True Tales: Over the Back FenceBy George T. Comeau
For almost 28 years, Joe Moakley, a South Boston politician, represented Canton in the U.S. Congress. Moakley’s hallmark quote had to do with people and neighborhoods. Explaining relationships, he observed, “You live with the people upstairs, downstairs, and over the back fence.”
For the past 25 years, the Canton Citizen has been an integral part of the community. In reality, every Thursday the Citizen has been communicating over the back fence in a way that opens doors, minds, and conversations. At the heart of a successful community newspaper are the stories, and the owner and editor, Beth Erickson, has covered them all.
I remember quite distinctly seeing Erickson in the early 1980s as she toted her cameras to the Canton High School football games. Short, bright, and focused on the action — her trademark boots propelling her up the sidelines — Erickson captured motion, frozen in time, and her photos became memorable. A photo of the Canton Viaduct captured the prestige of our National Historic Site and forever becomes art from her lens.
The Canton Citizen was born out of frustration. For over a hundred years the Canton Journal had been the “paper of record” in Canton. There are hundreds of thousands of pages of the Journal in the basement of the Canton Historical Society. The paper was always a large broadsheet and over the years had a succession of editors who came to know Canton in intimate ways.
The last Canton resident who edited the Journal was Reverend David P. Mahn. Many in the community remember the outspoken Reverend who was active in the National Guard and ministered to the needs of countless Canton families while publishing the news of the day. By 1986, Mahn decided to sell his paper to a small newspaper chain comprising mostly weekly locals on the south shore. The Mariner Group had started as a single paper, the Duxbury Mariner, founded in 1972 by David Cutler.
Within a few years, Cutler had built a small but influential portfolio of local newspapers. Acquiring the Canton Journal was a signature acquisition of the growing media company that would reach 17 communities at its height. Joe DeFelice, our Man About Canton columnist, worked for Cutler and found him to be a “good boss who was firm but fair.” Changes in ownership of the Journal did not serve Canton well, however, and while the staff of the newspaper saw it firsthand, so too did the readership. The most apparent change was the reliance on press releases and stripped-down coverage, including less photography and more generic filler from surrounding towns. The paper started a new tabloid format, and along came the addition of tabloid journalism.
Erickson recalls the pivotal day in 1986 when then Canton Building Inspector Domenic Duganiero stopped her in the Little White Store on Chapman Street and told her she should start a newspaper. “I was humbled by the notion,” explains Erickson, “but I had a 2 year old at home. I wanted to build a larger family, and what did I know about starting a paper?”
There were others who felt the same way, and Erickson, along with Journal writer Marilyn Roache, decided to start a new paper to compete with the historic Canton Journal. The deal was simple: Erickson and Roache would be partners in the business, and Roache would be the editor and run the day-to-day operations. Erickson would manage the photography and build her family. The first paper, the Canton Citizen, was published on September 3, 1987. Two months later, Erickson found out she was carrying twin girls. Undaunted by the management of a full-time business and a growing family, the two partners forged a winning combination.
The Journal, no longer a local, would eventually be sold in 1989, along with the entire Mariner holdings, to Capital Cities/ABC Inc. Earning Cutler $7.5 million, the sale left Canton newsreaders in the hands of a large multinational conglomerate — and several plucky competitors struggling to publish the Canton Citizen. By 1995 the Journal would be sold again, this time to Fidelity Investments and largely to fuel the need to expand advertising opportunities as opposed to creating a viable news source. Today, about 350 subscribers read the Canton Journal, and yet the Citizen boasts over 3,000 subscribers and sells another 300 papers at the newsstand.
The late 1980s were a tough time to be in the newspaper business, as the Massachusetts Miracle began to bust. As more and more local businesses failed, the advertising that was the lifeblood of the fledgling Citizen began to plummet. Late in November, only three years into publication, Roache called Erickson and told her that the paper would shutter the doors on Monday morning, unless there was any objection. The debt was high, and creditors were calling, and quite simply the local business community was suffering. Erickson came to the same conclusion: the paper would end. Just then, 20-year-old Danny Erickson came into the kitchen.
