By Nick Grabbe
As the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s circulation declined in the late 2000s, a series of blogs gave Amherst readers alternative sources of information.
The Gazette’s circulation had fallen by 20 percent from its 1995 peak when the local owners sold the newspaper to a regional chain in 2005. It would fall a lot more over the next 15 years.
All over the U.S., local newspapers were shedding reporters, readers and advertising. Between 2008 and 2020, the number of newspaper journalists declined by more than half. Meanwhile, new web publishing tools facilitated the posting of interactive content by community volunteers and elected officials.
In Amherst, blogs and other online news sources sprang up, often providing more detail than space-constrained newspapers, and for free. In this post, I’ll highlight some of them, and list others at the end.
“I will probably be a bit rough around the edges as I settle in to this role,” wrote Stephanie O’Keeffe on her Select Board blog as she became the chair. “I will make mistakes. (And you can gloat about them! I understand the occupational hazards.) But if I didn’t think I could help move us forward, then I wouldn’t have gone down this path.”
O’Keeffe started blogging in 2006, chronicling her Town Meeting experience, as a way to let people know how she was voting and why. (It is still accessible online.) “I was troubled by the inscrutability of that body, and how most people have little choice but to elect members about whom they know nothing,” she explained.
Then she started inAmherst.com, which began by covering local businesses and events like the Grace Church renovation, moving a house from Kendrick Park, and demolition of fraternity houses. It expanded into play-by-play recaps of Select Board meetings.
She wrote another blog as a candidate for the Select Board in 2008 and, after she was elected, she wrote a blog for a year about the board’s activities (it’s accessible here). Her husband, Jonathan, produced tallyvotes.org, which provided information on how each Town Meeting member voted, along with illustrative graphs.
In 2009, after a year on the Select Board, she wrote on her blog about “Things I’ve Learned.” Here’s a condensed version: “We can’t be blazing our own trails outside of meetings; Disagreeing is important, but agreeing is more important; There are more moving parts to all of this than people can possibly know; It is easier to criticize how things work than to make them work better; Few people see an issue from other than their own perspective; My inclination is to trust, too much; Don’t believe everything you read; This isn’t supposed to be a full-time job; Policy is elusive; Focus on the positive.”
Larry Kelley, a fifth-generation Amherst resident who had been a karate teacher, athletic club owner, Town Meeting gadfly and Bulletin columnist, started his blog in 2007. “Only in the Republic of Amherst” lasted for 10 years, until Kelley died in an auto accident.
Kelley thrived on controversy. He enjoyed his role as combative citizen journalist, following the police scanner, going to large student parties with a camera, and filing Open Meeting Law complaints. He attended and reported on more Town Hall meetings than the “crusty” Gazette, as he called it, and he had good sources of information in the Police and Fire Departments.
Kelley often published a “DUI Dishonor Roll,” which included photos of people facing charges of drunk driving in court. He attacked Town ownership of Cherry Hill Golf Course, absentee landlords, and “NIMBYs” who opposed new development. He called the doomed elementary school plan a “Mega School.”
Kelley was a truculent man, sometimes engaging in name-calling (he called O’Keeffe “Princess Stephanie,” one of his nicer epithets) and often jousting with commenters. He allowed all kinds of comments, including anonymous ones (though he often called these correspondents “cowardly anon nitwits”).
He published stunning aerial photos of Amherst from his drones. Love him or hate him, the town lost a distinctive perspective when he died. Here are two representative quotes from Kelley’s blog:
“From canceling ‘West Side Story’ because it was ‘racist’ to allowing kids to perform the R-rated ‘Vagina Monologues,’ ARHS is a shining example of the mayhem that results from Political Correctness run amok.”
“UMass needs to seek out the hard core party types (reflected in Nuisance House tickets, Resisting Arrest, and Assault and Battery on a police officer charges) and be rid of them once and for all.”
Catherine Sanderson was a controversial School Committee member who wrote 443 posts on her blog between 2008 and 2011. You can see the blog here.
Sanderson is a professor of psychology at Amherst College who is often interviewed on TV and gave a TED talk on “The Psychology of Inaction.”
Her blog provided extensive summaries of School Committee meetings and republished newspaper stories, and she often pushed the public schools to do better. On her blog, she gave her opinions on teacher salaries, per-pupil expenses, budgets, the achievement gap, “How to Evaluate the 9th Grade Science Course,” and the math program. She often detailed her independent research on school issues. One post on a superintendent search received 119 comments.
She was a contrarian who, in two superintendent searches, voted for candidates who were not hired. Many people believe she was right both times.
