By Shannon A. Garrido Berges
Old black and white photographs of bikers soaring over cars and a dramatic shot of the Hindenburg surround me. I sit in an office filed with stacks of newspapers that read “Advocate’” in bold red letters. The man behind the headlines, James David Mitchell, sits before me.
Mitchell, founder of The Advocate, discusses his journey in approaching the world of local journalism. He details the challenges The Advocate has and continues to face and what that means for the future of local journalism.
His father, James Mitchell Sr.—who sits at the desk parallel from us— started the Chelsea Advocate when Mitchell was a child and worked on many other publications as well. His father’s occupation became a source of interest for Mitchell from a young age and heavily influenced him to pursue journalism.
“When I was a kid, my father used to take me [and my three siblings] to his newspaper office, but I was kind of the only one who was always reading all the time,” said Mitchell.
After studying journalism at Suffolk University with a cross registration program at Emerson College in Film, Mitchell decided to buy out his father’s partner at the Chelsea Advocate and take over the business. Soon after that Mitchell realized he didn’t want to publish in Chelsea anymore. He started The Advocate Newspapers Inc. in Revere and expanded from there.
“Although I went to Chelsea High School, I gravitated more towards Everett. Chelsea was very political at the time and a lot of things were going on,” said Mitchell.
Founded 31 years ago, The Advocate covered Revere in the early ‘90s, and expanded to Everett, Malden and Saugus. Today, printed copies are available at local markets or liquor stores for free and an online edition divides content by city.
Mitchell describes the experience of starting The Advocate as almost a service to his friends and family. Mitchell noticed that local journalism around him had become incredibly politicized. He started reporting on local events and people began to gravitate toward The Advocate. Covering things his neighbors cared about—such as school sports games— and his skilled photography set him apart. More specifically he believes, his coverage of local politics was much more objective than other publications and people appreciated that.
“We gave both sides—as we always do—by allowing counselors and school board members to speak and let the readers be the judge,” said Mitchell. “Because a newspaper is basically a reflection of its community.”
Mitchell became interested in expanding coverage in other cities. Expanding to Malden, he said, was easy because his father was already familiar with the city. It also made sense financially to expand because The Advocate relies almost entirely on advertisers.
For the first 15 years in business, Mitchell’s job aside from selling ads and taking pictures was to lay out the newspaper; this was a time before computers. He would go from reviewing the Everett city council on Monday nights, to phone calls on local stories Tuesdays and Malden City Council meetings that same night. Other days he would take pictures for stories and cover games, all in time for the paper to come out on Friday morning.
In its beginnings and to this day, much of the work Mitchell did himself. Because it was, and still is, a small local paper, The Advocate employs writers, photographers and graphic designers sporadically. Mitchell himself makes up all the ads and has someone help lay out the newspaper boards.
“You don’t bank on people staying for a long time. Because the budgets that we have….we can’t offer health benefits or anything like that,” said Mitchell. “So what you see here now is myself, my dad, (and) a proofreader three days a week.”
Dan Kennedy, journalism professor at Northeastern University, and a nationally known media commentator, said he believes that at the end of the day, local journalism should belong to a local person.
“I think definitely the future of local journalism is to return ownership to local people in local communities and get the chains and the hedge funds out,” said Kennedy.
The Advocate experienced the shift of digital journalism at its prime and have tried its best to keep up and connect with its readers through every means possible. The online publication, which according to Mitchell started in the early 2000s, has undergone much trial and error. The paper has alternated between many formats, using platforms like GoDaddy and WordPress.
Nothing seemed sustainable, and between keeping up with content and advertisement layout and now working on an online publication, Mitchell decided to hire a company DakotaQ Internet Services to lay out The Advocate News Online. So far the website provides readers with three free articles and then relies on a subscription model.
The Advocate’s online subscription costs $50 a year, a price that according to Mitchell reflects the costs of maintaining employees and equipment along with keeping up with the cost of print. According to Mitchell, The Advocate tries to support local New England printers but it is difficult to find any that fit the budget.
That being said, Mitchell is adamant on maintaining a print edition because he believes there is still a demand for it.
“We have people that have been reading this paper from the first day it came out, to [people] that have just moved in and never read it before,” said Mitchell. “[They call and] say, oh, I’ve seen it online, but can I get a copy for my mother or my father?”
Kennedy also sees print as an important component to maintaining local journalism in smaller communities, because it allows for the kind of traction that bigger and wealthier papers do not need.
“One of the additional challenges for most startups is [that they are] digital only. There’s no print component, which is fine, but it’s harder to get the word out about a digital only project,” said Kennedy. “If you have a physical newspaper people see it, they might pick it up, and they get the idea that there is local news in their community.”
The Advocate is an example of local journalism that has stood the test of time, although local news is in the midst of a long financial crisis
Mitchell enthusiastically recalls all the people he has met doing what he does and the stories he has covered that make him proud. He said he still sees the value in print publications, and local journalism itself is not dying as long as someone is willing to do it.
“A newspaper belongs to the city, ” Mitchell said. He is happy that he can still publish a print version and distribute it so people can read it with their morning coffee.