that happen again.” Thus the multifront drive for “sustaining” subscriptions, for a website with frequent updates—and a paywall (the historical items mentioned above are in a non-paywall section)—and for events like one this coming weekend, in which the former Boston Globe reporter Tina Cassidy will speak with Charles Sennott, also formerly of the Globe and now the head of the GroundTruth Project. (Sennott is also a founder, with Steven Waldman, of the ambitious new Report for America project, which I wrote about this past summer.)

What difference will that make? Robbins gave the example of the town’s decision last year on whether to spend nearly $50 million on elementary-school construction. “There was tremendous controversy and consternation,” he said. “The previous school was only 30 years old, and many people were upset. We did an incredibly good job of covering all aspects of the issues.”

Antique cars drive down a Harvard road for the annual July 4 parade. (Lisa Aciukewicz / The Harvard Press)

I have read through many of the Press stories in issues leading up to the town-meeting vote last spring, and I agree. The trade-offs and implications involved in the budget choices were laid out with great clarity and care. An in-person vote of citizens at a town meeting would decide the issue. “Usually 300 or 400 people is the most you’d ever see at a meeting,” Robbins told me. But for the vote, in May of last year, nearly 1,100 people showed up—and approved the spending by the required two-thirds majority. “Of course I’m biased, but I think a lot of the outcome was due to the depth and scope of coverage we had in the paper,” Robbins said.

By email, I asked Charles Sennott whether, as a resident of the town, he agreed with this assessment. “Yes,” he wrote back, the paper “did exemplary work on its coverage of the big vote, truly small town New England newspapering at its very best.” At this year’s awards session for the New England Newspaper and Press Association, editor John Osborn and reporters Joan Eliyesil and Marty Green of The Press won a first-place prize for their coverage of the school-funding controversy and decision.

Is The Harvard Press’s answer “the” answer for all struggling local papers? Of course not. It’s up to the people of Harvard, Mass., to see whether they can keep this model of journalism going even in their one community.

But it is one answer, for one town, and the moment, and in these times each such answer deserves attention.

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Planting trees as part of a green initiative in the southern California town of Redlands.
Planting trees as part of a green initiative in the southern California town of Redlands. Courtesy of Karen Bell

Recently Deb Fallows kicked off a series of “Big Little Ideas”—innovations or reforms that could be applied fairly easily at the local level and that might have cumulatively very important effect.

(Thanks to many readers who have written in. We’ll be sharing some of the many suggestions that have arrived.)

Here’s another in the series: making it easy to plant large numbers of trees, city-by-city.

In an article in the October issue of the magazine, I cite recent findings that tree-planting matters more than many people suspect, in its potential climate impacts. The story said:

After Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, more than 400 U.S. mayors, representing most of the U.S. economy, said their communities would still adhere to it. “That is where most of the leverage lies on sustainability—with mayors and governors,” Morley Winograd told me.

He gave the example of planting trees, which might sound insignificant but, according to a new study by researchers in Switzerland, could be a crucial step toward removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. “This could spread city by city, state by state, with no federal involvement or limitation,” he said.

The tree-planting movement has gained surprising momentum. For example, check out this report from Louisville, on its ambitious “Green Heart” project to assess the impact of urban green space. Or this, from Tulsa, about the difference its “Up With Trees” program has made. Or the “Greenprinting” map tool, from the Trust for Public Land. Or the MTree tool.

More tree-planting in Redlands, Ca. (Courtesy of Karen Bell.)

For now, here’s an illustration of one community taking an innovative step. This story has three bonus reactions for attracting my attention.

First, the community in question is my original homeland, the small inland-California community of Redlands, in San Bernardino County.

Second, the tree-planting initiative is of a variety often mocked in the nation’s capital but of growing importance at the community level: namely, a “public-private partnership.” It’s a collaboration involving a private company (the mapping firm Esri); a local university (the University of Redlands); and the community’s public schools (of which I am an alum).