Danny Erickson and his younger siblings had been raised on newspaper pulp and ink; the life behind the Citizen was built into the family routine. It was at that moment, the darkest decision having been made, that an idealistic kid turned to his mom and said, “You can do this.” Beth Erickson looked at him, and urged by her husband, Jeff, decided to take up the problem with resolve and become the sole owner and publisher of a failing newspaper. It was a dramatic moment that changed the course of the paper.
Beth Erickson always loved journalism. While her parents urged her to become a nurse or teacher, it was literary and artistic notions that floated in her head. At Bridgewater State a professor gave her high marks for creative writing and her path would be set. In Canton, most people probably do not realize that every single headline and every photo caption has pretty much been written by Erickson. But what sets her apart from all others is her photography. You can tell instantly a Beth Erickson photo — the coy smile of a child, the innocent gaze of a kindergartener, and the pairing of that same smile on high school graduation day. Erickson’s photography has earned her countless awards and has documented life in Canton for more than 30 years.
What keeps Erickson awake at night, 52 Wednesdays a year, are the stories. “When you live in a community and publish the news, the responsibility is overwhelming,” she said. The reason that the paper is published on Thursday morning is due to the fact that one key story drives the publication schedule — the weekly selectmen’s meeting on Tuesday nights. When the selectmen’s meeting ends, the story is completed early Wednesday morning and then the paper is sent to press. Wednesday nights are sleepless. “Did I offend anyone, make a mistake, or hurt someone with my coverage?” Erickson ponders. Sometimes friends can become enemies. “I always have to balance out the public’s need to know with that of privacy,” she said.
What Erickson is referring to is the fact that at its core, the Canton Citizen is about news. Sometimes you have to publish something unpopular or scandalous. It goes with the territory. As the paper of record, you actually have to record. “When the push for gay marriage became part of the national conversation, there was a Canton conversation that was being held in tandem,” explains Erickson. “I was intent on allowing the paper to provide both sides of the story.” Giving people the right to say their peace, a right to speak, is validation for a community. Respect is at the core of the storytelling of the Canton Citizen, and each letter to the editor attests to the openness for dialogue.
When America went to war in Iraq, a local citizen dressed as a Pilgrim to demonstrate her passion for peace — not only demonstrating, but also writing letters to the editor. Erickson published the letters and received some hard comments from families who had young men and women fighting overseas. “It was tough,” she said, “but it was important to me to have both sides of the issue covered, not only to support the troops, but to support the notion of peace.” The Citizen would go on to write both sides of the war story and in doing so elevated the dialogue in the community so that we could understand the issues and bring reason to the debate.
In a nutshell, that is what a community paper is: the ethic, the balance, the conscience of the town. Erickson has a profound hope for the future. She will continue to love the paper, which she dubs her sixth child. Already the reins are being shared, as Connor Erickson, Beth’s son, has assumed the role as general manager. On the editorial side, Jay Turner is the assistant editor and shares the same passion for fairness as Beth Erickson. “This is becoming the next generation for the Citizen,” and likely it means that for subscribers, the next 25 years will have a local news source that they can count on.
But back to a final example of why a local newspaper is more about “over the fence” observations with our neighbors. Recently, a young mother and father took the time to write an obituary for their four-month-old son. The family wrote in the Citizen that throughout the four months of their son’s beautiful life, they worked to provide him with “a lifetime of love and memories.” They continued the tribute: “We celebrated all the holidays, went to Fenway Park, touched snow, smelled a flower, put his feet in NH water, put his feet in sand from the Cape, tasted a lollipop, and had many more incredible experiences.” This small obituary in a small-town paper places our lives in full perspective. Each week, there are stories that validate our reasons for living in this town. Each week, we share in the joys and sadness of the community.
Perhaps Thornton Wilder said it best: “We can only be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” The Canton Citizen brings to our consciousness the treasures that are Canton. Congratulations on a quarter of a century of service and storytelling.
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