IPSWICH – The North Shore lost a champion of local news and thus a defender of democracy when Bill Wasserman, 94, passed away on Sept. 29 in Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers. He had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
Best known for founding North Shore Weeklies, the philanthropic Ipswich resident had served in the military, worked on behalf of Democratic politicians, and lived and worked abroad to educate journalists about the American concept of news.
What Wasserman did two years ago, at age 92, reveals the character of the man. Upset that the local Ipswich Chronicle (which he had added to his chain of weeklies in 1960) was failing to provide the news coverage he felt the town deserved, Wasserman teamed with John Muldoon who of like mind, had created a local news website in 2015.
With Wasserman’s entrance, the pair created a print publication, calling it the Ipswich Local News. Wasserman was to serve as publishing consultant and fund the paper when revenues dipped. But before anything like that happened, the lean, energetic, white-haired businessman who walked with a cane set about going from restaurants to storefront businesses selling ads. And sell he did. Propelled by Wasserman’s reputation and his single-mindedness, within a short time he reported to Muldoon that the newspaper was “in the black.”
The week that Wasserman passed away, Muldoon reported that the Ipswich Local News printed its largest paper yet, 40 pages, a reflection of “more advertising and a state of robust good health.”
“Bill believed that a town without a newspaper is one that has lost the essence of its being. He felt the loss of local journalism acutely when then owner, GateHouse Media, merged the Ipswich Chronicle, the Tri-Town Transcript, and the Hamilton-Wenham Chronicle into one newspaper, leaving one reporter for six communities. Bill had built up North Shore Weeklies to this regional powerhouse and [it pained him] to watch it die by a thousand cuts.”
In the first airing of his new podcast, ‘What Works, The Future of Local News,’ Dan Kennedy, associate professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University, lamented the passing of the “late, great publisher of the North Shore who published the Ipswich Chronicle and expanded North Shore Weeklies and became an outspoken critic of corporate chain journalism.”
State Representative Lori Ehrlich, a Democrat who represents Marblehead, Swampscott, and Lynn, recalled Wasserman’s willingness to engage in thoughtful discussions of any issue, but he “particularly enjoyed discussions involving politics and democracy. After a lifetime in the news business, he noticed troubling ownership trends and consolidations in local news.”
Ehrlich led the passage of the Commission on Local Journalism and said Wasserman’s participation “will be sorely missed there and everywhere, but he will live on through the inspiration he fostered.”
Among the many organizations Wasserman supported were the Ipswich YMCA and Montserrat College of Art. Essex County Community Foundation President and CEO Beth Francis said Wasserman’s contributions were not solely monetary. He was passionate about many causes and believed in volunteering and using your voice to advocate for what you believed in.
Myrna Fearer, longtime columnist for the Danvers Herald, recalled “He gave people respect, but you couldn’t cross him, kiddo. When I met him, he was a force in the newspaper industry. I was told that I wouldn’t make much money, but I’d learn a lot and be scintillating at cocktail parties.
“It was his ambition to make every one of those newspapers important in those communities. He cared for the people who worked for him. He threw Christmas parties and wanted everybody from all the newspapers that were spread out in different towns to know each other. He was proud of what he had done.”
Fearer’s sentiments are echoed by Selma Williams, a Jewish Journal board member, who worked for the North Shore Weeklies, and eventually served as editor-in-chief of the chain under Wasserman.
In a Journal article about Wasserman published in July 2020, Williams stated, “He cared about putting out great papers. He expected New York Times quality from us. People loved their hometown newspaper. Editors and reporters felt we were doing a service. The Boston Globe might come out if someone got murdered, but they didn’t know the towns.”
On Sept. 23, just a few days before Wasserman would pass, Journal Publisher and Editor Steve Rosenberg picked up the phone to give Wasserman a friendly ‘hello.’
“After a couple of minutes of chatting about the importance of local news, I asked how he was doing and he told me he was in hospice. We then talked about his career and he said he had worked in journalism since the 1940s. ‘I’ve had good newspapers and some bad,’ he said. We talked more about democracy and then he said – out of the blue – ‘Well, I expect you to carry on.’”
A Harvard College and Boston University graduate, Wasserman worked in every aspect of the newspaper industry. He’d 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 (a Jewish fellowship group) 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 Wassermans and their children enjoyed Jewish holidays together all year.