Lena Robinson and Jennifer Lederman.

Grassroots journalists halt Marblehead publication

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Grassroots journalists halt Marblehead publication

Lena Robinson and Jennifer Lederman.

Marblehead has lost the Marblehead Beacon, an intrepid online news source that dug into the governing arm of the town and, without editorializing, wrote hundreds of stories of significance.

In this era of “news deserts” and the rapid demise of local newspapers, Marblehead was unique in having three – two print newspapers (Marblehead Current and Marblehead Weekly) and one online (Marblehead Beacon). The Current and Weekly are still publishing, but the Marblehead Beacon has halted publication after a year and a half, although its founders hold out hope that it will rise again.

The Marblehead Beacon was the first to step in and fill the local news void after the previous long-time weekly, the Marblehead Reporter, owned by conglomerate Gannett, ceased publishing local news. One of Beacon’s founders and editors Lena Robinson, a lawyer and former prosecutor, said her desire to create a local news source started long before, calling the Reporter’s coverage of the town “vanilla,” lacking context and analysis for years.

The Beacon billed itself as an investigative news source and, true to its mission, dove deep into local stories that previously either went unreported or were given short shrift.

The Beacon had a small volunteer staff led by its founders Lena Robinson, Jennifer Schaeffner and Jared Lederman. After a year, Jared Lederman went away to college. Schaeffner was still connected but recused herself from reporting on schools when she won a seat on the School Committee. To fill the void, Jennifer Lederman (Jared’s mother), who had been a professional writer, joined the Beacon. “Though they were diligent about disclosing that conflict [Schaeffner being on the School Committee], that left them in a compromised position,” said Northeastern University Journalism Professor Dan Kennedy.

Both Robinson and Jennifer Lederman are Jewish. Robinson spent childhood summers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv with her grandparents. Robinson’s sons were bar mitzvahed at Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead.

For Jennifer Lederman, Judaism is central to her life, having gone to Jewish camp, Hebrew school, weekly Shabbat dinners and trips to Israel. She and her husband, Jonathan, have raised their seven children similarly, with bar or bat mitzvahs at Chabad of the North Shore and Y2I trips to Israel.

“Pirkei Avot teaches us that ‘It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it,’ and I think this sentiment plays an important role in our work on [the] Marblehead Beacon,” she said. “The goal has always been, and remains, to enhance the wellbeing of our community by contributing to a well-informed electorate and a transparent, honest, and capable local government.”

Among its stories, the Beacon published a blockbuster series about the town forfeiting more than $300,000 in interest on cash kept at the National Grand Bank, where the president of the bank is also a member of the Select Board. “For a significant period of time, the town earned a fraction of 1 percent on millions of taxpayer dollars while other financial institutions were paying three, four, and five times more,” said Robinson.

After almost 20 years on the Select Board, the National Grand Bank president recently announced he is not running for re-election this year.

When the Beacon first launched in June 2022, it dove into the fundraising of the six Democratic candidates in the hotly contested Eighth Essex District race for state representative. “Our questions and coverage resulted in five of the six candidates who had accepted donations from lobbyists either returning their donations or categorically rejecting lobbyist funds,” said Robinson.

Historian and journalist Alice Dredger praised the Beacon’s enterprising journalism, emphasizing that the more reporters delve into governmental issues, the healthier the community is. Dreger is founder of the online news outlet East Lansing Info in Michigan and also publishes Local News Blues. She visited the Bay State recently to interview staff from all three Marblehead newspapers for a book she is writing about local news.

Asked if she was surprised that the Beacon had halted publication, Dreger said no.

“I founded a similar operation, also with intelligent women coming together (it’s always mostly women) trying to find out how to get the news out … At some point, you’re exhausted. It’s tough. People expect women to give their labor free all the time, including local news.”

Having an investigative newspaper in town is “not comfortable. I also know that for the town, it’s healthy,” said Dreger.

“The Beacon struck me as scrappy and well-meaning, but the Current is a large, well-funded nonprofit,” said Kennedy, who specializes in media ethics and local news.

“There’s only so much local coverage one community can support.” Θ

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