The Easton Courier and its former chief editor Nancy Doniger are coming back to town.
Easton’s nearly 7,000 residents have lacked a dedicated news source for close to two years. Hersam Acorn Newspapers ceased publication of the 38-year-old weekly broadsheet, The Easton Courier, in January 2018.
Since then, townspeople have widely lamented the loss of journalistic coverage of town hall, community, and school activities. During 2019, when candidates campaigned for a local election and the Planning & Zoning Board implemented a controversial new Plan of Conservation and Development, the absence of a trusted source of information was especially noticeable.
If all goes according to a recently unveiled draft plan, however, a spring 2020 Easton Courier relaunch will provide Eastonites once again with fair, balanced, and informative local news.
In late 2018, Jim CastonguayDirector of Sacred Heart University’s School of Communications, Media and the Arts, reached out to Doniger through LinkedIn about working together to find a way for students and faculty to partner with the people of Easton to create a citizen-led local news publication. They presented the idea to local leaders, who embraced it.
Castonguay formed an Easton Courier Editors’ Group with Doniger, Easton resident and adjunct professor Jane Paley, accomplished photojournalist and professor Rick Falco, veteran NBC news producer and professor Joe Alicastro, studio manager and adjunct professor Keith Zdrojowy, student newspaper faculty advisor Joanne Kabak, and media studies instructor Gregory Golda.
Together they hatched a plan for what Paley dubbed “Easton Courier 2.0.”
Last Friday, Castonguay and Doniger presented the Editors’ Group’s vision to an audience of more than 40 Easton residents in the Martire Business and Communications Center at Sacred Heart. Representatives of a range of town departments and committees, clubs, organizations, and businesses, as well as private citizens, showed up for the event.
Among them: Easton’s First Selectman David Bindelglass, Selectmen Kristi Sogofsky and Bob Lessler, Town Treasurer Christine Calvert, Board of Education Chairman Jeff Parker, Police Chief Tim Shaw, Fire Chief Steve Waugh, Easton EMT Board Member Lorraine Mercede, Library Director Lynn Zaffino, and Aspetuck Land Trust Board Member Nancy Moon.
Castonguay sees the ambitious project as a potential national model for community journalism in the age of corporate-monopolized news media and disappearing town newspapers. It is also, he said, a perfect fit for his school’s mission to serve the surrounding community and train students to produce high-quality journalism.
But he emphasized that citizen participation is crucial to its success. Falco said, “We’re going to create the structure for you, but it has to be a community effort with a goal to serve the community.”
The Editors’ Group will seek grant funding to support the initiative and, down the road, they will seek donors and sponsors. Doniger and Paley will vet and edit all content submissions for factual accuracy and fairness. A mockup Easton Courier website the group demonstrated included content categories like the original Easton Courier: town news, police news, community voices, education, sports, and events.
To be sure, a few things will be different about the new publication.
For one, the Editors’ Group does not expect to have a budget to print a newspaper. Castonguay said the Easton Courier will be an online publication, and, as a non-profit, it will not be driven by or pursue advertising. There will, however, be simple ways for residents or organizations to print pages or articles from the website, and some in the audience suggested exploring ways to provide access to less digital-savvy citizens.
Doniger noted that a benefit of an online newspaper is freedom from weekly or monthly print deadlines. “We want to cover breaking news and we will be nimble enough to post content as it comes in,” she said. Corrections can be made more expediently online, too. “If you let us know something is wrong, we will correct it,” she said.
Another difference is that a paid staff of professional journalists will not produce the new Courier’s content. Instead, students, community organizations, and other unpaid contributors, including, perhaps, several Easton residents with professional journalism experience, will write the content.
Nevertheless, Castonguay and Doniger confirmed a commitment to uphold high journalistic standards and said they will require all contributors to follow submission guidelines. “Most articles will be vetted by Jane or me, and we’ll be training students about how important it is to make sure sources are accurate,” Doniger said.
Falco added that Sacred Heart students who work for the paper will be “doing real journalism,” getting out into the community and covering town events. Castonguay said it will be up to the businesses and organizations in town to do their own public relations — or recruit student interns to do it for them — by pitching student journalists on stories.
He acknowledged that the group will face a unique challenge: How to maintain continuity of coverage of town government and ongoing issues when students assigned to those beats graduate and move on.
Overall, the Editors’ Group’s plan was met by enthusiastic support and several rounds of applause from town leaders. Kabak noted that the room’s unanimous “desire to have [the Courier] back tells me that Nancy did an amazing job.”
The Rev. Ellen Huber of Christ Church in Easton noted that it often takes losing something to realize how important it is to us.
Castonguay said the next step will be a Town Hall-type meeting early in 2020 to provide a preview of the new Easton Courier for the entire Easton community. In the meantime, he said to the audience, “you are ambassadors to spread the word.”
“Inclusiveness is critical,” said First Selectman Bindelglass. But how to get the word out without a current newspaper? The Editors’ Group offered to foot the bill for a town-wide postcard mailing to invite all residents to the next meeting.