Third, the news is reported by a new local publication, the Redlands Community News, which fits the pattern I have reported on from Maine and Mississippi and Massachusetts, in offsetting the pernicious effect of private-equity control of local newspapers. (More reports are coming on this local-journalism theme, from Michigan and Tennessee and Massachusetts and beyond.)

It’s an idea with a history: Arbor Day planting ceremony, New York City Public Schools, in 1908. (Bain News Service, via Library of Congress.)

One of our good friends in Redlands, Shelli Stockton of the University of Redlands, explains the idea. The reason for spelling this out is the possible application in cities elsewhere:


Increase the awareness of the benefits of trees through education and give away trees to plant. Redlands’ specific project involves presentations at school assemblies, providing each elementary student in our city a tree to plant, and mapping and measuring the results with GIS [online maps, like those developed by Esri in Redlands].

The project will take place in April 2020 in honor of the 50th worldwide Earth Day celebration. Approximately 12,000 trees will be distributed.

How It’s Done:

Identify key partners in the project, including a funder to pay for the trees, an audience with whom to communicate and distribute the trees, and a person(s) to organize the project. In our case the players are:

  • Funder: a local company with an interest in the environment and climate change issues
  • Audience: the local school district and private schools
  • Organizer: the local university

How This Works Locally:

Redlands has been named a Tree City USA Community  by the Arbor Day Foundation for 22 years. It has a volunteer-led city Street Tree Committee who assist city staff in overseeing issues regarding the city’s urban forest … There was even a project to plant trees in honor of a nine-year-old girl who died of leukemia.

The University of Redlands is also 10 consecutive year Tree Campus USA school and has more than 4500 trees on its 160-acre campus.

It’s a medium-scale idea with potentially very large effects. And of course planting trees is only the first step: they need to be watered, tended, cared for. But it’s an important start, which other communities could consider. And please continue to write in, at, with more suggestions.

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Two women involved with Project Lia look up at windows they helped restore.
Two women involved with Project Lia look up at windows they helped restore. Courtesy of Jensen Productions and New America

More than 2 million Americans are in the country’s prisons and jails now, giving the United States both the largest number of prisoners and the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world. For the U.S., the rate is well over 700 prisoners for each 100,000 of population. According to a recent BBC report, the only close contender is Russia, with an imprisonment rate of over 600 per 100,000 population. Most other developed countries are far behind—or ahead, in social-welfare terms. The rate for England and Wales, for instance, is under 150 prisoners per 100,000 population. Mexico’s rate is about 200 per 100,000. China, with a national population four times larger than America’s, has fewer total prisoners (at least according to official reports).

Just under 10 percent of America’s prisoners are women. Men and women who are “returning citizens” face some common challenges in restoring their place in economic, family, civic, and social life—for instance, the stigma of a criminal record. Some other barriers vary by gender. Women are statistically more likely to be expected to care for children or other family members, men more likely to have been arrested for violent offenses.

In Indianapolis, a program called Project Lia helps women who are leaving prison reenter economic and social life. As its mission statement puts it:

The Project Lia program is for women rebuilding their lives after incarceration. Program participants receive educational opportunities in financial literacy, communication, business ethics, and health and wellness, as well [as] support for a future job search.

Our program length is designed to be 6 months–12 months. As you advance through our technical skills and life skills program curriculum, you may advance in job title and pay, with the goal being a successful transition to a long-term career opportunity.

In two previous installments, we’ve shared videos from our friends at New America about civic-renewal projects in Indiana that are very important in the state but get little national attention. The first, about a successful job-training program called Build Your Future, is here. The second, about an ambitious public-arts project run by the Big Car Collaborative, is here.

Now a third video, about how Project Lia is trying to help previously incarcerated women regain their economic and social footing.

As you can see from Project Lia’s site, its emphasis is on “renewal” in the broadest sense of the term. Toward its aim of helping its graduates begin rebuilding their lives, many of its projects involve reviving disused or abandoned buildings, as you’ll see in this video, and recycling material that would otherwise just go to landfills.