In her final post, Sanderson wrote, “Although many students do in fact have good experiences in some (or even all) aspects of our schools, others have less consistently positive experiences – and we need to recognize this dissatisfaction and try whenever possible to solve the problems (instead of pretending they don’t exist and derogating those who raise them).”
An anonymous commenter responded, “These last three years have been among the most damaging to our schools in recent memory, largely because of the combat zone and false dichotomies of Catherine Sanderson.”
Another blog by a School Committee member started this year. Jennifer Shiao, who was elected in November, has provided detailed recaps of committee meetings and explained her positions on school issues in 14 posts so far. You can access her blog here.
“A Better Amherst” started in 2017 as a blog explaining the Charter Commission’s proposal for a new form of government and advocating for its approval by voters. Mandi Jo Hanneke and I were members of the commission, and we published 80 posts on the blog in the six months before voters approved the new charter in 2018. “A Better Amherst,” which had 5,000 users, is no longer online but is available on Amazon in paperback form.
The blog provided rebuttals to charges that the new form of government would promote development, make money a major factor in elections, depress women’s participation, and concentrate power. It debunked with dollar figures the assertion that the “yes” campaign had bigger donors than the “no” campaign.
Ten respected Amherst residents who supported a “yes” vote on the charter wrote guest posts on the blog. Two of these posts, by Jim Wald and Kate Atkinson, received more views than any post Hanneke or I wrote. The blog also published many comments, including 108 from charter opponents, especially Janet McGowan, who wrote 45.
Hanneke left the blog after the charter election to run for the new Town Council. I continued it with another 50 posts over the next 14 months.
“A Better Amherst” published many endorsements of the new charter, such as: “Our current system feels an awful lot like taxation without representation” (Ginny Hamilton) and “What IS at risk in this referendum is the power of a relatively small group of Town Meeting members who have been able to wield that power for years by directing debates and manipulating the rules” (Bob Rakoff) and “Councils are like email, and Town Meetings are like regular mail” (Franklin administrator Jeff Nutting).
The Amherst Indy was founded in late 2018 by Laura Quilter, Maria Kopicki and Art Keene, all of whom opposed the new charter that voters had recently approved, and the elementary school plan of six years ago. Keene, a former anthropology professor and successful ARHS girls cross country coach, and his wife Maura, a retired physician, are the publishers and write many of the articles.
The Indy is not a blog, but rather a free online news source, or as Art Keene puts it, “a community journalism project.” It provides detailed reports on some Amherst government meetings that the Gazette also covers (such as the Town Council) and some that might otherwise go unreported (such as the Planning Board). This week it included a listing of public events, which the Gazette and Bulletin no longer publish, and a local Covid update.
“We aim to involve many residents in the process of collecting and reporting news and in so doing raise civic awareness and promote civic participation,” Art Keene told me. “We are unapologetically progressive in our orientation and seek to emphasize issues of social and economic justice and democratic practice.”
Although the Indy professes to be a forum for “exploring new ideas and diverse opinions,” most of the writers and commenters opposed the charter and the school plan, and many opposed the Jones Library renovation/expansion project.
The Indy’s mission statement says, “We are committed to a rigorous separation of reporting from commentary.” It has published over 3,000 articles by 267 contributors, and aims to publish 24 to 36 articles a week, half of them news, Keene said.
Their most-viewed article was “Amherst residents demand end to local mask mandates” on Feb. 11, while the second-most was about black squirrels and the fourth-most about a family of bears, Keene said. The third-most and fifth-most viewed concerned the Jones Library project.
Sarah Marshall and I started The Amherst Current a year ago. We provided extensive coverage of last November’s election, and have offered many posts explaining local issues. I have recently written posts on famous writers who lived in Amherst and this multi-part history of Amherst journalism over the last 45 years. I’m not providing more details here, because regular Current readers already know what we do, and because Sarah and I will have more information about the blog in a first-anniversary post next week.
Many other blogs have arisen in Amherst over the past 16 years. Mary Carey, the Gazette’s former Town Hall reporter, started one in 2006, though she mostly steered clear of Town politics. Marla Goldberg-Jamate published amherstspectator.com in 2017-18. Alison Donta-Venman wrote a blog called “Amherst by the Numbers” in 2009.
Former Town Manager Larry Shaffer and the Amherst Police Department have had blogs, and Amherst GIS has a blog with some cool maps of the town. Gavin Andresen has a blog called Gavinthink, and several school PTOs and parent councils have maintained blogs. Numerous Amherst College students have blogs.
Anyone who wants to cite other Amherst blogs is welcome to do so in the comments.