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

Tag: CommonWealth Beacon

Bruce Mohl will retire as editor of CommonWealth Beacon

Bruce Mohl. Photo (cc) 2011 by the Rappaport Center.

CommonWealth Beacon editor Bruce Mohl has announced that he’ll be retiring later in 2024 after 15 years on the job. As Bruce notes, the publication was a four-times-a-year print publication known as CommonWealth magazine when he started and is now a growing digital operation covering state politics and public policy. He writes: “To all of you, I wanted to say thanks. Thanks for reading. Thanks for returning phone calls. Thanks for the news tips. And most of all thanks for getting involved.”

CEO Joe Kriesberg adds:

Under his leadership, CommonWealth magazine and now CommonWealth Beacon have been essential reading for all of us who are interested in and care about public affairs and civic life in Massachusetts. Bruce is widely recognized as one of the best reporters in the Commonwealth, regularly breaking stories and providing in-depth coverage of complicated issues like energy and transportation. His leadership has ensured CommonWealth’s editorial independence and maintained a standard of fair, open-minded and non-partisan coverage that is a hallmark of CommonWealth Beacon.

Best wishes to Bruce, who was a longtime editor and reporter at The Boston Globe before coming to CommonWealth, which is published by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (MassINC), a nonpartisan think tank. Disclosures: I’ve had a long, off-and-on association with the publication myself. For a few years in the late aughts, I wrote regular media features for the print magazine. And now I’m a member of the editorial advisory board.

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Illinois seeks to bolster community journalism. Plus, a local news round-up.

The Illinois Statehouse. Photo (cc) 2023 by Warren LeMay.

Illinois lawmakers this week unveiled a massive package aimed at bolstering local news. According to Mark Caro of the Local News Initiative, based at Northwestern University in Chicago, the package comprises two separate bills:

The Journalism Preservation Act would require Big Tech companies such as Google and Facebook to compensate news organizations for the content that they share, display or link to on their platforms. The Strengthening Community Media Act offers a broad array of incentives, tax breaks and scholarships intended to repopulate local newsrooms. Included in that bill is a provision that calls for 120 days’ written notice before a local news organization may be sold to an out-of-state company.

As I’ve said before, I’m less than enthusiastic about going after the tech platforms, which presupposes that they are somehow stealing journalistic content without paying for it. Facebook executives have made it clear that they can live quite nicely without news. With respect to Google, media outlets find themselves in the awkward situation of demanding compensation while at the same time depending on the search giant to drive traffic to their websites. Indeed, any one of them could insert a simple line of code in their sites that would make them invisible to Google. None of them does. I would like to see Google and Facebook do more for local news, and maybe it ought to be mandated. But this bill seems like too much of a blunt instrument, as does similar legislation being pushed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar at the federal level.

The second Illinois bill includes a number of different ideas. I particularly like the proposed requirement for a 120-day notification period. As Steven Waldman, the president of Rebuild Local News, said recently on the podcast “E&P Reports,” a mandatory delay can give communities time to rally and prevent their local newspaper from falling into the hands of chain ownership.

Other provisions of the Strengthening Community Media Act would mandate that state agencies advertise with local news outlets, provide tax credits to publishers for hiring and retaining journalists, enact additional tax credits for small businesses that advertise with local outlets, and create scholarships for students who agree to work at a local Illinois news organization for two years or more.

It’s good to see action taking place at the state level given that several federal proposals in recent years have gone nowhere despite bipartisan support. It’s also notable that the proposals were drafted by Illinois’ Local Journalism Task Force, which was created in August 2021. Here in Massachusetts, legislation was signed by then-Gov. Charlie Baker way back in January 2021 to create a commission that would study local news. I had a hand in drafting that legislation and would be one of its members, but the commission has yet to get off the ground.

There are several other developments in local news that are worth taking note of.

• Gannett is making a $2 million investment in its Indianapolis Star aimed at bolstering the newsroom and the advertising sales staff. Two top Gannett executives recently appeared on “E&P Reports” about Gannett’s plans to reinvest in its properties. Unfortunately, Holly V. Hayes of the Indy Star writes, “This is the only site in the USA TODAY Network, which includes more than 200 local publications across the country, where such an investment is being made.” My hope is that if the investment leads to a boost in circulation and revenues, then it will serve as a model for what Gannett might do elsewhere.

• A new hyperlocal news project has made its debut in Boston. The Seaport Journal, a digital news outlet, covers the city’s newest neighborhood. Meanwhile, the Marblehead Beacon, one of three independent projects covering that town, has announced that it’s ending regular coverage but will continue to “pursue periodic and unique pieces, and shift away from daily, weekly, or otherwise regular articles.” A reminder: We track independent local news organizations in Massachusetts, and you can find a link to our list in the upper right corner of this website. Just look for “Mass. Indy News.”

• Local access cable television plays an important role in community journalism by carrying public meetings, providing a platform for residents to make their own media, and, in some cases, by covering the news directly. Unfortunately, cord-cutting has placed access television at risk since stations’ income is based on a fee assessed to cable providers for each subscriber. In CommonWealth Beacon, Caleb Tobin, a production technician at Holbrook Community Access and media and a junior at Stonehill College, argues in favor of Massachusetts legislation that would impose a 5% fee on streaming services. “While often viewed as a relic of the past,” Tobin writes, “the services that cable access stations provide are more important now than they’ve ever been.”

• Many thanks to Tara Henley, host of the Canadian podcast “Lean Out,” who interviewed Ellen Clegg and me about our book, “What Works in Community News.” You can listen here.

