The publisher, Cambridge, MA

Not having time (or cooperative weather) to travel right now gives me a chance to think about themes that have come up as I’ve visited Cambridges, as well as about my own.  A few weeks back — after Election Day but before Thanksgiving — I sat down in a coffee shop with Marc Levy, the founder and publisher of Cambridge Day, an online newspaper that covers government and beyond in Cambridge.

Marc LevyI was interested in talking to Marc in the context of building community.  Increasingly, Cantabridgians have embraced Cambridge Day as our local newspaper.  I once even noticed a reference to it as our only newspaper, which regardless of what one thinks about the Cambridge Chronicle, is not true.  I assumed that the opportunity to build community was an aspect of Marc’s motivation to create Cambridge Day, though, I learned, it may be only a small part of the story.

Marc started Cambridge Day (CD) in 2005 with a print edition and had registered a web address, which he kept even during a several-year hiatus before he restarted CD online in 2009.  The archives go back to 2005 and beyond, including some previous content Marc wrote for a blog.  The site includes a detailed description of CD:

“Cambridge is in large part politically progressive; embracing of science and reason; and welcoming – and protective – of the diversity of humanity, and Cambridge Day tends to reflects the mores of its community. Its writing may represent context and analysis of a situation based on fact-based reporting. A separate section is set aside for (also fact-based) expression of opinion, and all voices are welcome in its pages.”

Marc told me that he has worked as a journalist, most recently as executive editor for a group of newspapers in central Connecticut, where online news was an afterthought, but he was “surfing a wave of layoffs, buyouts, and shutdowns,” while “the newspaper industry has suffered.”  When that job ended, he decided to come back to Cambridge, where he has a day job, to look into online news and “see if there were better ways to do it.”  Sharing news online seemed to him to be a solution to “news deserts,” and CD would be a “learning laboratory.”

Marc describes CD as “a form of civic engagement for me and a way to have a seat at the table, which everyone who is civically engaged wants.  You get to ask questions and transmit that in a way that other people can see.”  He continued, “It’s a way to know your community and a way to be involved.”

Cambridge Day siteEven as I see growing dependence on Cambridge Day as our local news source, Marc says that “it’s difficult to assess the day-to-day value, despite the analytics [on the site], because of the nature of civic engagement,” where income isn’t the sole metric of success.  And yet, there’s a small community of folks who want to write for Cambridge Day, and he sees CD’s archives as an ongoing contribution.  “There’s a lot of information there that no one  is paying attention to now, but that someday may be important.”  Marc also appreciates the opportunity of “leveraging the resources of Cambridge Day to try to nudge things.  I can ask questions,” that prompt further conversation among city leaders and members of the community.

In addition, Marc said Cambridge Day “can provide community in a more abstract sense.  We haven’t done much ‘solutions journalism,’ but having news is good…For a place that’s transient and where people dip in and out of the news, the virtue I can point to is that there’s context,” within the website.  He continued, “If you read the site enough, you’ll see a throughline — that we need to stop treating our neighbors as our enemies and we need to have a government that will guide us through a peaceful evolution,” which he said he believes will require city charter reform.

Having established Marc’s motivations for starting Cambridge Day, I asked him about our shared city.  He takes a nuanced view of Cambridge, as one would expect from a journalist/resident.  For example, when I asked what he sees as going well here, he turned pretty quickly to concerns, including housing, green space and the tree canopy, and the arts, and said that “When it feels like a crisis, that’s when people start doing something.”  With regard to housing, for example, rent control was voted out in 1994 and “We could have started taking action then.”

Marc also points out that Harvard has announced that it will be moving the American Repertory Theater to Allston, taking millions of dollars in local business with it, but the city has not responded as forcefully as he would expect.  He said, “Less reason to come to Cambridge for an arts community means people won’t think of it as an arts community.”  In some ways, he notes, “Cambridge is reactive,” even while the technology sector in Kendall Square is innovative.

The city takes a “happiness survey every two years,” he said, “but there’s a different crowd every two years.  The survey could show that Cambridge is on some kind of right track, but actually it shows that the people now like Cambridge now.”  Still, he noted that he always “knew there were bad things going on in the world, and at times my heart broke at how blessed our existence is here.  There are ways in which that will go on in Cambridge forever, but a lot of people would ask ‘for whom,’ and that’s going to be largely for people who move here to take a job at Harvard or in Kendall Square.”

Despite the forum it creates for civic engagement, Marc worries about the future for Cambridge Day.  There’s no money in it now and he thought it would have become more of a collaborative site by this time.  He’s not overloading the site with ads, though a new weekly newsletter might provide a setting for them and there’s already a link on the site to “Support Local News.”  But whatever funds have come in have gone back out to developers to improve the website and for memberships to the AP and other news sources, as well as some small payments to writers.

Marc is optimistic that “2020 is the year that everything starts to click,” including the newsletter, text alerts, and even (retro) print.  “There is always a light just ahead and I keep following it.”  But he also cautions that Cambridge Day will “have a horizon to it” and will need to “evolve or die.”  Or, as the CD site says, “This site is a work in progress.”

