By Nick Grabbe
It’s hard to believe, but in 1981 there were four weekly newspapers based in Amherst. They were:
The Amherst Record, a community paper going through changes;
The Amherst News, a cooperative run by former Record employees;
The Valley Advocate, an “alternative” paper free for pickup, and
The Amherst Bulletin, a free tabloid shopper owned by the Gazette.
In addition, the Daily Hampshire Gazette had a well-read second section called “Amherst Area News,” and radio station WTTT covered Amherst news every day. The UMass Daily Collegian, the Amherst Student and the ARHS Graphic all covered news from their schools.
But this history begins in 1977. The Advocate and Bulletin had been around for only a few years, while the Record had been Amherst’s home-town paper for over a century. The Record was published twice a week, cost 25 cents a copy, and the editor and publisher, Michael De Sherbinin, lived on Triangle Street. It was small-town, old-fashioned local journalism.
The Record published Town Hall news, lots of funky columns, and information from surrounding towns. When Princess Grace stayed at the Lord Jeff, there was a story and photo on the front page. “The Policeman’s Lot” was a precursor to the Bulletin’s police log. The Record published the voting records of Town Meeting candidates, box scores of ARHS baseball games, plus recipes and movie guides. A large Stop & Shop ad included a coupon for frozen French fries for five cents. An ad for a ranch house listed the asking price as $36,900.
But in 1977, Record employees went on strike, and the picketing of the Main Street offices divided the town. The strike was settled, but De Sherbinin ultimately sold the paper to an out-of-state company, which tried to turn the Record into a morning daily. That effort failed and was abandoned in 1980. The Record became a free weekly that residents could pick up at stores around the town.
Meanwhile, the Advocate grew dramatically in size, quality and influence in the late 1970s. Based in Amherst, it occasionally covered Amherst stories, such as a feature asking why five unrelated housemates were threatening to the town.
I was the managing editor of the Advocate in 1976-77, during which time it took aim at nuclear power, covered the local music scene, and strutted its baby-boomer bona fides by devoting an entire issue to stories about marijuana. The Advocate had its most successful period after I left, expanding its staffing, winning over previously reluctant advertisers, reaching a high level of quality in its journalism, and finally winning a major national award in 1979 for a series of articles on the impact of the Hadley malls on downtown businesses.
Amherst newspaper readers were well served in 1981 by having multiple sources of printed information. There wasn’t more to write about than there is today, but people paid a lot more attention to newspapers in the era before social media. And there wasn’t an overriding political issue like a parking garage or a new charter to get people worked up. It was just a heyday for newspapers.
But then, one by one, three of these four weekly papers folded or left Amherst. The Advocate, after being hassled by the building inspector over its Amity Street offices, moved to Hatfield. The News, which was avidly read by followers of town government, went under, largely because it wasn’t free and its low circulation couldn’t compete for advertising with the free weeklies. The Record, after years of losing money, went through a series of ownership changes, and alienated people by erecting bright-yellow delivery boxes on residents’ lawns without their permission. It published its last issue in early 1984.
I had been editor of the Bulletin since 1980, operating with a tiny staff and a mostly feature orientation. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, who became a nationally known writer, got her start in journalism writing features for the Bulletin during this period. The pictured cover story about a hot-air balloonist was typical of the “soft news” the Bulletin presented, but there was occasionally some harder stories. One memorable one was headlined “Boston bankers ready to wait out nuclear war in Amherst bunker.”
Responding to the demise of the Record, the Bulletin expanded into news-gathering and became a broadsheet (full-size) paper in 1985. The Bulletin hired three well-connected and tireless reporters from the defunct weeklies: Nancy Newcombe, Phyllis Lehrer and Patrick Callahan.
As the only weekly left in Amherst, with extensive reach to readers from its free mail circulation and support from the Gazette’s advertising and production departments, the Bulletin expanded in its size and offerings. It established a commentary page and sections devoted to schools, sports, arts and leisure, and news from the campuses and surrounding towns. There was a local history column, features on local people, a calendar of events, high school honor rolls, and even Little League game reports and lists of new books at the Jones Library.
Over the next 15 years, the Bulletin covered some controversial proposals that have echoes today: a new elementary school, a renovated Jones Library, a new form of government, and a downtown parking garage.
The two biggest Amherst stories of the mid-to-late-1980s were the Town’s purchase of Cherry Hill Golf Course in order to stop plans for a condominium development there, and whether to allow a business that bought and sold used auto parts to remain at the old landfill site. Unlike most papers, the Bulletin did not run editorials taking positions on these or any other controversial issues.
Amherst’s public-access cable TV station started carrying Town Meeting live, and the sessions were often more interesting to watch than sitcoms. Newcombe and WTTT news director Tim Ashwell provided informed commentary, with Lehrer also speaking to viewers. The Gazette continued to report Amherst news daily, and many of their young reporters were excellent, but they rarely stuck around for long, and the editors were based in Northampton and rarely visited Amherst. The Springfield daily appealed to some Amherst residents who liked a morning paper, but it had limited readership or influence here.
Next in this series: In the 1990s, the Bulletin and Gazette merge their news-gathering operations, leading to the slow decline of Amherst’s weekly newspaper.