By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

No, Arlington is not a ‘news desert’ — and the Globe should have done some checking

Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy

Among the more venerable local news startups in the Boston area is YourArlington, which has been publishing in one form or another since 2006. Founded by veteran journalist Bob Sprague, the digital-only site in the past couple of years has gone nonprofit, added a governing board, and hired an editor, Judith Pfeffer, who succeeded Sprague when he retired during the summer. YourArlington offers fairly comprehensive coverage of the town and has paid freelancers. (Disclosure: Some of those paid freelancers have been Northeastern students, and I’ve been asked to speak at Sprague’s retirement party in November.)

So imagine my surprise when I read Boston Globe tech reporter Hiawatha Bray’s story about Inside Arlington, a new project that is mainly produced by artificial intelligence: feed in the transcript of a select board meeting and publish what comes out the other side. Mainly I was surprised that Bray let cofounder Winston Chen get away with this whopper: “The town of Arlington, for practical purposes, is a news desert.” Bray offered no pushback, and there’s no mention of YourArlington. (Gannett merged the weekly Arlington Advocate with the Winchester Star about a year and a half ago and eliminated nearly all town-based coverage in favor of regional stories. There’s also a local Patch.)

Bray is properly skeptical, noting that several experiments in AI-generated stories have come to a bad end and that there’s no substitute for having a reporter on site who can ask follow-up questions. Still, there’s no question that AI news reporting is coming. Nieman Lab recently reported on a hyperlocal news organization in California that’s been giving AI a workout, although that organization — so far — has had the good sense not to publish the results.

But it’s disheartening to see the Globe take at face value the claim that Arlington lacks a local news organization. Scanning through YourArlington right now, I see a story about affordable housing that was posted today, a restaurant review, a story and photos from Town Day and a reception for the new town manager. Such coverage is the lifeblood of community journalism, and it can’t be replicated with AI — and I don’t see any of it at Inside Arlington.

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  1. The term news desert has been transformed by many into a term that means a particular area does not have the type or quantity of news that they want to see in that area, and not that an area has no local journalism at all. I prefer the original definition; the US has hundreds of real news deserts and I would say that the entire rest of the country is underserved by journalism (but is not a news desert).

  2. Christie Young

    Thank you! As an Arlington resident, a big newspaper reader (in paper form if available), and someone who works in politics, I’ve read YourArlington for years. I’ve been troubled by the Globe’s lack of follow up and research in numerous areas in the last few years. They seem to find or create a narrative and then write the story to support that narrative. I would never have said that 5 or even 3 years ago but now I see if fairly often and it’s disturbing. I take everything I read there now with a grain of salt, but I guess I do that with most sources now. And what a shame that is.

  3. Mike LaBonte

    The Wikipedia for “news desert” ( has “Other communities, while not technically a news desert, may be covered by a ghost newspaper, a publication that has become a shadow of its former self”. Back when Haverhill Matters was struggling to get started we characterized Haverhill as a news desert. But what happened there was what is happening everywhere: local newspapers survive by expanding to cover a larger region, drastically diluting the news in any single location. If not a “news desert”, could we call that a “news tundra”?

    Today we have the problem that a small fraction of people are paying for local news ( It’s not clear to me how a new news source in Arlington will help local news survive there, unless one becomes dominant.

    Side note: I think the Arlington Patch ( is worth more than a short mention. It has a pretty robust events listing, more usable than the YourArlington events list, which does not consistently portray *when* an event is happening.

  4. Inside Arlington is an interesting concept, but it has its limits. Public meetings are full of nuance, and a live human is important if we want to understand the story.

    For example, Inside Arlington’s report of the last school committee meeting contained the following language, “The committee discussed the need for a policy on nutrition and wellness, and approved a job description for an administrative assistant. It also discussed the need for a meeting to discuss the budget and the implementation of a new literacy curriculum. The Wellness Department plans to incorporate academic conversations into classes, align with the district’s strategic plan, use inclusive language throughout the curriculum, and research a new health curriculum with a focus on skill-based learning, inclusivity, and social-emotional learning.”

    There was a presentation by the Wellness department, but the action items of the meeting included adopting a new wellness policy. The AI doesn’t understand what it means to have a first reading of a policy, and that a motion to approve under a second reading means the committee is approving a new or amended policy.

    YourArlington has the content of a good weekly newspaper., available on YouTube, gives people the opportunity to go into the archives to watch public meetings. Inside Arlington is an interesting addition to the mix, but it doesn’t replace the information already available to folks interested in public meetings in Arlington.

  5. Ken Gornstein

    I take your point, Dan. But I’d say Bray’s characterization, while perhaps a bit hyperbolic, was mostly accurate. An online publication written entirely by freelancers doesn’t strike me as a particularly robust news endeavor.

    • dkennedy56

      Ken, what do you think the Gannett/GateHouse weeklies were doing for the last 10 years of their existence?

  6. Just found this on an unrelated Google search, and thought I should chime in, since the controversial quote is mine.

    “News desert” is clearly not a black and white term. Local news coverage ranges from nothing, to someone posting articles to a blog every once in a while, to full fledged local coverage like Boston Globe. To me, the litmus test is whether there is capacity to do in-depth investigative journalism, particularly in keeping local governments accountable. Perhaps my line is not the same as yours, but I stand behind my statement.

    Inside Arlington (our site) was never meant to be a true local news. Like its subtitle says, it’s an “experimental news digest”, whose purpose is to showcase what AI is capable of today using Arlington as a testing ground. Our non-profit, Nano Media (, want to provide this kind of technology to local news outlet everywhere. We’re not competing in Arlington: we want to complement YourArlington and have offered that they can republish our content.

    Our AI is never meant to replace humans, but it is a productivity tool that can tip the scale of economics such that local media can be viable again and expand coverage and do more with less. To us, success is more and more journalists at work in local news.

    We’re all working toward the same goal, which is to revitalize local news and ultimately make our democracy stronger.

    • dkennedy56

      Winston, by your definition, nearly every community in the state is a news desert and always has been. A far better measure is whether a city or town has accountability journalism — a news outlet that covers municipal government, police, neighborhood development and the like. Fortunately, many communities in Massachusetts (though not enough) do have that. Including Arlington.

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