Thanks to the videographer and editor Michael Jensen, the executive producer Fuzz Hogan, plus our other friends at New America.

All notes on "Indianapolis, Indiana" >
Children at an event put on by the Big Car Collaborative in Indianapolis
Children at an event put on by the Big Car Collaborative in Indianapolis Courtesy of Jensen Productions and New America

This is No. 2 in a series of three videos from our friends at New America about the realities of community revitalization and economic recovery in the much-discussed Industrial Heartland of America. It’s based on an Indiana tour that Deb Fallows and I made this spring, co-organized by New America Indianapolis and Indiana Humanities.

Installment No. 1 was about an innovative, inclusive job-training program called Build Your Future. This one is about the topic on which Deb and I have most changed our minds—or, really, had our eyes opened—during our travels over the past few years.

That topic is the role of public arts, “place making,” cultural festivals, and other arts-based means of generating civic connections and promoting economic development.

A Big Car Collaborative arts event in Indianapolis (Courtesy of Jensen Productions and New America)

Half a dozen years ago, before we began these city-by-city travels, if you’d asked me about “the role of the arts,” I would have said something like: “Yeah, sure, arts are great! Everyone should like art [etc.].” Now we have a vivid place-by-place sense of the difference that ambitious public-arts programs can have. For instance:

The film below is about one of Indianapolis’s (many) answers to the question of how arts can renew a community.

Children at a Big Car Collaborative event in Indianapolis (Courtesy of Jensen Productions and New America)

The video focuses on the Big Car Collaborative, which is a multibuilding art space and civic-engagement organization in Indianapolis. Among its events are its First Friday gatherings and art tours. Check out the video for more.

Thanks to the videographer and editor Michael Jensen, the executive producer Fuzz Hogan, plus our other friends at New America.

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Michael Brannon, a carpenter apprentice and graduate of the Build Your Future program in Indiana
Michael Brannon, a carpenter apprentice and graduate of the Build Your Future program in Indiana Courtesy of Jensen Productions Inc. and New America

This spring, Deb Fallows and I made a trip through Indiana for a series of events and meetings co-organized by New America Indianapolis and Indiana Humanities. We were in Muncie, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, and the small northern-Indiana town of Angola. You can read some of our series of reports here from Fort Wayne, here from Muncie, and here from Angola, with links to others.

While we were there, a video team from New America made a series of three short films. They’re about the up-close realities of issues that usually appear as slogans or abstractions in so many speeches, policy papers, and panel discussions.

These are issues such as “restoring opportunity,” “re-creating middle-class jobs,” and “bringing hope to the heartland.” Or about working with “returning citizens,” those who have been incarcerated, to increase their chances of a successful return to economic and family life.

To put it another way: Everyone talks about creating opportunity. Here’s what it looks like when people do something about it.

The first film, shot in Fort Wayne and around Indianapolis, describes the work of an innovative program called Build Your Future (BY, for short). It’s five minutes long, and you can see it below.

Thanks to the videographer and editor Michael Jensen, the executive producer Fuzz Hogan, plus our other friends at New America. Two more films shot in Indiana are ahead in the series. The next one is about an art-collaborative project in Indianapolis called Big Car.

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The Nashville Public Library
The Nashville Public Library Wangkun Jia / Shutterstock

During our travels visiting towns and cities across the country for American Futures and now Our Towns, Jim Fallows (my husband) and I have encountered story after story of short, sweet initiatives that we have begun referring to, fondly, as Big Little Ideas. The ideas usually started from sparks somewhere in the community—maybe from a teacher or newspaper reporter, a librarian or rec-center staffer, a young entrepreneur, a city worker, a lawyer, an artist, or a neighborhood parent. Everyman or Everywoman.

The ideas might be for a way to seize an opportunity, solve a problem, suggest a collaboration, or enhance a service. They are simple: the kind of thing that once you hear about it, you’re likely to say “Of course!” or “Why didn’t I think of that?!”

The background issues these are addressing are not always grandiose, like climate change. But they have far-reaching, positive potential. They don’t require gearing up teams and processes. You can “try this at home” and be likely to replicate it much more easily than you could a lab experiment.

