Small-Town Journalism in the ’80s

Guest blogger Eileen Maley was the first Calendar editor of the Martha’s Vineyard Times. I was the second. If it hadn’t been for Eileen, I wouldn’t have wound up at the Times at all: at a West Tisbury town meeting ca. 1987, this woman I didn’t know turned in her seat and asked if I did typing. I said yes. She asked if I’d be able to fill in for the Times’ editorial typesetter, who was going on leave for a month or so to look after her sick husband. Long story short: I got the gig and was eventually hired as the part-time proofreader; I was soon contributing theater reviews and occasional feature stories to the paper. I learned so much from Eileen that when she left the paper, I got her job.

Anyway, fast-forward almost three decades. Eileen and I are both in Cynthia Riggs’s Sunday night writers’ group. Eileen’s been working on a memoir about her life, which started in Canada and went literally around the world before she married Tim Maley and settled on Martha’s Vineyard. When she brought this piece to the group, I asked if I could publish it here. She said yes. It’s a wonderful picture of Vineyard journalism in the 1980s, as experienced by someone who’d been a journalist in both Canada and Australia. At this time, the Times was located in a long, low building that no longer exists behind Woodland Market. It moved to its current Five Corners location in the fall of 1991. The Field Gallery, referred to at the end of the story, was established by the Maley family and still features the whimsical statues of Eileen’s late father-in-law, Tom Maley.

Susanna S.

by Eileen Maley

I was thrilled to be hired as a reporter for the Martha’s Vineyard Times. After all the years away I felt I had come home to my real career. I was the comeback kid, so pumped that I covered every little news item with a vengeance. People kept telling me to settle down.

In the past I’d worked only for papers in big cities; I hadn’t realized the repercussions of telling all I knew about the second cousin of my neighbor’s uncle’s ex-wife’s estranged stepson. This is a small town. In those early days at the Times I got yelled at a lot.

Gerry Kelly, the island’s only true investigative reporter, warned me a couple of times but I ignored him. The editor, Doug Cabral, kept quiet, letting me take the heat. One woman reader threatened to beat me up; I hope she felt better in the morning. An ad salesman begged me to drop a derogatory word about the town where his clients ran businesses. I didn’t think it was so bad to call Oak Bluffs a honky-tonk town. Something to do with ragtime piano music, isn’t it? Honky-tonk means fun, doesn’t it? But on the Vineyard everything is personal.

Some things were too personal to last. When I first moved here, the Grapevine ran a column naming all the people who were granted divorce decrees in the Edgartown courthouse. I expect that was one of the best-read regular items in print, but discretion ruled in the end and it was dropped.

The Times was and is a weekly, and had been extant for just two years when I started to work there. The paper began on the demise of the Grapevine, a tabloid weekly which ran front-page photos of telephone poles or septic systems, never anything attractive. Ace Gerry Kelly had been the Grapevine‘s editor; at the Times he wrote most of the paper, ensconced in his oversized chair at his oversized desk. Gerry was there at work before anyone else arrived in the morning, still there when everyone left at night. But at the Times, Gerry didn’t get to choose the front-page photographs.

Doug Cabral, the Times editor, had been editor of the Vineyard Gazette, where I had done some freelance writing. There were a few others who had shuffled between the papers. In my experience journalists didn’t stay anywhere very long, but several of my Times colleagues from the eighties are still working there. Bless ’em.

The Times was started in 1984 by a group of businessmen who had been insulted by the other weekly, the venerable Vineyard Gazette, and whose goals seemed to be to publish, to prosper, and to punish. The Times founders were decidedly pro-business and in favor of economic growth on the island, anathema to the sensibilities of Gazette integrity. When the Times‘s waggiest reporter looked out the window one day and saw the owners dressed in suits, ties, and briefcases, heading our way for a meeting, he stage-whispered, “Psst, the grown-ups are coming.”

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of violent crime around here, nor a lot of political corruption, nor even celebrity scandal, though this would be a good place for it. The Gazette chose to concentrate on environmental and development issues. Housing development boomed here in the eighties, escalating the year-round population of fewer than 9,000 to 19,000 by 2010. The Gazette‘s focus hit the right note, noble yet somehow impersonal. I always felt the Gazette was written for people who wished they were here.

Meanwhile the Times focuses more on island people, their extraordinary moments as well as their daily lives. Under new ownership, the Times is doing just fine.

And of course both weeklies cover all the politics, all the boards and committees and commissions and authorities for all six towns and one county.

Both run regular columns of court news — of who got in serious trouble. In my first years here I sometimes read the names of people I knew. Before I knew it, I was reading the names of the grown children of people I know, and any minute now, their grandchildren will show up in court.

During my stint as a roving reporter that first year, I was assigned to cover Oak Bluffs political meetings, which tended to be more high-strung than those in the other towns. This was where one of the selectmen left official meetings in tears, wounded by comments from a quibbler in the audience. This is where a critic in the audience spat out her hostility about a proposed social program for the town. Whatever was on the agenda, it made lively copy for the following Thursday’s edition.

