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Hometown Weekly celebrates 20th anniversary

By Stephen Press
Hometown Weekly Staff

The very nature of the news is that it is irregular, a story that never ends. One must break it up into convenient chunks for digestion - the 24-hour cycle of the evening news, the monthly period of The Atlantic, or the weekly format of Hometown Weekly, for example - but doing so often seems almost arbitrary. Rarely do news items fit neatly and evenly in their allotted slots. When they do, we call them milestones.

This week - Monday, March 6, to be exact - is just such a milestone, marking the 20th anniversary of Hometown Weekly.

It all started, as does everything one finds in Hometown Weekly, locally.

“The company we worked for was called Suburban World Newspapers,” a Needham-based business that owned multiple local area newspapers, some of which had been around since the 1930s or 40s, explains Co-Publisher Paul Stanton. "They were around the same size that [Hometown Weekly is] now."

“I was there a few months before him, and then he showed up next to me at the paper," says Co-Publisher Michael DeSario, remembering his introduction to his partner of two decades. There, at Suburban World, Stanton and DeSario worked side-by-side in sales.

"We were there in ’94. I was selling Medfield, he was selling Westwood," continues Stanton. “We became friends, had a good relationship. Immediately after that, I started going to law school at night. After a couple years of that, I said: ‘Well, I either have to go and pursue the law career, or maybe we can start something where we can kind of do both.'"

"Paul was pushing to do our own thing," says DeSario, the gravity of his decision still fresh in his head. “For me, I had a three-year-old, and my mother was living with me, so I had to think about it. Make sure I was doing the right thing. I was 41, so I was older. He was only twenty-something. He could take more of a chance than I could. He really got the ball rolling." DeSario pauses for a moment to collect his thoughts. "At lunchtimes, we would meet. We did it on our own time,” he proudly states.

Soon thereafter, the first issue of Hometown Weekly came out on March 6. It was produced from a one-room office above Donut Express on Main Street in Medfield. Initially, the paper ran bi-weekly, and contained news from three towns.

"We came up with the idea to go to every home in town … So we started doing that. We started in a half-tab [that is, half the size of a current Hometown Weekly] format for six months," says Stanton. "That was right around the time when you could start your own paper and put it out," he continues, reflecting on the serendipitous timing. "Before that - even five years before that - it would have been a much more costly and hard thing to do … Computers had not reached the point where you could do it yourself.

“By 1996, it had gotten to the point where you could get a Mac, and I can buy a layout program - that was brand-new technology at the time. We got [desktop publishing suite] Quark. We got an early version of Photoshop."

Of course, just because one could afford some of the new technology, it did not guarantee smooth sailing.

"They used to shoot the paper," explains Stanton, remembering a time when each page of a given issue would need to be physically laid out and photographed. "What we would do is print it out and prepare pieces of paper to be shot by a camera at the printer. And that’s how everyone did it. That’s how school newspapers did it, that’s how it was done back then.

"It was not digital, even," he continues. "We would print it out on a [conventional printer] that would only print 8.5x11, and that was why we made the decision [to go half-tab]. We couldn’t go tabloid because I couldn’t afford a printer to print 11x17 paper." In 1996, a printer capable of churning out 11x17 pages cost many times that of its more conventional cousins.

Beyond that, computers of the era did not have the same kind of oomph as those found in newsrooms today.

"Because the amount of RAM on those early Macs was so low," says Stanton, "if you put a couple of pictures on a page, it wouldn’t print half of them - it would just run out of memory. We were literally there all night, trying to get these things to work.

"We used to do a lot of waxing. A lot of it was cut-and-paste," he says, remembering the late-night production sessions. "I’d be on the computer. And I’d say, ‘This ad has too many graphics. We won’t be able to print it on the page. Just wax it on.’ You didn’t use glue, it was a wax. [Mike] would take it, and we would have a wax roller that you got at an arts and crafts shop, and he’d wax the back of it, and he’d line it up and wax it and put it down on the page."

Of course, it frequently led to hilarity, as such situations often do.

"If there was an open spot - like, a white space, or a story that didn’t go all the way to the end - [Mike would] just stick a bush in there. It became an ongoing thing. If there was a little spot that was open, he’d wax in a little tree or something," laughs Stanton. "If you look at some of the old ones … there are weird little things that are clearly just him filling up the white spaces."

As the nascent paper began to gain traction in the community, things changed rapidly. To start with, it expanded to its recognizable full-tabloid size. It also began coming out on a weekly - rather than bi-weekly - basis.

All within six months of its inception.

DeSario mentions that the switch was a pragmatic one; a client had expressed interest in advertising during the paper's "off week," and the paper wanted to accommodate both him and other eager advertisers.

“Then that meant more stories," he says, "and we started getting more people to help us out.”

"There were a lot of people who wanted information out there," adds Stanton. "They were submitting us lots of stories, lots of ideas, lots of photos of games and things like that. We were able to fill a need."

The news itself is perpetually changing, as are technology and the often-fickle media consumption habits of the public. It seems slightly remarkable that after twenty years in an era marked by the decline of major newspapers, Hometown Weekly is still going strong.

Perhaps that is because, rather paradoxically, as the paper grew, it became even more locally focused.

Those three towns covered in the first issues of Hometown Weekly? Each has it own, unique edition now - and they’ve been joined by another four communities for good measure. Altogether, seven towns now depend on Hometown Weekly for their local news, spread across six weekly editions.

"The way the media has changed is it’s become very corporate," says Stanton, getting a bit philosophical. "It created a vacuum where small companies like us can, if you can support yourself by putting out a good service and being local, do things that big companies can’t. It’s very, very hard for big media companies to understand what’s going on on the ground.

"People can still walk in here with press releases. A landscaper can come by with an ad in his truck. We’ll run an ad for a lost cat. Whatever it is, we’re kind of an old-fashioned local paper. The way the media’s changed, especially over the past 25-30 years, that’s rare, so I think people respond more to it.

"I think the key to this business - and to any local business - is to have a very specific, succinct plan of what you’re trying to do. Not trying to do too much."

For his part, DeSario reflects the same simple ethos. “We’ve always had a good base of advertisers, which is what gets the paper going, since we don’t depend on subscriptions," he says. "I think we’ve done very well through the years developing good business relationships. We still have work to do … we just have to make things happen.”

"That is what we try to do," continues Stanton. "We try to be the best local advertising vehicle and provide the best local news distribution that we can, and we just stick to that. We don’t try to do too much."

The news, of course, will always keep coming. There is no telling, week to week, exactly what will fill the pages of Hometown Weekly. The one thing that remains certain is that the paper will continue just as it started: locally.

"It’s not so much about my views or Mike’s views and what we want to put out there," Stanton concludes. "It’s really reflecting the voice of the community back. Rather than try to make it a mouthpiece for our opinions or how we want to influence things - like I think a lot of people who get into media want - we try to make it a vehicle for everybody."

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