We would like to share these Big Little Ideas, starting here, in a series we’ll call, yup, Big Little Ideas. We hope you like them, will be inspired by them, copy them, and will send us information about the Big Little Ideas that you’ve seen as successes (or even failures) in your hometown. Please email us here:

In 2009, the Nashville Public Library (NPL) and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), inspired by then-Mayor Karl Dean, began a collaboration whereby student-ID cards double as library cards. Every student from grades 3–12 in the MNPS system automatically owns a card to the public library. Teachers do too. They call the project Limitless Libraries. (An aside: When I asked Mayor Dean about the idea, he immediately pointed out that this was a team effort, not just his. He was that kind of mayor.)

What did this idea mean? First, the compulsory student ID placed the public library on the radar of every student in Nashville—surprising new terrain for many students and their families. It also put access to the library’s (age-appropriate) holdings and programming easily into the hands of the students, flattening any bumps that lay between students and resources. Students (and teachers) can request material from the library to be delivered and returned to their school library, where they study or work every day. The collaboration also moved school libraries into a bigger, more powerful citywide system, making it easier and less expensive to purchase their own materials.

Has it worked? The NPL system has purchased more than $7 million of materials for the school system, and provided schools with borrowable technology like laptops and iPads, and even 3-D printers. It has also introduced $4 million worth of architectural changes into school libraries, modernizing them into state-of-the-art areas for reading, collaborating, and maker-spaces. The idea moved from a pilot program in 2009 to all MNPS school libraries by 2017. In the 2017–18 school year, the program served more than 90,000 students, teachers, and librarians and saved MNPS half a million dollars.

In 2015, Barack Obama’s administration launched a program that quickly got library cards to more than 1 million students in 60 communities. It was called the ConnectED Library Challenge. You can read all the details of this nationwide effort, plus a how-to guide, here.

The program has grown to more than 100 libraries and is called the Leaders Library Card Challenge, led by the Urban Libraries Council and supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. You can read about it here.

One of the beauties of this Big Little Idea is that communities can tailor their efforts to their own wants and needs. For example, in 2014 Chattanooga eliminated the library membership fee for Hamilton County residents, making up the shortfall from its city budget. In Denver, the My Denver card includes students’ free use of the city’s rec centers and swimming pools. Milwaukee linked school IDs to virtual library cards, eliminating the need for physical cards for library use. Many libraries are eliminating late fees for students’ overdue books or giving them a way to work off their fines by attending programs or volunteering at the library. Staff from the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, in Ohio, visit every kindergarten in the 22-district school system to sign up kids for a child-only library card.

And for those who are looking for an even Littler Big Idea, you might take inspiration from the Arkansas teacher and school-bus driver Julie Callison, who stocks her bus with a bucket of books for kids to read during the rides to and from school.

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By the Dan River, in the River District of Danville, Virginia, this summer
By the Dan River, in the River District of Danville, Virginia, this summer James Fallows / The Atlantic

This summer, Deb Fallows and I visited the southern-Virginia town of Danville, and the surrounding rural areas of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, and the adjoining Caswell County, North Carolina. In its heyday, Danville was a thriving textile and tobacco community. The famed Dan River Mills operated along (you guessed it) the Dan River, which flows through the center of town and from which the town draws its name.

After the textile mills closed and much of the tobacco business collapsed, Danville went through a long decline—like many other communities in this part of the Piedmont region.

Over the past few years, a fascinating recovery has been under way: in the downtown, through reuse of abandoned mill and warehouse structures as new residential and office spaces; in areas that had lost mill jobs, through agricultural, chemical, and advanced-manufacturing start-ups; through creative use of money provided through the “tobacco settlement”; through advanced broadband capacities; and in other ways. You can read the set of articles that Deb and I did on Danville and its region here.

Today The Roanoke Times has an editorial called “Lessons From Danville,” which mentions our reporting and extends some of the implications to other small towns and cities in the region and beyond.

