Proposed state commission would study the local news crisis and what to do about it

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Can government play a role in helping to solve the local news crisis? Not directly, perhaps. But indirectly, government can shine a light on the issue, call attention to worthy projects that might inspire others, and offer some policy recommendations.

That’s the goal of House Bill 181, which would create a special commission to study local journalism in underserved Massachusetts communities. Sponsored by Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn, the bill was the subject of a public hearing Tuesday before the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses. I was among those who testified; here are my prepared remarks.

The idea came about during an exchange I had with Ehrlich last fall. She was lamenting the shrinkage of local news coverage, which has been caused by a combination of factors. The internet, of course, has inflicted immense damage on newspaper advertising, which once accounted for 80 percent of a typical paper’s revenues. But corporate chain ownership has led to cuts even deeper than they otherwise would have been, since shareholders and hedge funds demand unrealistically high profits even as the underlying business model continues to deteriorate.

The commission would comprise 17 people — journalists, academics, and elected officials, as well as members of organizations representing African American, Hispanic, and Asian journalists. The proposal has not been without controversy. After complaints on Monday that the hearing had been scheduled with little advance notice, officials agreed to hold a second hearing sometime within the next few weeks. Questions have been raised about the composition of the commission as well. In her testimony, Ehrlich said that she and Crighton are open to suggestions as to who would ultimately be named to the panel. (As the legislation is currently written, I would be one of the members.)

Government hearings into the state of journalism are not new. Back in 2009, a U.S. Senate committee chaired by John Kerry held a hearing on the topic at which former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, creator of the HBO series “The Wire,” blasted the news business, saying that “raw unencumbered capitalism is never the answer when a public trust or public mission is at issue.”

Government action isn’t new, either. Earlier this month, legislation was filed in Congress to allow newspapers to negotiate collectively with social media platforms in the hopes of extracting some revenues for the use of their content. A second bill, which I had a small role in drafting, would make it easier for news organizations to claim nonprofit status. I should note, too, that public media organizations, including WGBH, benefit from government support in the form of tax-exempt status as well as grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

In 2018, New Jersey lawmakers created a 15-member Civic Information Consortium charged with allocating $5 million in public funds to pay for various local reporting projects. That strikes me as more ambitious and controversial than anything that is likely to be attempted in Massachusetts. Among other things, the shrinkage of local news outlets has been more severe in New Jersey than it has been here. Still, it serves as a precedent for state government playing some role in the future of local journalism.

According to a report by the University of North Carolina, about 1,800 newspapers have ceased publishing since 2004. Residents of many parts of the country live in what UNC describes as “news deserts” — that is, communities where there is no local source of news at all. A number of studies have demonstrated that such lack of coverage leads to social ills such as declining voter participation, an increase in political corruption, and even a rise in the cost of government borrowing because of, as the authors put it, “the lack of scrutiny over local deals.”

Things are not quite so bad in Massachusetts. There are no true news deserts here, according to the UNC report. But rather than uncovered communities, we have many undercovered communities. Cities and towns that may have been served by three or four reporters a generation ago are now lucky to have one. In some cases, a harried reporter has the impossible task of covering two or three towns. MediaNews Group (formerly Digital First), which owns the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell, and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg, and GateHouse Media, which owns dozens of papers in Greater Boston and beyond, have been assiduously eliminating newsroom jobs and merging papers.

A news commission could provide a modest but crucial service. The commission could study the situation on the ground to determine where the gaps in coverage are. It could identify examples of good-quality local journalism that might be emulated elsewhere. It could recommend policy initiatives to encourage for-profit and nonprofit local news projects. One thing I would especially like to see is a plan to help local-access cable TV, an important informational resource that is facing its own financial challenges.

Local journalism is crucial to providing us with the information we need to govern ourselves. The one thing we can’t afford to do is nothing.

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