This paper’s new editor — its youngest and first female — is fiercely protective of a changing institution

December 12, 2018

Growing up, Maggie Cassidy, her brother and their dog, Cocoa, often ended up in the newsroom.

She remembers paste-up boards, X-Acto knives, shouting across the bullpen and tiny computer screens with black backgrounds and green letters.

Her dad, Gene Cassidy, worked then as a columnist at the MetroWest Daily News in Framingham, Massachusetts. He later became an editor.

Now Cassidy is following his career path, but in her very own way.

In late November, the Valley News in West Lebanon, New Hampshire, named Cassidy the paper’s newest editor. She’s the first woman to fill the role and the youngest, but neither of those got her the job.

“What I think strikes a lot of people about Maggie is the bridge that she provides between the old and the new,” said the man she’s replacing, Martin Frank, who’s been at the Valley News for 30 years.

The old, he said, are the principles of good journalism. The new is how to apply those principles to new forms of journalism.

Valley News Web Editor Maggie Cassidy, photographed during a meeting at the Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 4, 2018, has been named the newspaper's next Editor. She is the first woman to lead the newsroom in its 66-year history. (Valley News/Jennifer Hauck)

The Valley News is a 25-person newsroom that’s part of the family-owned Newspapers of New England. It owns weeklies and dailies in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. And it’s in a place where change arrives slowly.

“We always joke that it seems like things come to the Upper Valley, if not last, close to last,” said publisher Dan McClory.

Some communities there still don’t have great internet access, for instance, and others still use dial-up, he said.

So when Cassidy started at the Valley News seven years ago, she found a newsroom that hadn’t yet felt the crunch that others had, and because of that, it wasn’t really on the internet. In 2012, she became its first web editor.

In that role, both McClory and Frank said, she’s worked to help her colleagues figure out digital journalism in a way that preserves the voice and institution of the Valley News.

“She came to the Valley News and watched old-school journalism being practiced,” Frank said, “and the respect that she expresses for how we go about things is genuine.”

Cassidy’s been deliberate, reporting out new tools and approaches before bringing them to her newsroom. She wants to be just as skeptical and wary as her coworkers, she said, and she wants to judge everything they try against how it will help them with their core mission of making good journalism.

She decided to start out with a coalition of the willing, she said, and then expand as people saw what was working.

That happened last year with breaking news online, something that wasn’t done at all when she started at the Valley News. Cassidy started working with fellow breaking news junkies, including a cops and courts reporter and a news editor. Over time, people started approaching her about breaking news on their own beats.

Valley News Web Editor Maggie Cassidy, right, participates in the weekly planning meeting at the Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 4, 2018. From left are Photo Editor Geoff Hansen, News Editor John Gregg, Editor Martin Frank and Features Editor Alex Hanson. Cassidy has been named the newspaper's next Editor, starting the job on Dec. 17. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.
Valley News Web Editor Maggie Cassidy, right, participates in the weekly planning meeting at the Valley News in West Lebanon, New Hampshire, on Dec. 4, 2018. From left are Photo Editor Geoff Hansen, News Editor John Gregg, Editor Martin Frank and Features Editor Alex Hanson. Cassidy has been named the newspaper's next Editor, starting the job on Dec. 17. (Jennifer Hauck/Valley News)

Two years ago, when a five-alarm fire hit downtown 30 minutes before their print deadline, a few reporters headed to the scene while a few others got online remotely to cover the story. It missed the newspaper, but when readers woke up, the Valley News had all the details waiting for them online.

“… Each time we came to a juncture where there were questions about how we live in this new world and maintain our adherence to our principals, I always felt comfortable asking Maggie,” Frank said, “and she was really good at doing some research and checking out best practices at other newspapers.”

She’s also experimented with a microsite called UV Index. It grew out of conversations about how to give the site more voice and tell stories in ways that feel more natural to the internet. But Cassidy thought it was important to try that in a space that didn’t impact the Valley News.

“I prefer keeping the Valley News voice as true as possible across all platforms,” she said.

Cassidy wasn’t the only internal candidate for the job, McClory said. They were all strong, but Cassidy stood out.

“She has really been the driving force behind our movement to more of a digital presence, and she has really earned the respect from all of her colleagues in the newsroom,” he said.

Putting her in charge seemed like the logical next step, he said, as the Valley News tries to navigate an unclear new future.

Cassidy figures her first year in the new job will be tough. The newspaper is moving to smaller print pages and a bigger web presence. And she doesn’t have years of experience to fall back on, she said.

But many of her colleagues do, and, while she’s confident in her own judgment, she plans to collaborate with them. She’s not just building on her dad’s background in news for this either, but on her mom’s career. Nancy Cassidy works in management.

She’ll blend both, just like she’s working to blend old and new in the newsroom.

There’s a caricature of newspapers, particularly smaller ones, she said. The people there don’t want to change. Their heads are in the sand.

She understands where that comes from, and it might be a little true, but she thinks the real issue is the approach.

“My experience has been that journalists want to do good work, they want to reach readers in the best way,” said Cassidy, who takes over next week, “but they don’t want to do something for the sake of doing it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story got Maggie Cassidy’s start date wrong. We apologize for the error.