Book review: Why listening to community voices could help revive local news

Philadelphia and its environs are emblematic of what’s gone wrong with local news. The area is served by a well-regarded metropolitan newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and a powerhouse public radio station, WHYY, as well as various television newscasts. But the focus of those outlets is regional, not local. At the grassroots neighborhood and community levels where people actually live, journalism is scarce and looked upon with suspicion.

Rebuilding local news in places like the Philadelphia area is the subject of Andrea Wenzel’s Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust.

Read the rest at The Arts Fuse. And talk about this review on Facebook.

Union to protest outsourcing of jobs at Northampton’s Daily Hampshire Gazette

The Pioneer Valley NewsGuild, the union that represents press and distribution employees at the Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton, will rally Monday afternoon to honor the 29 employees who are being laid off as the Gazette closes down its presses and outsources its printing. The work will be handled by Gannett, which owns the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester and a printing plant in nearby Auburn. The move was announced in mid-June by Gazette publisher Michael Moses, who wrote:

While our decision to get out of the business of manufacturing newspapers was economically motivated, it also reflects our desire to focus on the Gazette’s core mission. Content, particularly local news content, is unequivocally that mission. This is, without question, the business model that best positions us for the future, allowing us to continue the award winning coverage our readers require.

The Gazette — owned by a small independent chain anchored by the Concord Monitor of New Hampshire — becomes the latest daily paper to job out its printing. With press runs much smaller than they used to be, it makes little sense these days for a paper to operate its own presses unless it can take on enough outside work to make it economically viable. Still, it’s a sad day for the employees who are losing their jobs.

The text of the union statement is below.

WHO: The Pioneer Valley NewsGuild and YOU, the community

WHAT: A socially distant rally honoring the workers who have helped make our paper for years on their last day before a massive layoff.

WHEN: Monday, July 27 at 5:15 p.m.

WHERE: On the sidewalk in front of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, located at 115 Conz St. in Northampton

WHY: We are standing in solidarity with those who have worked shoulder to shoulder during a global pandemic to bring this community vital news every single day. After all of that hard work and risk, Newspapers of New England is eliminating their departments, ending the 233 year history of printing the paper in Northampton in order to outsource that work to media giant Gannett. This means 29 people, including 24 union members, will be laid off. Bring signs to show appreciation for these essential workers — the people who actually make this paper. (Signs telling Newspapers of New England how shameful their behavior is are also welcome.) For more information, please contact The Pioneer Valley NewsGuild at mailto:pvnewsguild@gazettenet.com

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Want more local news? Contact your legislators to support a proposed study.

Photo via Pixabay.

As the Legislature heads into its final days, a proposal to study the decline of local news in Massachusetts has been revived. A bill filed by state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, would create a special commission “to research and propose policy solutions.”

The 23-member commission would include legislators, academics, journalists and news-industry experts. As currently drafted, I would be a member of the commission. I wrote about the idea last year for WGBH News.

For many years, Greater Boston’s local-news ecosystem, though far from optimal, was nevertheless in better shape than was the case in other parts of the country. Now, though, corporate chains such as Gannett and Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group are decimating the state’s community newspapers. Though challenges created by technology and, now, the COVID-19 pandemic would be difficult to overcome in any case, corporate greed is compounding the collapse of local newspapers.

If you’re so inclined, I hope you’ll consider contacting your state representative and senator to urge them to support the legislation, which takes the form of an amendment to the state budget. It’s called “Amendment #40, An Act establishing a commission to study journalism in underserved communities.”

Below is the text of Ehrlich’s letter to her colleagues, followed by the language of the legislation:

Dear Colleagues,

I respectfully request your consideration for cosponsorship of Amendment #40, An Act establishing a commission to study journalism in underserved communities. This amendment would create a commission of experts, industry members, academics, and elected officials to research and propose policy solutions related to the state of local journalism in Massachusetts and the future sustainability of the industry.

Journalism is critical to a healthy democracy, and local journalism is an important part of the fabric of our communitie. In the last decade and a half, two trends of out-of-state corporate consolidation and layoffs have led to the disappearance of 1 in 5 newspapers nationwide while countless others have become shells of themselves. A new report from UNC found that since 2004 there has been a net loss of 1,800 local newspapers.

Newsrooms across the country and right here in Massachusetts have been subject to layoffs, asset selloffs, hedge fund takeovers, and cuts in coverage, a trend that is plaguing news organizations across the country. In some parts of the country, “news deserts” are popping up where there is little to no reporting on local issues and stories. Additionally, the journalism industry has faced significant layoffs – according to the Pew Research Center, “Newsroom employment dropped nearly a quarter in less than 10 years, with greatest decline at newspapers.”

The impact of COVID-19 on the newspaper industry is already worse than the toll of the 2008 financial crisis, which saw newspapers experience a 19% decline in revenue.While larger newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post have a large subscription base to curtail damage, local newspapers, many of which are owned by publicly traded companies saddled in debt even before COVID-19, are unlikely to survive.

