Focus on Journalism

Twice a week the Vineyard Gazette sends out an e-newsletter that includes links to interesting stories in the current paper and a short editorial commentary. A few weeks ago, the newsletter included an open invitation from publisher Jane Seagrave: the Gazette was holding an “informal focus group” to discuss the paper’s role in the community and what the future might hold.

Eh wot? This was a no-brainer. I was an island journalist for eight years; I’m interested in journalism in general, especially the interplay of print and digital; and I’m obsessed with Martha’s Vineyard and how it works — or doesn’t.

I fired off my acceptance. Turns out my promptness was a plus: response was so overwhelming that people had to be turned away, and the Gazette has promised to hold other such gatherings in the future.

On the appointed date, May 5, I showed up at the appointed hour, 5 p.m., and with a couple of other barely-on-time arrivals was escorted by a Gazette staffer to the newsroom upstairs.

Aside: For those who’ve never visited the Gazette offices: “rabbit warren” doesn’t do the place justice. They’re housed in a dignified old house a block off Edgartown’s Main Street. The business-related offices are wisely located near the front door, where would-be advertisers have half a chance of finding them. The newsroom is accessed by narrow hallways and a staircase that turns often enough that you don’t know what direction you’re facing when you get to the top. Don’t ask me to draw you a map.

 The newsroom was full of people signing in, sipping wine, nibbling hors d’oeuvres, and chatting. I recognized a lot of them. I didn’t recognize a lot of them. I wondered how this many people were going to discuss anything in any depth.

Turns out the organizers were prepared. After a brief introduction by publisher Seagrave, our attention was called to the colored dots on our nametags. These denoted our focus group assignment. My dot was red. I and the other red dots followed the Gazette staffer with the red placard down the stairs to the long narrow production room adjacent to the venerable presses that still print the paper.

Each group was assigned the same three questions:

Question 1

Thinking broadly about the Vineyard Gazette — its history, its place in the Martha’s Vineyard community, its journalism, photography and overall design, its online presence, etc. — what aspects of the Vineyard Gazette do you value most?

Question 2

In an effort to find a sustainable business model in an era of declining print subscriptions, newspapers across the country are experimenting with different approaches to get readers to pay. Thinking about the Vineyard Gazette, please give your reactions to the following business models:

Online paywall — Access to articles on the Vineyard Gazette website would be restricted to people who had a subscription. Some number of views would be available before a user would be prompted to provide a password.

NPR model — Users of the Vineyard Gazette website would be asked periodically to donate voluntarily to sustain journalism.

Membership model — The Vineyard Gazette would provide additional benefits to “members” to support a subscription fee, e.g., exclusive content, access to special events, merchandise premiums, discount coupons.

Question 3

Thinking in more detail about a membership model, what types of benefits might entice you to pay to become a “member” of the Vineyard Gazette. Please provide reactions to these ideas or offer your own.

• Exclusive events, such as a series of interviews with newsmakers, panel discussions on current events, or social gatherings with other members.

• Additional content, such as special reports, booklets or email alerts.

• Merchandise, such as clothing featuring the Vineyard Gazette insignia.

• Discount coupons to Island events or vendors.

Semi-random thoughts and impressions

The focus on economic sustainability was no surprise. Print journalism is in trouble and/or in transition, depending on how you look at it. It’s amazing that a place the size of Martha’s Vineyard can sustain two weekly newspapers, period. And with the digital age well under way, many of us have become accustomed to accessing an array of high-quality content without paying for it. It’s all too easy to forget that producing that high-quality content takes time and skill, and that most of the producers need to make a living.

The crowd was older rather than younger. At almost 64 I was probably around the median. My strong sense from both the small group I was in and the report-back plenary session at the end was that the majority were summer people and relatively recent arrivals. I surmised this partly from the number of people I didn’t recognize but mostly from the number of comments that oohed and aahed about the Gazette’s design and photography and how it gave people a connection with “the island community.” In my experience, longtime year-rounders don’t talk like that. We don’t need a newspaper to connect us to “the island community”: we’re up to our hairlines in it.

These were, predominantly and not surprisingly, “Gazette people” as opposed to “Times people,” as in Martha’s Vineyard Times people. (New York Times people and Gazette people overlap significantly.) Needless to say, both groups are large and diverse, but still I strongly suspect that a focus group that comprised mostly longtime year-rounders and native islanders would have different ideas about what the Gazette was doing well and not so well, what role it should be playing in “the community,” and how to sustain it.

The guy who appointed himself moderator of the red group justified it with his credentials: he’d been in IT for 17 years and worked abroad. This set my teeth on edge because it is so effing typical: summer people, year-round summer people, and recent arrivals pulling rank because their off-island credentials are more significant than what we longtimers know about living here. This was not, however, the time to bring up that particular us/them split. Besides, he did an OK job of moderating.

Just about no one liked the NPR fundraising model of periodic pitches for money. In discussing membership schemes, several people spoke against being, or appearing to be, “exclusive.”

But I can’t stop wondering if sustainability for the Vineyard Gazette might require building on its long history as the summer people’s paper. I was among those who noted that over the last couple of decades, the Gazette has become less a summer people’s paper and an Edgartown paper; its island-wide coverage and its connection with the local arts scene is much stronger than it used to be.

But its summer base is still there. It’s better off economically than the year-round working population. Exclusivity is a fact of life on Martha’s Vineyard, and it’s largely based on money and socioeconomic class. Those on the more privileged side of the divide often don’t see this.

And the year-round working population doesn’t need a newspaper to tell us what’s going on in the community because, like I said above, we’re up to our hairlines in it. We’ve got other sources of information. Those sources aren’t as accurate or packaged as attractively as the Vineyard Gazette, but they’re free.

And so is the Martha’s Vineyard Times.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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5 Responses to Focus on Journalism

  1. tompostpile says:

    What’s the oldest structure on Martha’s Vineyard?



  2. Sharon Stewart says:

    Interesting exercise. On the basis of your description I would love to take a tour of the building sometime (I’ve visited lots of presses over the years). BTW, what are year-round summer people? Curious minds (lacking imagination) would like to know.


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