Together, we can do something about local news coverage in Medford

Last fall I asked the lone full-time reporter for the Medford Transcript if he would take part in the mayoral debate I was helping to organize for the Medford Chamber of Commerce. He told me that he would have liked to, but that he couldn’t because he’d be covering it. A reasonable answer, although it also spoke to the Transcript’s lack of resources.

Not long after, he left the paper. The debate was covered by a part-time stringer. And today, more than a year and a half later, that full-time position still hasn’t been filled.

The Transcript does assign stringers to cover a few stories. They do a good job, and nothing I write here should be taken as denigrating their work. But in a city of nearly 58,000 people, we have enough news for a staff of two full-time reporters. Or four. Even when we had one, the young journalists who filled that position managed to write some important stories before moving on to bigger and better jobs. Zero, though, is just untenable.

Today Medford is very close to being a news desert, joining hundreds if not thousands of communities across the country that have so little coverage that they lack the reliable news and information they need to participate in local affairs in a meaningful way. Instead, we rely on Facebook, Nextdoor, Patch (which does have a little bit of original reporting), email lists, messages from the mayor, texts from the police department and reports by citizens who have the time and the inclination to sit through public meetings on Zoom and write them up. (Update: Since publishing this essay, I’ve learned about a free paper called the Medford News Weekly. Despite its name, there’s a lot of Somerville news in it, and the content is mostly press releases. Still, it’s worth keeping an eye on.)

As a longtime journalist and academic who studies the business of news, I want to share some thoughts on what might be done to solve the problem. Over the past few years, I’ve had several conversations with people in Medford about how to fill the gap created by the hollowing-out of our local newspaper. But solving the problem is a daunting task and, frankly, those conversations didn’t lead anywhere. First, though, a bit on how we got here.

What went wrong

I’ve been a West Medford resident for more than 10 years, in two stints separated by three decades. In the early 1980s, when we first lived here, the city was served by the Medford Daily Mercury, a vibrant, independently owned paper published on weekdays. The owner, David Brickman, was something of a legend in Massachusetts newspaper circles and at one point served on the State Ethics Commission. My wife, Barbara Kennedy, began her career as a newspaper photographer for the Mercury and its sister papers, the Malden Evening News and the Melrose Free Press.

The Mercury was a good paper, well-staffed. But Brickman ran into financial difficulties that, as I recall, were more related to his work in trying to redevelop Malden Center than to the newspaper business. He ended up selling, and the papers began their long slide to oblivion.

When we moved back at the end of 2014, the Mercury was on its last legs. I picked up a copy and saw that there was literally nothing in it but press releases from Malden. In 2017, it ceased publishing altogether.

Meanwhile, there was the Transcript, owned by GateHouse Media, a corporate newspaper chain that was notorious for gutting its newsrooms in order to squeeze out revenues. What coverage it offered slowly dwindled. At first, the full-time reporter was supplemented by an editor who had responsibility for multiple papers, and who would occasionally pitch in with a story. So rather than one reporter, we had one-plus, sort of.

Following a reorganization, though, that ceased, and so the lone full-timer was left on their own — until last fall, when even that position was eliminated. At one time I picked up some buzz that the position might be filled. If it had, I probably wouldn’t be writing this. Soon, though, GateHouse merged with Gannett, and another round of brutal cost-cutting was announced to help finance the deal. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, causing advertising to collapse at newspapers across the country. So I don’t expect the position to be filled any time soon, if ever.

In my circles, you often hear that the death spiral in which local news finds itself couldn’t be prevented — that newspapers failed to make a successful transition to digital, that Craigslist destroyed the classified advertising that once accounted for some 40% of newspaper revenues, and that Facebook and Google took the rest.

All of this is true. Yet I am convinced that it only accounts for about half the story. The other half is the rise of hedge-fund and corporate-chain ownership, which cut costs by decimating newsrooms, using the money to finance their debt and to pay their owners and shareholders.

Whether or not a community has a healthy local news outlet often seems to be the luck of the draw. New Haven, Connecticut, for instance, may be the best-covered medium-size city in the country thanks to the 15-year-old New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news outlet, and WNHH, the Independent’s low-power FM community radio station. (Keep in mind that New Haven is only twice as big as Medford, not 10 times bigger. It can’t happen here? Why not?)

Closer to home, The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, where I was a staff reporter from 1979 to ’89, is still an independently owned weekday paper offering good coverage of its home city and the surrounding area.

There is nothing inevitable about what happened to local news coverage in Medford. It was largely the consequence of decisions made in the suburbs of Rochester, New York, where GateHouse had its headquarters for many years. More important, there’s no reason why those of us who live in Medford should put up with it.

What can be done?

In my years of reporting on the business of news, including two books on the subject (here and here), I have become convinced that what we need is an enterprising individual (or two or three) with a vision and a plan. The model is almost irrelevant. Anything can work; anything can fail. Regardless of the approach, I think you could start with one person handling the journalism and another the business side, with maybe a part-timer to cover news as well. You could even start with one person and build from there.

Whatever someone might want to try, Medford strikes me as an almost ideal place to try it. We live in an affluent city with lots of diversity, a thriving political culture and five business districts. The only shortcoming I can see is we’re so close to Boston that the proportion of residents who care about local news might be lower than if we were, say, outside Route 495.