Because so much of the reason for Deb’s and my ongoing reporting is the hope that ideas and solutions that have been tried out in one place—like Muncie or Fort Wayne, Indiana; or Brownsville, Texas; or Eastport, Maine—might apply elsewhere, we’re gratified by efforts, like The Roanoke Times’, to consider the experiences of other communities.

Samples from its editorial:

Danville still has plenty of troubles, of course—the Ikea plant there recently announced its closing. But economic development everywhere has always been several steps forward and several backwards at the same time. The big picture is that Danville is undergoing a remarkable transformation, from a Southern mill town without any active mills to a poster child for how to build a new economy out of the ruins.


Whatever Danville has done, it’s mostly done on its own, which ought to be a pretty powerful message but also perhaps a scary one to some communities. National politicians can be glib about assigning blame—be it foreign competition or rapacious corporations—but local leaders need to ignore all that and get to work fixing their own communities.

The lesson for voters: If your local elected officials aren’t doing that, replace them with ones who will. Danville provides a pretty good “up-by-the-bootstraps” example of what can be done.

Worth reading and considering, beyond Virginia and North Carolina. Thanks to the editor of The Roanoke Times.

All notes on "Danville, Virginia" >
Editor Ed Miller and publisher Teresa Parker with Vol. 1 No. 1 of The Provincetown Independent as it comes off the press on Sept. 6
The editor Ed Miller and publisher Teresa Parker with Vol. 1 No. 1 of The Provincetown Independent as it comes off the press on September 6 Courtesy of Sophie Ruehr

Everyone knows that local newspapers are in trouble. That’s why Deb Fallows and I have been chronicling examples of smaller papers that have bucked the economic trend—in Mississippi, in coastal Maine, in rural communities across the country.

But what “everyone knows” about the main source of the problem may be wrong—or misleading enough to divert attention away from a possible solution.

The conventional view of the local-journalism crisis is that running a small-town newspaper just isn’t a viable business anymore—now that internet advertising has drained off revenue, and now that virtual communities and social media have displaced real-world connections and communities.

Those pressures are all too real. (Sobering details on the collapse of ad revenue are here.) But some of the remaining success stories in this troubled field suggest that the ownership structure of local news organizations may matter as much as internet-era advertising shifts, in determining which organizations survive and which perish.

In short: Increasing evidence suggests that the local newspaper business may still be viable, simply as a business. What it can no longer do is provide the super-profit levels that private equity groups expect from their holdings, and that they demand as a condition of even letting the papers exist. But the same papers that are doomed under private-equity ownership might have a chance in some different economic structure.

This proposition—that newspaper ownership is as important as internet-era advertising trends, in deciding local journalism’s future—was examined at length in a 2017 article in The American Prospect by Robert Kuttner and Hildy Zenger (the latter a pen name). It has been a theme connecting our previous newspaper-survivor reports, from Maine to Mississippi. And it is the idea behind a new weekly print newspaper whose first edition came off the presses this month, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the tip of Cape Cod.

The long-established paper for “Outer Cape Cod,” the communities from Provincetown southward, was the Provincetown Advocate, founded in 1869. In 2000, it was bought by the Provincetown Banner, and in 2008, the Banner was sold to GateHouse Media Inc., a private-equity-run chain of mainly smaller papers across the country. Long-established newspaper chains like Gannett, Knight Ridder, and McClatchy have their problems and detractors. But their goal, as Kuttner and Zenger pointed out in their Prospect piece, was fundamentally to operate newspapers. Their operations paid at least lip service to the idea that newspapers had a civic and community role, beyond their sheer economic existence.

The modern trend in small-paper ownership is their takeover by private-equity firms, of which Alden Global Capital, its subsidiary MediaNews Group (formerly known as Digital First Media), and GateHouse are the best-known examples. For these institutions, newspapers are a financial asset like any other—like a tract of commercial real estate, like a steel mill or a suburban mall. The profit-maximizing model they have applied to countless small papers has been: slashing costs, mainly by laying off reporters and editors, so as to boost short-term profit rates; continuing the cutbacks, so as to maintain profit margins, even as a thinner paper attracted fewer readers and ads; and when there was nothing left to cut, declaring bankruptcy or closing the paper, which had in strictly financial terms reached the end of its useful life.

