Could the Globe do more to fill the local news gap?

The Globe’s YourTown site for Needham circa 2010

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.

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Northeastern journalism project to provide COVID news by text

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.

Northeastern encourages students to attend class in person. I’m fine with that.

The Boston Globe reports on Northeastern’s efforts to encourage students to attend class in person during the COVID pandemic.

I spoke with The Huntington News, the student newspaper, about why I think that’s OK — as long as there’s no pressure. (Link now fixed.)

A group project in the age of COVID: What worked, what didn’t and what we learned about making it better

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?

Read the rest at Storybench.

Boston Business Journal supports creating a state news commission

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.

Northeastern journalism faculty supports creation of a state news commission

Photo (cc) 2017 by Ted McGrath.

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.

Sincerely,

Jonathan Kaufman, Director
Belle Adler, Emeritus
Mike Beaudet
Rahul Bhargava
Matt Carroll
Myojung Chung
Joanne Ciccarello
Nicholas Daniloff, Emeritus
Charles Fountain
Michelle Hagopian
Meg Heckman
Carlene Hempel
Jeff Howe
Dan Kennedy
William Kirtz, Emeritus
Laurel Leff
Dan Lothian
Peter Mancusi
Meredith O’Brien
Walter V. Robinson, Emeritus
Jim Ross
Jody Santos
Alan Schroeder, Emeritus
Jeb Sharp
John Wihbey
Dan Zedek

Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.

Northeastern journalism students fan out for Election Day interviews

Our Northeastern journalism students are doing a really cool project today — they’re interviewing people about whether or not they voted, taking their photos and posting them on Instagram. If you get a chance, call up the Instagram app on your phone and search for the hashtag #nujournalismelectionday.

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What would Northeastern journalism students ask the candidates?

I asked students in my Ethics and Issues class this morning to come up with questions for the candidates in five broad areas at tonight’s first presidential debate. Because my students are wicked smart, I thought I’d share them with you.

  • Ethics: What do you think the role of executive power and executive actions should be, and how would you utilize them as president?
  • COVID: After failed diagnoses, treatments and political drama, how are you going to get Americans to trust science again? Is that important?
  • Black Lives Matter: Do you have plans to reform the training and educational requirements used in vetting and hiring for law enforcement? Would your plans contribute to combating institutional systemic racism?
  • The economy: Besides re-opening, what economic issues are most important for your recovery plans?
  • Climate change: What is your plan for the next four years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2040?

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COVID Diary #11: Back on campus, and feeling pretty good about it

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy.

Previously published at GBH News.

It feels more normal than I had expected.

I’m writing this on Tuesday of Week Two at Northeastern University. I’ve taught five classes — two via Zoom, three in person. I’ve taken three COVID tests. I’ve been rear-ended on the Zakim, taken the commuter rail, gotten on the Orange Line and walked the three miles from North Station to campus. I’ve ordered coffee, including my first Starbucks since last March, which I’m drinking right now.

And yes, I’ll admit, it’s good to be back.

Was I skeptical? Of course. Across the country, many employees are being told to work from home until next January at the earliest, even though working in a socially distanced office seems pretty low-risk. By contrast, college faculty are exposing themselves to young adults who, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, are going to spend some of their time partying, drinking, having sex and spreading whatever viruses they may be carrying, including COVID. Northeastern has already kicked out 11 freshmen, and Boston College is in the midst of what may be the early stages of a surge.

So far, though, I’m impressed with what I’ve seen. Mask-wearing is universal. Most people are conscious of not getting too close to anyone else. And though I’m teaching one of my classes in person, precautions are being taken. In a room in which as many as 19 students are sometimes assigned, I have a class of nine, and only seven of them can attend on any given day. We have a cart loaded with audio-visual equipment so that those attending remotely can see and hear us, and vice-versa. I’m impressed with the quality and how easy it is to use, although I needed some help from one of our brilliant students to get it up and running.

COVID has accelerated an upheaval in higher education that was already under way. Costs are out of control. Too often, young people and their families are left with unaffordable debt once they’ve picked up their degrees and launched their careers. Increasingly, we are being told that students would be better served by online education at a fraction of the cost.

Thus the return to campus this fall, at Northeastern and across the country, is driven by economics. We’re determined to show that there is value to the full in-person, on-campus college experience. As Harvard and MIT chaplain Greg M. Epstein wrote in The Boston Globe this past Sunday, “educational institutions and those who care about them risk everything if we forget that non-academic student activities help students become fully human.”

Less altruistically, colleges and universities need the money if they are going to continue with the faculty and infrastructure they have now. I’m not opposed to that. After all, one of the many things Northeastern does with the money it receives from students is pay my salary. I could have chosen to teach from home. At 64, I’m in the vulnerable age group. But I wanted to give the students who are enrolled in my in-person class as normal an experience as possible.

But only if it’s safe. At least at the moment, it’s looking good. The university is testing everyone — faculty, staff and students — several times a week. The most recent seven-day average of positive test results is just 0.05%, well below the state’s own admirably low rate of 0.8%. (Apples-and-oranges alert: Yes, I realize that not everyone in the state is being tested, and that a disproportionate number of those seeking tests have symptoms. Still, there’s no question that Northeastern is doing well so far.)

Still, the picture nationwide is unsettling. The New York Times is tracking COVID at campuses across the country, and the picture at some institutions is disturbing indeed. USA Today reports that “of the 25 hottest outbreaks in the U.S., communities heavy with college students represent 19 of them.” The University of North Carolina and Notre Dame are among the schools that shut down almost as soon as they reopened. Maybe things will be different in the Boston area given that COVID is more or less under control in the city and the state. We’ll find out soon enough.

As I walk around the campus, I see students everywhere — not as many as usual, and all of them masked. It’s not ideal. But for young adults learning how to make their way in the world, it’s got to be better than holing up in their parents’ basement for months at a time.

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COVID Diary #8: Plans for the fall semester could be upended by another surge

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

One of the best parts of moving back to West Medford five years ago was that we were able to reduce our dependence on driving. When one of our cars died, we decided not to replace it. Now my wife drives literally 10 minutes through residential streets to get to her job, and I rely on public transportation, supplemented by Lyft and an occasional Zipcar.

COVID has upended that. As all of us at Northeastern ponder how we’re going to return to campus this fall, I’m wondering how I’m going to get there. Will I feel safe on the commuter rail and subway? What about possible virus left behind by previous Lyft riders? I’ve thought about riding my bike, but that’s not a comprehensive solution — I’m not going to do it when it’s raining or dark, and I don’t want to wrestle with cars and trucks on a regular basis, either.

As for what Northeastern is going to look like this fall, that still feels a bit up in the air, even though plans are being made to open on time in September. I’ll be teaching one class entirely online. The other will be taught using what’s being referred to as the hyflex model — or, in Northeastern-speak, “NUflex.”

With hyflex, you’re dealing with three separate groups of students. Some of them are in the classroom with you. Another group — maybe they had visa problems, maybe they’re on quarantine — joins the class via video conferencing. And a third group watches a recording of the class at a later time, possibly because of illness or time-zone differences. It sounds like quite a challenge. Our student newspaper, The Huntington News, has the details.

Some faculty members at Boston University are up in arms over the idea of returning to campus at all, according to The Boston Globe and CommonWealth Magazine. I haven’t heard any similar dissension at Northeastern, but maybe I’m not listening in the right places.

What I do know is that COVID is surging nationally once again — and the numbers in Massachusetts don’t inspire a lot of confidence, either. People make plans, but the virus makes its own, abetted by human folly. We’ll see whether anyone is actually back on campus this fall. I hope we are, but it’s hardly a given.

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