Setting a New Agenda

At about this time last year the Cape Cod Times, our respected daily counterpart across the Sound, laid out an ambitious editorial agenda for the year ahead. It was well-written and thoughtful and the very idea of such a thing was at once impressive and daunting.

Of course most people believe that every newspaper has a well-planned editorial agenda. It’s hidden there, in the headlines, the order of letters to the editor, the choice of stories for the front page. It’s hidden in the omissions and errors too — why didn’t that news item get into the paper? It must have been because it didn’t fit with the newspaper’s editorial agenda.

But here is the blunt truth — at a community newspaper an editorial agenda is something that comes together very much like the newspaper itself — in bits and pieces, throughout the week, choreographed and revised, again and again, written and edited, again and again until finally it is time for the last pages to go to press. What did we miss? What did we forget? It is always something.

And rather than being plotted out like some beautiful, well-ordered garden of thoughts, editorial ideas surface during found moments of discussion tucked in and around the business of gathering, writing and editing the news.

So where lies the agenda for the Gazette?

It lies in the high school and grammar school honor rolls which are published every quarter.

It lies in the coverage of the devastating July Fourth fire when the newspaper’s reporters and photographers worked around the clock at the height of the summer season on a weekend to record the Main street blaze and its impact on the town and people of the Island.

It lies in the town social columns, the calendar of events and birth announcements that are published every week.

It lies in the story of a wild turkey that terrorized a Chilmark neighborhood, and in the reflections on 150 years of history at the courthouse and at Alley’s General Store, and 50 years at the Polly Hill Arboretum.

It lies in documenting the careful, old-fashioned repairs to the Flying Horses carousel and in following dynamic plans at cultural institutions such as the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

It lies in complete reports from our town meetings and elections — covering the future of the Home Port or the availability of beer and wine in Tisbury.

It lies in the obituary for the bluesman Maynard Silva which was published on the front page in July of this year. And for the Very Rev. Dean Sayre, who died in October, and for David Flanders who died on Thanksgiving Day.

Because the agenda of a great community newspaper is simply the community itself. And a community like the Vineyard has many agendas.

We can’t get there to cover them all.

But we try.

We don’t always get it right and we know it.

But it’s fun and rewarding to keep trying, week after week.

And as for editorial agendas, there are always new ones to set.

This year we’ve got the economy on our mind, of course, and we want to carefully watch and analyze the Island real estate market, a key underpinning of the economy here. We want to know more about the affordable housing groups and how they work; there are so many of them and it can be very confusing to the public. We are concerned to hear that homelessness is surfacing on the Vineyard and we want to report more on any developments there. We are concerned about the Lyme disease epidemic and about the apparently unchecked public health problems of addiction and depression. We are interested in sustainable fishing and farming, and in the never-ending task of manning the barricades of environmental protection. We are interested in small businesses and what makes the successful ones tick. We want to keep sitting on porches and in living rooms and having new conversations with people who live on the Vineyard, summer and year-round, highly accomplished and home-spun. We want to ask them questions about their lives and hear what they think, about the world, about the Island.

We want to hear what you think about what we do, and should be doing, in reader feedbacks on our Web site,, and on our letters to the editor page. Our editorial agenda is broadly drawn and open to all ideas and suggestions.

And as the year turns from 2008 to 2009, we’ve also got neighborhoods on our mind — in particular the preservation of neighborhoods. On Chappaquiddick there is an open space fund, founded by a group of neighbors — not wealthy people but people with a sense of place and a determination to raise money to help preserve open space. It has worked and is a wonderful model for other neighborhoods to try. And yet no one has. Why?

Saving Island neighborhoods may in the end be the key to that thing we toast every year at midnight as the first day of January begins — health and happiness.

And certainly that is a worthwhile editorial agenda to pursue.