The Banner, in its GateHouse years, has gone through a version of this cycle. (For the record: I have called and sent messages to relevant GateHouse officials, and will report back if I hear from them.) At the time of its sale, it had a staff of about 20. By early this year, the staff was down to four.

“When people think about corporate ownership of newspapers, they think the problem is that the company is telling you what to write—like Sinclair, with its broadcast stations,” says Ed Miller, a longtime newspaper entrepreneur who worked as an editor at the Banner starting in 2015.

“The fact is, they couldn’t care less what you write,” he says. “Their only interest is how much profit you can squeeze out of the operation, so the way they actually undermine the reporting of news is simply by laying off staff. The cuts make the job so overwhelmingly difficult to do that there’s just no possibility that you will get into serious news coverage, or investigating the stories that need to be dug out.”

In July of this year, Miller resigned from the Banner. This month he and his wife, Teresa Parker, published the first print edition of a new weekly print newspaper, The Provincetown Independent, aimed at readers, advertisers, and citizens in the towns of outer Cape Cod. This month’s paper was a preview, and regular weekly print publication will begin in early October. In the meantime, new stories are being posted online.

Hang gliders over the Cape Cod National Seashore (Courtesy of Edward Miller)

The territory the Independent is covering is more diverse than the vacation-time imagery of Cape Cod might suggest. The communities in its market—Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, and Eastham—have median incomes at about the national-average level (or in the case of Provincetown, significantly below it). Some of the residents have vacation homes there; some are service workers, small merchants, and businesspeople, or part of the working fisheries. Provincetown has long been an LGBTQ haven; the outer Cape has well-established arts, scientific, marine-science, and tourism-oriented institutions.

“This is an interesting community,” Miller told me. “There are a lot of engaged people here, there is money here, this is a place that ought to be able to support a perfectly successful, profitable newspaper.” As they observed the shrinkage at the Banner, which recently laid off its last local reporter, Miller and his colleagues began thinking about a new venture they might launch.

The approach they decided on—which you can read about on the Independent’s own site, or by Allison Hagan in The Boston Globe and Sarah Mizes-Tan for the local public-radio station WCAI—was a mix of normal for-profit business structure and nonprofit adjunct.

The business plan is based on a four-year hoped-for course to profitability, at which point the paper would have total paid circulation of 6,000 per week, and 19 full-time staffers. So far Miller and Parker have raised a little more than half of the business capital they are looking for. The nonprofit operation has raised three times as much as its original target. This money will be used for special projects—training young journalists, supporting investigative efforts, long-term projects on “themes that are important to the community, like how young families will manage to live here,” Miller told me.

August Carnival parade in Provincetown (Courtesy of Marcia Geier)

For all the ceaseless technological and business change in the news business, Miller said, “the basics of the business are that people love local newspapers. If you can provide something they want, especially information they can’t get anyplace else, they will be loyal to you.”

The weekly publication schedule of the Independent, like the every-other-week schedule of The Quoddy Tides in Maine, helps the paper resist any temptation to cover breaking national or world news, for which readers have a million faster, better sources. Instead it can cover local developments—taxes, schools, zoning, real estate, religion, business ups and downs—that simply won’t be covered anywhere else.

“People are saying we need to come up with a new business model” for small newspapers, Miller told me. “Actually, the old business model for a local newspaper that really does its job can actually work pretty well.” He said that he canvassed owners of similar-scale papers around the country, and found that a normal profit rate was about 8 percent of revenue. For a private-equity fund, that’s nothing. “But if you’re running a normal local business, 8 percent is pretty good.” Miller said that one local-paper owner told him, “If I’m making more than 8 percent, I know it’s time to reinvest in the business—hire more people, give them raises, upgrade our equipment.”

