Mass. law governing legal ads needs to be updated to include digital-only outlets

Legal advertising has been a mainstay of the press since Colonial times. Official announcements of bids for government work, auctions and the like bring in a lot of revenue, and there were papers that were literally founded in order to be paid for publishing public notices.

But the future of legal ads in Massachusetts has come into question. State law requires that they be published in the print edition of a newspaper that circulates in the relevant city, town or county — and Gannett next month will be closing at least 19 local print weeklies after shutting down at least a half-dozen in 2021. Where will you publish legal ads?

I know that this has long been a thorn in the side of The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit digital news outlet that would like to get its share of legals. Instead, those ads are published in Gannett’s Bedford Minuteman, whose paid circulation is less than 500, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. By contrast, the Citizen’s daily newsletter has more than 2,000 subscribers, and its website recorded some 133,000 users during the first half of 2021.

And now the Minuteman is closing. The assumption is that the legal ads will be run in The Sun of Lowell, a daily with virtually no presence in Bedford.

The current, confusingly worded law allows for the online publication of legal ads, but they must also be published in a print edition. State Rep. Ken Gordon, a Bedford Democrat, responded to my inquiry on Twitter by saying that he’s working with Rep. Alice Hanlon Peisch, D-Wellesley, to change that and allow for legals in digital-only publications.

Gannett also publishes the weekly Wellesley Townsman, which is not among the print weeklies that the chain will be closing. But who knows what the next round of cuts will bring? Moreover, Wellesley is home to the independent, online-only Swellesley Report, which would surely like a share of those legals. No doubt that’s part of what has piqued Rep. Peisch’s interest.

All of this comes at a time when the idea of publishing legal ads in news outlets is under assault. Why should the government subsidize journalism through advertising when it can publish legals for free on its own websites?

Florida is going through this right now. It was only recently that the state passed a law allowing government officials to advertise on news websites instead of in print newspapers if they so chose. But as Gretchen A. Peck recently reported in the trade publication Editor & Publisher, a proposal is being pushed through the state legislature that would allow for free publication on government websites instead.

The legislation has all the appearances of being part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ war against the press. “This is just yet another of his red meat, hateful, harmful, hurtful pieces of legislation that he has been pushing this legislative session,” Democratic state Sen. Gary Farmer told E&P.

But to get back to the question of why: The Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, which maintains a database of legal ads published throughout the state, offers four reasons for publishing ads in news outlets rather than on government websites:

  • “They must be published in a forum independent of the government.
  • “The published notice must be preserved and secure in a tangible record that is archived.
  • “The notice must be conveniently accessible by all segments of society.
  • “The notice’s publication must be verifiable (by way of an affidavit of publication).”

In other words, the news-outlet requirement is an anti-corruption measure. If government is allowed to publish its own legal notices, who’s to say that some of them won’t be buried for some nefarious purpose? Who’s to say the wording won’t be changed?

The involvement of news organizations in legal ads is essential not just as a revenue stream but for ensuring that the government can’t engage in self-dealing. That said, the law needs to be updated. The print requirement has been an anachronism for years, and it’s only getting worse.

How The Boston Globe could help offset the local news vacuum

Could The Boston Globe, profitable and growing, help make up for the local news vacuum in Eastern Massachusetts? The shortage of reliable community journalism became much more acute last week when Gannett told reporters at most of its weekly papers that they would be reassigned to regional beats or to one of the chain’s dailies.

The Globe could conceivably step in by reviving an idea that was perhaps before its time. Under New York Times Co. ownership, the Globe published web pages known as YourTown, one for each suburban community as well as a few of Boston’s neighborhoods. They relied heavily on aggregation — too heavily, as the Times Co. found out in court — and they competed with papers owned by GateHouse Media (now Gannett) that weren’t nearly as hollowed-out as they are today. What’s more, YourTown was part of the Globe’s free Boston.com site (this was before BostonGlobe.com), and the hyperlocal advertising that was supposed to support YourTown never materialized. John Henry shut down YourTown not long after he bought the Globe in 2013.