This commission presents a vehicle for a public discussion allowing Massachusetts to lead a national conversation about journalism and how best to support it in a changing world. Establishing this commission and the report they will produce will be a critical step forward in revitalizing our state’s local news media and ensuring their sustainability as an essential part of our democracy.

If you would like to cosponsor, …

Sincerely,

Lori Ehrlich
State Representative
8th Essex District

The text of the bill follows:

Ms. Ehrlich of Marblehead moves to amend the bill by inserting after section 122 the following new section:

SECTION X. (a) Resolved, that a special legislative commission, pursuant to section 2A of chapter 4 of the General Laws is hereby established to: (i) conduct a comprehensive, non-binding study relative to communities underserved by local journalism in Massachusetts; (ii) review all aspects of local journalism including, but not limited to, the adequacy of press coverage of cities and towns, ratio of residents to media outlets, the history of local news in Massachusetts, print and digital business models for media outlets, the impact of social media on local news, strategies to improve local news access, public policy solutions to improve the sustainability of local press business models and private and nonprofit solutions, and identifying career pathways and existing or potential professional development opportunities for aspiring journalists in Massachusetts.

(b) The commission shall consist of the following 23  members: 2 of whom shall be the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on community development and small business; 1 member of the house of representatives appointed by the speaker of the house; 1 member of the senate appointed by the president of the senate; 1 of whom shall be a professor at the Northeastern School of Journalism; 1 of whom shall be a member of the Boston Association of Black Journalists; 1 of whom shall be a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists; 1 of whom shall be a member of the Asian American Journalists Association of New England; 2 of whom shall be representatives of public colleges or universities of the commonwealth with either a journalism or communications program jointly appointed by the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on community development and small business; 1 of whom shall be a representative of a private college or university of the commonwealth with either a journalism or communications program jointly appointed by the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on community development and small business; 3 of whom shall be representatives of journalism unions or associations appointed by the governor provided further that the appointees are selected from the following unions and associations: the NewsGuild – Communication Workers of America, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians – Communications Workers of America, the Association of Independents in Radio, the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, the New England Newspaper and Press Association, or the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists; 8 of whom shall be currently employed or freelance journalists, editors, or producers from independent community news outlets from across the commonwealth jointly appointed by the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on community development and small business provided further that the appointees represent communities underserved by professional news organizations, rural communities, immigrants communities, working-class communities, and communities of color; and 1 of whom shall be a representative from the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. All appointments shall be made no later than 30 days following the effective date of this resolve.

(c) The commission shall hold public information sessions in order to explain the work of the commission and to solicit public comment pursuant to the work of the commission. The commission shall hold at least one public information session in each county of the commonwealth and shall provide at least one weeks notice from the date in which the public information session is occurring. The notice shall include, but not be limited to: (i) the date of the public information session; (ii) the time in which the public information session will take place; (iii) the location in which the public information session is occurring; (iv) a description of the format in which the commission will be accepting public comment; and (v) a point of contact. The public notice shall be sent by the commission to the clerks of each municipality of the county in which the public information session will occur and the commonwealth’s director of boards and commissions. In the case of a cancellation or postponement of a public information session, the commission shall provide at least 48 hours notice to the clerks of each municipality of the county in which the public information session will occur and the commonwealth’s director of boards and commissions.

(d) The commission shall accept written and oral comment from the public beginning at the first meeting of the commission.

(e) The commission shall meet a minimum of 5 times to review, study and analyze existing literature, quantitative and qualitative data on the status of journalism in the commonwealth , and submitted oral and written public comment.

(f) The commission shall submit its findings, along with recommendations for legislation, to the governor, the speaker of the house, the president of the senate, and the clerks of the house of representatives and the senate no later than 1 year after the effective date of this resolve.

(g) The special commission may make such interim reports as it considers appropriate.

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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. Continue reading “Together, we can do something about local news coverage in Medford”

A beautifully told story that offers nostalgia about local news but not much hope

The New York Times has published an article about Evan Brandt, the last reporter covering Pottstown, Pennsylvania. His paper, The Mercury, has been decimated by its owner, the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital. It’s a great story, beautifully written by Dan Barry, with superb visuals by Haruka Sakaguchi.

And yet the air of inevitability bugs me. Barry offers nostalgia, not hope. I’m not going to suggest that Brandt quit and start his own local news project — he’s in his 50s, has a kid in college and his wife his sick. But why doesn’t the community get together, start a news project and make Brandt the first hire?

Better yet: Why can’t LNP, the newspaper in nearby Lancaster, which is independently owned and reportedly doing well, hire Brandt for a Pottstown edition? Lancaster is probably a bit too far away to justify firing up the printing presses and the trucks. But a digital edition wouldn’t cost much, and would allow them to expand their paid subscription base — much as The Boston Globe did in Rhode Island.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

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Margaret Sullivan has written a useful guide to the horrifying decline of local news

What’s happened to local news in our medium-size city north of Boston is a story that could be told in hundreds of communities across the country.

Read the rest at Nieman Lab. And talk about this post on Facebook.