POSTCARD: Living and Dying with Boston’s Neighborhood Newspapers

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—I wonder if Martha C. Engler felt lonely when she died last month, at age 100 in West Roxbury. To a young snoop like this reporter, her life seems profoundly disconnected and a Google search yields no trace save her obituary in The Dorchester Reporter. Like the Reporter’s other obituaries, Ms. Engler’s reads like a resumé:

“Beloved daughter of the late Rudolph & Eva (Harfmann) Engler. Survived by many dear friends. Retired children’s librarian. Past prefect of the Immaculate Conception Sodality. Past President of the Mattapannock Women’s Club of South Boston.”

Although these fragments of sentences and lives are eerily evocative in their own right, it was a different type of morbid curiosity that initially led me to the Reporter’s obituary page. Community newspaper obituaries are the pinnacle of doom in modern society—the most doomed section of the most doomed newspapers in an industry that seems summarily doomed. While the obituaries in The New York Times or The Boston Globe have quirky characters, skillful prose, and huge (if languishing) corporations on their side, it’s entirely likely that the Martha C. Englers of 2015 will go un-commemorated.

It’s not only their loss. It’s easy to look askance on neighborhood newspapers, which are often distributed for free and rely heavily on coupons, Little League victories and the fluctuations of the local restaurant industry for their content. Boston is home to more than 30 of them, and they reflect the city’s atomized history. Although Boston’s neighborhoods have always had their own identities, as the city’s population grew in the 1970s and 1980s, many of them started their own newspapers to cover local topics and provide micro-targeted advertising for small businesses. The city also has a slew of ethnic newspapers, which reflect the concerns and prejudices of old Boston, and show that certain cultural identities remain salient. The obituaries in these prove just as quirky, if not as brutally clinical, as the ones in the Dorchester Reporter.

Some features of Boston’s community newspapers will survive the industry’s painful shift to digital media. Coupons, local news coverage, and targeted advertising are even more effective on the Internet than they are in print. Death notices, though, pose a different problem. Small newspaper obituaries require a captive audience—people generally do not scour the Internet for such announcements to read in their free time. The form is already fading into obsolescence; we chronicle our lives in such detail on Facebook, Twitter and our blogs that a summary upon our death seems redundant. Indeed, Facebook now offers the option of “memorializing” the pages of dead users, freezing the status updates and wall posts for posterity.

It’s a shame. These pieces provide some of the rawest insights that the media has to offer into a rapidly vanishing city. As individuals are priced out of the neighborhoods where they grew up, the sharp contours of Boston’s wildly diverse, culturally distinct neighborhoods are being replaced by the flat surface of a bland, gentrified metropolis. There’s also a populist appeal to these obituaries that should not be overlooked—if former spies and concert trombonists deserve eulogies in The Times, why not a children’s librarian? Her Spartan characterization only adds to her appeal. For all we know, the real Martha C. Engler might have been crotchety, selfish, or cold. But as far as The Dorchester Reporter is concerned, her life can be aptly summarized in five subject clauses. Reductive? Probably. But it also leaves room for us to find a bit of ourselves in Ms. Engler—and that unintended poignancy is certainly something worth eulogizing.

Abigail B. Lind ’12, a Crimson arts columnist, is an English concentrator in Currier House.

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