Photo (cc) 2024 by Dan Kennedy

Nearly three and a half years after then-Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill creating a local news commission, the Massachusetts legislature is ready to try again. The first commission lapsed without ever holding a formal meeting (one preliminary meeting was held before all the members had been appointed), so essentially we’re starting from scratch.

A public hearing will be held this Wednesday, June 26, at 10 a.m. to discuss the make-up of a journalism commission, the state of journalism in Massachusetts, and what the public would like to see a commission address. The hearing is being held by the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Business, and will take place in Room B-1 at the Statehouse as well as virtually over Teams. I’ve signed up to testify.

The original legislation would have created a 23-member commission. The new proposal would strip that down to a more workable nine members. I would have been guaranteed a slot on the first commission; there are no guarantees in the new legislation, but I’ve told Rep. Paul McMurtry, D-Dedham, who’s the House chair of the committee, that I’d be willing to serve. I’ve also offered his office some thoughts on how the commission might be structured and what areas it could address.

The local news landscape here has deteriorated considerably since then-Rep. Lori Ehrlich and I first started talking about a commission in 2018. Especially destructive was Gannett’s decision to close or merge a couple dozen of its weekly papers in the spring of 2022 and to jettison nearly all of its local coverage in favor of regional stories from around the chain. (Ellen Clegg and I spoke with Ehrlich on our very first “What Works” podcast in October 2021. Ehrlich is now the regional administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.)

On the bright side, we’ve also seen an upsurge in local news startups in the Boston area, mainly nonprofit. These projects are doing a better job of covering local news than Gannett had in many years. But some communities are without any journalism, and the startups tend to be located in affluent suburbs.

What could a news commission do? That would be up to the members. But a commission could shine a light on independent projects that are doing well in order to inspire folks in other cities and towns to try their hand. And it could propose some policy measures aimed at bolstering local efforts. One that seems especially promising are tax credits for news publishers who hire and retain journalists, as is being done in Illinois and New York. “Tax credits” is a bit of misnomer since they can be structured to benefit nonprofits as well as for-profits that are losing money.

Here’s the full announcement about Wednesday’s hearing:

Please be advised that the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses will hold a hybrid public hearing on Wednesday, June 26th starting at 10am in Room B-1 to discuss the composition of the Journalism Commission, the current state of journalism in the Commonwealth and matters that interested parties would like to see the commission address once the commission is formed. Instructions for providing oral and written testimony are below.

Date of Hearing: Wednesday, June 26th, 2024
Time: 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM
Location: Room B-2 — Hybrid Hearing via Microsoft Teams
Subject Matter: Journalism

IN-PERSON AND VIRTUAL TESTIMONY: For both in-person and virtual testimony, you must fill out the following form: https://forms.office.com/g/6VKVLTVXjj

WRITTEN TESTIMONY: Written testimony may be submitted to the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses by emailing the garrett.burns@mahouse.gov

DEADLINE TO PRE-REGISTER: For both in-person and virtual testimony, the deadline to register to testify is 12:00pm, Tuesday, June 25th, 2024. Individuals registered for virtual testimony will receive an email the day before the hearing with a link to join the hearing on Microsoft Teams.

SAME DAY SIGN-UP: Individuals who miss the deadline to pre-register for testimony may appear on the day of the hearing and sign up to speak in-person on forms provided by committee staff. Time permitting, when all pre-registered individuals have been called to testify, the Chairs will then call any individuals who sign up in-person on the day of the hearing.

ORDER OF TESTIMONY: The Chairs, at their discretion, will determine the order of testimony. It is the responsibility of the individuals registered to testify to be prepared to speak when called upon by the Chairs. If an individual is called by the Chairs and that person is not logged into the Teams platform, the Chairs will move on and call the next individual or panel. We respectfully request that all oral testimony be kept to 3 minutes or less.

If you have any questions or concerns please email garrett.burns@mahouse.gov.

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