Year Two Update: Marblehead Beacon Remains Committed to Impactful Journalism
As Marblehead Beacon dives into its second year, we remain committed to fostering transparency and accountability in our local government. When we launched, we knew that our lean citizen journalism operation would work diligently to provide a service we believed had been absent long before the Marblehead Reporter/Gannett News transitioned to regional coverage.
What we did not know was whether we would be able to grow our news outlet with a purely grassroots effort. In terms of getting the word out, our primary resources were sweat equity, our collective work and life experiences in Marblehead, and the contacts we had made over decades living in town. Ultimately, the outcome exceeded our expectations, and we continue to grow and (hopefully) improve every day. We are in the process of making several modifications and streamlining our website, and we of course remain open to reader input – of any variety.
The questions and answers below are designed to more clearly define who and what we are as we look ahead, and to clarify some ongoing matters of note.
Did Marblehead Beacon launch because there was a “news desert” in town?
While Marblehead Beacon was the first of the three local news sources to launch in 2022 – seemingly as a result of Gannett News announcing that the Marblehead Reporter would be migrating to a regional model – our discussions about creating a new local news service actually predated that development. Our founders had spoken with many other local residents who all shared the conviction that the fox had long been guarding the hen house. In other words, there was no local news outlet consistently operating as a watchdog with regard to the town’s management and the taxpayers’ interests, and to the extent stories were covered, they often lacked teeth. Marblehead Beacon was started to provide a type of news coverage that we felt had long been missing and that was essential to ensuring good governance for our community.
How often do you publish and how do you make your decisions about what to publish?
Digital vs. Print
Because we are unencumbered by print deadlines and newspaper space considerations, we publish when there is a story we deem worthwhile. We do not have to consider saving important stories for a print edition, and we never have to worry about a story being stale or irrelevant once published, because everything we publish is digitally accessible immediately and for free.
Quality vs. Quantity
Our focus – particularly as we head into year two – is on coverage that is impactful. While some news sources churn out volume, we have never been in a race for quantity. There are several reasons for this.
First: Other local news sources such as Marblehead Current and Marblehead Weekly News do an excellent job covering happenings around town, sports, the arts, and other areas of interest. Why duplicate the effort when others do a fine job providing such coverage? Occasionally we have delved into some of these arenas (our personal favorite being human-interest profiles), but for the most part, we have opted to use our modest resources to focus on serving as a watchdog on the goings-on of town government and related matters.
Second: We are an incredibly small operation, which means we must be selective in what we cover, and at times do not publish routinely, as we are working on stories. Generally speaking, we opt not to cover subjects already published in other outlets unless we are able to deliver substantially different or additional insights. Rather than rushing to publish first, we choose to focus on getting the story right and making it worth our readers' time.
Importantly, we have witnessed other news outlets change details in already published stories without noting that such changes were made. The rules of professional journalism (since the dawning of the internet age) dictate that substantive changes be noted. Marblehead Beacon has always done this to ensure that readers are aware when stories are modified after their original publication.
News vs. Opinion
News is generally defined as purely factual information (“this event happened"). Opinion offers the point of view of a specific author or group of editors (“I/we think you should believe this or vote for that”). Marblehead Beacon has opted to focus on the former rather than the latter. We have not written any editorials to date, although as a for-profit news organization we are not prohibited from doing so, including endorsing candidates for public office. Nevertheless, we remain convinced that at least for now we can do our jobs most effectively by focusing on factual reporting, analysis, and investigative journalism.
This does not mean we take a bare bones approach. In fact, as is the case with many news sources around the nation, some of our stories fall into a third category – sometimes referred to as news analysis or explanatory journalism – that includes both reporting the straight facts of a story and providing relevant context. This may mean offering background information or analysis from subject-matter experts or individuals with relevant perspectives or experiences. (For instance, in an article about how the Town of Marblehead conducts an aspect of its business, we may offer contextual data or quotations related to how another similarly situated town handles similar matters.) It also may mean that we offer historical perspectives that shed light on current happenings. Rather than attempt to convince our readers to share our own personal beliefs, our goal is to provide the resources necessary for readers to develop their own informed opinions.
As a part of this process, we do welcome opinion pieces from members of the community, which we publish either as Letters to the Editor or as Op Eds. Our focus is always on highlighting varying political perspectives and providing a fair hearing to divergent viewpoints.
