The Mast-Head: Then and Now

It was on Dec. 26, 1885, that George Burling first printed 500 copies of what he called The Easthampton Star

The Star’s 130th anniversary, although a milestone, passed almost unnoticed here last week. It was on Dec. 26, 1885, that George Burling first printed 500 copies of what he called The Easthampton Star, only later deciding to separate the East and the Hampton, in keeping with local tradition. Mr. Burling can be forgiven for the error, given that he had started The Southampton Press only the year before.

That Mr. Burling thought it fit to introduce his new paper the day after Christmas seems a puzzle today. My father, writing in his own column in 1977, observed that the 26th of December came at a time of year when even the most curmudgeonly of letter-writers couldn’t be motivated to pick up a pen, and that a publication that survived the quietest week of the year could survive anything.

Times were different then. Shore whaling, a mostly winter activity, continued as a meaningful source of income for some East Hamptoners. The summer tourist trade was only in its infancy, with farming and fishing the main livelihoods, along with the trades and shops to supply them. The year’s end might have been as good a time as any to expect the townspeople to find the time to read something fresh. And for a publisher, a sense of hope and expectation at the beginning of a new year must have seemed auspicious.

Today, The Star thrives in a very different era. The days when once Mr. Burling and the editors who inherited the mantle enjoyed a new monopoly, in terms of both readers’ attention and advertising, are long gone. So, too, is a sense that a newsthings the way it always has.

Around the Star office, the biggest shock of the year past might have been the way the Army Corps project in Montauk, which we had reported and editorialized on extensively, blew up once the bulldozers started rolling — mostly thanks to Instagram. Despite the thousands of words about the plan in The Star, it was only when people began to see what was going on, largely thanks to an aerial view posted by James Katsipis, that opposition erupted. For us, it was a lesson.

One of the great puzzles about newspapering today is that even though we have far more readers than ever before, paying for the newsgathering operation is a greater challenge than, say, a decade ago. Weeklies are not alone; a friend at The Times tells me that business-side conversations there are dominated by the same conundrum. 

For us, 2016 starts with a look at our growing audience and how to reach would-be news consumers in the digital spaces they inhabit as much as it will be about bringing them to us. It’s an exiting and never-ending series of puzzles Mr. Burling could never have imagined.