How a state commission could help ease the local news crisis

Every reporter knows that the proper relationship between journalism and government is arm’s-length, even adversarial. Our job is to hold elected officials to account, not ask them for handouts.

So why were 10 publishers, journalists, academics, and advocates on Beacon Hill (in person and virtually) on Wednesday asking for the creation of a state commission that could propose ways of helping news organizations? The answer: The local news crisis has become so acute that it’s time to consider some unconventional approaches.

Read the rest at CommonWealth Beacon.

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Academics, publishers and advocates push for a Mass. commission on local news

Photo (cc) 2008 by Roger H. Goun

As I noted previously, the Massachusetts legislature is taking another crack at forming a local news commission after its first attempt disappeared into the ether several years ago. On Wednesday, I was one of 10 academics, publishers and advocates who testified in favor of such a commission before the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses. If you want to catch up on what happened, two reporters were there as well.

Chris Lisinsky of State House News Service writes:

Tax credits for local publishers, grant funding for news organizations, and state-covered wages for recently graduated reporters who cover underserved communities are all on the table as Massachusetts lawmakers consider how best to support the ailing local journalism industry.

And here’s how Aidan Ryan of The Boston Globe begins his story:

The crisis facing local news is ravaging civic life everywhere — even in Massachusetts — a parade of journalists told legislators on Wednesday, as they called on state government to take steps, including considering tax breaks, to support struggling local newsrooms.

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A hearing to revive a Mass. local news commission will be held this Wednesday

Photo (cc) 2024 by Dan Kennedy

Nearly three and a half years after then-Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill creating a local news commission, the Massachusetts legislature is ready to try again. The first commission lapsed without ever holding a formal meeting (one preliminary meeting was held before all the members had been appointed), so essentially we’re starting from scratch.

A public hearing will be held this Wednesday, June 26, at 10 a.m. to discuss the make-up of a journalism commission, the state of journalism in Massachusetts, and what the public would like to see a commission address. The hearing is being held by the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Business, and will take place in Room B-1 at the Statehouse as well as virtually over Teams. I’ve signed up to testify.

The original legislation would have created a 23-member commission. The new proposal would strip that down to a more workable nine members. I would have been guaranteed a slot on the first commission; there are no guarantees in the new legislation, but I’ve told Rep. Paul McMurtry, D-Dedham, who’s the House chair of the committee, that I’d be willing to serve. I’ve also offered his office some thoughts on how the commission might be structured and what areas it could address.

The local news landscape here has deteriorated considerably since then-Rep. Lori Ehrlich and I first started talking about a commission in 2018. Especially destructive was Gannett’s decision to close or merge a couple dozen of its weekly papers in the spring of 2022 and to jettison nearly all of its local coverage in favor of regional stories from around the chain. (Ellen Clegg and I spoke with Ehrlich on our very first “What Works” podcast in October 2021. Ehrlich is now the regional administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.)

On the bright side, we’ve also seen an upsurge in local news startups in the Boston area, mainly nonprofit. These projects are doing a better job of covering local news than Gannett had in many years. But some communities are without any journalism, and the startups tend to be located in affluent suburbs.

What could a news commission do? That would be up to the members. But a commission could shine a light on independent projects that are doing well in order to inspire folks in other cities and towns to try their hand. And it could propose some policy measures aimed at bolstering local efforts. One that seems especially promising are tax credits for news publishers who hire and retain journalists, as is being done in Illinois and New York. “Tax credits” is a bit of misnomer since they can be structured to benefit nonprofits as well as for-profits that are losing money.

Here’s the full announcement about Wednesday’s hearing:

Please be advised that the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses will hold a hybrid public hearing on Wednesday, June 26th starting at 10am in Room B-1 to discuss the composition of the Journalism Commission, the current state of journalism in the Commonwealth and matters that interested parties would like to see the commission address once the commission is formed. Instructions for providing oral and written testimony are below.

Date of Hearing: Wednesday, June 26th, 2024
Time: 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM
Location: Room B-2 — Hybrid Hearing via Microsoft Teams
Subject Matter: Journalism

IN-PERSON AND VIRTUAL TESTIMONY: For both in-person and virtual testimony, you must fill out the following form:

WRITTEN TESTIMONY: Written testimony may be submitted to the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses by emailing the

DEADLINE TO PRE-REGISTER: For both in-person and virtual testimony, the deadline to register to testify is 12:00pm, Tuesday, June 25th, 2024. Individuals registered for virtual testimony will receive an email the day before the hearing with a link to join the hearing on Microsoft Teams.

SAME DAY SIGN-UP: Individuals who miss the deadline to pre-register for testimony may appear on the day of the hearing and sign up to speak in-person on forms provided by committee staff. Time permitting, when all pre-registered individuals have been called to testify, the Chairs will then call any individuals who sign up in-person on the day of the hearing.

ORDER OF TESTIMONY: The Chairs, at their discretion, will determine the order of testimony. It is the responsibility of the individuals registered to testify to be prepared to speak when called upon by the Chairs. If an individual is called by the Chairs and that person is not logged into the Teams platform, the Chairs will move on and call the next individual or panel. We respectfully request that all oral testimony be kept to 3 minutes or less.

If you have any questions or concerns please email

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A Mass. bill would provide tax credits for subscriptions to local news outlets

Massachusetts Statehouse. Photo (cc) 1996 by Daderot.

