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Monthly Archives: July 2016



July 30, 2016


Blue and Red stalwarts should stop attacking minor party supporters for remaining independent—and start debating ideas

The quadrennial whinefest has already begun.

The RNC and DNC pageants are barely over, the presidential election is still over three months off, and yet major party stalwarts are already trying to police the growing margins of their parties and guilt trip them into voting against their consciences. Sadly, this behavior has become a ritual of American politics. One that needs to end if we’re ever going to have a system that offers voters more choices than “Column A or Column B.” Or, as comedian Barry Crimmins once put it: “Do you want to get hit over the head with a hammer or a mallet?”

In the last few days, I have read at least a dozen impassioned pleas from people on the broad political left in my social network begging anyone who will listen to not be “stupid” and “throw their votes away” by backing the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, or any party other than the Democrats this fall. When begging fails, they turn to hectoring—usually based on the Reductio ad Hitlerum fallacy: 2016 is 1933. Trump is Hitler. If you don’t vote Democrat, you’re letting the Nazis win.

When hectoring tanks, they start the insults. Which soon devolve into digital shouting matches. Convincing no one who wasn’t already convinced. But solidifying their belief that they’re the only ones possessing the relevant facts and the “maturity” to take “rational” action. That their political equation is the only political equation. That their choice is the only “sane” one. But that’s incorrect.

People can share some of the Democrats’ stated “progressive” views and still vote for minor party candidates, or for Trump, or for “None of the Above”—an option that many Americans choose on a regular basis.  Because they understand that, in practice, Democratic presidents often back reactionary policies in the interest of multinational corporations and the rich. And they prefer to vote for the best candidate possible, or simply lodge a protest vote. Which they have every right to do.

I’ve also seen similar arguments being made from the political right—if not as vociferously—mostly concerned about the Libertarian Party “stealing” votes from Republicans. (Although, at the moment, it’s looking like Libertarians will woo voters away from both the Democrats and the Republicans. Providing the potential for umbrage from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump supporters alike, one supposes).

So just a reminder to all major party supporters—including the Boston Globe’s Yvonne Abraham, whose hatchet job on Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein this week is a textbook example of the behavior in question: people in minor political parties are not in your political parties. They are Greens. They are Libertarians. They are Socialist Party (yes, they’re running national candidates, too), et cetera. And while they certainly have to figure out their relationship to other parties as part of their political strategy, they are not required to do what you want them to do. They are also not “idiots” for hewing to their own political course. Or for failing to fall into line behind the current duopoly.

Even though so-called “third” parties haven’t had a chance at winning major national elections for a longlong time, and even though we don’t have a parliamentary system in the US, that doesn’t mean their efforts are wasted. Or that their votes are “thrown away.”

Small parties run national elections for any number of reasons, but two big ones are to qualify for federal election funding and to earn a slot in the presidential debates. Others include: support for lower level candidates, demonstrating that their party has a national presence, the possibility of forcing one of the major parties to cut a deal on a key policy issue, and gaining visibility for their ideas. Whatever the reason, they are not stealing votes from anybody. They are vying for constituencies like any other party and trying to win them over and gain their support.

That’s politics, folks. It’s real life. The more power that’s at stake, the uglier it gets. As we just saw (and perhaps are still seeing courtesy of Wikileaks) with the highly questionable Clinton victory over Bernie Sanders in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Therefore I suggest that major party backers remember that fact in the coming months and beyond. You all can try to convince minor party members and independents to join your party based on the strength of your ideas. But, given the degeneration of the Democrats and the Republicans into caricatures of their past politics—the social democracy of the former morphing into neoliberalism, and the conservatism of the latter descending into a chaotic stew of faux-populism, racism and nativism—and given that both parties have long stood for militarism, imperialism, and state capitalism, it should be no surprise at all that more and more people are looking for political alternatives.

I certainly am.


Also, a quick shout-out to Black Lives Matter Cambridge and Somerville allies for organizing this week’s “Setting the Record Straight” counter-demonstration in Union Square. That in response to the protest rally called by the Somerville Police Employee’s Association (SPEA) and the Mass Municipal Police Coalition (MMPC) in support of removing the “Black Lives Matter” banner that Mayor Joe Curtatone—in a welcome turn from his more problematic political stancesrefuses to take down from Somerville City Hall. And replacing it with an “All Lives Matter” banner. A position based on the myth of “seemingly daily protest assassinations of innocent police officers around the country,” according to the original SPEA letter to Curtatone.

Yes, cops are people, too. But the city’s support for Black people’s humanity—and their demands for justice in an unjust and structurally racist political economic system that has historically been defended by police (and their often virulently racist unions)—takes nothing away from that.