Cape Cod in the summertime (Courtesy of Elspeth Hay)

One of the Independent’s advisers and business backers is Louis Black, who in the 1980s in Austin co-founded and edited the successful and influential alt-weekly The Austin Chronicle and then was a co-founder of the mega-successful SXSW. I spoke with him by phone today to ask why he’d become involved.

“When we started the Chronicle, we didn’t know what we were doing,” he said. “It took a decade to get up to speed. Eventually we realized a paper like that creates the community. It pulls it together, then sends it out.” Black said that despite the travails of print media, this was the role that he hoped papers like the Independent could fulfill.

Louis Black speaks during the 36th Annual Austin Music Awards (Gary Miller / Getty)

“It’s not just about conveying information,” he said. “People have new ways to do that quickly. It’s about providing a cultural and intellectual center—and not only for like-minded people. It’s for people who want to engage in debate, and have principled debate. A strong local paper can do that. It’s not just about the words or information. It’s the spirit.”

Black met Ed Miller and Teresa Parker because Black had a neighboring house in Cape Cod. He learned that he and Miller were both from Teaneck, New Jersey, and both had spent their careers starting publications—Black’s with more financial success. Eventually Black decided to put time and money into the new Independent venture.

Did he think that it realistically had a chance? Black laughed, chuckled out some version of “Who knows?,” and then said: “Because Cape Cod is what it is, and because Ed is who he is, I think they have a shot.”

Like Miller, and like me, Black is from the dreaded and aging Baby Boom generation. “We’re too old to do this,” Black told Miller, as they considered the years-long, dicey effort of starting a new publication. “But the young people don’t know how, and we have to show them. People need to see that it can be done.”

“I want to hang the sword up,” Louis Black told me. “But we can’t. We’re living in a world where if we believe, we have to engage. And it matters.”

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The Forsyth County Public Library
The central library of the Forsyth County Public Library Deborah Fallows

When it came to planning the new public library for downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the people of the city had a lot to say, from the visionary to the practical. The library should “make an important statement” and “be a place for the public to be together,” Nan La Rosee, the central operations manager of the Forsyth County Public Library, told me during a recent visit.

She went on to rattle off the wish list of specifics, from meeting spaces, an outdoor place to sit and gather, somewhere to eat, an architecturally significant building, and an art gallery to more seating areas, an atmosphere full of light and spaciousness, and on and on. About a decade earlier, the voters had passed a bond that would provide some $28 million to build the central library, so they were well invested and interested.

The people’s ideas and more have been realized on a grand scale, with spaces to suit all kinds of activities and meetings and gatherings. I peered into the 290-person auditorium during a screening of Thor: Ragnarok, from the popular Avengers series then being run at the library. I walked by the big glass windows of the 10-person conference room, where a full house of young adults, laptops open, was in animated conversation about something—maybe a class, maybe a civic issue, maybe start-up plans. La Rosee said the always discreet librarians “try not to oversee too much” and strive to strike the right balance so that the meetings have a public connection and are not simply for private profit. After all, she reminded me, “the library was built from taxpayer money.”

Inside the central library of the Forsyth County Public Library (Deborah Fallows)

There are three smaller rooms with space for up to four people, one with assistive technology for the visually impaired; a sound-production room; and three more rooms tucked in a back corner of the inviting children’s space for private, supervised meetings among, for example, children, parents, and social workers. The library also has a demonstration kitchen and a computer teaching lab.

When I asked La Rosee what the public has to say now that the library has been up and running for two years, she said they report back that all these spaces in the new library contribute to the sense that this is a “hub of Winston-Salem in touch with the people” (her emphasis).

The central library of the Forsyth County Public Library is the main library for the city, but it is also a neighborhood library for a diverse population: those who live in the historic downtown homes, or in factories turned loft space, or in the subsidized housing, or the homeless. Nearly every other library I have visited in the past six years welcomes homeless people who spend their days there. Winston-Salem has addressed its homeless patrons in a creative way. The library was awarded a $150,000 multiyear grant from the state, provided by funds from the Library Services and Technology Act, for staff to learn how to help the homeless with job-readiness strategies and skills, and it hired a permanent peer-support specialist to work with homeless individuals to help them navigate through their often complex set of challenges, from housing and financial assistance to medical services and mental-health counseling.