So what would a revived YourTown look like? Advertising isn’t nearly as important as it used to be, but the Globe has been successful in selling paid digital subscriptions. So imagine a YourTown with one full-time reporter in each community. If the Globe signed up 500 new subscribers in a community, that could bring in as much as $120,000 a year. I’m basing that on an average subscription costing $20 a month (the full cost is $30, but many people would be paying discounts).

No doubt this would work better in some places than in others. I live in Medford, a city of about 58,000 residents that, as of now, doesn’t have a single full-time reporter covering the community. Selling an extra 500 subscriptions — or more — ought to be doable.

But right next door, in Arlington (population: 43,000), there’s a good-quality nonprofit news website, Your Arlington, which would make a Globe-branded YourTown less attractive. Or consider a small town like Bedford — not only are there just 13,000 residents, but it’s the home of a well-established nonprofit news site, The Bedford Citizen.

Still, I think a revived YourTown would work well enough in a few communities that it’s worth trying. I doubt it would be a money-maker for the Globe, but it might be a break-even proposition. And the paper would be filling a real need.

The Bedford Citizen’s ad-rich annual guide gets a shoutout from Editor & Publisher

Over the past few years, revenues at The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit community website in the Boston suburbs, have ramped up from zero to more than $100,000 a year. The Citizen has done it through voluntary memberships, sponsors, grants, the NewsMatch program and — perhaps most significant — an annual glossy publication called The Bedford Guide.

The Guide is a 64-page magazine that serves as an introduction to the town. It is loaded with ads, and from what I can tell, all of them are local, from life sciences giant Millipore Sigma, which has a facility in Bedford, to the Cat Doctor. According to the Citizen’s executive director, Teri Morrow, the 2022 Guide (the third) which came out in December, will produce about $40,000 in revenues.

Now Gene Kalb, a Citizen board member who’s the main force behind the Guide, has been recognized by the trade magazine Editor & Publisher as one of its “Sales Supernovas.” He told E&P’s Robin Blinder that flexibility is a key to the Guide’s success, explaining:

The pandemic hit us just as we started our second annual Bedford Guide. The initial strategy was to approach retail establishments in town. During 2020 with almost all restaurants and retail establishments closed, we shifted our focus to larger corporate industries in town. Our publication is all about supporting our community, and the corporate neighbors in town stepped up to help us. With the retail landscape improving this year, we had a nice combination of retail and corporate advertisers.

Such revenues have allowed the Citizen to grow from an all-volunteer project to a news organization with paid employees — a managing editor, a part-time reporter and a part-time operations manager — as well as freelance fees for contributors.

Founded in 2012, the Citizen continues to grow in other ways as well. According to Google Analytics, the site had more than a million page views in 2021. Those of us who follow such things know that’s a statistic of limited value, but here’s another that’s rock-solid: about 2,200 people have subscribed to the Citizen’s free daily newsletter in a town with fewer than 5,400 households, for a penetration rate of more than 40%. (Caveat: Email being what it is, no doubt there are a number of families with more than one subscription.)

The Citizen is one of the projects that Ellen Clegg and I are tracking for our “What Works” book project. It’s encouraging to see how people in the community have come together to create a vibrant and sustainable source of local news.

Does better news coverage lead to greater voter engagement? The answer: It depends.

Meaningful participation in civic life isn’t possible without access to high-quality news and information. Consider the most fundamental aspect of community engagement: voting in local elections. If prospective voters lack the means to inform themselves about candidates for the select board, the city council, the school committee and the like, then it follows that they will be less likely to vote.

But is the reverse also true? Does the presence of a reliable news source result in a higher level of voter participation? To find out, I compared two towns, Bedford and Burlington, both northwest of Boston.

Read the rest at Storybench, a website about media innovation published by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

How events help local news organizations connect with their audience

Bedford Citizen managing editor Julie McCay Turner, right, takes a photo of students and staff from Shawsheen Tech along with Bedford Police Chief Robert Bongiorno.

Community events give local news organizations an opportunity to connect with their audience — and to expand their audience as well. With that in mind, I drove to Bedford, Massachusetts, on Saturday morning for Bedford Town Day in order to check in with The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit website that combines paid and volunteer staff.

The Citizen, like about 100 other organizations, had set up a booth. Four or five volunteers rotated in and out while managing editor Julie McCay Turner and staff reporter Mike Rosenberg made their way through the crowd, which I’d estimate in the hundreds but could have been larger.

