MARBLEHEAD – In the spring when local reporters’ bylines disappeared from the pages of the Marblehead Reporter and the newspaper’s “Wicked Local” moniker became a sprinkling of news from Brockton, Cape Cod, Chelmsford, and elsewhere, some locals got together to commiserate. The multi-national conglomerate Gannett declared in May that several of its papers, including the Reporter, would no longer carry local news, opinion columns, and letters to the editor. It had become a “regional” newspaper.
For years, the Marblehead Reporter had been losing staff. Eventually, like all its sister north-of-Boston publications, it finally was forced to close down in Marblehead and move to the corporate office.
Two small groups of people began meeting independently to discuss how they could deliver local news on government, arts, education, school sports and more.
What emerged in June are two local online newspapers: the Marblehead Beacon and the Marblehead News.
Jenn Schaeffner, Lena Robinson, and Jared Lederman founded the Marblehead Beacon. Kris Olsen, Jessica Barnett, Leigh Blander, and Will Dowd launched the Marblehead News.
Both groups expressed optimism about “friendly competition” between the two. On Aug. 19, a print newspaper, the Marblehead Weekly News, owned by Essex Media Group, made its debut. Now there are three papers covering the town.
“We are not career journalists. We are citizen journalists,” said Robinson, who is Jewish. She brings to the Marblehead Beacon a legal background and, with her colleagues, a commitment to deliver well-researched articles. Having lost local news coverage just as elections for state representatives and Essex County sheriff were heating up, the Beacon did extensive pieces researching where candidates’ funds were coming from and who was taking donations from lobbyists. Besides covering accidents, fires, and human interest, the digital publication delves deep on issues like how to understand the school budget.
“I find the investigative piece to be extremely important,” said Lederman, a rising senior at Marblehead High School. Lederman is the paper’s technology and website wizard but he also writes articles and brings a youthful presence into the mix.
Schaeffner has a finance background, was a Marblehead School Committee member, and now operates her real estate business. She grew up in town, and raised her children here. “Residents are entitled and have a responsibility to know how the town is run,” she said.
Robinson and Lederman both have strong ties to Israel. Robinson has dual citizenship, as her mother is Israeli. “On my mother’s side, the experience of the Holocaust is imprinted on my psyche,” said Robinson, whose son is a Holocaust Legacy Fellow.
Lederman went on the Robert Lappin Youth to Israel Adventure and has visited the country with his family. As a Chabad of the North Shore member, he said his volunteer work helping to create the Marblehead Beacon is in line with his Jewish values of giving back to the community. He sees the newspaper as a way of providing transparency and assuring that the government adheres to ethical standards.
The Marblehead Beacon, a for-profit newspaper, is run “on a shoestring,” said Robinson. “It is all sweat equity.” While the Beacon is free for online readers, it welcomes donations from those “who share our commitment to preserving local news coverage,” according to its website, marbleheadbeacon.com.
In another part of town, longtime former Marblehead Reporter editor Kris Olsen was meeting with reporters Will Dowd, Leigh Blander, and others.
Over sweet and sour soup at the Fen Yang House, the group “mourned the loss of local news,” said Olson. But the conversation brightened as they began to wonder what they could do.
Olson, who left the Reporter after 14 years to work for Lawyers Weekly in 2015, could not abide seeing what he had nurtured in Marblehead crumble. After more meetings, the group launched the digital Marblehead News in June, an independent nonprofit governed by a local board and slated to debut its print edition in the fall.
Cofounder Blander is a journalist and a public relations and marketing specialist. Raised reform, she became a bat mitzvah at Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead where she met her husband, Daniel. The couple raised their three children in town.
Asked why she was involved in creating a newspaper from scratch, Blander quoted the Washington Post’s slogan, ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness.’
“I read four or five newspapers a day. You have to have an informed citizenry. You need qualified, professional journalists that you can trust,” said Blander. “How do you know who to vote for and how to vote on the override? And how can you be connected to your neighbors?”
The news site is supported by grants, sponsorships, advertisers, and donations, according to its website, marbleheadnews.org.