An island moneymaker that knows everybody’s secrets

File photo, via Wikimedia Commons

“Who remembers Hate Month?” Marianne Stanton asks in her March 9 “Here and There” column for the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror, aka the Inky, the island’s 196-year-old weekly paper of record. Those who do, she says, can count themselves true Nantucketers. For Johnny-come-lately “washashores,” she explains, “Hate Month refers to March, and let me be specific. We’re talking about March back in the day, before the economy made so many people rich enough to take a February vacation to Florida or the Caribbean or Sun Valley . . . . We’re talking about March when after six months of seeing the same faces day in and day out you were ready to snap, but instead the gossip factory went into overdrive and everybody was hateful to everybody—if not to their faces then behind their backs. The old Nantucket way.”

Stanton has been the I&M’s editor and publisher since 1993, and her navigation of the treacherous shoals of Hate Month is only one factor in her paper’s exceptional vitality. While many local and weekly papers have struggled, the I&M has remained a moneymaker and an asset in the portfolios of several deep-pocketed parents, including Fortress Investment Group, the $70 billion hedge fund. She’s benefited from a readership that’s loyal to print, and has dispatched several rival papers and online startups. Above all, Stanton and the I&M got a lift from the raging real estate market of a haven so quaint and beloved by the affluent that it seems at times less like a pre-Civil War port and more like a movie set.

Each June, the ferries and private jets disgorge thousands shouldering Vera Bradley totes and lathered in SPF-50 onto Nantucket wharves and its one tarmac, 30 miles to sea off Massachusetts. From the Fourth of July through the following 75 days, islanders make roughly 75 percent of their yearly income, a boom-bust cycle Stanton internalized from an early age. She was born and raised on the island, and her parents, Marie and Tom Giffin, owned the broadsheet until 1990, when they sold it to the Ottaway Newspaper chain, a former subsidiary of Dow Jones.

 

Stanton and the I&M got a lift from . . . a haven so quaint and beloved by the affluent that it seems at times less like a pre-Civil War port and more like a movie set.

 

Pages in the Inky jump from 24 in mid-March, when the island population hovers around 10,000, to 40 in mid-July, when upwards of 50,000 mob the cobblestones. The paper claims 20,000 weekly print readers in the summer. Because summer people typically search online for photos, 360s, and videos of properties to buy or rent, one might expect print ads for real estate to have dried up, but owners still want to see their places listed in the paper, an island realtor says. Like more than a dozen islanders interviewed for this article, this person spoke on the condition of anonymity—for fear, perhaps, of the old Nantucket way.

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Many I&M advertisers cater to vacationers, and the I&M does, too, with extensive where-to-go, what-to-do service journalism, plus inserts for the Nantucket Film Festival, Nantucket Wine Festival, and other events. Still, Stanton’s kept the concerns of year-round residents a priority, reporting, for example, on the community’s opioid and heroin problem. On an island frequented by billionaires and celebrities, she’s not shy about publishing stories describing embarrassing arrests of drunken famous people, like the time the I&M beat TMZ to the story of the Penske brothers (sons of auto racing mogul Roger) breaking into the Nantucket Yacht Club and one of them (Jay) later urinating on a woman’s boots—while she was wearing them (the case was dropped after pre-trial probation).

Behind the I&M’s success, admirers and detractors contend, is a woman who has done such a good job of consolidating her power that the Inky has become something of a sandy-toed monopoly. She’s frequently described as the island’s most polarizing figure. That’s a backhanded compliment for any editor with moxie. But some point to the selective nature of her harsh glare.

“If you rely on the Inquirer and Mirror for all your island news, you’ll end up disappointed, disaffected, and disillusioned,” says Charles Graeber, a true-crime author in Brooklyn, and a part-time resident of Nantucket. (Disclosure: He’s also completed feature assignments for me as his editor at three national magazines.) Several islanders echoed Graeber’s criticism, but, again, not on the record. The problem, they say, is not what’s in the paper so much as what isn’t. While some building proposals receive a lot of coverage, Graeber says, others get reported about only after they’re done. “Like when the Johnsons [of the Johnson & Johnson family] don’t like the way something is, it’ll just change. One day there are these giants rocks where there weren’t any giant rocks before,” says Graeber.