Later my beat was switched from Oak Bluffs to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the island-wide overseer of land use planning, as well as West Tisbury’s planning board meetings, where much of the action took place. Overflow crowds showed up to hear proposals to chop up large plots of land for housing and to hear tough-minded responses from the elected board members. In the 1980s commission meetings sometimes continued well into the wee hours. Developers didn’t like reporters of any stripe, and reporters didn’t write flattering stories about their proposals.

In the spring of 1987 the Times changed its format and its content. The paper became tabloid size with lots of ad-free space for double-page spreads, usually profiles of island people and their accomplishments. A new feature section was added to the paper, called Calendar. The section embraced the arts and artists, the entertainers and entertainment, with a focus on the personalities of the island people who provided these distractions. I was the editor of Calendar until I wore out in 1991.

I was happy to escape the hard news end of journalism, especially in such a small community. The political conflicts of the community were not my cuppa. Writing profiles of talented people trumped the sad news of human tragedy when you know or almost know the victims of these hardships. And I’d rather skip the antics of small-town politicians; so often they are our neighbors.

A reporter from a big city daily, while on vacation here on the island, told me that our work schedules must be much more relaxed than his because we only had to meet a weekly deadline. I pointed out that while he wrote maybe one article a day, we had to produce half a dozen or more in five days. Weekly papers don’t have big staffs.

It was fun until it wasn’t. Because I was still associated with the Field Gallery, I felt a lot of pressure from the other twenty-eight art galleries on the island to provide wider coverage of their artists and exhibits. Then the theater companies, dance groups, concert organizers, nightclubs, and restaurants began to feel neglected. I did the only sensible thing. After five years, I quit.

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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8 Responses to Small-Town Journalism in the ’80s

  1. Julie says:

    Love reading about Martha’s Vineyard . . . Your inside perspective makes it all so fascinating to this outsider (wishes she was an insider).
    Thanks for blogging.


    • You’re welcome, and thanks for commenting. It’s hard to think of the 1980s as “the old days,” but a lot has changed since then. The Times crew of that era were (and still are) some of the best people I ever worked with.


  2. mockymur says:

    Ahhh, the good old days. I write that with a crooked half-grimace.

    When I was hired to work at the Martha’s Vineyard Times, in December of 1987, it was as a graphics artist in the production department. I had been the art director of the Providence NewPaper ( later to become the Providence Phoenix ) so I had a firm hand with an X-acto knife and knew my way around a stat camera and halftones pretty well. Susie Safford was the kindest, most instructive “boss” I’d ever known. She not only exercised enormous patience with me, she embraced my presence among the late night Tuesday crew. We gals could talk!

    One Tuesday night, as I walked around the graph paper folios propped up on slanted boards, straightening this, underlining that, Doug Cabral stepped out of his editorial office to make an adjustment – or, maybe just to listen more closely to the hen talk in the back room. He heard me say something and pivoted around, sizing me up. “You’ve got a fire in your belly.” he said, “Can you write?”

    Eileen Maley received my first manually typewritten article, hard copy on paper, which was not published (thank heavens) and she encouraged me to write about something that felt more comfortable. I chose movies. The Times created a new column subsequently entitled “On VHS” in partnership with Island Entertainment, the only video store on MV at the time. I’ve still got tattered copies of the dozens of articles I wrote about old movies. With a newborn baby boy and a 7 year old daughter at home this was a perfect respite for me, even as I continued to work in the production department. Twenty bucks per article went a long way at Reliable Market in those days.

    Susanna Sturgis assumed command of the Calendar section after Eileen left and she bumped me up a notch to the live Folk music beat. Wintertide Coffeehouse was open year round, by then, so I never ran out of material to cover. Sure, I’d slink in quietly and seat myself at the back of the candle lit room, taking copious notes that only I could decipher, and introduce myself to the performing artists after the show. It was only sporting, you know, not to let the performers feel that they were being spied upon beforehand.

    Wendy Arnell Brophy was my third and last editor at the Times. She asked me to cover all sorts of interesting things and people: Theatre, profiles of people who made libraries, art galleries and literature come to life on an Island that couldn’t get enough of such stuff throughout the mid to late ’90s. Then, she left, too.

    I can still see Gerry Kelly, sitting at his desk with the “World Correspondent” plaque prominently placed in front. I can still smell the chemicals in the darkroom and feel the warm wax on my fingers. I remember all of you. Fondly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is wonderful. I loved Tuesday nights, and I still miss Gerry a lot. Somewhere in my paper files I’ve got the hysterically funny “yearbook” that Jib wrote about all of us, maybe in 1989? Thanks for commenting!


      • Mari says:

        I’ve got a copy of Jib’s satirical “Yearbook”, as well. ’88-’89. It’s funny. He lists one of my extracurricular activities as a player in the Linguica Dart League. I suppose because I was married to a man with a Portuguese surname at the time. Always thought our ensemble cast from that era could make a brilliant sit-com together. Thanks for inviting me to remember and write on things past, Susanna.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I was “convoy coquette,” because of my shiny new Toyota pickup. You’re right about the sitcom!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Shirley says:

    Love it! I must have missed that one…….


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