Its paper closed, one community bounced back — with a librarian in charge

Mike Sullivan knew his new weekly newspaper in New Hampshire was taking off when he saw people waiting for it as he dropped off new editions on Tuesday afternoons at the general store and the local Dunkin Donuts.

Those readers weren’t all waiting for the answers to last week’s crossword puzzle, either. “It’s a very odd thing; something I didn’t expect,” Sullivan says.

Started in March, Weare in the World has done other things for the southern New Hampshire bedroom community of Weare. The summer’s Old Home Day was unusually well attended, as was the town’s Christmas party. More kids than ever showed up at the Lions Club’s Breakfast with Santa, Sullivan said. Through the event listings, the community’s seniors club discovered the town also had a seniors exercise club.

The idea for the modest four-page paper came from town residents and officials, who had felt a loss with the closing of a quarterly community newspaper in 2016.

The day job of the new editor reflects a trend in America’s “news deserts” — Sullivan’s day job is town librarian. Libraries, popular with patrons and a natural regional information hub, are playing a bigger role in local news several places nationwide, including San Antonio and the Black Hills of South Dakota.

“I collect the information from everyone in town,” says Sullivan, who has spent half his 50 years as a librarian but, before last March, none of it as a journalist. Minutes later, his inbox bings with a new item emailed from the police chief.

Sullivan is happy. “He’s a pretty concise writer,’’ he says of the police chief, “so I don’t have to do a lot of editing.”

Sullivan was a natural pick. He had started or overhauled email newsletters at previous libraries. Sullivan also runs the library’s web page, newsletter and Facebook page, as well as the town’s Facebook page — and prowls local websites and web pages for events.

Getting into the job, which takes about eight hours a week, he shared concerns of many weekly newspapers editors that he might not have enough to fill each issue. But the sheer number of community events, which often take more than a page, has surprised both Sullivan and his newspaper and online PDF readers.

Make no mistake: Weare in the World is no Washington Post; it features front-page pictures of school plays and kids with Santa, not investigative scoops. But it’s providing identity for a bedroom community once known as the longtime home of former Supreme Court Justice David Souter and a toy manufacturing center.

"He walks on water in my book,” says Patti Osgood, an outreach specialist with the regional school district, whose students and events are among those featured. “There is such a void for local information."

Sullivan’s role quickly has come to be valued, Osgood says. "A month or so ago, the copier at the library just died, and people printed [the PDF] out and got it out to people who didn't get it online,” she says.

In some ways, this New Hampshire town provides an antidote to the sad-sack cycle when a community loses its original information outlet: when residents lose their sense of what’s happening, don’t get involved, grow more distrustful of government.

Also at risk when that happens: A community’s common ethos and sense of distinctiveness, says Lee Shaker of Portland State University, a local newspaper expert examining these ties.

“Most of the yammering about the decline of local reporting usually centers on the decline on investigative reporting, but that’s only part of what local media do,” Shaker says.

Local media reflect and establish community identity, a symbiotic relationship between press and government, Shaker says. They cover local festivals, holidays, graduations and new businesses. As newspapers die or newspaper chains consolidate publishers, a community loses the people who made those connections.

Sullivan, the editor/librarian, says libraries can fill some of the gaps to help. “It’s certainly the way the world’s going,’’ he says. “Librarians can fill in the need. We serve a broader community.”

Librarians do have a few insights into a community that journalists may not get, says Peter Vankevich, co-owner of the monthly Ocracoke (N.C.) Observer. Vankevich, a Library of Congress employee for 32 years, ran the community library when he first moved to the coastal community on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

There, he began an “intercambio” campaign in which newer Spanish-speaking workers and longtime English-language residents got together to exchange language skills. That was just one way to build connections and discover new groups inside a community, without the stress of a daily deadline, he says.

Back in New Hampshire, Patti Osgood, the education official, says the humble weekly newspaper in Weare has created a night-and-day change.

"I've lived in the area for 30 years, and I never remembered a sense of community of Weare before. This publication, she says, “has really reinvigorated the community."

After nine months, Sullivan, who also teaches guitar and chess at the library, says he is getting the hang of this journalism thing.

“I’m always working three editions at one time,” he says.

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Readers, do you have stories of journalist/library collaborations? Let the author know at beardwrites@gmail.com.

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