The Telegraph of Nashua found itself in an awkward situation for a newspaper recently. Turmoil in the paper’s management was making the headlines.
The paper’s top editor was fired last week. Another senior editor quit. This comes less than a year after the Telegraph’s managing editor left in protest. Former employees say much of the unrest is due to the paper’s owners, an out-of-state chain that bought The Telegraph four years ago.
Sean Payne and Holly O’Neill meet up at the Nashua Public Library almost weekly. They’ve known each other for years and aren’t afraid of a friendly debate. On this day, the news they were discussing was about their local newspaper.
“I want real, locally-owned by real moms and pops people that know the heartbeat of the community,” Payne said.
“But i’s really hard to have that, Sean, because it costs money,” O’Neill replied.
O’Neill reads the paper almost daily – Payne – off and on.
“My thing is these outside agencies – I don’t know the names of the owners who own this paper – I don’t have an idea,” Payne said.
“But they are keeping it afloat,” said O’Neill.
“They don’t really care that it’s a local paper and they don’t care about the people that live here,” Payne fired back.
These "outside agencies" Payne is referring to is West Virginia-based company Ogden Newspapers Inc., who took over the 184-year-old paper in 2013. Ogden owns more than 40 papers nationwide.
This, of course, is part of a national trend. Changing reading habits, a decline in print advertising, and pressures from digital publishing have forced hundreds of papers across the country to close over the past decade. Other newspapers have been purchased by out of state companies who financially back them but lack a long-term connection to readers.
Last week, the Telegraph's top editor, Sandy Bucknam, was fired after working for the paper for 39 years.
When Bucknam first started, he says, The Telegraph employed about 20 reporters. When he left, he says there were five –working 60-plus hours a week and expected to write three stories a day. The new owners, Bucknam says, put too much emphasis on the bottom line.
“Ogden has a misguided concept that a couple of people can put out five weeklies and three dailies in about two and a half days and it’s just a risky way of producing pages," Bucknam said. "What if someone gets sick? Who fills in?”
I visited the paper’s office off Main Street to talk with publisher Heather Goodwin Henline last week – she was unavailable and has not returned multiple calls and emails.
It’s not just former employees who are worried about the direction The Telegraph is heading in. Sandra Ziehm sits on the city’s School Board. She’s experienced the shrinking of the paper firsthand through its coverage of local education.
When Ziehm started 12 years ago, a Telegraph reporter came to almost every meeting – now she says the paper only has the time to send a reporter to meetings once a week if at all. As a result, she says the paper has missed key details on issues like the debate over full-day kindergarten and competency grading.
“You have to understand they are educating the public – if they don’t get it right then anybody who reads that paper is going to get that wrong and then they are going to vote, influence their legislators as well, as a result of false information," Ziehm said.
In 2012, the paper’s daily circulation was around 16,000. That number has dropped to 9,000.
Phil Scontsas says reading The Telegraph was somewhat of a family tradition for him – his granddad read it, his dad, and now him.
But recently, he says, he’s found himself a little less prideful of his local paper.
“I think it’s harder to feel that way. I want to, but I think it’s become a little challenging, because they are not as involved or there’s not that connection – your feelings start to wane a little bit,” Scontsas said.
Marylou Blaisdell has also been a longtime subscriber. Blaisdell owns the shop Design Wares on Main Street and says staying informed about local affairs is key for her business.
While she doesn’t like the direction the paper has been going towards lately, she says losing it altogether would be worse.
“I think it would hurt our community. You need a local watchdog," Blasidell said. "A newspaper in some form is essential to a community, and I think it would be a very sad day if we didn’t have that.”