Walking Like A Duck

By Greg O’Brien: Codfish Press

Last time we checked Webster’s for the word “independent,” the definition read: “not influenced or controlled by others…not relying on another for aid or support.” Cape Cod Times Publisher Peter Meyer must have printed his own dictionary or has a wordsmith license to play on words. In announcing in Tuesday’s paper that corporate parent, New-York based Ottaway had just purchased the venerable Barnstable Patriot, ending 175 years of independent ownership, Meyer declared, “The critical factor is that we have two independent voices. We will absolutely maintain that…We will not have one unified editorial voice…we will compete for news and so will they.”

Oh, and by the way, Meyer indicated, Ottaway is hungry for more independent Cape voices. Winter is coming, you know, and we have to put on some weight. “Frankly, if there are other quality weeklies available on Cape Cod, we’d be interested in talking with them as well,” Meyer said in a comment that sounded like it was cast in the boardroom, or lifted from one of Fidelity Investment’s news releases when its Community Newspaper Company began swallowing up The Cape Codder, The Register and just about everything in eastern Massachusetts with black ink. The company has since been sold to Herald Media, which (observers suggest) is entertaining possible suitors.Be careful, Peter, you may get what you wish. The only loser here will be the community. Let’s face it, history has shown that quality independent weeklies consumed by corporate giants have become editorial shells of themselves—attractive shoppers or trapper keepers for ads. This has everything to do with why corporations exist—to make money—and there is nothing wrong with that! But it has nothing to do with quality editorial, which tends to become formatted with corporate ownership, then watered down to a puddle of itself.

The Cape Cod Times is a fine daily newspaper, arguably one of the best small dailies in the country, and much of the credit belongs to Meyer and his knack for excellence. Ottaway also has done a sound job with its Nantucket weekly acquisition, The Inquirer & Mirror, leaving local hands on the keyboards. But Nantucket is different—a land apart, as they say, in spirit as well as geography. The Inky is still the lifeblood on the island, the dominant influence.The Barnstable Patriot is another kettle of fish. Former owners, Rob and Toni Sennott, have done an extraordinary job running the paper under difficult economic conditions and under the ever-expanding circulation shadow of the Times just up the street. Hard to dominate when you’re in a sandbox with the big kid.So it was no surprise the paper was sold. And Ottaway, if it keeps its mitts off other Cape weeklies, might just do a decent job of overseeing the Patriot. It’s reassuring that Rob and editor David Still II will remain in place, at least for now. What concerns me is the possibility that Ottaway, with an appetite of newspaper proportion, will attempt to digest other fine Cape weeklies, The Cape Cod Chronicle in Chatham and The Enterprise of Falmouth, among them.I know something of chewing off more than you can properly digest. As former editor and publisher of The Cape Codder under the late Malcolm Hobbs, a surrogate father, I oversaw the sale to Community Newspaper Company of The Cape Codder, The Register, Cape Cod News, Sandwich Broadsider, Osterville Advertiser, Bourne Courier and all of the former Memorial Press Group Oracles on the Cape. On paper, it looked good! In print, the papers in time began yellowing with corporate formats and special advertising buys. The newsroom, which once ran the operation, became a back office. It showed. I’m responsible for setting this dissolution in motion, and will take those sins to the grave.

Perhaps, there is no other way, and that’s sad, given the cold realities of newspapering these days. If we pause for a second of silence, we can hear the fading encouragement of Hobbs, the late John Ullman and the late Henry Beetle Hough—patriarchs of country newspapering, a craft that has passed, but one that enticed many of us years ago to plumb its depths.“Perfection is beyond us, but striving for it isn’t” Hobbs once wrote. “Anyone can dip gobs of colored paint and dab the result on canvas. How the colors are arranged distinguishes the painter from the daubler.” Ullman, managing editor of The Cape Codder for 36 years and a pragmatist (he once worked on the floor of the stock market and advised businesses in how to become more profitable), counseled us years ago, “A newspaper is not a money-making operation, not a commercial enterprise. It has to make money, it has to get and stay in the black ink, but the purpose of the profit is only to permit it to publish another day.” It was Hough, legendary editor of the Vineyard Gazette, who understood most the significance of institutional knowledge in running a good paper. “Instead of being qualified in a profession, it seems to me that I have taken root in a place,” he said.

In a 1996 introduction to a reissue of Hough’s celebrated Country Editor that was printed after his death, Hough’s friend and colleague Walter Cronkite quoted from the Rev. John Golding’s eulogy at Hough’s funeral: “Thoreau once said that one is not born into the world to do everything, but to do something. Henry Hough did something for 65 years—with a small newspaper, in a small town, on a small island. And he did it with such deliberate and concentrated attention that the world off-Island soon took notice. What he wrote and what he stood for was so specific to this place that it was universal.” Indeed, something for all us to emulate. We all fall short of his mark. And so I wish you luck, Peter, on Ottaway’s new venture, but on the “independent” stuff about the Barnstable Patriot of the future, be cautious of the corporate speak. Been there, done that. When it smells like a corporate duck, looks like one and quacks like one, it’s a corporate duck. No waddling about it!

(Greg O’Brien is former editor & publisher of The Cape Codder, The Register, Cape Cod News and other Cape weeklies. He’s also one of the founding managing directors of Community Newspaper Company. O’Brien now is president of Stony Brook Group, a publishing and strategy company based in Brewster. His Codfish Press and Boston Cod blogs are linked to capecodtoday.com.)

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