How would you describe Cambridge?
“Cambridge is like America — a paradise up until the second that things go terribly wrong.  I chose this place.  I wanted a place that was small but exciting, a place where MIT was building our future and where the social discourse was being made by Harvard.  It’s a place that people come to to engage in ideas and build things.

As an environment, this is a very fun fancy place to live.  I still get occasional blissed out moments.”

The publisher, Cambridge, NY

Today, I’m returning to Cambridge, NY, to add to the stories from the village.

In many towns (including Cambridge, MA), local news is covered by a weekly newspaper.  In Cambridge, NY, the paper is the Cambridge Eagle, whose publisher is Ashleigh Morris.  I chatted with Ashleigh toward the end of my visit, by which time I had figured out some of the village’s stories but also had new questions.

Ashleigh Morris photoTo start, Ashleigh helped me understand how such a small village ends up split between two administrative towns.  She said that the towns predate when the village was created in the 1880s by filling in a swamp that separated the east and west sides.  But she certainly didn’t fail to see some pitfalls in the arrangement.  For example, she said that the State of New York removes snow on the main roads (both Main Street and Park Street are state roads), while the village clears the sidewalk.  For some county roads, the county pays the town to plow.  Without that arrangement, town snowplow trucks would drive straight over snowy county roads on their way from town road to town road.

But then we moved on to discuss the Cambridge Eagle itself.  The Eagle focuses its coverage on the towns of Cambridge, White Creek, and Jackson, as well as the surrounding five towns of Hoosick Falls, Salem, Bennington, VT, and Greenwich.  And she described these towns as a network of services that residents of each village might call on.  For example, Cambridge has a bookstore, Greenwich has a Hannaford supermarket, and Salem has many small businesses, so folks get to know their neighboring communities.  “Because we don’t limit ourselves to what’s here, we get to know other villages.”

The EagleThe paper tries to cover all the local government meetings, as well as whatever is going on at the Cambridge Central School.  In addition, from its earliest days, the Eagle has offered church groups a way to get their news out.  In fact, the paper uses Biblical passages to fill extra space in each edition.  At its height, the paper averaged 48 pages per issue.  Now (in a trend facing most newspapers) it tends toward an average of 24.

Ashleigh describes the paper, which she recently bought from her father (who greeted me when I arrived) as a family affair.  There is one reporter, but much of the rest of the work (reporting, editing, printing) is done by family members.  Ashleigh said she has “worked for the paper since I was old enough to read and write.  All of the big stories of my life were news stories.”

These days, with the abundance of news sources out there, Ashleigh told me, “People buy the Eagle to see what their neighbors are doing, what their grandkids are doing, or how the football team has done.  There’s a lot of loyalty to our paper.”  The general area has several other weekly small-town papers, and Albany’s Times Union covers stories of regional interest.  She described some of the challenges of running a local newspaper, such as wanting to go deeper into stories, so that it isn’t always negative news that dominates.

Ashleigh and I also discussed several topics that had come up in other conversations.  She told me the sewer system that is needed to allow greater development would cost $18 million.  She sees infrastructure development as something the village requires “to survive.”

And inevitably our conversation circled around to the Cambridge Central School, which she called the “unifying factor” in the town — “the one single place in this area that draws everyone together.  And we’re really focused on our kids.”

Ashleigh had her years living outside of Cambridge, and she has visited her parents’ long-ago home in Staten Island, so she is clear about her affection for Cambridge.  “This is the community we built.  It doesn’t matter what’s going on outside.”  She sees her school classmates starting to move back with their own families and, with the newspaper to run, it sounds like she’ll be staying there for a while.

How would you describe Cambridge?
I would describe Cambridge as a big family.  I’m from a big family – I have ten brothers and sisters – and I think there are always disagreements and agreements and bad things that happen, but you come together at the end when you need something.

I think Cambridge is unique because there really is a very unique group of people here.  We have a lot of people who moved here, we have a lot of people who are from here.  I was born here, but my family will never be from here, because [my parents] moved in.  But I think no matter what, when push comes to shove and something bad happens, the community is always there.

When my parents moved here, they needed help.  They had no money and the community came together and helped them.  They got them a fridge and a stove.  And it’s those kind of things that make you stay.  And make you want to have your family here.

So like I said, we did move.  I moved away, my husband lived elsewhere for nine years, and we came back because this is where we wanted our kids to be, and because of the school.  There’s still teachers at the school that I’ve had and my kids now have.  And I think that is probably not easily found anywhere else, and I’m not really interested in looking.  That’s the best way I can describe it, that it’s a family–there’s grandparents and newborn babies and the whole span in between, but you always have a friend, and you always can find somebody who can help you, and you always know somebody.  I think it’s important to know the people on your street, the people teaching your kids, and the people running for office.  Those things are vitally important to the environment I want to raise my kids in.