The local news renaissance in Mass. needs to spread beyond the affluent suburbs

Downtown Marblehead, Mass. Photo (cc) 2011 by Daniel Mennerich.

People are starting to notice the local news renaissance in Eastern Massachusetts that’s been inspired by the Gannett newspaper chain’s never-ending cuts.

Dana Gerber reported in The Boston Globe on Tuesday about “The Great Marblehead Newspaper War,” where three independent start-ups have been launched in response to Gannett’s evisceration of the Marblehead Reporter last year. These days Marblehead is served by a for-profit digital project, the Marblehead Beacon; a well-funded digital and print nonprofit, the Marblehead Current; and the Marblehead Weekly News, a for-profit print newspaper started by The Daily Item of Lynn, which is itself independently owned.

Just a few days ago, Mariya Manzhos reported for Poynter Online about The Concord Bridge, another well-funded nonprofit start-up. And there are a number of others, including The Bedford Citizen, which at this point has to be considered venerable: the nonprofit digital site was started a decade ago by three volunteers in response to cuts by Gannett’s predecessor company, GateHouse Media, at the weekly Bedford Minuteman. Now the Citizen has a small paid staff and is the only news source in town, the Minuteman having been shut down last year. (The Citizen is one of the projects that Ellen Clegg and I are profiling in our book-in-progress, “What Works in Community News,” to be published in early 2024 by Beacon Press.)

But there is an ongoing problem, and it’s one I spoke with Gerber about when she interviewed me: these startups are highly concentrated in affluent, mostly white suburbs like, well, Marblehead, Concord and Bedford. Yes, there is The New Bedford Light, an extraordinarily well-funded nonprofit that’s gotten national attention, but that’s the exception. Most local outlets that serve more diverse communities, such as The Bay State Banner and the Dorchester Reporter, tend to be for-profit publications that have been around for a while; we’re seeing little in the way of new ventures to cover such places. And many have little or nothing. Cambridge Day does a good job, but it’s essentially a one-person shop. Why is Marblehead, with a population of under 20,000, getting more comprehensive coverage than a city of 117,000 people? (I should note that the Cambridge Chronicle is one of just three Gannett weeklies in Eastern Massachusetts that purportedly still covers some local news, although you wouldn’t know it from its website.)

As Manzhos notes, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism has provided some assistance to local news outlets. What we need, though, are news outlets that provide ongoing accountability journalism in each of the state’s 351 communities — city council, select board, school committee, police, development and the like. I hope that will happen.

We’re also closer than you might think. If you haven’t seen it before, here is a spreadsheet I maintain of every independent local news outlet in the state. Obviously some are better than others, but some of these are excellent.

15 thoughts on “The local news renaissance in Mass. needs to spread beyond the affluent suburbs

  1. There are many PEG stations in Massachusetts. Many are non-profits while others are town departments. Several of the non-profits have professional journalists on staff. It seems that these PEG stations would be an available avenue to get more news outlets to all communities. They need more funding to hire journalists.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Kristi, with very few exceptions, public access operations are geared toward activities such as carrying events in full and training members of the public to do their own DIY shows. There are a few that have actual newscasts, including Boston and Burlington. I see you’re involved in Westford. How much news do you do? As you know, if anything public access is losing money because of cord-cutting. We’d need an entirely new funding system. But at the very least, local news organizations ought to partner with public access.

      1. WestfordCAT had a professional journalist. We have had a journalist on staff for 7 years. Funding is tight, and we are looking for alternative funding as well as hoping for streaming legislation to pass. However these are functioning 501c3s that are currently providing some form of news. Most PEG stations are recording local government meetings in addition to providing training to the community for DIY productions. Many communities have this infrastructure there. Many have websites, social media platforms and you tube channels already set up in addition to the cable channels. Why not use these established entities as a base for generating local news?

      2. Dan Kennedy

        I guess you’d have to ask why no one is doing that. The nonprofit start-ups in Concord and Marblehead raised a lot of money. Is there anything legally preventing a PEG station from raising a lot of money and devoting it to local news coverage? I also have to add that carrying local government meetings is not journalism, though it’s a public service. You need someone to sit through those meetings and make sense of them.

  2. Kristi Bates

    I ask that question often. It seems like such a good fit to me, at least from my experience with WestfordCAT. While recording a meeting is not journalism, it does provide the foundation to build local news. Private donations along with public funding to hire journalists is needed. Perhaps there are some journalism schools out there that could have internships with the PEG stations to help get this started. Find those communities that don’t have local newspapers. Even a part time journalist covering a couple town meetings would be an amazing start. Thanks for your article and replies. Your advocacy for more local news is so important.

  3. Cathy Ricketson

    Following up Kristi here in Westford. Westford Cat had along time professional
    Community journalist. Her successor is a young Reporter who is covering community events. Our local officials including our State House Reps are very supportive of our efforts. This is a vital service for our community. We are fundraising to expand it.

  4. Dan, looks like you include only print outlets but Lower Cape News has a nonprofit newsroom, is part of INN network, and is video first. Our free mobile app (lowercapetv.app) lets people stay connected to cape news by town or topic from wherever they may be, website lowercapenews.org and free subscription newsletter also provide access beyond local tv footprint. We do ArtsLight creative economy coverage, as well as coast + climate (a huge ongoing story for our region) and a mix of community/local news. Our mantra is to report the under-reported and bring the national local.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Teresa, I’ve included many digital-only news outlets, but not local access — it’s really a different thing. I’d like to add a tab to the spreadsheet with local access operations that are doing real journalism, but I would need someone to do it.

      1. Dan,
        We are a 501(c)3.
        One set of contracts runs local access services for five towns.
        Another set of activities runs a nonprofit newsroom. We could have started another nonprofit for this activity but MA has so many nonprofits that seemed silly, when the activity fits within the mission.
        We aren’t local access “doing news.” Rather, we are a nonprofit organization delivering variety of community voice activities, including a professional newsroom… I know that might sound like splitting hairs, but as a long time journalist (former Knight-Ridder) I have watched industry shifts and business model changes and think that nonprofit is a valid structure to explore. This years NewsMatch slogan was “news for people, not profits” and this certainly reflects our work as well.

  5. Kristi Bates

    Dan, I am planning to reach out to all MA PEG stations to see if they have professional journalists on staff and/or provide written or media news coverage. I would appreciate any input you have on what data to gather when I make these calls. I will provide you will the completed spreadsheet. Thanks!!

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Kristi, I just posted a comment below that this is something I would like to try to get a handle on this summer. I can’t do anything until then.

  6. Seth Albaum

    While at LCTV we are only “gavel-to-gavel” with municipal meetings, we do produce video news packages on events throughout the city. When our website was redesigned, we made it so that a written story could live side-by-side embedded video content. As it is now, non-video content is mainly press releases from the city, state and area non-profits, but you could say that’s a newspaper-like service. So is our community events calendar, which our two local papers lack completely. During election seasons, we’re the ones hosting forums, posting candidate profiles and curating vital information for voters on a single website page. The city website is too hard to navigate and the paper isn’t doing it. Plus, we are about one staffer and a little bit of funding away from having written news articles.

    But we are not looking to muscle in on a surviving paper’s turf, either. Our focus is going to be what they’re not covering.

  7. Dan Kennedy

    I think I want to add a tab for local access/community television after the end of the school year. But I can’t deal with it until then. Be patient, everyone.

  8. Pingback: Gannett to close weeklies in suburban Columbus, Ohio – Media Nation

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