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An old tale of local corruption — with a modern twist

When we lived in Medford in the early 1980s, the city and neighboring Somerville were both down at the heels. When we returned in 2014, Somerville was vibrant and growing, with Medford not too far behind. So I was fascinated to read Gin Dumcius’ story in CommonWealth Beacon about a politically connected Somerville lawyer’s attempt to bribe Medford’s police chief to help him establish a marijuana business. As Dumcius writes, it was a last hurrah for the old Medford and Somerville.

Unfortunately for the lawyer, Sean O’Donovan, Medford Police Chief Jack Buckley is an honest cop. Buckley’s brother Mike, whom O’Donovan tried to use as the go-between with Chief Buckley, agreed to wear an FBI wire, and O’Donovan was busted after he delivered $2,000 in cash, intended as a down payment on a $25,000 bribe. Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn, Dumcius adds, handled the license for the weed shop in a properly arm’s-length manner.

Times had changed, even if O’Donovan didn’t realize it. He faces sentencing on Feb. 7.

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CommonWealth Beacon reports new details on Andrea Estes’ firing by the Globe

Photo (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy

CommonWealth Beacon has just published a story by its editor, Bruce Mohl, shedding some light on an exceedingly strange episode from earlier this year: The Boston Globe’s decision to fire veteran investigative reporter Andrea Estes after the paper published a story reporting that three top MBTA managers were living far from Greater Boston when in fact they made their homes in the local area. The story, on which Estes had the lead byline, reported that nine T officials had such an arrangement; in fact, it was six. The Globe had to run several corrections as a result.

Mohl reports that the errors in the story came about because the managers themselves were not allowed as a matter of policy to speak with the press without permission, and that they thought the MBTA public relations office was going to respond on their behalf — but the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) ordered the T to stay silent. Mohl writes:

At the MBTA, workers are advised not to talk to reporters, leaving that job to public relations officials. But in this instance the MBTA public relations officials, on orders from higher-ups at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, ignored calls from Estes seeking to verify the information she had gathered. The result was a story that unfairly tarred at least three employees at the MBTA and caused the firing of Estes.

Disclosure: I’m a member of CommonWealth’s board of advisers.

This entire saga has been weird, and though Mohl’s story answers some of the outstanding questions, it doesn’t answer all of them. Why would MassDOT not allow the T to defend its own employees? Why was Estes fired if she wasn’t entirely at fault? In addition, editor Nancy Barnes said there would be some public accountability after Estes left the Globe, but Mohl suggests that may have been derailed by a pending arbitration hearing sought by Estes.

A further indication that at least some of Estes’ peers believe she was wronged came when she was hired recently as a staff reporter by the Plymouth Independent, a fledgling nonprofit edited by Mark Pothier, until recently a high-ranking editor at the Globe, and advised by Globe legend Walter Robinson. “Having her on staff sends a strong message about the kind of serious journalism we plan to do,” Pothier said in a press release announcing her hiring.

Thanks to Mohl’s digging, we now know more than we did. I still hope the full story comes out at some point.


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CommonWealth, a policy-oriented nonprofit, will rebrand and expand

CommonWealth Magazine is about to unveil a rebranding and an expansion. The nonprofit website, which covers state policy and focuses on “politics, ideas and civic life,” will be reborn as CommonWealth Beacon on Nov. 1. I’m a member of the advisory committee, and we just finished a meeting at which the redesign was unveiled. It’s clean and minimalistic, and it translates well to mobile.

CommonWealth is part of the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, or MassINC, which I would describe as centrist and serious. The magazine ended its print edition in 2018, so the digital rebranding is long overdue. The journalism will remain free, though Beacon will offer various paid membership tiers with extra goodies.

The best part is that the project is staffing up, having added two reporters and two people to work on audience engagement and fundraising. Content will be available for free to other publications in the hopes that the local news startups that have sprouted in Massachusetts will use it to bolster their coverage. The email that went out to readers earlier this afternoon follows.

Dear CommonWealth reader,

We are writing today with exciting news:

On November 1, CommonWeath will become CommonWealth Beacon, a new name for a new era of expanded civic journalism for Massachusetts.

The decline in for-profit journalism, the rise in misinformation and the increasingly fractured and polarized civic culture underscore the need for a response. We believe independent, non-partisan, non-profit civic journalism is an essential antidote to these troubling trends.

That is why we have been working to develop a strategy and find the resources to fuel an expansion of our journalism. We took time to learn from our peers across the country, craft a business plan, and raise the seed funding that would allow us to hire more people and build a sustainable business model. In recent months, we have hired four new people — two reporters and two people to work on reader engagement and fundraising — to prepare for the launch of CommonWealth Beacon.

Rest assured, CommonWealth Beacon will retain much of what our readers love about CommonWealth — non-partisan, original reporting on the issues that matter to Massachusetts residents. As we grow, we can cover more stories, across a wider range of issues, with more detail and expertise:

    • CommonWealth Beacon will also feature a renewed commitment to long-form journalism through CommonWealth In-Depth and a rebranded opinion section called CommonWealth Voices.
    • Look for new polling about Massachusetts and our weekly podcast, The Codcast, kicks off with a live discussion at 3:15 pm ET on November 1 about the state of Massachusetts democracy with Harvard professor Danielle Allen.

We also intend to give our content away to other news outlets in Massachusetts to help strengthen local news coverage across the state. In the lifeboat of local journalism, no one is a competitor and everyone is a potential collaborator.

We see CommonWealth Beacon as a partnership among civic-minded people who understand that independent journalism is essential to a functioning democracy. As a subscriber to our newsletter, you are already a partner. We invite you to deepen your engagement by encouraging others to subscribe, by joining our membership program (details to come very soon), and by giving us feedback so we can improve. CommonWealth Beacon will be a collective enterprise and we need as many people as possible to get involved.

Thank you again for helping us to get to this exciting moment. We see this as just the beginning with much more to come in the months ahead.



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