Page last updated at 13:25 GMT, Monday, 8 March 2010

Village newspapers fight back in rural New England

The digital revolution has come to every corner of America, devouring newspapers and magazines by the hundred. But out in the rural counties, a rearguard action is currently being fought, as the BBC's Simon Winchester reports.

Simon Winchester
Simon Winchester is the first editor-in-chief of The Sandisfield Times

I live in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, in a village called Sandisfield - founded in 1762 by a British family named Sandys, but being British, pronounced Sands.

It is farm country, and always has been. Ukrainian Jews came here in the 19th Century to raise chickens - they left for Manhattan and Brooklyn, but their stone field-walls and tottering barns remain.

Seven hundred or so locals live here - maple syrup makers, bee-keepers, dairy farmers, people who ferment apple cider legally and mountain men who distil moonshine less so.

Their old farms and cottages huddle in the river valleys of what is, by area, the largest town in the state - but they are too scattered by geography to be very much of a community.

To bring them together, a group of us have decided to ignore the siren-call of the computer and start a monthly printed newspaper - The Sandisfield Times.

Eight pages to start with - our first issue due out at the beginning of April.

Volunteers run it. It seeks no profit.

We have a motto: Tribunus Plebis - the tribune of the people, and a slogan: Regular, Reliable, Relevant. And for as long as they will have me, I glory in the title of editor-in-chief.

Newspaper country

Massachusetts is an exceptionally literate and educated state - we have Harvard and Amherst, Mount Holyoke and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for starters, and so it is perhaps little surprise that we are surrounded by newspapers, some old, some very new like ours.

There is the Monterey News, Norfolk Now, The Otis Gazette, the New Marlborough Record and The Berkshire Eagle.

Sandisfield Arts Centre
A former Baptist church is now Sandisfield Arts Centre

Some are run for money, some for fun, but mostly run because a few people have come to realise that if we do not do something, small villages like ours are going to slip through the meshes of the internet and become forgotten.

So we have been busy this past winter commissioning articles, choosing fonts (Garamond, 14 point), designing pages and arranging pictures.

My wife and I do letterpress printing on a small scale at home, so one issue a year we will produce by hand, setting the type ourselves, minding our p's and q's.

The other 11 issues will be done in a plant, in the nearest big town, Great Barrington.

Everyone on the voter roll will get a copy in the post - stacks will be available in the village pub, the post office, Tucker's café, and at Villa Mia, a pizza joint that was opened a while ago by Kosovo refugees.

Talented contributors

Out of the woods, to help us, has stumbled an impressive array of talented contributors. Our manager, for instance, is the grand-daughter of Arturo Toscanini, the conductor.

There is a best-selling author-couple - she an expert on the singers like Carol King and Joan Baez, he a specialist on famines, plagues and the Black Death.

A Polish electrician knows all there is about dancing the polka, while a Cornishman who was one of England's best-known baritones - Benjamin Britten once wrote an opera for him - lives down the lane, and will contribute.

A birdwatcher, newly back from Uganda, will send in a monthly list of sightings. A local artist has done the design.

Sandisfield, Massachusetts
Out there it is all about money and TV ads and big-time influence peddling. Not here in Sandisfield

There is an astronomer-writer too - Sandisfield is where the hymn It Came Upon a Midnight Clear was written in 1902, and there are perfect skies and no light pollution - the stars and planets are as visible as in the Arizona desert.

We will keep an eagle-eye on our local government. As in most of New England, the village is run by three so-called selectmen, our by-laws passed at cosy, cliquish town meetings - to which in the past few outsiders used to go.

But now we are going to whip people into a frenzy, at least, that is my plan, and make the hustings here as raucous as in the Bronx.

The town constables will have to control the mobs who will go to the monthly meetings. For there are town problems, long-ignored. There are some ugly condemned houses needing to be torn down, our roads are not ploughed often enough in snowstorms and last week some teenager drove the town tractor into the ditch.

No race riots or mass murders, but we do have our little irritations.

Local news

They say that in this computerised age, real democracy has just about evaporated for the common man - for the small town.

Out there it is all about money and TV ads and big-time influence peddling. Not here in Sandisfield, though.

All news is local, the man once said, and with our little printed paper, the tribune of the people, we are going to remind everyone of that.

The Sandisfield Times - not quite its New York namesake maybe, but we will be getting there, one issue at a time and will range its argus-eyed powers of inspection over everything, great and small - just as the press of the old days always used to do.

So to anyone in the Berkshires who might be contemplating short-selling maple syrup or joyriding on the town snowplough, take good care. The Times is watching you, and we will write about what we see.

Except, maybe not about the mountain men who sell those little jugs of really rather tasty old moonshine.

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