Last in Print, The Hometown Weekly Remains

November 27, 2023
• As newspapers die out, the Hometown Weekly aims to maintain a local print journalism presence.

The Needham Chronicle and Wellesley Advertiser came to Needham in 1874, bringing hyperlocal coverage of individual neighborhoods. The cost to access was just five cents.

Then came The Needham Times, a weekly competitor founded in the early 1930s, rose to prominence, providing municipal meeting coverage, editorials, a police report and advertising into the 2010s, until it published its last edition in May 2022.

The Needham News, Needham Enterprise and Needham Recorder also once documented local happenings, until they each died out.

And then there was one.

The Hometown Weekly serves as Needham’s last remaining paper, a remnant and reminder of an industry that once dominated the local journalism space. Delivered for free to around 40,000 homes across Needham, Dover-Sherborn, Medfield, Walpole and Westfield, the paper boasts a sports reporter, news reporter, seasonal interns and freelance correspondents.

But despite its presence in the region, the Hometown Weekly was almost left out of the League of Women Voters’ local news forum last month.

“When they had initially sent me the information regarding the event, I felt like it was doing a disservice to the community to not have Hometown Weekly there, since we are the last newspaper available in town,” Managing Editor Julia Beauregard said. “I just asked if we could join in as well. I wanted to build connections with the other news sources. I feel like that’s important.”

Beauregard joined the paper as the classifieds and services associate, learning the sales side of the business while freelancing one to two articles a week. When the former full-time reporter took leave, Beauregard picked up the slack, working double duty in sales and writing.

When former Managing Editor Stephen Press stepped down early this year, after about seven years on the job, Beauregard stepped in to take his place.

While attending Framingham State University, Beauregard dreamed of becoming a teacher and later a writer, but she never envisioned a career in journalism. The Hometown Weekly fueled her passion for the medium and helped prove to herself she had potential, even while balancing a sometimes hectic personal life.

“Then I had both of my children while I was in school,” she said, “and doing student teaching for free, an internship, with two children and having nobody to watch them wasn’t in the cards… Writing here was the perfect beginning of an actual professional writing career.”

Since its founding in 1997, the Hometown Weekly has always been a vehicle for local advertising, co-publisher Paul Stanton said. Coming from the advertising world, Stanton and partner Michael DeSario sought to develop a newspaper that would service small businesses, helping them promote their work to thousands of families in the region.

The pair worked together at Suburban Press, which owned The Needham Times, before starting a paper that’s “100% advertising supported,” Stanton said. By delivering to everybody, Stanton said they aim to “flood the market.”

Ads appear in a recent edition of the Hometown Weekly. (Cameron Morsberger)

“We always focused on, ‘How do we get the local pizza place, the local dance school, the local realtor the best exposure possible?’ and that is why we invest a huge amount of money,” Stanton said. “And really we’re the only ones doing it because it’s so expensive to print and mail through the U.S. mail all the copies that we do.”

Stanton said they maintain a roughly 1:1 ratio of editorial content and advertising, and print editions can be 16 pages or 78 pages, depending on the issue.

Facing a Tuesday afternoon print deadline, reporters rack in five to nine stories a week, bouncing from event to event across the paper’s five coverage areas. The copies reach post offices Wednesday, which then are mailed out Thursday.

More than 360 of the country’s newspapers have ceased publication between late 2019 and May of last year, according to a 2022 report by the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University. By 2025, an estimated one-third of newspapers could die out.

After riding out the ongoing wave of dying local newspapers, Stanton said he’s now seeing a resurgence in interest for physical media. Social media, emails and other digital resources seem to overload readers with information, he said.

“Obviously it’s a very difficult industry. People have said it’s been a declining industry, they’ve been telling us that for decades,” Stanton said. “But at the end of the day, I think a lot of people now are starting to come back to it because, while the internet is great and there’s so much on there… there’s a lot of clutter out there.”

With Beauregard at the helm, the paper’s website is now also updated regularly, garnering thousands of hits on articles there.

