Local Citizens Launch Digital Newspaper
By Lorraine U. Martinelle
Special to The Citizen Chronicle
SOUTHBRIDGE — Residents of southern Worcester County hungry for the most current local news no longer have to starve.
Earlier this month, a group of 15 volunteers launched The Citizen Chronicle, a digital-only newspaper aimed at providing the most current coverage of municipal government and school news, sports and entertainment happenings, and even weather reports.
For decades, the Tri-Community area of Southbridge, Sturbridge, Charlton as well as Brimfield, Holland, and Wales, enjoyed regular coverage by Stonebridge Press-owned Southbridge Evening News and the (Worcester) Telegram & Gazette (T&G). An active group of reporters were stationed in The News office at 25 Elm St., Southbridge (the former Tiffany building), and in the T&G bureau in the Elm Centre building, next door. Staffers from both papers could be spotted with their pens and pads at meetings of the Southbridge Town Council, Charlton Board of Selectmen, Tantasqua Regional School Committee, and other boards and commissions. Lots of hard news landed the following morning and afternoon on their respective pages, which readers would flip through at diners throughout the area.
That was the daily routine up until social media platforms took on a more prominent role in news dissemination. Impatient consumers suddenly expected to get their news “now.” They didn’t want to wait until the next morning or afternoon. The impact of the Internet and then social media had on daily journalism could be felt locally: The last daily edition of the Southbridge Evening News was published on August 8, 2014. Its first weekly edition was published August 15, 2014.
Local news hasn’t been the same since.
“When I worked at The News, it was a daily with a strong following. We had three really good reporters, each producing two bylines a day, covering everything,” said Shaun Moriarty, who, along with a handful of other local residents, founded The Citizen Chronicle, a digital newspaper that launched Jan. 5. “The T&G had correspondents and staffers everywhere, even an office downtown. Those days are long gone due to the nature of the industry, staff cuts, and shrinking resources.
“Newspapers have struggled in large part because of technological changes in the dissemination of information,” added Moriarty, 35, now a history teacher at Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical High School in Palmer. He serves as editor of The Citizen Chronicle. “People don’t want to wait until Tuesday afternoon to hear what happened at Monday night’s meeting, and they sure don’t want to wait for a weekly newspaper to get to it several days, or weeks, later. By providing a digital local news outlet, that Monday meeting is reported on quickly and accurately. That’s what we offer via The Citizen Chronicle: coverage about the local things local people care about, accurate coverage, and getting it out there while it’s still actually news.”
The Chronicle was born courtesy of (surprise!) a simple Facebook comment.
“I made a public comment, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, on Facebook about the need to start a news outlet,” said Moriarty. “The response was swift and strong, affirming that a need is very real. Next thing I knew, we had a number of people not just agreeing, but offering to step up in a grassroots effort to make it happen.
“Our market study was the outburst of support for filling a void in local content. It became clear that it wasn’t just a guy like me — a former newsman and public official — who felt there was a gaping hole that had to be filled,” he added. “It’s everyday people who are clamoring for this sort of vehicle. We’ve had a lot of really great feedback about The Chronicle. While we have a bit of a primary focus in Southbridge due to our makeup, we’re confident that the void is not specific to that one town. We know better. We have members from surrounding towns who are here for that very reason. We have stories already in other towns, and stories in the pipelines from other towns.”
One interesting aspect about the Chronicle’s staff is that none of the members — sans Moriarty and Laurie Schlatter, a retired T&G copy editor — are professionally trained journalists. Their backgrounds range from education, law enforcement, sales, accounting and finance, and solar energy, among other fields. As such, the staff is discussing journalism ethics and standards to ensure accurate and fair reporting.
“I believe the skills we all have are so various that that is what makes The Citizen Chronicle work so well,” said Amy Lynn Fawe of Southbridge, a 43-year-old mother whose background is criminal justice and law enforcement. “Our skills and backgrounds mesh; we learn from each other.”
“What I think is great is that we do have some people with journalism and writing backgrounds to help us make our articles better,” said Kaitlin Lucier Servant, 37, of Southbridge. “I also want readers to know this is volunteer driven, and we are all community members who want to give back and help make our community more connected. I hope we exceed expectations, and I think we will. I also think that will help people feel less intimidated to get involved.”
Moriarty emphasized the need for the staff’s reporting to be fair, nonpartisan, unbiased, and free from agenda.
“Anything short of that isn’t the hyperlocal digital news outlet we’re striving to build and sustain,” he said. “We check the facts, we make the phone calls, we sit down with the people involved, and we put it together the way it was done when I was a professional journalist and freelance writer. We take pride in working quickly, working honestly, and working fairly, because that’s the job. Anything else is just another opinion-based blog or Facebook group. Those have their place and serve a role, but there’s a real information gap that we’re working hard to plug.”
Worth noting, within hours of Southbridge officials learning the town was awarded a grant of more than $230,000 earlier this month, The Chronicle had published the story online, with quotes from the town manager and several town councilors — beating the T&G and Southbridge News.
While most of the staff members have not met in person — part of the beauty of social media and online collaborative tools like Google Drive, FaceTime, and Skype — they all have a couple things in common: a love for the Southbridge area and the news it generates. And so far, they’ve noticed a great interest from the public.
“My favorite thing in all of this is that we haven’t met as a group yet,” said Kaitlin’s husband Ryan Servant. “Shaun and I have done a few video chats, but other than that, we have produced something out of nothing that in the first few days received almost 2,000 unique people reading.”