“We hope to get a few sign-ups,” said executive director Teri Morrow. She added that another goal was to get story ideas from community members. One person she had talked to, she said, had suggested profiles of interesting but relatively unknown people and organizations.

On the table were business cards and a larger sign with a QR code taking you to the Citizen’s website as well as free copies of the Citizen’s 2020 and 2021 Bedford Guide, a glossy publication that’s fill with ads and that serves as a fundraiser for the organization.

Turner was making her way through the fairgrounds, taking pictures and greeting people. She connected with Brian O’Donnell, a Bedford representative on the Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in nearby Billerica. O’Donnell introduced her to Allison Cammarata, the school’s brand-new director of community services and workforce development, who serves as the school’s public relations person.

Table sign with QR code

“We are relentlessly local,” Turner told Cammarata, explaining that she wants to run stories about Shawsheen in the Citizen but only if they feature Bedford students. Turner then called out “Bob! Bob!” Police Chief Robert Bongiorno, was walking by, and he stopped and chatted.

The Citizen competes with a Gannett weekly, the Bedford Minuteman, a once independent paper that now provides minimal coverage of the town. The Minuteman did not have a booth at Town Day, although it did send a photographer.

O’Donnell praised the Minuteman’s coverage of Shawsheen, saying that the school, which serves five towns, fits with the paper’s mission of reporting on regional news. “But in terms of what’s happening in Bedford — events, issues, discussions, exchanges — that’s happening in the Citizen now,” he said.

As I made the rounds and talked with people about where they get their local news, I found a high level of awareness about the Citizen, which was founded in 2012.

“The thing I like about the Citizen is that if there’s anything with the school committee or the select board or any issues that come up, they report on both sides of the issue,” said Alice Churella. “It seems to me to be totally unbiased.”

Others, though, said they got their news mainly through word of mouth, Facebook groups, the official town website and emails from the school department.

“I don’t read it regularly,” said Anna Smiechowski of the Citizen. “If I know something’s happening in town or I want to look something up, I’ll search it.”

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How one news outlet uses volunteer opinion writers to build civic engagement

Graue Mill, Hinsdale, Illinois. Photo (cc) by Lyle.

Now here’s an interesting idea for engaging the community in local news. The Hinsdalean, a free weekly paper in Chicago’s suburbs, has a stable of 10 local opinion writers who take on such weighty topics as Christmas memories, moving back to town after living abroad, and thoughts about the meaning of regret. And here’s the best part: they’re term-limited.

I learned about this recently in a conversation with Julie McCay Turner, managing editor of The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit website northwest of Boston. Julie is from Hinsdale, and she keeps up with her hometown through the paper’s lively website. She discovered this unique exercise in civic involvement through a column by the paper’s editor, Pamela Lannom, who was soliciting new writers to replace the five who were cycling out. One slot will be reserved for a high school senior. No politicians, please. And writers are not allowed to use these unpaid positions to tout their businesses or nonprofit organizations.

“Over the years I’ve come to think of many of these writers as my friends,” Lannom wrote. “I might not see most of them more than once a year, but the stories they share create a connection. Reading their columns each week is one of my favorite parts of my job.”

Local opinion can help drive interest in community news and help to overcome the polarization that characterizes national culture these days.

Several months ago I wrote a piece for GBH News about a study conducted by three scholars on what happened after The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, California, dropped from its opinion pages all syndicated columns and references to national politics for one month.

The researchers compared The Desert Sun’s readers to those of a control paper and found that polarization was less than what might otherwise have been expected. The numbers were small and didn’t really prove anything one way or the other. But, as the three observed, the effect was salutary regardless of the actual numbers since the experiment pushed the paper to pay more attention to what was taking place in its own backyard.

“Local newspapers are uniquely positioned to unite communities around shared local identities, cultivated and emphasized through a distinctive home style, and provide a civil and regulated forum for debating solutions to local problems,” they wrote. “In Palm Springs, those local issues were architectural restoration, traffic patterns and environmental conservation. The issues will differ across communities, but a localized opinion page is more beneficial for newspapers and citizens than letters and op-eds speckled with national political vitriol.”

