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Island Gazette Evokes Sense of Place

Martha's Vineyard paper has marked ebb and flow of tides, tourists for 150 years

By Bill KirtzSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 19, 1996



MARTHA'S VINEYARD, MASS.

Mike Wallace, Art Buchwald, and Katharine Graham subscribe. Lists of agricultural fair winners abut essays by Pulitzer Prize-winning contributors. And using an ancient Smith Corona typewriter, its longtime West Tisbury columnist, Dionis Coffin Riggs, keeps Islanders up to date on such news as "a big tree came down at the end of Tish's Cove Road."

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It is the Vineyard Gazette, a l50-year-old weekly newspaper that reaches both lobstermen and Nobel laureates with style enough to earn it a national reputation.

Seven miles off the Massachusetts coast, Martha's Vineyard has a winter population of l2,000 that swells to more than 70,000 in summers. Anthony Lewis, Walter Cronkite, and Jules Feiffer are among the media notables who enjoy the island's serenity.

Here too, Wampanoag Indian children help build a school-bus shelter, and health-care workers worry about a cutback at the island's only hospital.

To cover it all - from clamming permits to Andre Previn's piano - Gazette editor Richard Reston performs an editorial balancing act weekly in winter and twice-weekly in summer and fall.

"We are writing to university presidents, government officials, and celebrities, but also to fishermen and the service industry, who are part of the year-round island," he says. "If you tilt too far one way or the other, you risk losing your audience. We have an editorial philosophy of offering enough for both."

The paper's blend of topics has drawn professional and popular recognition. Its year-round average of l3,500 subscribers includes readers in every state and l4 foreign countries. In four of the past six years, the New England Press Association has judged it the region's best weekly. Many of its writers and its nationally known photographer, Alison Shaw, have won awards.

Mr. Reston, who used to jet from country to country, now walks four blocks to his ivy-covered office. The former United Press International correspondent and San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times bureau chief took over the Gazette in l975, eight years after his parents, James ("Scotty") and Sally Reston, bought it from its legendary editor-publisher Henry Beetle Hough.

In 48 years, Mr. Hough had taken the Gazette from a hand-cranked 600 copies to a circulation of 8,000. But he had no heirs, his presses were antiquated, and so he sold the paper to James Reston, a New York Times correspondent.

When they arrived, Richard and his wife, Mary Jo, moved the paper into the computer era. In the basement of the Gazette's l7th-century Edgartown office, a four-unit press spins out as many as 20,000 papers when visitors such as hurricane Bob and President Clinton hit the island. Although manual typewriters still line the wooden desks in the carpeted newsroom, the paper's six reporters work with Macintosh computers and QuarkXPress, and the paper has a site on the Internet.

The broadsheet Gazette is a widest-possible l7-1/2 inches, compared with the standard l3-l/2. Custom-sized newsprint is expensive, but Reston says, "This is such a special audience that if we began to run a narrower paper, they'd be up in arms."

That special audience brings special clout to Gazette crusades. Mia Farrow and Carly Simon were among the supporters of its successful l978 fight against a McDonald's invasion. Former opera star Beverly Sills and sociologist Vance Packard are among the contributors who have proclaimed the need to preserve the Vineyard's rustic charm.

"The unusual quality of the audience makes this paper reach for a higher standard," Reston says. "The press is often accused of reaching down, but this audience places special pressures on the paper to reach up."

Past and present Gazette reporters praise the paper's tradition of letting them develop a personal voice. "Very rarely do editors come in with a laundry list of subjects," says staff reporter Jason Gay. "There's never been a set prescription in terms of size and construction. We're encouraged to pursue our own interests."

Many off-Islanders consider the paper part of their family. Durham, N.C., resident Meg Carman wrote the paper that the Gazette let her participate in "the rich tradition which unfolds on the Vineyard every year."

Reston says, "We constantly do what others don't, not just look for the troubled parts but for the good sides. We try to pause long enough to look around and remember that there are things worth preserving."

First on the paper's preservation list is the island's serenity. Reston, a perennial editorial-writing award-winner, has protested eloquently against the island's "buildout" - following a Gazette tradition of blocking overdevelopment of the Vineyard's l00 square miles.

As it covers the celebrities who crowd the Vineyard, the Gazette tries to walk a fine line between news and gossip.

"Our philosophy is not really to be intrusive into the private lives" of visiting notables, Reston says. So after beating the international press to Princess Diana's summer retreat, the paper published an exclusive photograph of her - but disguised the location to protect her privacy. For the same reason, it omits the addresses of high-profile real-estate transactions.

"Lots of community papers could do a lot more with the character and the closeness of the relationship between the paper and the community," Reston says. "We have a very strong sense of place, a belief of the individuality of the community we're covering and serving."

* 'Vineyard Gazette Reader: An Anthology of the Best of the Island Newspaper 1970-1995' ($22.95, 256 pp.) was published by the newspaper this year and edited by Richard Reston and Tom Dunlop. The Gazette's Web site address is http://www/vineyard.net/biz/gazette/