Eric Proulx, 23, lives in Charlton, and many of his relatives live in Southbridge. He works in the financial sales/telecommunications field as a marketing assistant at Crescendo Capital Partners in Sturbridge.
“I want people to read The Citizen Chronicle to stay informed with what’s going on in the community. There are a lot of things going on in and around the community that very few people know about, for example ice skating at The Rez or the new diner at the Southbridge Airport,” he said.
Webster resident Erick Nordby said he joined The Citizen Chronicle because there is a news vacuum and also because “Shaun Moriarty is a capable and competent man with experience in the news business. I feel that information for and by the local people is very necessary. While it seems that other organizations are retreating, good people stepped up. I followed Shaun, and I want to focus on the business side and fundraising but also plan to regularly contribute to the coverage when needed.”
A Southbridge High School graduate, Nordby, 33, is a founder and branch manager of Patriot Solar Cooperative in Southbridge. He said The Chronicle staff has discussed selling advertising, but there are no firm plans yet to do so. There are, however, plans to fundraise. While he’ll focus on the business end of running The Chronicle, Nordby will also help with reporting the news.
“In an age of endless data points and such, there has been a void in critical information,” he said. “Southbridge gets hammered by negative news. It’s a common refrain from people who don’t live here. So I think it is equally important to everyone involved to get a picture of the real Southbridge, the charm, the grit, the dedication to go along with the perception. There has been a large shift into decentralized formats within the business community, and it’s permeated everywhere.”
Jeff MacRae, 49, a photographer who lives in Sturbridge, agreed.
“Too much good happens in our community that goes unreported,” he said. “Usually the only time our area makes the news is when something bad happens. We’re trying to shed light on positive news and show people that this is still a caring community.”
One of the “good news” stories covered by The Chronicle was skating at The Rez in Southbridge.
“There were people recently skating at The Rez who learned about it being open because of our story,” said Kaitlin Servant, who was born in Southbridge, later moved to New York City, and returned home to the “Eye of the Commonwealth” in 2010. “That’s the kind of thing we want: for people to be more aware of what’s happening in their town. We have so many good people volunteering to do things, putting on events, trying to make things happen, but people don’t always know about it.
“My parents and grandparents were born and raised in Southbridge, too, so it’s in my blood,” she added. “I’m a stay-at-home mom, home educator, and a small business owner. I hope people will read The Citizen Chronicle to become more engaged and aware of what’s going on in their community. Find out what is available for them to utilize or where they could become more involved. Stay abreast of local politics so they can make informed decisions.”
Her husband Ryan Servant, 37, is also a Chronicle staffer. Their mutual decision to become citizen journalists stems from their passion for giving back to their community.
“Ryan and I want to help create more awareness of what is going on in Southbridge so that residents have the information they need to get involved — either by taking advantage of what the town is already offering, getting involved to fill a gap, voting, holding our elected officials accountable,” she said. “I hear people say, ‘I wish the town did this thing or that thing,’ when it already does.
“People work really hard to make things happen here, but there’s an image problem, and at least some of that is just that there wasn’t a consolidated source of information,” Kaitlin Servant added. “People are busy. They aren’t checking the town website calendar. Or they’re finding out about events after they happen in the newspaper.”
Ryan Servant grew up in Sturbridge, but his extended family is from Southbridge. His great-grandfather worked as a keeper of the reservoir in the early 20th century. Last year, Ryan became more engaged in local politics and reached out to Moriarty, a former Southbridge town councilor and chair of that panel, to get advice on the pros and cons of being a town councilor.
“I was concerned about not being able to dedicate enough time to Town Council with my travel schedule, and when I saw Shaun’s post on Facebook about creating an online newspaper, I thought something like this could be a good way for me to give back to the community,” said Ryan Servant, who created a smartphone app for the Brimfield Flea Market. “I have some background in developing websites as well as live video streaming, so what started as my trying to create a landing page to do live streaming of the Town Council’s meetings, turned into me creating a website in a few days while bouncing ideas off Shaun and my wife.”
Matthew Higgins, 24, an accountant who lives in Southbridge, covers sports. He noted: “People should read the The Citizen Chronicle because we’re in it for them, we hope to bring coverage to things that are most relatable to them, and they’ll come to appreciate the information we present because it will be important to them. We aren’t getting paid, so we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t want to do this. If you want change, become part of that change — that’s what we are doing here. Southbridge needs The Citizen Chronicle. Our surrounded communities need this, and we can provide it.”
Fawe echoed that sentiment: “I moved to Southbridge 10 years ago from Phoenix and have been in love with this town ever since. I had begun to feel as though Southbridge has been underrated and not given enough credit for potential, nor was it recognized for its illustrious past. I also felt like there were so many residents here who want change and their voices heard, but they aren’t willing to say anything or use action instead of words. This is why I think The Citizen Chronicle is such an amazing project, because it bonds common goals and community. The Chronicle was partially created to bring the community together.”
There isn’t one particular digital media outlet they aspire to be.
“We’re not trying to model after any digital news outlet. We’re trying to create something that works for our communities and go from there,” said Moriarty. “We hope to grow this and bring in more folks from surrounding communities to help cover the events in their communities.”
Added Ryan Servant: “Locals will want to read The Citizen Chronicle to get reporting from local citizens about local topics no one seems to cover. They’re encouraged to write for The Chronicle as much as they read it. Send us story ideas, send photos, tweet at us, Facebook message — let’s use whatever medium we can to inform each other.”
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