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Column by John Murray
There have been two constants in publishing The Waterbury Observer the past 28 years - change, and my daughter, Chelsea.
In the past three decades I’ve surfed a tsunami of change that has upended the world of journalism. Newspapers owned by generations of the same family were challenged by desktop publishing, by the internet, and most recently by social media and corporate takeovers.
Journalism is under siege by fierce competition for advertising dollars, and by calls of fake news and biased reporting. The printed word has been challenged by a digital world than can publish and distribute information at blinding speed.
Let me take you on a journey of transformation.
The Waterbury Observer was launched on October 28th, 1993 by two journalists working impossibly long hours, for little money, tackling politics and social issues largely neglected by the mainstream media.
The newspaper was cobbled together in my small apartment on Bunker Hill Avenue in Waterbury. We used my dining room as an office, had one Apple computer (a Centris 610 that still works), one printer, and developed film in my bathroom right across the hall from where my five-year -old daughter Chelsea slept.
The Observer was printed every two weeks, and after a year we added three more dreamers to the team, and the operation moved out of my dining room and into my living room. After 18 months we moved out of my apartment into a quaint office on Baldwin Street in the South End of the city.
At one point our goal was to publish a weekly newspaper in Waterbury and we beefed up the operation with five full-time sales reps, a sales director, an editor, a graphic designer and a two-man distribution team.
There were no cell phones then, no internet, and almost all the production was still completed on that one Apple computer. We stitched one copy of the paper together with scissors, tape and glue stick, and then drove our original to the printer where a few hours later it was magically transformed into 20,000 copies of The Waterbury Observer.
Of course, we never had enough money to fund the paper, we were lousy businessmen (most journalists are), and the business imploded. When the dust settled, my partner, Marty Begnal, left for the British Virgin Islands, the sales team vanished, and I was left with 16-year old Quajay Donnell to plow forward into the unknown.
Within months the paper had a new sales team and editor and we plugged the leaks and sailed deeper out to sea. In 1999 I made the decision to downsize the paper and print it once a month. It was a personal decision that gave me oxygen and flexibility to raise my daughter. The staff was also downsized to a two- person operation, me doing editorial, production and distribution, and Maureen Griffin doing sales, billing and graphic design. That model lasted a few years until Maureen left and I became a one-man newspaper.
Somehow it worked, mainly because it had to work. I was divorced and my daughter was living with me. I needed to pay rent, buy food and clothes, and find a balance between being a single father and being the owner of a community newspaper. Whenever there was a conflict I always leaned into my role as father, which I valued above all else.
The Observer went hard and deep at issues of race relations in the city, reporting about AIDS and homelessness and giving a voice to the vulnerable populations in the city. We championed the underdog and published sweeping histories of the ethnic migration to Waterbury; from the Algonquins to the English, Irish, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Albanians, and the never told story of the Blacks who had lived in the shadows of Waterbury for hundreds of years with little recorded history.
The Observer also focused on in-depth travel adventures, mostly to faraway places I traveled with my daughter during summer breaks from school. We took readers on road trips to Montana, California and Alaska. We published long narratives about Hawaii, Scotland, Greece, Thailand, Cuba, Nicaragua, Albania and Vietnam.
We’ve taken readers on journeys into every neighborhood in Waterbury, and to every corner of the world, including a remote village in the Himalayan Mountains where we hung out for a week with thousands of Tibetan monks and refugees, and met the Dalai Lama in one of the most desolate spots on Earth.
Through all the changes in staff the mission of The Waterbury Observer remained the same, but the way we delivered our stories to our readers continued to evolve. We now only print four newspapers a year, and rely on our website, waterburyobserver.org, and our Facebook page, The Waterbury Observer, to disseminate information to Observer readers.
Some city residents who’ve been reading the print issues for the past 28 years have no idea we have a website, or a vigorous Facebook presence. Some of the 32,000 followers on Facebook have no idea we have been printing newspapers in Waterbury for longer than they have been alive. We reach different age groups and demographics in the digital world, mostly readers who digest information on their smart phone.
The power of social media is stunning. There are some posts we’ve made that are read by a few thousand people, garner 50 likes and get shared a few dozen times. Other posts have gone viral reaching hundreds of thousands of people and getting shared up to 5000 times across the world.
While many followers of The Waterbury Observer’s page on Facebook believe there is a small staff posting and monitoring stories and comments, it’s just me, and when I’m hiking or shopping or covering an event there is no one administering our social media platforms. Being a journalist has gotten more complicated in the past decade as I’m now juggling print issues, a website and making posts on our Facebook page that now has 32,000 followers. The flow of information across the internet is a torrent of facts and opinions and photographs that smash into our minds with the delicacy of water blasting out of a firehose.
While conspiracy theories have upended national politics and hampered efforts to fight COVID-19, social media, and Facebook in particular, has provided a platform for local journalism to flourish. News of a missing person, an impending storm, a new restaurant opening or a dangerous s-curve in a road can reach readers with a few strokes of a keyboard.
And as we continue to morph and change and adapt, The Waterbury Observer has embraced Facebook’s new Bulletin platform as a way to inform our readers with unique stories and images that will appear exclusively on this site.
Many readers miss the experience of reading a printed newspaper, but it’s become an outdated model that is not financially sustainable. The core of a newspaper, the beating heart of the business, is information. Technology has simply found a new way to deliver it to you.
As for my daughter, she is now nearly the age I was when I launched The Waterbury Observer 28 years ago. Chelsea helped hand out the first copies of the newspaper at the intersection of Bank and Grand Street in downtown Waterbury, has written columns since she was ten, continues to sell ads, and ran the business in the summer of 2014 when I skipped town to work a summer as a commercial salmon fisherman in Southeast Alaska.
Change and family have been the two constants in this business, and even my family has changed. Chelsea’s husband Michael has become a regular columnist at the Observer, and their daughter, Zoe, just turned one a few days ago, and likes to poke and swipe at her mother’s iPhone.
Who knows what surprises lay ahead for journalists in the decades to come, but I suspect it will be platforms like Facebook Bulletin that will provide the tools for my granddaughter, Zoe, to eventually contribute to The Waterbury Observer, and for journalists across the planet to continue to inform readers about the issues and events that most impact their lives.