For reporter Madison Butkus, there’s also something magical about a print newspaper. As a kid, nothing beats seeing your photo on the front page after a big sports win or successful science fair, Butkus said, and she thinks that feeling and experience will never die out.

“You cut it out, you stick it on your fridge,” Butkus said. “I think that there’s always going to be that excitement.”

But writing for a newspaper “wasn’t on my 2023 BINGO card,” she joked. Like Beauregard, Butkus also wanted to be a teacher, but was bit by the writing bug. The Attleboro native started at the paper in April and has covered Medfield’s Bellforge Arts Center, events at the Needham Free Public Library and breaking news in the region.

While out on assignment, Butkus said she often is asked about the paper’s future and confronted with the reality that many papers don’t last. But with the “outpouring of love and support from every community,” as well as the plentiful feedback they receive, Butkus said she’s optimistic about its survival.

“I am very well aware that newspapers and the physical prints of newspapers are definitely dying out,” she said, “but the news itself never will.”

Hometown Weekly Managing Editor Julia Beauregard talks about the newspaper during a Needham League of Women Voters’ forum Oct. 16.

During the League of Women Voters’ forum, Beauregard talked about the significance of the paper, outside their written coverage and advertising space. The puzzles she said, sparks conversation and sometimes complaints, like when they inadvertently printed the wrong answers to the crossword.

“It was nice to hear how important that is to people,” Beauregard said of the incident at the forum.

Despite their small staff size, sports reporter Avonlea Cummings said readers continue to extend thanks and understanding when they can’t make it to a game or event. But what’s even better about the paper, in her view, is its access.

“There are lots of new newspapers who have gone digital, and oftentimes, they just give you about three or four free stories, and then after that, you’ll hit a paywall,” she said. “With the Hometown Weekly, I think having our paper be free to everyone is so important, because that gives you community outreach and you’re involved with your community.”

Former sports editor Michael Flanagan learned the ins and outs of a camera after working at the Hometown Weekly for five-and-a-half years. The paper strengthened his writing game and fostered his love of photography, positioning him to pursue freelance videography and photography, mainly for sports. He left the paper in March of last year.

Looking back, Flanagan said he wouldn’t be where he is today had he not started at a local newspaper, but he feels the industry will have a more difficult time recruiting new blood. As a part-time staffer, he said he earned $200 a week, but the gig “allowed me a foot in the door.”

“I’m forever grateful for the fact that we have local newspapers like that to help people,” he said.

The print industry is also shifting more toward visuals, he said, which may change how newspapers are run.

“It really comes down to whether or not newspapers can withstand that model of, “O.K., we’re gonna try to get them to do it for free or do it for a lower rate so that we can put this money into other areas of the newspaper like advertising and marketing,’” Flanagan said.

Former photographer and reporter Illene Hoffman offered skepticism over that sustainability, citing issues with “a revolving door of staff” and issues getting in touch with leadership. Living at a Needham Housing Authority property, Hoffman said copies of the paper are delivered each week, and she’s noticed more ads and fewer articles over the years.

Hoffman offered the paper credit, given that they’re the only remaining newspaper in town, but she misses the days of Needham-centric coverage.

“I think that we’re not getting a lot of the news that is relevant to our towns because there’s only so much space in these newspapers,” she said.

When questioned about their financial future at the forum, Beauregard shared a positive outlook. A month later, her perspective hasn’t changed.

“I still feel very optimistic because there are people who love the paper,” she said. “I feel like I have a different perspective than maybe editors or reporters in the past have had because I do have that first-hand sales experience.”

Because they’re hyperlocal and run fully on advertising, Stanton said they’re able to outlive their perceived expiration date. Their focus continues to be the print product, he said. That’s their “unique niche.”

“The nature that we send it out to every single person’s home makes it really part of the community,” he said. “So when they do call or reach out to us or email us with ideas or issues, we always try to take it seriously because every one of the readers is a customer of ours. That’s the way we look at.”

Stephen Press did not respond to a request for comment. Beauregard said Press did not wish to comment, as he no longer works at the paper.

Previous post Neighbors Continue to Voice Concern over Needham Children’s Center Project
Next post Needham History: Ahoy Mateys!