The Beacon on the Ropes

The Beacon, Acton’s weekly newspaper, is clearly suffering.

For this political observer, it takes about 2 minutes to read through the paper these days.

There are no compelling “letters to the editor,” unless you want to read "thank you" notes.

The news articles typically rehash what has happened at this or that local committee meeting. Nothing is covered consistently.

There are no investigative stories about town government. The Beacon appears to want to stick to its editorial during the last Selectman’s race, where it praised Acton as “an amazing place to live” and nothing needs to change. Of course, all around the world, the economy is in recession and we need a new way of approaching problems. This doesn’t appear to be a concern of the Beacon’s. Everything is fine in Acton and all the children are above average.

At the last Finance Committee meeting, one member mentioned “The O word,” meaning override. At the last School Committee meeting, one member said that we needed to keep up our reserve levels at 5% because of the uncertain economy and state aid. Local transportation aid has just been cut again and the town expects next year’s state aid to drop by 10% or more. Meanwhile the boards are planning for budget increases of 3% and taxes going up 2.5%, even as local unemployment climbs. Do you think there might be some articles on any of these subjects that the Beacon might want to tackle?

As the paper gets smaller, the Beacon’s space for news articles has shrunk. Most of the articles are of the “feel good” variety. Articles like this are great for the people involved but not so great for democracy or public discourse. At best, there should be an equal mix of feature stories, hard reporting, and opinion. That mix is now 100%, 0% and 0%.

We also keep losing our local reporters. It takes about six months for a reporter to get up to speed on what is happening in town. It requires going to a couple of board or committee meetings a week (or watching those meetings on Acton Forum.) Unfortunately, it has been a bit of a revolving door in the last couple of years, and that seems to have accelerated recently. I'm sure the cutbacks announced by Gatehouse media (the Beacon's parent company) are not helping matters.

We don’t need a reporter to go to a meeting and report what happened. We need a reporter with insight, who can listen to the discussion and figure out what it means. Then he or she needs to ask the tough questions. That takes experience. The Beacon has always had a fairly poor track record in this area, but it is important work to do.

The Beacon has a critical role to play. It should act as a connector among all of the residents of Acton, keeping them informed, warning them of problems, getting them involved. That is hard to do if you are losing subscribers, or the space for articles is shrinking, or the staff is being cut back, or if no one with experience is writing the articles, or if everything the town and staff say are accepted at face value.

The Beacon needs to review its purpose and then marshal its resources to make sure its purpose is being fulfilled. There are still good reasons to subscribe to the Beacon and to support its mission, but the Beacon has to make that case to its readers every week through the product it delivers.

The Constitution gives newspapers in particular, and the press in general, a special status in our society. Our founding fathers knew that a free press was vital to democracy. The Beacon needs to start acting like a member of this group.

Allen Nitschelm publishes the Acton Forum and The Homesteader, a monthly newspaper for new and recent homeowners.

Comments

Beacon Is Fluff

Alan,

I enjoyed your opinion on "The Beacon." As a long-time subscriber, I have found that the paper has very little between its front and back pages other than a great deal of advertisements (which pay for most of a newspaper) and very little else. I would like to learn about the news and then learn about the reporter's "take" on the news item if s/he feels that there may be one or more implications to an event or decision that might not be obvious to many of us. Sometimes, a reporter has knowledge of multiple events that could have a great deal more meaning than simply the reporting of a single, seemingly isolated event or decision. I want to learn about those too. I always kept hoping that this would somehow appear. To date, it has not happened.

At some point, one has to consider if the cost of the paper justifies the benefit that one derives from reading it. I reached that point a week or so ago and am considering whether or not I should use some of my income to support "The Beacon" any longer.

B. Rosen