The Needham Times published its last print edition on May 5, 2022, because the publisher opted for social media. So, after 148 years, Needham no longer has a local newspaper. This truly breaks my heart.
It was announced that after May 5, 2022 there would no longer be a print edition of the Needham Times, and that from then on the paper would only be available as a digital subscription. This followed an announcement in late February that the local papers around here were being “re-envisioned” as a regional, rather than local resource. Gannett, the company that owns the Times, said that this change “reaffirms The Needham Times’ commitment to the sustainable future of local news,” but it is hard reconcile those words with their actions. The fact is that, after 148 years, Needham would no longer have a local newspaper. This truly breaks my heart.
This change has been coming for some time. For the last several years, we have seen the national syndicates that owned the Needham Times – Gannett, and Gatehouse Media before them – decimate the resources available to their local weeklies, and sharply reduce their local content and coverage. Gannet has argued that the loss of readers and advertisers proves there is a diminishing market for local news. I would argue that readers and advertisers left because the local content of the paper became so sparse.
Needham got its first local paper when publisher George Southworth moved here from Stoughton and published the first issue of his new paper, The Needham Chronicle and Wellesley Advertiser on November 28, 1874. (At the time, Wellesley was still part of Needham, though the ‘separatist’ name of ‘Wellesley’ was becoming more frequently used in those parts.) The Chronicle was a weekly, and cost five cents. Southworth was 23 years old when he started the Chronicle; he edited it for 50 years, before handing it off to his son. There is little fanfare in the first issue to mark the paper as a new venture, except for a brief editorial inside: “We shall endeavor to supply the long-expressed want of a local paper, in which shall be found an interesting collection of home matter… [and] a creditable representation of home interests.”
The Chronicle had a set format. News was mainly on the front and back pages, set off in sections by the parts of town – Needham Notes, Highlandville Happenings, Grantville Gleanings, etc. Ads for local businesses were arranged along the edges. Since there was not all that much news – even after you included the social notes, the family visits, etc – the inside pages were generally prepackaged content, known as “patent insides.” Patent insides were newspaper sheets that were pre-printed on one side with ads, comic snippets, poetry, short stories, interesting news from around the country or Foreign Parts (“In a Tiger’s Jaws “). The local publisher bought the sheets from a supplier, and then printed his own newspaper on the other side – hence, local news on the first and last pages, boilerplate inside. This practice was common for small papers throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Chronicle used patent insides for several decades.
Southworth was the paper’s owner, publisher, printer, and principal writer and the Chronicle was very much a reflection of his interests and opinions – opinions that he was not at all averse to publishing. The notion of “Fair and Balanced” was not really a factor in newspaper publishing in the 19th century – if you wanted a different opinion, you read a different newspaper. As historian George Kuhn Clarke noted in 1911, “The Chronicle… has at times been involved in the storms of local politics, representing opposing factions, or parties, and much has been printed that cannot be accepted by the historian as fair or impartial.”
That said, the Chronicle was the mainstay of the Needham news scene and kept the residents informed about the businesses, events, and politics in town. There were several attempts at publishing a rival paper, but none were very successful. Printer and attorney William Moseley launched the Needham Globe in 1878; he produced three monthly issues (August 1st, September 1st, and October 1st) and then folded. We have a copy of the first issue, and apart from local ads, it is all “patent” content. John Emmons published Vol. 1, No. 1 (and only) of the Needham News on Friday, June 19, 1883. Bowers and Brown, Printers, were well-positioned to make a success of their new paper, the Needham Enterprise, when the Odd Fellows Building fire on May 13, 1887 destroyed their equipment, presses, and stock. Southworth kindly let them use the Chronicle press to publish their one and only issue on May 18, 1887 – a report on the fire that put them out of business. In 1894, William Howard, publisher of the Natick Citizen, extended his efforts to Needham and published the Needham Recorder. The Recorder lasted for several decades, but because it was essentially a re-purposed version of the Citizen, it did not gain much attention. The Recorder also published at least one issue of Yours Truly, a humor quarterly (“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. The price of this paper is five cents. You are at perfect liberty, without much vigilance, to buy a copy.”) We have Vol. 1, No. 1 so I don’t know how long it lasted; it is not dated, but looks to be about 1910.
