Wasserman, an old-school newsman, returns to his roots

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Wasserman, an old-school newsman, returns to his roots

IPSWICH – It was an innocent evening out. Bill Wasserman, a local media legend, went to a forum in his hometown of Ipswich last August organized by Helen Weatherall, who wanted to address “the demise of local news,” said Wasserman. He gravitated toward John Muldoon who said he was interested in reintroducing a print newspaper into Ipswich.
The pair later met over coffee.

Wasserman, who is 92, has newsprint in his veins. He purchased his first newspaper, the Amesbury Daily News, in 1958 and began a string of acquisitions until he had 10 weeklies under the banner of North Shore Weeklies – plus two specialty monthlies.

In 1986, after a 28-year run marked by technological innovations, scores of press awards, a well-trained army of 250 employees, a paid and free circulation of 180,000 second only to the Boston Globe, and a reputation as a “local hero,” Wasserman sold the business to Fidelity Investments and “retired.”

Before and after retirement, Wasserman worked for various Democratic politicians, including former U.S. Rep. Michael Harrington and former Gov. Michael Dukakis. He also teamed up with then-Globe editor Thomas Winship, who founded the Center for Foreign Journalists. He traveled to Europe, Asia and Africa to educate journalists about the American concept of news.

A Harvard College and Boston University graduate, Wasserman has worked in every aspect of the newspaper industry. He’s also had miscellaneous jobs, working as a cowboy, a farmhand and a coal miner in France. From 1945 to 1947 he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, seeing duty in Germany.

Married to Mary Dick Wasserman, the couple joined a Havurah when their daughter, Rebecca, was born to give her an understanding of her Jewish heritage. For 30 years, the couple has continued its membership in the “free thinking, progressive, feminist Havurah” held in people’s homes. Wasserman’s other children are Maria Ruiz of Wyoming and Ellen Miller (married to Jonathan Miller) of Amesbury. The couple and their children enjoy Jewish holidays together all year.

“I didn’t grow up in a family that paid attention to being Jewish,” said Wasserman who was raised outside of Philadelphia adding that his paternal grandfather was charitable in Jewish circles.

Last August, Wasserman sat across from Muldoon, who emigrated from Ireland in 1988. Muldoon had previously worked in the information technology industry, which he eventually left to follow his passion of working in journalism.

The two newsmen were unhappy at what had become of their hometown paper, the Ipswich Chronicle. The local weekly was founded in the late 1800s. Wasserman added it to his chain of weeklies in 1960, and eventually the Ipswich paper become one of two jewels in the crown of his North Shore Weeklies. (The other standout was the Marblehead Reporter.)

After Wasserman sold the chain to Fidelity, he watched as one corporation after another purchased it and grew its holdings until finally, current owner GateHouse Media melded the Ipswich Chronicle, the Tri-Town Transcript and the Hamilton-Wenham Chronicle into one newspaper leaving one reporter for six communities. To say that has rankled Wasserman and Muldoon, is an understatement.

Wasserman and Muldoon care deeply about getting comprehensive coverage of their town and believe a print newspaper, along with an online presence, is the way to go. They named their paper, aptly, the Ipswich Local News.

Wasserman and Muldoon began to go over the numbers and asked themselves if they could successfully launch a local Ipswich newspaper. Finally, Wasserman offered to serve as publishing consultant and fund the operation. And then – somewhat predictably for an old-school newsman and publisher – he decided to go out and sell ads.

“He went into stores and restaurants and came back with contracts,” said Muldoon, expressing wonderment. “The first few weeks of him selling ads, we knew we were onto something. He came back one day and said, ‘We’re already in the black. This thing is going to go.’ Once we decided to do it as a nonprofit, we kicked off a fundraising drive – shortly after the pandemic started,” Muldoon laughed.

“Good timing. But we have raised $57,000 in less than three months despite the pandemic.”

The Ipswich Local News is mailed free to every one of the town’s 6,587 households, plus a drop-off to stores in Ipswich and Rowley, for a circulation of 6,800, said Wasserman, adding that he’s enjoying his newest endeavor.

“Bill’s got the reputation and the deep history in the community. There’s no one he doesn’t know,” said Muldoon who admits he’s having a lot of fun.

Selma Williams, a Jewish Journal board member, worked for the North Shore Weeklies, and eventually served as editor-in-chief of the chain under Wasserman.

“He cared about putting out great papers. He expected New York Times quality from us. Very early on, he used computers, in 1980 or 1981. I think we were the first.

“People loved their hometown newspaper. Editors and reporters felt we were doing a service, and we had fun, too,” said Williams. “The Boston Globe might come out if someone got murdered, but they didn’t know the towns.”

Williams said the chain of North Shore Weeklies covered marriages, engagements, school lunches and births.

“Bill made sure that obituaries were handled carefully to reflect the deceased person’s life, since it was their last hurrah. I don’t think many people get to work in a place that’s like a family,” she said.

“The idea that a guy at 92 feels that his town needs a local paper and he’s going to do it, that’s remarkable. I think there are very few places where that’s happening. I’m so delighted. I think he’s a local hero. I’m one of many who are cheering him on,” said Williams.

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