The Hinsdalean itself is a great story, and characteristic of what happens when the legacy news outlet falls victim to market failure. Hinsdale once had a paper called The Doings, which ended up getting absorbed by the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune was subjected to years of downsizing and bad ownership under Tribune Publishing — a situation that only grew worse recently when Tribune was sold to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

The Hinsdalean, meanwhile, was founded nearly five years ago and has established itself as an award-winning news source. Here’s how its About page begins:

The first issue of The Hinsdalean was published Sept. 28, 2006. This weekly newspaper is dedicated to covering Hinsdale, focusing on the people who live and work here. The founders built the newspaper around the philosophy of community journalism the way it was meant to be. That philosophy recalls simpler times when one newspaper covered one town. The Hinsdalean, which is delivered free each Thursday morning, is the only newspaper that delivers every issue to every home in Hinsdale.

Independent local news is succeeding in hundreds of communities across the country. We need more.

This post was adapted from the Media Nation Member Newsletter that went out last Thursday, July 1. If you would like to receive early exclusive Media Nation content sent to your inbox, please become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month.

Could the Globe do more to fill the local news gap?

The Globe’s YourTown site for Needham circa 2010

Last Thursday we had a terrific panel discussion at Northeastern’s School of Journalism about the local news crisis in Greater Boston. Our panelists were state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, the lead sponsor of a state commission on local news that was recently created; retired Boston Globe editorial page editor Ellen Clegg; Yawu Miller, senior editor of The Bay State Banner; Bill Forry, managing editor of The Dorchester Reporter; and Julie McCay Turner, co-founder and managing editor of The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit website that started as a volunteer project and that has gradually added paid journalism.

You can read Mihiro Shimano’s account at The Scope by clicking here. But I want to pick up on something that Ellen (my research partner on a book about local news) said about The Boston Globe’s role.

I was moderating and couldn’t take notes. But when I asked her about the Globe’s role in local news, she said the paper discovered about 20 years ago that it couldn’t make much of a dent at the hyperlocal level. Readers looked to their community weeklies and dailies for coverage of day-to-day life in their cities and towns. What the Globe could provide, she said, was regional coverage of issues that affected everyone — which is pretty much the mission statement for the paper in general.

As she also pointed out, the Globe now has a digital Rhode Island section, which is in keeping with the regional focus, and covers Newton through a partnership with Boston University. But could the paper do more?

Now that corporate-owned chains have decimated most of the once-strong community papers that circle Boston, I wonder if the Globe might be able to play more of a role. One idea would be to revive the YourTown websites that were unveiled during the last few years of New York Times Co. ownership. YourTown covered not just the Boston suburbs but neighborhoods within the city as well, which remains a crucial need. That was back in the days of the free web, and it proved impossible to sell ads for the sites. Now that everything is subscription-driven, though, would it be possible to try again?

There’s no substitute for independently owned community media, but a greater presence by the Globe — which itself is independently owned — might be the next best thing.

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Hyperlocal outrage at the violence in Washington

I thought it was interesting that the folks at The Bedford Citizen, a hyperlocal community news site that I track, decided to editorialize about the violent pro-Trump insurrection in Washington. The editorial reads in full:

A Message of Deep Concern from The Bedford Citizen

Although The Bedford Citizen does not ordinarily comment on events happening outside of Bedford, we, the Editorial Committee, feel compelled to express our shock and dismay at the threat to our democracy witnessed at the US Capitol yesterday.

Whatever your political views, and we respect and acknowledge a range of opinions among our readers, we hope you will join with us in condemning the mob violence that threatens our democratic institutions. How can we teach our children to uphold the rule of law when the very heart of our government was held hostage yesterday?

The Citizen is a nonprofit, mostly volunteer project founded in 2012.

Also, Grafton Common reports that the town’s select board issued a statement denouncing the violence in Washington. The statement begins:

The Select Board denounces in the strongest possible terms the violence and destruction that took place at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. today.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. If voting is the lifeblood of democracy then the peaceful transition of power is the beating heart of the republic. Without it, the principles upon which this nation are founded are destroyed.

Local journalism and community life can be powerful forces in overcoming the polarization that has brought the country to such a low point. There are times, though, when it’s impossible not to speak out about national events.

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