The 20th century saw additional papers. The Needham Reporter debuted in 1975 and, apparently, lasted for just under a year (we have a copy of Vo. 1, No. 41 that is marked “Last Issue”). The Needham News resurfaced in 1926, but I have no information on how long it lasted (if you know, send me a note). And of course, the Needham Times, which began publication in 1932.
The Chronicle and the Times, both weeklies, continued on as rivals for the next 60 years. Each had a slightly different emphasis, and each had its partisans. In 1997, the Community Newspaper Company purchased the Chronicle, and renamed it the Needham TAB, adding Needham to its stable of local papers. The TAB and the Times ran separately a few years, until they were merged into a single paper under the name of the Needham Times in May 2001. This merger actually enlarged the paper for a while, with the greater resources of Community News used to expand local coverage and add local features.
When I moved to Needham in 1991, both the Times and the Chronicle would arrive on our driveway every week. We read both avidly. The editorial, agree or not, was written by a local editor about a local issue. A political campaign could not succeed without at least one of those quarter-page ads that listed the names of all of the supporters (alphabetical for easy finding, or random to make people read the list? A crucial strategic question). Letters to the editor were carefully scheduled to spread out over the campaign period and to beat the two-week pre-election moratorium. The Police Report was read in its entirety. And all week the town talked about Bob Larsen’s editorial cartoon, and the current controversy brewing in that weekly tragi-comedy, the Speak Out Line.
The Speak Out Line may not have been a journalistic high point, but it did have a way of capturing what was top of mind that week. Taken together, the papers assembled the necessary information about town government, social and civic organizations, school sports, events, celebrations, and all of the other information that makes a town work. After the papers merged and the national syndicates took over, those functions began to slide rapidly. Now, instead of Local News, Gannett will give us “Community Engagement,” which focuses “not on talking to officials or attending meetings, not on budgets and reports, but on talking to the actual people in our neighborhoods.” I love the people in my neighborhood, but I can talk to them myself. What I need from the News is to know what the Select Board or the School Committee or Town Meeting is doing, and how it will affect my taxes, my schools, and my property.
The Washington Post famously changed its motto to “Democracy Dies in Darkness” – democracy cannot function in the absence of reliable and through information. But I like better the way that Eileen McNamara made the same point in a recent essay in the Boston Globe, about how her father took the time every day to read the Globe in the interval between his two jobs: “…my father’s example taught me that reporting the news is a public service to hard-working people, carving out time in harried lives to attend to the responsibilities of citizenship in our fragile democracy.” That is the essential value of local news. That is what we have lost.
Where Can I Find Local News Now??
The Needham Channel News is a weekly live half-hour news show, focusing on local news and affairs. It is produced in Needham, by Needham residents. It airs every Thursday at 7:30 pm on our free local cable station, with re-broadcasts through the week. The Needham Channel also broadcasts municipal meetings, events, local sports, documentaries, and a large number of other local resources. For schedules, channel numbers, and information see needhamchannel.org.
Needham’s Public Information Officer, Cindy Roy Gonzalez (firstname.lastname@example.org), posts information about what is going on in Town Hall and the town departments. The News You Need(ham) is available free by signing up on the town website. The Hometown Weekly has been publishing local events in Needham for nearly twenty years. While it does not cover the municipal government and meetings, it does feature local community events and organizations. By mail (free) or online.
The Hometown Weekly has been publishing local events in Needham for nearly twenty years. While it does not cover the municipal government and meetings, it does feature local community events and organizations. By mail (free) or online.
Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum