Those who don’t reside in Western Massachusetts or aren’t steeped in the history of the American media, likely are unaware that today marks a seminal day in the life of both. It was on September 6, 1786 in a small printing office lodged in Northampton Massachusetts, where a young printer by the name of William Butler in a desire to keep the populace knowledgeable and ensure the continuation of spirited debate on issues of the age, printed the very first issue of what would become the Hampshire Gazette.
Three years had passed since the signing of the ‘ Treaty of Paris’ which ended the American Revolution and secured her independence from the British Empire. Butler worried that with the objectives of victory and independence reached, his fellow countrymen (and women) would lose interest in the issues and challenges facing the young nation’s future. In response to those fears, he with the support of others began the printing and publication of what would become one of America’s oldest newspapers.
The front page of the Gazette’s first edition included this letter from the young publisher (who at age 22 would today be considered about the age when one normally gets their Bachelors Degree in Journalism).
Northampton, Sept. 6, 1786.
To the Public.
By the advice and encouragement of a number of Gentlemen in this County, the Subscriber has established a Printing Office in Northampton, where printing of all kinds usual in America will be performed with care and dispatch.
In a country like this, where our national character and happiness so entirely depend upon a general diffusion of knowledge among the people, the extensive advantages of such periodical publications cannot be too often explained or too highly estimated.—The United States of America owe their existence as an empire to that Superior degree of knowledge which the people at large have enjoyed and maintained through every period of their progress, from the first settlement of the country to the late revolution. In no country have the rights of mankind been more generally understood, and more rationally and systematically maintained. It is well known that the establishment of schools in every part of the country and the circulation of News-Papers, are among the principal causes which have led us to our present situation: the danger is, that the enjoyment of peace and tranquility will produce inattention to these subjects; that when the feelings exited by our troubles have subsided, our friends will sink into that indolence which is natural to such a state, our children will grow up in ignorance, and ignorance is the parent of slavery and all the national vices which mark the decline of empire.
Whatever may be the fate of the Subscriber in his attempt, the establishment of a press in this town certainly promises many advantages to this part of the country. The greater part of the extensive and flourishing counties of Hampshire and Berkshire, are much more commodiously situated to receive their communications from this office than from any other, while increasing the number of presses, in the country, will probably increase the number of readers and writers, an object to be desired by every friend of liberty and nature.
In 1786, what would become known as ‘Shays Rebellion’ took place. Thousands of Massachusetts farmers mired in debt took up arms and revolted against the local elites to keep their properties from being seized. In a nod perhaps to what would be the sort of fragments of information from modern social media and online news aggregates; the Gazette relied on fragments of information contained in letters and reports from subscribers for its content.
In the years since, the ‘Daily Hampshire Gazette’ has continued to report on news and satisfy the appetites of readers in Franklin and Hampshire counties. Over the past 225 years it has become a main source of information in Western Massachusetts; holding those in the seats of power accountable, chronicling the events and people of the communities it covers, and explaining complex and perhaps little known issues in greater depth.
Personally, I have been summoned to the paper’s office to be interviewed for several open positions over the years. Unfortunately I have never been hired by them. The closest I ever came was a brief yet rewarding internship in the Summer of 2008 at the Valley Advocate, an alternative weekly stationed in the back of the Gazette’s office building and also published by the Gazette’s publisher Newspapers of New England. But what I sensed in its headquarters was something that would be a shame to lose in this climate where the media is undergoing a metamorphosis of sorts. Beyond the frenzy of the ringing phones, the maze of desk, and the pounding of key board was the sense of mission in that brisk walk of staffers moving about. Always moving with minds locked on the objective of getting the story.
The partisan tinged barbs, ideological Janissary’s, sensationalism, and eagerness to be the center of attention ( that is a violation of one of those central tenants of journalism which namely is to NOT become the story) are a far cry from that. Having survived this long hopefully the Gazette can show others how to be more resilient while still retaining its core. By doing that and ensuring that the centuries long dialogue of our times continues, Butler’s mission can be realized by generations of news organizations present and future.