April 30, 2020

For 48 issues, the top of the local publication in Weare, New Hampshire read, “A free weekly production of the Weare Public Library.” And for 48 issues, one librarian did most of the work.

But shortly after Mike Sullivan died of natural causes last December, members of Weare’s writing group wondered how they could honor their friend. Complete his unfinished book projects? Continue the weekly paper, Weare in the World? The library, they found out, had no plans to keep up Sullivan’s passion project.

So six residents of Weare took on the job of chronicling life in a town without news.

Local newspapers are shrinking and closing and many local journalists, regardless of their medium, are on furlough due to the coronavirus’ brutal hit to the economy. But in Weare, the news continues – online for now. It’s not a solution, like in Oklahoma, to put journalists back to work. It’s not a project, like in Kansas, that brings local news back with the help of a nearby university. And, like in New York, it doesn’t cover a town with the help of middle and high school students. 

But it does show another way to keep a community informed about what’s happening there.

Sullivan created a popular crossword puzzle in each edition. In his memory, the memorial issue devoted one to him. (Screenshot)

Weare in the World

Sullivan started Weare in the World after the local newspaper closed in 2016. Weare, a town about 20 minutes southwest from Concord and 30 minutes northwest from Manchester, had about 9,000 residents according to the U.S Census Bureau’s 2018 numbers.

Weare in the World published weekly, and “everyone waited for that to come out. Everyone read every word,” said Patti Osgood, a community outreach coordinator with area schools.

“And then when it wasn’t around for awhile, I was only half kidding when I said I guess I’ll be standing with a sandwich board in the middle of town,” she said.

Parents may be connected with what’s happening with the schools, but all taxpayers deserve to know how their money’s being spent.

Weare in the World is now run by three former journalists and three people with no news experience. Rachel Cisto, a former journalist and volunteer, still builds the pages off of Sullivan’s template.

At first, the new staff, who have jobs and families and work of their own, switched from weekly copies to every other week. They still printed the six-page free local paper at the library. They covered staff shortages at the police department. They published local photos, like the dad who carved the New York City Public Library lions out of snow. They filled pages with community events including Boy Scout troop meetings in the Weare Middle School cafeteria and Seniorcize classes at town hall and a community coffee at the library to talk about the town budget.

In February, the top of the paper read, “In loving memory of Michael “Mr. Mike” Sullivan.” The next issue: “For Weare residents, by Weare residents.” Then: “This issue sponsored by Terry Knowles.”

Then, in March, another big shift: On April 8, under Volume 4, issue 3, it read: “Facing the COVID-19 pandemic together.”

Weare in the World Wide Web

Weare in the World quickly went through a transition that many local publications have made because of the coronavirus — it stopped printing went online only.

For now.

In a time when people can’t leave their homes, it’s great to have a place online to send them to for information, Osgood said. Derek Winsor, chair of Weare Democrats, agreed.

“The paper provides the community with stories of local and human interest that are especially helpful in these times where face-to-face interaction is so limited,” he said in an email. “It contains community news briefs, important updates ranging from school news to police officer hirings, and entertaining sections featuring everything from crossword puzzles and poems to interesting local history facts.  Weare in the World actively and enthusiastically encourages submission from everyone, which increases the sense of a shared local effort.  I believe it’s a vital part of maintaining our sense of connection and community, while providing important local updates.”

Cisto isn’t sure everyone knows where to find the news online now, and town reporter Tom Clow is talking to town managers about directing people to the website using a large letterboard sign in the center of town at the old town hall.

When life starts to crawl back to a start again, Cisto hopes to get the 350-400 print copies of Weare in the World out into the community again. It costs about $25 to print each issue, and that’s just paper and toner — the library still lends its printer. Weare in the World has had local ads in the past. Now it has a few sponsorships.

And when that crawl back to a start begins, there will be plenty of stories to tell — how are the local restaurants doing? The businesses? The school kids?

Weare isn’t in a news desert, Cisto said. TV stations from bigger cities will cover some news there, as will newspapers nearby, but “they just do a lot of talking around us.”

Weare isn’t alone.

About 200 counties in the U.S. have no local newspaper, the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media News Deserts project reported. Of the 1,800 papers lost since 2004, 1,700 are weeklies. Since the coronavirus virtually shut down the economy, it’s taken more newsrooms with it — so far at least 11 by our count.

That means more than just big news goes unreported. There’s also the small stuff, the stuff that makes a community a community.

“The Union Leader isn’t going to come and report on the Boy Scout’s spaghetti dinner,” Cisto said. “The Concord Monitor isn’t going to come and report on the senior whose class project was directing a play.”

It’s all news that matters to the community, she said, “and it’s stuff that we can do.”

Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for Poynter.org and writes a weekly newsletter on the transformation of local news. You can subscribe here. Kristen can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a comment from Derek Winsor. Also an earlier version of this story noted Cisto was working to get a sign up directing people online. That’s actually the work of town reporter Tom Clow. The story has been updated. We apologize for the error. 

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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