Reporting by DigBoston and BINJ helps delay snooping by surveillance cameras

Reporting by DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism helped stave off a serious violation of civil liberties — at least for now.

Dan Atkinson reported on March 25 that “city officials are quietly looking to hire consultants to maintain a linked network of more than 1,000 video cameras across the Metro Boston area, with remote access shared across nine cities.”

The move came, Atkinson noted, even as Boston City Council members were pushing for greater oversight of surveillance technology.

On Friday, The Boston Globe reported that Acting Mayor Kim Janey will not move forward with the plan, though she declined to kill the proposal altogether. The Globe’s Danny McDonald quoted a Janey spokeswoman as saying that she “is directing her staff to take a fresh look at this request…. Mayor Janey remains committed to strengthening public safety, transparency and accountability for the City of Boston.”

So kudos to DigBoston, the city’s last alternative weekly, and BINJ. And if you’d like to get a better sense of how the two organizations work together, check out this story from November 2019 by Adrian Ma at WBUR.org.

How alt-weeklies are surviving pandemic and recession

In late 2015 I traveled to Burlington and Montpelier, Vermont, to report on a heartening development: though Gannett had hollowed out the state’s major daily, the Burlington Free Press, several other news organizations had arisen to fill the gap.

VT Digger, a nonprofit website, and Vermont Public Radio were expanding. And towering above all was Seven Days, a thick alt-weekly with a vibrant website. As someone who had worked for many years at The Boston Phoenix, which closed in 2013, I was agog at the size of the staff and the number of ads. Somehow, Seven Days had become the largest news organization in the Burlington area. And it was turning a profit. As Paula Routly, the publisher, co-editor and co-owner told me in an interview for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” the paper had never lost money since its founding in 1995. She explained:

When the recession hit, we invested. That’s when we ramped up in news. And that is when the Free Press visibly diminished. They just made different business decisions. “Let’s make it smaller, let’s lay people off.” That’s where I think they made their mistake.

So it was great to see Seven Days get prominent mention by The Daily Beast in a round-up of alt-weeklies that are somehow surviving despite the pandemic and the recession. Sophia June reports in The Daily Beast on four — Seven Days, the Cleveland Scene, The Stranger of Seattle and The Austin Chronicle. According to June, Seven Days was able to reverse the cuts that it had made within six weeks, suggesting that the newspaper apocalypse that seemed to be upon us in the early days of the shutdown didn’t quite come to pass. Here’s a key excerpt:

The paper had to stop hosting events and printing several of their guides, but they reached out to businesses like the Department of Health, a local hospital, and banks to find new advertisers. They pitched new guides, including a travel guide for the Vermont Department of Tourism, encouraging safe travel in the state. They were also able to keep revenue-generators like monthly parenting and real-estate inserts.

Also getting a mention is DigBoston, which has kept the alt-weekly scene alive here in the post-Phoenix era. The Dig stopped publishing its print edition last March but then started up again in June, as Poynter’s Kristen Hare reported at the time. It’s notable that all of the papers I’ve mentioned are for-profit entities, although the Dig shares content with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, a sister organization.

Does this mean that happy days are here again? Of course not. But these stories are yet another sign that independent newspapers unburdened by corporate and hedge-fund ownership can find a way to survive. Once the pandemic is behind us, maybe they’ll even thrive.

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