More to the point, as the current excellent BLM slogan puts it: “If All Lives Matter, #Prove It!” Let’s see SPEA and MMPC support punishing killer cops and admit that there is literally no comparison between police deaths in the line of duty—which are actually in decline—and the ongoing execution of Black people by cops. Then there will be grounds for some genuine dialogue between area police and Black Lives Matter.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by theBoston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

MEDICINE FOR A MENDICANT MEDIA: Government support can revive American journalism


July 25, 2016


[Note: This is the full version of this article. A shorter version ran in the print edition of DigBoston— also dated July 25, 2016.]

Journalism is in a tough spot. There are tens of thousands of trained journalists in the United States, but a dearth of funding and the rolling collapse of major news outlets prevents many of us from making a living plying our trade. Even as journalism schools continue pumping out thousands of new journalists every year. According to the annual newsroom census by the American Society of News Editors, we’ve dropped from a high of 56,900 jobs in journalism in 1990 to a low of 32,900 jobs in 2015–3,800 jobs lost in the last year counted alone. That’s just in print journalism. The picture for broadcast journalism is somewhat better, but no broadcast news sector is adding lots of new jobs. And there have actually been layoffs at large digital news companies that are supposed to represent the “future of news.” All this as the population served rose from 249 million to 321 million over the quarter century in question. Meaning that more and more Americans live in “news deserts.” Ignored and abandoned by the dwindling number of robust professional news operations. A very dangerous state of affairs for a democracy that requires an informed citizenry to function properly.

New entrants struggle to replace the old news industry

Two developments helped cause the sharp contraction of the news media over the last few decades. First, the absorption of many news outlets by multinational corporations — which then squeezed them mercilessly for profit. Second, the Internet’s near destruction of the old, flawed, advertising-based commercial model that used to fund the production of the majority of American reporting.

Fortunately, there is another significant media sector that produces news. Government-backed public media. Although woefully underfunded by Congress, it has done a good job of staying afloat for almost 50 years. However, its outlook is far from certain, and its commitment to news is mixed. PBS has never produced much news — especially local news — although it is justifiably famous for its documentaries. NPR and its affiliate stations, on the other hand, are now producing more than ever and are fairly stable economically due in part to popular local news shows and the donations they attract. But they have an aging audience — and only small numbers of young people, urban dwellers using public transit, Blacks, and Latinos tune in. Which doesn’t bode well for the future, despite the inroads the network has made with podcasts and other online content.

Neither service is sizable enough to keep enough journalists in the field to make up for ongoing news industry losses. So, neither can produce the amount of solid coverage that our society requires to remain democratic. And that’s unlikely to change with the federal government providing less than 20 percent of PBS and NPR revenue through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other sources. Which annually amounts to only a few dollars per capita while countries like Denmark spend over 100 dollars per capita on public media. Another 20 percent more comes from state and local governments. A figure that has been dropping due to budget cuts since the Great Recession. The rest comes from corporations, foundations, and individual donors that tend to over represent the white, college-educated, suburban, middle and upper classes. Groups that expect certain kinds of programming: garden shows, light opera, and folksy commentary from white guys in overalls. And don’t expect other kinds of programming. Like journalism focusing on the needs of younger, working-class, urban populations of color that live in news deserts.

As the situation has worsened, these factors have led to a wave of new journalism outfits that are attempting to fill the growing holes in local, state and national news coverage. Some are nonprofit, some are for profit, and most are having a hard time making ends meet … let alone flourishing.

Much of my career as a journalist has been spent running such projects. Last year, I co-founded the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) with Chris Faraone and John Loftus — merging my seven year old, community newspaper-sized, online nonprofit Open Media Boston into the new regional investigative reporting incubator. It’s done quite well so far, producing 20 features and over 100 columns, running several community events, and paying good money for work by a couple of dozen area reporters.

But compared to the surviving corporate news outlets — or even alternative metro news publications like the late lamented Boston Phoenix — we’re operating on a shoestring budget. We raised and spent $70,000 in our first year, and just brought in another $25,000 as we enter our second year. Ironically making us incredibly efficient by the standards of the industry. Legions of news startups have tried to make a go of it — mainly online — on even smaller budgets in recent years. Very few of the new entrants started with stable funding. And even fewer have survived to grow into substantial organizations that come anywhere near replacing lost news organizations in their communities.

A study by veteran news executive Alan Mutter said that of 141 digital journalism startups listed by Columbia Journalism Review in 2010 one-quarter had gone under within five years (and he just missed counting Open Media Boston, which I shut down right after his report was released). These were the more established of a universe of hundreds of such startups, but many were still one and two-person operations. I helped launch a network for those online news organizations that same year — now called Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers. Some of those startups have thrived since then by dint of much hard work, experimentation, and willingness to share ideas with other outlets. Of the success stories, both inside and outside LION, only a fraction of the new online publications have been able to build up a larger staff and become forces in their regional news markets.