Now that federal efforts to provide assistance to local news have fallen short, we may see more activity at the state level. One such effort is a bill filed in the Massachusetts Legislature that would provide tax credits to people who subscribe to a “local community newspaper,” whether in print or online. Boston Globe reporter Dana Gerber has the details (and quotes me).

The bill was filed last month by Rep. Jeffrey Rosario Turco, D-Revere. The legislation, H.D.1518, is similar to one of the three tax credits in the federal Local Journalism Sustainability Act — it provides a tax credit for subscribers of up to $250 a year. As I told Gerber, this may prove to be symbolic given that state income taxes are lower than federal taxes. Still, it would focus attention on the importance of local news, which is not a bad thing.

The devil, as always, is in the details. According to the bill, an eligible newspaper or website would have to provide “original content derived from primary sources and relating to news and current events,” serve “the needs of a regional or local community,” and employ “at least 1 local news journalist who resides in such regional or local community.”

That last requirement could prove to be a sticking point. Low-paid community journalists can’t be expected to live in an affluent community where the cost of housing is sky-high. That was as much of an issue decades ago as it is today. Maybe “regional or local” means that a reporter who covers, say, Concord could live in Lowell; I hope so.

Another challenge is that local news is increasingly being provided by nonprofit news organizations as the Gannett newspaper chain closes weekly newspapers and cuts back on community coverage. Most nonprofits offer their news for free, and donations to nonprofits are already tax-exempt.

It’s also hard not to notice that Turco is proposing his legislation in something of a vacuum, as the state commission approved two years ago to study the local news crisis in Massachusetts has yet to get off the ground. I had a hand in drafting the bill that created the commission would be a member. Maybe 2023 will be the year that there’s some movement on that front.

That state commission to study local news is getting back on track

The special state commission that will study local journalism in Massachusetts may seem to have gone off the rails, but its work was merely postponed because the COVID pandemic. Rather than issuing a report this August, current plans are to work on it for the next year and then issue a report in August 2022, according to Sophia Gardner of the Greenfield Reporter.

I was among those who advocated for the creation of the commission, and, as the legislation is written, I would be a member. I look forward to getting on with our work.

Previous coverage.

Proposal to create local news commission is sent to governor’s desk

I’m excited to report that the Legislature has approved the creation of a special commission to study the state of local news in Massachusetts and make some recommendations. This is an effort that has been two years in the making, and I’m looking forward to serving. Some background here. What follows is a press release from the co-sponsors, Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn.

Legislature Sends Journalism Commission to Governor’s Desk
Commission language included in Economic Development  Package

BOSTON (1/8/2021) — State Representative Lori Ehrlich (D-Marblehead) and State Senator Brendan Crighton (D-Lynn) announced Thursday the inclusion of their journalism commission legislation, An Act establishing a commission to study journalism in underserved communities, as part of the Economic Development bill that was passed by the legislature and sent to the Governor’s desk.

This legislation, filed for the first time this session, would create a state commission to assess the state of local journalism in Massachusetts, including the adequacy of press coverage in the Commonwealth’s cities and towns and the sustainability of local press business models.

According to research at the University of North Carolina, almost 1,800 local newspapers have closed since 2004, creating growing “media deserts” with insufficient local news coverage. Hedge funds, which have higher profit margin requirements than journalism tends to generate, have recently purchased several news outlets in Massachusetts subsequently consolidating outlets and cutting staff.

“A lack of local news coverage is a fundamental threat to our democracy and civic society,” said Ehrlich. “Citizens rely on hardworking journalists to tell the stories that bind us together as communities. Trusted news sources provide a public square where shared facts and thoughtful opinion enable us to hold power to account and govern ourselves.”

“With this commission, the Commonwealth will facilitate a serious discussion among experts, reporters, and industry members about the state of local news in Massachusetts, and what fortification efforts can take place,” Ehrlich added.

“Now more than ever we need a strong and robust news media to keep our citizenry as informed as possible and to ensure accountability,” said Crighton. “It was great to work with Representative Ehrlich on this pivotal piece of legislation and I’m excited for the Commission to get to work.”

“I would like to thank Representative Ehrlich for her unremitting commitment to journalism within the Commonwealth,” said State Representative Edward F. Coppinger (D-Boston), House Chair of the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Business. “Many communities here in Massachusetts both rely on and benefit from local news sources to obtain important information relevant to their livelihoods. These uncertain and trying times have had a significant impact on local news reporting agencies and their ability to disseminate necessary facts. We are honored to join Representative Ehrlich in combating these negative results through this crucial legislation.”

“This is great news for the future of local journalism in Massachusetts. It gives us an opportunity to study where the problems are, who’s doing it right and how we can encourage the growth of independent community news organizations,” said Dan Kennedy, Professor at the School of Journalism at Northeastern University.

“Local news outlets are the bedrock upon which American democracy is built, yet they are collapsing from the negative effects of decades of corporate media consolidation and now the coronavirus pandemic,” said Jason Pramas, Executive Director at the  Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and Executive Editor and Associate Publisher at DigBoston. “The passage of the journalism commission language into law gives hope to Massachusetts journalists and the public-at-large that state government will take a serious look at this ongoing crisis and then take steps to support news organizations around the Commonwealth–in ways that keep the press free and independent, as the Founders intended.”

“Thanks very much to Representatives Ehrlich and Coppinger and Senator Crighton for their leadership on this signal piece of legislation and to all the dozens of journalists, journalism educators, and media activists that worked hard for its enactment,” he added.

The commission will conduct a comprehensive, non-binding study relative to communities underserved by local journalism,  including, but not limited to, the 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.