I am thrilled to announce the debut of our podcast, “What Works: The Future of Local News,” from Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.
Every month — and soon, perhaps, every week — former Boston Globe editor Ellen Clegg and I will talk to journalists, policymakers and entrepreneurs about efforts they’re making to keep local news alive. (We’re working on a book with the same name.) Corporate chains and hedge funds are squeezing the life out of local news. There is a better way. We and our guests are telling that story.
In our first episode, I interview Massachusetts state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat who co-sponsored legislation to launch a commission that will study the future of local news in the state. (Note: I’ll be a member of the commission.) Ehrlich lays out her vision and underscores the role that local journalism plays in a democracy. Ellen and I share a few quick takes on the news as well.
You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Pocket Casts, and we’re aiming for more platforms soon. We hope you’ll give it a listen — we’re very excited about this project, which has been long in the making.
Also, many thanks to Alison Booth, who designed the graphic that accompanies our podcast, and to Promiser, whose song “WOW!” is our theme. Wow indeed.
Last Thursday we had a terrific panel discussion at Northeastern’s School of Journalism about the local news crisis in Greater Boston. Our panelists were state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, the lead sponsor of a state commission on local news that was recently created; retired Boston Globe editorial page editor Ellen Clegg; Yawu Miller, senior editor of The Bay State Banner; Bill Forry, managing editor of The Dorchester Reporter; and Julie McCay Turner, co-founder and managing editor of The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit website that started as a volunteer project and that has gradually added paid journalism.
You can read Mihiro Shimano’s account at The Scope by clicking here. But I want to pick up on something that Ellen (my research partner on a book about local news) said about The Boston Globe’s role.
I was moderating and couldn’t take notes. But when I asked her about the Globe’s role in local news, she said the paper discovered about 20 years ago that it couldn’t make much of a dent at the hyperlocal level. Readers looked to their community weeklies and dailies for coverage of day-to-day life in their cities and towns. What the Globe could provide, she said, was regional coverage of issues that affected everyone — which is pretty much the mission statement for the paper in general.
As she also pointed out, the Globe now has a digital Rhode Island section, which is in keeping with the regional focus, and covers Newton through a partnership with Boston University. But could the paper do more?
Now that corporate-owned chains have decimated most of the once-strong community papers that circle Boston, I wonder if the Globe might be able to play more of a role. One idea would be to revive the YourTown websites that were unveiled during the last few years of New York Times Co. ownership. YourTown covered not just the Boston suburbs but neighborhoods within the city as well, which remains a crucial need. That was back in the days of the free web, and it proved impossible to sell ads for the sites. Now that everything is subscription-driven, though, would it be possible to try again?
There’s no substitute for independently owned community media, but a greater presence by the Globe — which itself is independently owned — might be the next best thing.
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.
The Boston Business Journal today published an editorial supporting the creation of a state commission to study the decline of local journalism in Massachusetts and to offer some recommendations. The bill is currently being considered by legislators in the form of a House amendment to the economic bond bill. The editorial is behind a paywall, but I have a workplace subscription. Here’s the kicker:
This amendment is just a first step, but a necessary one, to understanding what’s driving the steady decline in local journalism and what can be done to strengthen it again. We urge lawmakers to make this small investment in the future of our state’s democracy. It’s time to make local journalism a priority and endorse the amendment.
The editorial also references a letter of support that my colleagues and I at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism sent to the six members of the conference committee this week. If you’re so inclined, you can send emails to their offices. The House directory is here, and the Senate directory is here. The conference committee members are:
Sen. Eric Lesser, co-chair
Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, co-chair
Sen. Michael Rodrigues
Sen. Patrick O’Connor
Rep. Aaron Michlewitz
Rep. Donald Wong
Ongoing kudos to Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, who has been pushing for this measure for nearly two years. I’ve provided some assistance, and would be a member of the commission as the language is currently written.
I understand why some people are skeptical about the government getting involved in questions about the financial viability of local news. My response is that this is a modest step. I’d like to see an effort to identify independent local projects that are succeeding, find out what makes them tick and come up with some ideas to encourage more people to launch such projects in their own communities.
Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.
We’re down to the wire with a legislative proposal to create a special commission that would study the condition of local news in Massachusetts. You can learn more about it here. Currently a conference committee is hashing out the details of an economic bond bill; the commission has been included as an amendment to the House version.
My colleagues in Northeastern University’s School of Journalism have signed a letter to the six members of the conference committee urging them to support the amendment creating the news commission. If you are so inclined, I hope you’ll add your voice. Some disclosures: I was involved in proposing the commission; I testified in favor of it last year; and I would be a member if the measure is adopted as written.
There’s never been a more crucial time for local news. Gannett, a national corporate chain that owns dozens of daily and weekly papers and websites in Greater Boston and environs, is staggering under debt and continues to cut, as Don Seiffert reports in the Boston Business Journal. This is also the time of year when you can donate to a local nonprofit news organization through NewsMatch and have your contribution doubled. And don’t forget that today is #GivingTuesday.
Our letter to the conference committee follows:
November 30, 2020
To the members of the conference committee:
Senator Eric Lesser, Co-Chair
Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, Co-Chair
Senator Michael Rodrigues
Senator Patrick O’Connor
Representative Aaron Michlewitz
Representative Donald Wong
Community life and civic engagement are not possible without reliable, verified news and information. Unfortunately, local journalism is in the midst of a crisis. According to one widely cited study, more than 2,100 American newspapers have closed their doors over the past 15 years as Craigslist, Google, and Facebook have scooped up most of the advertising revenues that once paid for journalism. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation worse. And newspaper chains owned by Wall Street speculators and hedge funds have robbed local news executives of the revenues they need to invest in the future.
Which is why we faculty members at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism urge you to approve an amendment sponsored by Representative Lori Ehrlich — part of the House version of the Economic Bond Bill — that would create a special commission to study local news in Massachusetts and recommend some possible courses of action. The commission would comprise legislators, academics, journalists, and news-industry experts.
Massachusetts remains well-served by regional sources of news, including a robust daily newspaper, public media companies, and multiple television newscasts. At the local level, though, the picture is grim. Corporate ownership has resulted in the hollowing-out of dozens of newspapers across the Commonwealth. In all too many cases, these news outlets are failing to meet the information needs of the communities they ostensibly serve.
A commission could, among other things, shine a light on a number of independent news projects that are doing well in the hopes that they might inspire residents of other communities to undertake similar projects. A commission could also identify best practices and recommend legislation and policies to encourage local ownership or make it easier to start a nonprofit news organization.
Such efforts are urgently needed. Please approve the amendment and allow the commission to be formed and to begin its important work.
Jonathan Kaufman, Director Belle Adler, Emeritus Mike Beaudet
Nicholas Daniloff, Emeritus Charles Fountain
William Kirtz, Emeritus Laurel Leff
Walter V. Robinson, Emeritus Jim Ross
Alan Schroeder, Emeritus Jeb Sharp
Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.
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:
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, …
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.
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.