The largest of those successes — which are nowhere near the size of traditional newsrooms, but are at least moving in the right direction — have usually managed to find some kind of major donor to bankroll their operations. Often a wealthy person or small group of them.

And that’s a problem. There’s no perfect funding system for news production out there. All have their good and bad points. All affect news content. It’s just a question of degree. Ultimately, it’s always up to ethical journalists to resist pressure from any funding source to censor ourselves. Yet the essentially feudal funding system that’s becoming “The Dream” for many American news organizations, large and small, nonprofit and for profit, is seriously problematic.

When journalists go begging, journalism suffers

Going hat-in-hand to get a rich person to dump money on your news outlet — be it the Boston Globe, the Intercept, or the Texas Tribune — means that one more vital institution in our democratic society, the free press, increasingly exists at the sufferance of private wealth. The caprices of the rich can then more closely dictate what kind of news coverage the various American publics will see. Or not see (as we were just reminded when PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel took down Gawker). With no meaningful public oversight.

There are a number of alternatives to that model. BINJ, like many other news organizations, is trying most of them. Memberships and subscriptions (never an easy option in an era when people expect to get their news for free), crowdfunding, benefits, merchandise sales, sponsorships, and newer forms of (mostly digital) advertising are all in play. Foundation grants are also in the mix. However, fortunately or unfortunately, very few foundations give money for news production. And as BINJ’s Chris Faraone has pointed out, the foundations that fund journalism-related projects prefer to give their money to what they consider to be safe bets like university institutes (or the money pit that is the Newseum). Plus, grant funding is often just another form of feudal giving. If, to paraphrase Balzac, “behind every great fortune there is a great crime,” then the same may undoubtedly be said of the many foundations built on such fortunes.

Will BINJ join other news outlets in seeking money from rich people and foundations? Absolutely. We have to. Even though we aspire to pull in most of our budget from smaller donations by large numbers of people to avoid having to deal with editorial pressure from any one funding source, we would have a very hard time getting to that point without dedicated specialist staff that we can only pay if we can get larger chunks of startup money. As a nonprofit, we can’t go for venture capital, and wouldn’t get much if we could — since we’re an investigative reporting group that is frequently critical of giant corporations. So we do our best to find the coolest funders we can, and to pull in enough money to grow strong enough to chart a more independent growth course.

Even if we succeed and manage to hire 10, 20, or even 50 full-time journalists, and even if 100 other newer entrants to the news market — nonprofit and for profit alike — do the same nationwide, we’re still not going to replace the news ecology that once existed. And most jobs in the industry will remain low-paid, short-term, contract gigs — forcing talented journalists to scrape by as freelancers for a few months or years until inevitably throwing in the towel. So, begging rich people and foundations for our proverbial supper is clearly not a viable economic long-term economic strategy for the news industry. The much-vaunted “citizen journalists” are not going to fill the gap either — winking in and out of existence like so many untrained, unpaid, unaccountable fireflies as they do.

The alternative to mendicant journalism

Is there a better alternative to today’s busted model of mendicant journalism? I think so. The one least discussed in this country in this era, but perhaps the most important. Public funding. Real public funding. Not the anemic version conservatives have stuck us with thanks to ceaseless attacks against PBS and NPR since their formation in 1969 and 1970 respectively. This is the road mostly not travelled in the US. We need a big public fund like the National Endowment for the Arts or National Endowment for the Humanities — a National Endowment for Journalism, as has been periodically proposed — that would dole out grants to organizations like BINJ to produce a broad array of news in the public interest. And allow us to build the large grassroots member base that would make us truly independent. Given the long experience that many democratic nations (including our own) have with such arrangements, there’s every reason to believe that more public support would spark a flowering of journalism akin to the one that resulted from the postal subsidies granted to newspapers at the dawn of the republic. Not create the kind of a censorious Soviet-style news regime invoked by the hard right every time the issue of public funding for news production is brought up.

One key to avoiding such a regime will be running any public funding institution for news production as democratically as possible. Diverse regional boards that are elected by the public-at-large for limited terms could be put in charge of disbursing grants on a regular cycle. Staff could be hired to support the boards and housed in existing public facilities. To qualify for funding, news organizations would have to meet certain professional standards, demonstrate some ability to raise money, and produce content for a reasonable period of time (say, a year). Priority could be given to news organizations set up to cover underserved communities and run by journalists from those communities.