Stanton did not return several calls asking for an interview, and neither did her managing editor, Joshua Balling. GateHouse Media followed Stanton’s lead and also declined to comment. Stanton’s husband John also writes for the I&M, despite having been caught reselling a colleague’s work under his own name in the early ’90s. (“It’s like a kid who steals candy from the store and doesn’t know why he did it,” John explained to American Journalism Review soon after.)

Founded in 1821, the same year as London’s Sunday Times, the I&M “had a 150-year head-start on us, and they weren’t going anywhere,” says Ted Leach, the former owner and publisher of the Nantucket Beacon, a competitor founded in 1989. Leach sold the Beacon to Jim Ottaway (by then owner of the I&M) in 1995. By 1998, it was gone. Many had welcomed the competition, recalls Peter B. Brace, a Beacon writer in the early ’90s and author of Nantucket: A Natural History. “But some were just never going to like us. They were going to go to the Hub”—the newsstand on Nantucket’s Main Street—“to get their Inky each Thursday, and that was that.”

Another thing the I&M always had going for it, says Margaret Carroll-Bergman, a former I&M staffer, “is that for so many, Nantucket is a spiritual home,” and they subscribe at their permanent residences. The I&M 2016 Media Kit touts 5,400 such off-island subscriptions in 48 states and nine countries. Bergman became the editor and associate publisher of the Nantucket Independent, which lasted seven years until 2010, and later was recruited to build up the Patch, AOL’s local news sites, for Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod*. (AOL chief executive officer Tim Armstrong has a house on Nantucket.) Patch has since been sold to Hale Global, but there are still lightly tended channels for the Vineyard and Barnstable-Hyannis (on the Cape).

“We did a survey of Patch users, expecting to learn it was a bunch of younger people using new media,” Bergman recalls with a laugh. “And we ended up with a group of the elderly, the infirm, the homebound.” Bergman believes that the Nantucket Independent pushed the I&M to engage better with readers on Twitter and mobile devices. According to the I&M and Google Analytics, ack.net, the I&M’s website, averaged 79,100 unique visitors per month from October 2014 to August 2015.

Keeping track of the I&M’s ownership during Stanton’s reign begs for a flow chart. After News Corp bought Dow Jones, chief executive Rupert Murdoch sold its local newspapers, including the I&M, to Newcastle Investment Corp, a Fortress Investment Group affiliate. Fortress merged the local papers into GateHouse, which filed for bankruptcy court protection in September 2013 and emerged two months later. It’s now part of New Media, a publicly traded company managed by Fortress affiliates. Fortress was recently sold to SoftBank for $3.3 billion, so Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son now holds a small stake in the I&M. If nothing else, this complicated financial picture has kept other daydreamers at bay.

“Oh, I have a Jimmy Reston fantasy of owning the Inky. Doesn’t everybody?” asks William D. Cohan, who writes about Wall Street for Vanity Fair and The New York Times. Reston, a two-time Pulitzer winner for the Times, bought the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette in 1968, and ran it as a family business in his later years. Cohan says he’d love to be able to do the same with the I&M, but there’s no way he could compete with Fortress’s deep pockets. There’s probably even less of a chance he’d get Stanton to return his call.

 

*Correction: This story originally stated there had been a Patch news site for Nantucket. There are Patch sites for Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod, but there was never one for Nantucket specifically.

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Brad Wieners is the former deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, the former of editor of Men’s Journal, and a longtime contributor to Outside. He’s visited Nantucket frequently since 1977, and, for GQ, once found John F. Kennedy’s nuclear attack bunker on the island.