Skin in the Game
All of us at Marblehead Beacon live in town, which can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes the news we bring our readers is unpleasant, which can leave us with a skunk-at-a-lawn-party feeling. The flip side, however, is that we all have skin in the game, as our homes, jobs, and families are linked to the successes and failures of Marblehead, which we believe makes our reporting sharper. Living where one reports is not a requirement, but our collective experience and presence in town allow us to analyze stories from a boots-on-the-ground perspective, which is more likely to lead to our cultivation of multiple sources and accurate reporting. We believe that when readers are looking to learn what is happening beyond the surface, they can count on Marblehead Beacon to work hard to get those facts.
Extensive Past Coverage
Though we never focus on being first to report a story – preferring instead to emphasize accuracy and depth when possible – it is important to note that we were actually the first to bring readers accurate projections and results for all the town and regional elections of the last year. Additionally, we ran stories that were unmatched in their analysis and depth regarding the fundraising of the six Democrat candidates in the 8th Essex District race for State Representative. Our questions and coverage resulted in five of the six candidates who had accepted donations from lobbyists either returning their donations or categorically rejecting lobbyist funds.
Our in-depth multi-part series on the management of the Town of Marblehead’s funds generated significant conversation in the community, and was followed by the town moving its payroll to another institution. In part through our successful appeals to the Secretary of the Commonwealth regarding access to public information, Marblehead Beacon continues to work on the developing story of how our town's resources are handled and whether there is consistently prudent financial management.
Other in-depth stories covered by Marblehead Beacon over the past year include a multi-part series on the performance of our local public schools, multiple stories about the departure of school administrators including the high school principal and the superintendent, post-election analysis, and coverage of several open-meeting violation complaints including against the Board of Health and the School Committee.
A related note about our reporting: Of vital importance to our stories is the participation of candidates and town officials in responding to our requests for information and comments. Frequently we have been encouraged and impressed by the desire of public officials and those running for office to be transparent. But as our longtime readers are aware, this is not always the case. In several instances, we have been met with obfuscation, the outright refusal to respond, or – in the case of one state representative candidate – public displays of anger and blame after an election loss.
We always reach out to relevant parties before publishing a story and, if we do not receive a response, we note this in our coverage.
How does Marblehead Beacon manage potential conflicts of interest?
Because we live in the town on which we report, conflicts of interest or perceived conflicts of interest can arise. Since Marblehead Beacon’s launch, we have chosen to disclose these potential conflicts via editors’ notes. Our disclosure policy is far and away the most robust of the news sources in town, which is particularly relevant when held up against other local publications that have significant conflicts not routinely disclosed.
In some cases we’ve been told that our editors’ notes constitute “over disclosing.” We’ve operated with an abundance of caution, preferring to ensure that any reader can make an individual judgment as to whether we operate from a place of bias.
Marblehead Beacon's coverage of the schools and the role of former Superintendent John Buckey was a specific example in which we understood that there easily could be a perception of a conflict of interest, as one of our founders – Jenn Schaeffner – was elected to the school committee approximately three months ago. During her campaign, we announced that she had taken a leave from Marblehead Beacon to focus on her campaign, and once she was elected, we announced (and continue to do so in each article pertaining to the public schools) that she does not play any role in our schools coverage.
The newsworthiness of the Buckey/School Committee topic made and makes it particularly important that Marblehead Beacon exercise care in its reporting. We also must check ourselves to make sure that there is never an unintentional bias in how and what we report. It is not a science to be sure, but we make this assurance to our readers: Jenn Schaeffner does not exercise editorial involvement or control in any stories pertaining to the public schools. We remain aware that some will be skeptical that we can remain balanced and unbiased in our publishing decisions, which we understand. With our tiny operation, the most we can offer is to do our best on all fronts and always prioritize disclosure.
We encourage anyone who is concerned about Marblehead Beacon biases (or anything else) to feel free to communicate with us anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How does Marblehead Beacon stay in business? Will you become a registered non-profit?
The good news is that we have a bare-bones budget, purposely keeping our costs extremely low (insurance, web hosting, public-records requests, and some other small things). No salaries or payments to staff (we are all still volunteers at this point). No headquarters. No tote bags, t-shirts, sweatshirts, water bottles, or other “merch.” No money dedicated to hiring advertising sales staff, and no traveling to conferences. These things could certainly be fun and arguably quite useful, and at some point any of them could be in the Marblehead Beacon cards, but right now we are one-track minded: the majority of any efforts we devote to Marblehead Beacon will be on news coverage.