That’s just one possible public approach. There are many others worth considering. Foremost among them, fully funding PBS and NPR — after cutting the ties that bind them to oligarchs like the Koch brothers — and opening their doors to the diverse range of views called for in the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Which will allow them to significantly increase the size, reach, and relevance of their news operations.

Where will the money come from for such innovations? A wealthy society like ours can figure it out. Eliminate funding for nuclear weapons. Tax the rich and corporations. And we’ll have a whole new journalism ballgame.



Looking for a good book on the idea of government funding for journalism? Check out “The Death and Life of American Journalism” by John Nichols and Robert McChesney.



This article replaces the July 21, 2016 Apparent Horizon column.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.


UMass President’s Office at One Beacon Street in Boston Overlooking the Massachusetts State House

UMass President’s Office at One Beacon Street in Boston Overlooking the Massachusetts State House

July 12, 2016


Will campus advocates spark a rebellion for proper funding or cling to failed politics as usual?

Hot on the heels of the UMass Boston administration issuing pink slips to 400 Boston non-tenure track faculty last month comes this month’s announcement that the entire UMass system will almost certainly face tuition hikes for the second year in a row. Capping a quarter-century of relentless increases in tuition and fees at state colleges and universities that have made the Massachusetts public higher education system the ninth most expensive in the nation.

Locally, according to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, UMass Boston students “will likely see the biggest increase because that campus projects a $22.3 million shortfall in the coming fiscal year.”

The UMass Board of Trustees will vote on the matter on July 14. But given the Commonwealth’s worsening financial position in the wake of the Brexit crisis, and an expected additional deficit of up to $950 million for FY 2017, there will be significant budget shortfalls that UMass leadership plans to deal with by jacking up tuition on already overburdened students.

My basic response to the looming layoff of one-third of the UMass Boston faculty was to call for a rebellion by students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents at that school. So it should come as no surprise that my response to news of this latest tuition hike is to call for a systemwide rebellion at UMass. And at the state universities and community colleges of the Commonwealth’s three-tiered public higher ed system as well.

As to the specific form of the necessary uprising, I cannot say for sure what will be most effective. But something like the campus walkouts that Boston Public School students pulled off this spring, plus a general descent upon the State House and the establishment of an Occupy-style encampment as a base of operations would be an excellent start. Because if the politicians don’t feel major pressure very soon, public higher education will begin to disintegrate in the Bay State as regular budget cuts get worse and worse.

To those who might suggest that a typical lobbying strategy will be more effective than an extra-parliamentary strategy at this moment in history, I would say that the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate how playing nice in a state political arena dominated by monied interests is getting public higher education advocates — or advocates for any public good — anywhere of late.

As it happens, campus activist groups and labor unions have tried that approach for over a decade but no major positive changes have occurred in state higher ed policy. The general political trajectory has been for the legislature to continue decreasing state support for public colleges and universities causing administrators to raise tuition and fees to fill the budgetary gap. Gradually transferring costs from government to individuals — changing higher ed from a right for the many back to a privilege for the few moving forward. A reversal of nearly two centuries of democratic education reforms.

Power accedes to nothing without a demand. But such a demand needs to fit the circumstances. If the problem involves savage budget cuts, big tuition hikes— 5 to 8 percent at each UMass campus and similar amounts at the state universities being currently projected for FY 2017 alone according to UMass President Marty Meehan — and an existential threat to public higher ed then one can’t improve the situation by proposing good but relatively minor reforms that barely begin to touch the crisis at hand.* Including the “fair share” constitutional amendment that may be on the ballot in November 2018 — which will raise taxes on individuals making more than $1 million a year and target some of the estimated $2 billion in resulting funds annually to higher ed.

A lot of damage can be done to state colleges and universities in the minimum of three fiscal years that it will take to see such a millionaires’ tax operationalized — assuming it’s not defeated by the usual business-led coalition of anti-tax voters. And it’s still no substitution for the progressive tax regime that is needed to end the Commonwealth’s financial woes.

So Mass public higher ed activists face a crucial decision. Will they play an inside game that has not worked before and is therefore highly unlikely to work now without the mass support they have been unable to generate with carefully scripted rallies and lobby days? Or will they try something new? Something bold that might generate the required popular support. Something that will inspire all the tens of thousands of students and alumni being sentenced to a lifetime of debt bondage by short-sighted politicians that refuse to raise taxes on corporations and the rich — even when the very things that have traditionally made Massachusetts a great state, like our public higher ed system, are in danger of being destroyed. All while emboldening faculty and staff to fight for their jobs with the fury a deteriorating political economic situation demands.

That remains to be seen.

*On July 11, the Boston Globe reported that community college tuition would be increasing as much as 10 percent in FY 2017.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director. 

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalismand media outlets in its network.