The Wi-Fi–enabled outdoor deck at the library (Deborah Fallows)

New collaborations have happened courtesy of the new space. Wake Forest Baptist Health’s Sticht Center for Healthy Aging and Alzheimer’s Prevention, which is also a neighbor to the library, found the library a great place to reach out to new populations it could serve. It is in the second year of an ongoing series for the senior members of Winston-Salem on “aging well.” The children from the Downtown School, a nearby pre-K–eight magnet school where many parents who work downtown send them, visit the library regularly. Each elementary class visits the library monthly to learn library and research skills, or to get in-depth information for a class project. Older students come as a group for specific projects they are working on. The library is a natural, convenient, safe, and trusted place for seniors and children to try new things and to spend time. These meetings strengthen the texture and empathy of a community in the same way that YMCAs or public recreation spaces or free arts performances do; they provide the opportunity for town residents to simply be in the presence of others with whom they might not cross paths in their everyday lives.

More perspectives from inside the library (Deborah Fallows)

When I first walked into the library, I wondered for a moment: Is this an art gallery, or is it a library? The answer is really both. The welcoming open plan, the accommodating wall space, the changing perspectives of the interior you see as you wander from section to section and even floor to floor are a natural invitation to enjoy the library’s permanent collection of art from Ralph Philip Hanes Jr. and many others. Hanes, who was part of a sprawling civic-minded and philanthropic family of Winston-Salem, donated works that include Andrew Wyeth’s Watering Trough. There is much more: a sculpture by Jean René Gauguin, the son of Paul Gauguin, and a very, very large metal sculpture of an open book with the word library engraved in several languages, by the Alabaman Deedee Morrison. The sculpture greets visitors on the front lawn by the main entrance.

Deedee Morrison’s sculpture Library (Courtesy of Fam Brownlee / Forsyth County Public Library)

The stewardship of the library’s art struck me as both serious and fun. As for serious, the library cleaned and restored the Hanes collection before placement in its new home. As for fun, on the afternoon that I wandered in, La Rosee was just heading out to pick up more art pieces that people had donated to the library. The way she said it, when she kindly delayed her departure to talk with me, gave me the sense that this particular kind of (pleasant) errand occurred frequently.

Another surprise is the North Carolina Room, described by La Rosee as the “crown jewel” of North Carolina historical and genealogical collections. There is a photograph collection from the region that dates back to the late 19th century; a map collection; the ever popular genealogy section; historical legal information; newspaper archives; travel, culture and folklore holdings; and on and on. You could spend days, months inside this room.

Looking into the North Carolina Room (Deborah Fallows)

On the technology side, Winston-Salem installed more than five dozen computers for public use, two dozen more used for training new users, seniors, or those seeking to upgrade tech skills for possible new jobs; for Spanish speakers; and with technology for those with disabilities. And looking ahead to the day when more users will bring in their own laptop rather than use the ones at the library (a planning notion that other libraries have mentioned to me as well ), the library has made plenty of room for empty table workspace with plenty of charging stations.

Winston-Salem’s maker space is modest compared with those I’ve seen in many other towns, like Brownsville, Texas, and my hometown of Washington, D.C., which have lots of computer-assisted technologies like 3-D printers and laser cutters. Others have maker spaces like the one I saw in Dodge City, Kansas, which rely on donated equipment like sewing machines and basement-shop tools. The one in Winston-Salem has a modest collection of hardware, 3-D printers, and sewing machines, but La Rosee described it as more of a space for “making and doing” sessions and teaching.

If you’re interested to follow the latest research on how people use libraries, how they value their local libraries, and some of the changing trends in libraries and library use, please go to the Pew Research Center’s collection of surveys and reports. (For the record: I worked at the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project in the early 2000s.)

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