Still, Medford strikes me as being worth a gamble for someone with the energy to give it a shot. If I were 30 years younger, I might try one of these ideas myself. And in case you’re wondering, I’d go with the nonprofit website, which is the first model I’ll discuss:

A nonprofit website. If you can find funders (always a big if), this would probably be the best way of providing Medford with the coverage that it needs. The project would need support from institutions and wealthy individuals. A founder who knows how to shake those trees would be crucial. Maybe a GoFundMe could yield some serious money if the campaign got enough publicity.

A couple of years ago I played a minor role in advising a nonprofit startup called North Suburban News, which ceased operations a little more than a year ago. It was a well-intentioned project, and I hope it will be revived at some point. But I also thought the model was wrong — it covered five communities, with plans to add Medford at some future point. What people are looking for is hyperlocal coverage of their community. So if anyone is going to try such a project, they ought to focus strictly on Medford.

With any online-only news start-up, you have to put a lot of work into getting the word out. It’s not easy, but you could build awareness fairly quickly by posting links to content on Facebook and other social media, printing out fliers, showing up at every community event (you know, back when we return to having community events) and getting people to sign up for email newsletters.

One of the advantages of taking the nonprofit route is that you don’t have to gear all of your efforts to driving people to your website so that they’ll see the ads. (Although nonprofits are allowed to publish ads.) Nonprofit funders, unlike advertisers, will be just as impressed with how much Facebook traffic you’re able to attract as with the number of visitors to your website.

Finally, a word about going digital-only rather than having a print edition: I recommend digital simply because of the huge amounts of money that you’ll save. Certainly there is reason to think that you’ll attract more readers, especially senior citizens, with a print component. But you’ll spend a lot more money, too.

A for-profit website. Such a project would be easier to set up than a nonprofit, which requires more in the way of paperwork and bureaucracy. And everyone likes local ads — they are content just as much as the news stories are content. An ad-supported site can feel more alive. For an example, take a look at The Batavian, based in western New York. The layout may be rough-looking, but the ads give you a real sense of community life.

The problem with digital advertising is that it’s never brought in as much money as print ads. If you’re going digital-only, the prospects that you approach — pizza shops, funeral homes, restaurants, hardware stores, tattoo parlors and the like — may have become so accustomed to advertising on Facebook for short money that they have no interest in advertising on your website. So that could prove to be a tough road, even in Medford, with its multiple ad-friendly retail outlets.

The Batavian has made a go of it because it’s located in a relatively isolated area with a traditional downtown that hasn’t been too affected by big-box stores. Even so, they’ve worked incredibly hard to make a go of it. With a nonprofit, some of that energy could be put into journalism instead.

A free for-profit newspaper. I’ve been talking about digital, but we shouldn’t rule out the idea of a free for-profit newspaper mailed to every household in Medford. Unlike a for-profit website, a free print newspaper is something that might be attractive to advertisers, especially if they knew everyone in the city would be receiving it.

I’ve been told that there was such a paper in Medford at one time, and that it stopped publishing after the Transcript came to town, backed by whatever chain was operating at that time. (Probably Community Newspaper Co., owned by Fidelity Capital and, later, the Boston Herald.)

Needless to say, there is one major potential problem facing anyone who might want to start a free newspaper: the upfront cost. You’d need to finance it until enough advertising came in to sustain it. If I were doing this (and I’m not), I’d want to conduct an extensive marketing survey and have a group of advertisers on board before I signed a contract with a printing company.

A volunteer website. The easiest and the hardest. Easy because you can get together with some like-minded people and just start covering the city council, the school committee and other community news. The hardest because people are busy. Many will find that it’s a lot more work than they signed on for. Journalism isn’t rocket science, but there are certain skills that need to be mastered in terms of covering a story, quoting people accurately, and writing it up in a manner that’s fair and accurate.

But it can be done. Northwest of Medford, The Bedford Citizen has thrived as a volunteer-run nonprofit digital news organization for a number of years. The Citizen has also adopted a variation of the volunteer model that might be called the pro/am approach, taking the money it receives from sponsors and foundations and using it to hire paid reporters to supplement what the volunteers are able to do.

A hazard with the volunteer approach is that it might become associated with one faction in the city, and Medford does have its factions. A news site that speaks to only part of the city might actually have some success journalistically, but it would fail at the larger mission of fostering a civic conversation without regard to politics.

Don’t forget about public access. No matter what approach is taken, Medford Community Media could play a role in amplifying coverage. An interview show anchored by the editor, collaborative coverage and other projects would be valuable in extending the reach of both and keeping citizens informed. Public access television would also be a great way of reaching senior citizens who aren’t comfortable accessing a digital news source.

Why it matters

These are not the only models that could be tried. In Haverhill, a low-power FM radio station, WHAV, has been covering local news for a few years now on the air and online. In Northern California, the founders of The Mendocino Voice, a for-profit website, are transitioning to cooperative ownership — the project will be owned by the employees and dues-paying members of the public. As I said, anything can work, and anything can fail.

Medford is a great community. We enjoyed our first few years here, and we’re glad to be back. But, like any community, we need independent, reliable local news and information. Rather than all of us checking out the Facebook groups we’ve “liked” and asking each other what’s happening, we should be able to turn to a news source and find out.

Local news outlets are a crucial part of civic engagement. Community life is an antidote to the  polarization that is undermining our country. When people learn to cooperate and get along at the local level, they also learn that their differences on national issues may not be as great or as important as they had once thought.

Unfortunately, social media’s business model depends on driving people apart. We all see various political factions in Medford lining up in different Facebook groups, each with their own set of facts. At its best, community journalism helps provide a common set of facts, fosters dialogue and respects everyone’s point of view.

If we want to rebuild community life, we have to start by rebuilding local journalism.

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