Our minimalist no-frills budget is challenging, at times limiting our publishing bandwidth. And there is little doubt that additional funds would be advantageous. We maintain a donation button on our website, but prior to our launch we agreed that our efforts to draw in readers would come through word of mouth – at least for a while. We would not proactively seek meaningful funding from outside sources until we were well on our way to proving ourselves – by demonstrating our ability to offer a valuable service distinguishable from that of any other news source. We hope that Marblehead Beacon’s 14 months in operation have accomplished this.
Non-profit vs. For-profit Operations
A common misconception is that registered non-profits do not generate profit for anyone involved. In fact, non-profits from local news outlets to Harvard University to the American Heart Association use donations, grants, and/or advertising revenue to pay for – among other things – salaries and marketing. Some have enormous administrative costs and executive compensation in the millions, and some are more mindful about frugality. Others fall somewhere in the middle.
We’ve all heard about the fact, for instance, that attending college has become less affordable for many, while many of these not-for-profit institutions have bloated administrative and marketing costs, all while maintaining their non-profit status. This is not to say that all non-profit institutions are bad. On the contrary, not-for-profit entities can accomplish extraordinary good. But they – like for-profits – care about their bottom line, which is why they so often send out fundraising pitches.
Major benefits in the non-profit sector include donations being tax deductible for the donor, lower-cost mailing, and access to grant money. Local non-profit news organizations are popping up around the country in part because there are now grants waiting to be doled out in this realm, as for-profit entities struggle to make themselves financially viable within a dramatically shifting news landscape.
Marblehead Beacon opted not to seek not-for-profit status primarily because we wanted to maintain independence and not have limitations placed on us. We may change course at some point to take advantage of the volume of grant money available as well as the desire of some donors to be able to write off their contributions. For now, however, we are maintaining our (non-profitable) for-profit model.
Unexpected and Much Appreciated Donations
One unexpected development is that Marblehead Beacon has received largely unsolicited contributions from strangers and friends, and these funds have helped offset our present and anticipated costs – things such as insurance, web hosting, and public records requests. To date none of us has collected a nickel in payment for our work at Marblehead Beacon. But whenever we receive a donation, our gratitude and excitement are palpable because the support reinforces our belief that we are producing something of value to the community. To be clear: contributions to Marblehead Beacon are not tax deductible, and while we wish we could offer the tax deductibility to our donors, we have learned that the lack of a write-off is not a deal breaker for everyone.
Advertising Pros and Cons
Early on, Marblehead Beacon focused some attention on generating advertising revenue, and we were pleased to accept ad placements from a number of local businesses. We even tried Google ads for a time, though we quickly realized that the revenue was negligible and did nothing to offset the extreme annoyance of ubiquitous pop-ups in multiple locations on every article. But local ad sales require a significant investment of time, and we decided to put our ad sales efforts on hold to allow us to focus on investigative and analytical reporting and writing. Sustainability and revenue remain important goals, but at present our primary purpose is to contribute to the shedding of light in needed areas, thereby promoting transparency by our local government officials.
Do you have plans to print Marblehead Beacon? Why are you the only one of the three papers not sending a print edition to every address in town?
We decided early on that we would be going strictly digital. Yes, that means no mass mailings of free newspapers to every household and business in Marblehead, which translates to: No automatic eyeballs on our product. While some enjoy getting a hard copy of a newspaper, we are aware that every major newspaper in the country has seen a massive decline in their hard-copy readership, and to undertake something that heads against the tide would require significantly more dollars and energy than our lean operation has available.
Specifically: The costs associated with the weekly printing and the mailing to every address in Marblehead requires spending thousands of dollars every week. As noted earlier, we are an extremely lean operation, and every penny of our funds are dedicated strictly to the necessities. And our team has decided that even if we were to unearth a bag of cash, we would not be adding another print newspaper to mailboxes or the planet.
How robust is your readership?
One extraordinary (and free) benefit of being strictly digital is that we are able to track the growth of our readership. Our (free) email newsletter subscription list continues to grow (and we take care not to spam or bombard our readers with emails). Our website traffic has surpassed our initial expectations, and while we are hopeful that we will acquire new readers, we are excited at the pace our readership has grown. We welcome new subscribers to our online newsletter HERE, and invite you to follow us on Facebook and Instagram to quickly access new stories.