Want more local news? Contact your legislators to support a proposed study.

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As the Legislature heads into its final days, a proposal to study the decline of local news in Massachusetts has been revived. A bill filed by state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, would create a special commission “to research and propose policy solutions.”

The 23-member commission would include legislators, academics, journalists and news-industry experts. As currently drafted, I would be a member of the commission. I wrote about the idea last year for WGBH News.

For many years, Greater Boston’s local-news ecosystem, though far from optimal, was nevertheless in better shape than was the case in other parts of the country. Now, though, corporate chains such as Gannett and Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group are decimating the state’s community newspapers. Though challenges created by technology and, now, the COVID-19 pandemic would be difficult to overcome in any case, corporate greed is compounding the collapse of local newspapers.

If you’re so inclined, I hope you’ll consider contacting your state representative and senator to urge them to support the legislation, which takes the form of an amendment to the state budget. It’s called “Amendment #40, An Act establishing a commission to study journalism in underserved communities.”

Below is the text of Ehrlich’s letter to her colleagues, followed by the language of the legislation:

Dear Colleagues,

I respectfully request your consideration for cosponsorship of Amendment #40, An Act establishing a commission to study journalism in underserved communities. This amendment would create a commission of experts, industry members, academics, and elected officials to research and propose policy solutions related to the state of local journalism in Massachusetts and the future sustainability of the industry.

Journalism is critical to a healthy democracy, and local journalism is an important part of the fabric of our communitie. In the last decade and a half, two trends of out-of-state corporate consolidation and layoffs have led to the disappearance of 1 in 5 newspapers nationwide while countless others have become shells of themselves. A new report from UNC found that since 2004 there has been a net loss of 1,800 local newspapers.

Newsrooms across the country and right here in Massachusetts have been subject to layoffs, asset selloffs, hedge fund takeovers, and cuts in coverage, a trend that is plaguing news organizations across the country. In some parts of the country, “news deserts” are popping up where there is little to no reporting on local issues and stories. Additionally, the journalism industry has faced significant layoffs – according to the Pew Research Center, “Newsroom employment dropped nearly a quarter in less than 10 years, with greatest decline at newspapers.”

The impact of COVID-19 on the newspaper industry is already worse than the toll of the 2008 financial crisis, which saw newspapers experience a 19% decline in revenue.While larger newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post have a large subscription base to curtail damage, local newspapers, many of which are owned by publicly traded companies saddled in debt even before COVID-19, are unlikely to survive.

This commission presents a vehicle for a public discussion allowing Massachusetts to lead a national conversation about journalism and how best to support it in a changing world. Establishing this commission and the report they will produce will be a critical step forward in revitalizing our state’s local news media and ensuring their sustainability as an essential part of our democracy.

If you would like to cosponsor, …

Sincerely,

Lori Ehrlich
State Representative
8th Essex District

The text of the bill follows:

Ms. Ehrlich of Marblehead moves to amend the bill by inserting after section 122 the following new section:

SECTION X. (a) Resolved, that a special legislative commission, pursuant to section 2A of chapter 4 of the General Laws is hereby established to: (i) conduct a comprehensive, non-binding study relative to communities underserved by local journalism in Massachusetts; (ii) review all aspects of local journalism including, but not limited to, the adequacy of press coverage of cities and towns, 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.

(b) The commission shall consist of the following 23  members: 2 of whom shall be the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on community development and small business; 1 member of the house of representatives appointed by the speaker of the house; 1 member of the senate appointed by the president of the senate; 1 of whom shall be a professor at the Northeastern School of Journalism; 1 of whom shall be a member of the Boston Association of Black Journalists; 1 of whom shall be a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists; 1 of whom shall be a member of the Asian American Journalists Association of New England; 2 of whom shall be representatives of public colleges or universities of the commonwealth with either a journalism or communications program jointly appointed by the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on community development and small business; 1 of whom shall be a representative of a private college or university of the commonwealth with either a journalism or communications program jointly appointed by the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on community development and small business; 3 of whom shall be representatives of journalism unions or associations appointed by the governor provided further that the appointees are selected from the following unions and associations: the NewsGuild – Communication Workers of America, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians – Communications Workers of America, the Association of Independents in Radio, the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, the New England Newspaper and Press Association, or the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists; 8 of whom shall be currently employed or freelance journalists, editors, or producers from independent community news outlets from across the commonwealth jointly appointed by the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on community development and small business provided further that the appointees represent communities underserved by professional news organizations, rural communities, immigrants communities, working-class communities, and communities of color; and 1 of whom shall be a representative from the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. All appointments shall be made no later than 30 days following the effective date of this resolve.

(c) The commission shall hold public information sessions in order to explain the work of the commission and to solicit public comment pursuant to the work of the commission. The commission shall hold at least one public information session in each county of the commonwealth and shall provide at least one weeks notice from the date in which the public information session is occurring. The notice shall include, but not be limited to: (i) the date of the public information session; (ii) the time in which the public information session will take place; (iii) the location in which the public information session is occurring; (iv) a description of the format in which the commission will be accepting public comment; and (v) a point of contact. The public notice shall be sent by the commission to the clerks of each municipality of the county in which the public information session will occur and the commonwealth’s director of boards and commissions. In the case of a cancellation or postponement of a public information session, the commission shall provide at least 48 hours notice to the clerks of each municipality of the county in which the public information session will occur and the commonwealth’s director of boards and commissions.

(d) The commission shall accept written and oral comment from the public beginning at the first meeting of the commission.

(e) The commission shall meet a minimum of 5 times to review, study and analyze existing literature, quantitative and qualitative data on the status of journalism in the commonwealth , and submitted oral and written public comment.

(f) The commission shall submit its findings, along with recommendations for legislation, to the governor, the speaker of the house, the president of the senate, and the clerks of the house of representatives and the senate no later than 1 year after the effective date of this resolve.

(g) The special commission may make such interim reports as it considers appropriate.

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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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