I had a weirdly news-free weekend, as I volunteered as a marshal at four of Northeastern’s commencement ceremonies on Saturday and Sunday. I’ll be catching up today and tomorrow. Meanwhile, here are some scenes from Fenway.
The end of the pandemic in the United States isn’t going to be marked by a solemn announcement or a celebrity-studded fundraising event on TV. There are too many uncertainties.
Even as the situation improves in Massachusetts, the numbers are much higher — though dropping — in Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado and elsewhere. And, of course, the virus is causing unimaginable suffering right now in India and South America. We need to do all we can to help.
But even though there won’t be a clearly defined endpoint, I’m declaring an end to COVID-19 this week. Just about every adult in the U.S. who wants to be vaccinated has now done so or will be able to soon. Masks are coming off outdoors. Schools are filling up again — safely. Indoor restaurant dining is coming back. Our long national nightmare isn’t over, but we’re slowly beginning to wake up.
In case you missed it, Spencer Buell of Boston magazine has a hilarious story about Zolan Kanno-Youngs, a reporter for The New York Times who covers the White House. It seems that his phone number is almost identical to that of Roller World in Saugus, and for at least 10 years Kanno-Youngs has been fielding calls meant for the rink. Kanno-Youngs tells Buell:
There have been times where I’m on deadline, or I’m on the verge of a good story. And I’m like, “Oh, here it is. Here’s the source that I’ve been wanting to call me.” And I’ll pick up and it’s like, “Hey, so Saturday at 9 a.m. you guys still going?” And I’m like, “What’s going on?” And then they’re like, “Yeah, you know, my birthday party!” And I’m like, “Oh my God, not right now!”
Of course I should mention that Kanno-Youngs is a Northeastern journalism alum. I hadn’t heard him tell this story before. I assume he’s now going to have to change his phone number — Buell doesn’t tell us what it is, but it’s easy enough to figure out.
Well, isn’t this a lovely surprise on a Monday morning. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll has written an op-ed piece for The Boston Globe calling for an end to the state Legislature’s exemption from the open meeting law — a law that requires virtually all city and town boards and many state commissions to conduct their business in public. It’s a bit too late for Sunshine Week, but we’ll take it. Driscoll writes:
If 351 cities and towns can adopt budgets, engage in policy debates, hire and evaluate staff, and create local laws — all while meeting the rightly rigorous standards of the Commonwealth’s Open Meeting Law — there is no valid reason why our state colleagues cannot do the same.
Driscoll also notes that Massachusetts is one of only 11 states whose legislature is exempt from open meeting laws.
Similarly, the Legislature and the courts are exempt from the state’s public records law, and a succession of governors, including Charlie Baker, have claimed that their immediate staff is exempt as well.
Last fall, our Northeastern journalism students contacted all 257 candidates for House and Senate seats and asked them whether they would support ending that exemption. Sadly, only 71 responded despite repeated emails and phone calls; but of those who did respond, 72% said they favored applying the public records law to the Legislature.
As with the open meeting law, Massachusetts is an outlier: it is one of only four states whose public records laws do not cover legislative proceedings.
The central argument Driscoll offers is unassailable. If cities, towns and state agencies can comply with the open meeting and public records laws, so, too, can the Legislature. It’s long past time to drag the proceedings of the Great and General Court out into the sunlight.
Launching a community news outlet at a time when local news is under siege might seem like a foolhardy risk. But journalists with an entrepreneurial spirit are taking that risk — and, for some, it’s paying off.
Take, for example, The Provincetown Independent. Founded in October 2019, the weekly competes with Gannett’s Provincetown Banner. According to co-founder and editor Ed Miller, the Independent already has more than 100 advertisers and a full-time staff of 10, including three editors and three and a half reporters, as well as a number of freelancers. He and the other co-founder, publisher Teresa Parker, are aiming for break-even and a staff of 20 by year five.
“The fact is that the majority of these legacy small-town papers are actually doing perfectly well,” Miller said last week at an event at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism via Zoom. He added, though, that “they’re not making anybody rich.”
The Independent covers four towns — Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet and Eastham. The paper has both a print and a paywalled digital edition. Although a number of local news startups are digital-only, Miller said he’s convinced that print is necessary for a for-profit enterprise such as his, since it’s a more effective way to attract advertisers. (The Independent is a public-benefit corporation, which means, according to its About page, that it is “committed to prioritizing the social and environmental benefits of our corporate decision-making.”)
The formula has worked, he said, noting that the current edition comprises 32 pages, 27% of which are advertising.
One type of advertising he’s not getting are legal notices, a problem he blamed on town officials who don’t like the tough coverage the Independent is providing. Instead, legals continue to go to the Banner and another Gannett weekly, the Cape Codder, whose coverage area overlaps with the Independent in Eastham.
Miller began his career as a small-town newspaper owner in the town of Harvard in 1973, an experience that led him to co-write a 1978 book called “How to Produce a Small Newspaper.” He worked for four years for the Banner before deciding to launch his own venture, saying that GateHouse Media, which later acquired Gannett and took its name, “pretty much systematically stripped it of all its staff and other capacities.”
As for the Independent, he said the paper now has paid print circulation of about 3,200 (subscriptions plus newsstand sales), with another 450 digital-only subscribers, most of whom live far from Cape Cod.
The paper’s revenues last year were about $640,000, with $217,000 coming from subscriptions and $242,000 from advertising. Nearly $70,000 came in the form of government assistance related to the pandemic, and another $74,000 was from donations and grants to the Independent’s nonprofit arm, which it uses to pay interns and cover the cost of in-depth reporting on issues like climate change, affordable housing, health care and LGBTQ issues.
Although not every local news startup is as successful as the Independent, there has been an upsurge in recent years of independently owned community outlets. Some are for-profit, some are nonprofit. Some are online-only, some have a print edition. Some were launched to challenge a chain-owned newspaper, some were founded in communities with no news outlet. Later this week, LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers will release a study showing that the number of independents in the U.S. and Canada has risen by 50% over the past five years.
What all of these startups have in common is that, even with the challenges to local news posed by the likes of Craigslist, Facebook and Google, independents can succeed.
“We hear from people in various other places where their papers have really withered and they’ve heard about what we’re doing,” Miller said. “Every place is different. What we’re doing out here in Provincetown is geared to this place. People will need to find their own ways of making this work wherever they are.”
Correction. This post has been updated regarding the length of Miller’s tenure at the Provincetown Banner and the Independent’s total print circulation.
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.
The Scope, a social-justice website published by our School of Journalism, has unveiled a news-by-text pilot program so that Boston residents can receive information about testing sites, food pantries and other news related to the pandemic. The project is being led by Lex Weaver, one of our graduate students.
The initiative got a mention today from the American Press Institute.
The COVID pandemic made the fall semester a challenge for everyone. As someone who teaches journalism, I found that challenge to be especially acute. I wanted to give my intermediate-reporting students the same real-life experience as I have with my previous classes, but I needed to do it with the understanding that pavement-pounding and door-knocking were out of the question.
The previous fall, we’d had some success with a group project. My Northeastern University undergrads visited nine governmental offices in the Boston area and requested public records. They reported on their experience and whether they were asked to do anything forbidden by the law, such as produce identification. They also took photos of the places they had visited. Could a similar project be adapted to the age of Zoom?
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.