A newspaper for the people, by the people

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on July 23, 2015.

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Front page of November 30, 1906 issue of the Wellesley Townsman
(Posted with permission from the Wellesley Townsman)

It may be blasphemous to say, but democracy certainly has its disadvantages. For one, it actually requires effort from the citizenry. People have to pay attention to what’s going on. They need to know who their political leaders are. And then they must actively participate in elections and public meetings.

However, it has been proven throughout the world — from the smallest villages to the most populous countries — that democracy is the most effective form of government that is not unfair.

Needless to say, we’ve seen this to be true throughout Wellesley’s history. From way back when Wellesley was part of Dedham in the 1600s to the present day, all important decisions have been made by the people after extensive debate.

By and large, up until the 20th Century, these discussions took only one form: face-to-face meetings within the most frequented places around town, namely the meetinghouse, tavern, and railroad depot.

Such a method of communication, however, eventually proved inadequate. Wellesley had just become too large and the issues it faced had become too complex to rely exclusively on verbal dialogues. There needed to be a forum that enabled widespread discussion and kept citizens in the know about what was going on. Specifically, it needed a newspaper.

Prior to the publication of the first issue of the Wellesley Townsman on April 6th, 1906 — Wellesley’s 25th birthday — there had been a handful of attempts to establish a newspaper here. Some more successful than others.

During the 1870s, there was the Wellesley Advertiser, a single page newspaper published by Bigelow & Mansfield, the local grocers in Wellesley Square. Then a decade later came the Wellesley Courant, arguably the most comprehensive and modern of these extinct papers. It featured everything from regular news and personal notes to substantial discussions on important issues facing the town, including the establishment of a public water supply and the construction of Wellesley Town Hall.

But for reasons not entirely known, the Courant didn’t last all that long. Perhaps it was because the newspaper had been acquired by a Natick publisher, and although a Wellesley-only edition remained in circulation, citizens of Wellesley made less of an effort to inform the editor of news that may have been of interest to their fellow residents.

The immediate precursor to the Townsman was Our Town, a monthly magazine-like newspaper that was published from 1898 to 1903. Established by the pastors of St. Andrew’s, the Unitarian Society, and both Congregational churches, this publication was never intended to fill the role of a true newspaper. Instead, as the editors wrote in their very first issue, its purpose was to have “an earnest and honest discussion of the problems relating to the moral and spiritual development of the town.” Not necessarily to discuss all the pressing issues of the time. And certainly not to publish personal notes and gossip that were the hallmarks of the Courant, and later, the Townsman.

The movement to establish the Townsman began in November 1903, when the town’s premier civic organization, the Wellesley Club, held a discussion entitled, “Does Wellesley Need a Local Paper?”

Not surprisingly, the answer to that question was a resounding yes. A committee was therefore formed — with whom else but Isaac Sprague at the helm — to look into the organization of such a newspaper. But the logistics to do so proved too difficult at the time and the issue was tabled.

More than two years passed before the question was again raised. This time, however, Sprague and his fellow town leaders determined what needed to get done to start a newspaper. In particular, they recognized the critical importance of citizen contributions. A newspaper could only succeed through the cooperation of the people. Information about current events, lodge and club meetings, social affairs, personal notes, and guest columns were crucial for the Townsman to avoid the fate of all the previous periodicals in town. As the editor put it, “Anything that will interest somebody is worth sending in.”

It was clear from the very first issue that the Townsman succeeded on this front. More or less everything of significance that was going on within the town made its way into the paper. And it was chiefly because of this — keeping the people informed on what issues the town faced — that Wellesley itself was able to overcome numerous obstacles that required action through its government, such as the transformation of the site of the dilapidated Elm Park Hotel at Wellesley Hills Square into a park as well as the construction of a town-wide sewerage system.

Since then — in the 109 years of this newspaper’s existence — it has been proven true time and time again that our town, and especially our democratic form of government, function best when a collective effort to raise awareness of important issues is undertaken by the people. Of course, only if this persists will Wellesley continue to prosper.