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Monthly Archives: December 2017




Let them call us rebels, and welcome…


December 27, 2017



If you had asked me 14 months ago if I thought that I’d have a shot at taking over the management of DigBoston with my partners Chris Faraone, John Loftus, and Marc Sneider, I would have said “nah.” Yet six months ago we did just that, after effectively running the paper for the previous six months. We now have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to publish the only remaining alt newsweekly in a major American city. In a difficult period when the fate of our democracy is at stake.

So my year in review piece has to be a look at what we’ve done with that chance—aside from completing the obvious task of producing 52 issues of hard-hitting locally focused journalism this year.

For starters, we know that DigBoston can only succeed as a collective effort. And as a first order of business, we set about contacting dozens of folks who had already worked with the paper in the past to tell them that we were ready to set Dig to rights, stabilize our operation, and begin expanding. These things we have done.

Second, we carried on the tradition we had from working on the nonprofit Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism of building alliances with other publications. Which is why you’ll note we’re running articles simultaneously with those allies on a regular basis. Journalism in the 21st century is not going to succeed with news outlets that view themselves as isolated islands. We believe the only way to move forward is to stop being territorial, build bridges of mutual aid and solidarity between like-minded media enterprises, and figure out ways to work more closely together over the long haul. The better to expand all of our reach and scope.

Third, we began recruiting new talent. We even put out a call for interested native working-class Bostonians to join our reporter pool—whether they are trained journalists or not—and will shortly begin training up untrained applicants who answered that first of what will be an ongoing series of calls. Because we do not think it’s possible to cover local news properly without fielding a solid number of journalists who were born and raised in and around Boston. And if there aren’t enough trained journalists that meet those criteria, then it’s our responsibility to teach them.

Fourth, we are not interested in the recent fad of “engagement” in journalism circles. It’s artificial and doomed to fail like all the other initiatives coming out of what some correctly dub the “foundation-industrial complex” and the academic centers it lavishes money on apropos of nothing. We are part of the communities we cover and believe that we cannot be good journalists if we’re not in constant communication with those communities. So you’ll see us at more and more public events, and notice us cooking up different schemes to be helpful to our audience in more concrete ways with every passing month. Such practices also have the salutary effect of helping us meet more talented folks from all over the city. Ensuring that our organization becomes more and more diverse by every metric—a specific goal of ours—organically over time, rather than in some forced, scripted, and ultimately ineffective fashion cribbed from the pages of some disingenuous HR manual somewhere. As with certain governments and corporations we could (and often do) name.

Fifth, we are pioneering a hybrid news model linking our nonprofit and for-profit wings that is helping us solve the difficult problem of how smaller community news outlets like DigBoston can afford to produce expensive but vitally important investigative news reporting. With more punch and élan than the remaining major news outlets are generally capable of in this era. Our concept is straightforward. We simply continue to run the aforementioned Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism that we launched two years prior to taking over this newspaper—raising donations to pay directly to our growing army of highly experienced talent to produce long-form investigative features and series. And publish them in DigBoston, which couldn’t pay for as much journalism without that arrangement. BINJ syndicates those stories free of charge to other news outlets in our network. We’re also working to spread this hybrid model around the country. In the interest of doing our bit to stop and ultimately reverse the rolling collapse of the American news industry… due in part to lack of ready money for news production.


Sixth, we remain fiercely independent. We are not beholden to the powerful interests that appear to be doing their best to run American democracy into the ground. And we don’t think it’s possible for honest journalists to approach our work in any other way.


Seventh, we continue the alternative journalism tradition of seeking to be fair and accurate in all our reporting. But we join other American alt weeklies in criticizing “objectivity”—the idea that journalists can somehow remove our opinions, and therefore ourselves, from our articles. Because we don’t believe that it’s possible or desirable to do so.


Finally, I think we’re doing our best to run DigBoston like a big, riotous, but deeply caring family. My partners and I certainly wouldn’t have it any other way, but neither would the incredibly talented staff we’re assembling from all walks of Boston area life. And it is they who make this whole mad, yet utterly necessary enterprise in the service of a democratic society possible. So here’s to them! And here’s to DigBoston! And here’s wishing all of our growing crew—and all of you—a very happy new year! Up the rebels!


Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.



Making can be cool, but conscious making is cooler


December 19, 2017



For many of us living in and around Boston in recent years, it has become common to see lots of communications from makerspaces around holiday time. Which is totally understandable. Such creative centers produce neat things year-round, so it’s only natural that their members would turn to producing gifts like busy elves (and holding workshops about how to produce gifts like… um… smart busy elves) as fall turns to winter.


However, if you’re someone who thinks critically about social institutions and their interaction with technology, then you might join me in feeling some concern about the trajectory of these spaces. Which boils down to this: Do makers and the makerspaces they found think about why they make, and for whom they make? Obviously, it varies from maker to maker and space to space, but my observation has been that the maker movement could do much better on that front. So I thought I would run through some of my apprehensions on that theme and make some suggestions for reform. In the spirit of holiday giving and all that.


There’s no question that makerspaces have been a boon to society in many different ways. Described by the Somerville nonprofit makerspace Artisan’s Asylum as “community centers with tools,” these logical outgrowths of the hacker and DIY cultures—and the older crafter culture, amateur radio culture, and cultures around magazines like Popular Electronics and Popular Mechanics—have grown to become a significant social force in the last decade. Particularly in places like the Boston area that have lots of colleges producing lots of engineers, scientists, and artists.


But it’s important to remember that—as with science, technology, and art in general—there is a problem with pushing “making” in the abstract without thinking about its social and political consequences. Because tools and techniques may be inherently neutral, but people and the institutions we create are not.


Including makerspaces. So it’s worth being aware that, according to PandoDaily, in early 2012 O’Reilly Media’s MAKE division —publisher of Make magazine, perhaps the best known popularizer of the maker movement—announced that it had won a grant from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to participate in the agency’s Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach (or MENTOR) program. The money was to be used to start 1,000 makerspaces in high schools around the country.


Now DARPA may be most famous as the super clever agency that brought us the Internet. But it worked on that project in part—protestations from its fans and allies taken as given—to help solve the insoluble problem of how to keep America’s military, research, and control centers in communication with each other after an all-out nuclear war. And somehow help our government survive the unsurvivable.


It is also the super clever agency that has brought us an array of very nasty war machines in the last six decades. Notably, according to Air & Space magazine, the Predator drones that have killed hundreds of innocent people around the world—including many children—in recent years at the behest of presidents from Bush to Obama to Trump. Because they’re just not as accurate as our military and political leaders would have us believe. And because those leaders don’t really care about what they call “collateral damage” when they’re prosecuting what human rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights claim are extralegal assassination campaigns.


As it turned out, the DARPA MENTOR high school program never really got off the ground because it lost its budget in President Obama’s big “Sequestration” budget cut of March 2013. And it’s certainly worth mentioning that the program sparked protests from within the maker community.


But DARPA continues to participate in a variety of science and technology events aimed at high school kids—notably the young robotics crowd that overlaps with makerspaces.


And DARPA is also aiming events squarely at makerspaces… and some makerspaces are definitely participating. For example, according to the DARPA website, this November the agency held the DARPA Bay Area Software Defined Radio (SDR) Hackfest at NASA Ames Conference Center in Moffett Field, California. The relevant webpage explains that “Teams from across the country will come together to explore the cyber-physical interplay of SDR and unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, during the Hackfest.”


“Unmanned aerial vehicles” is another term for drones. Two of the eight teams invited to participate along with teams from military contractors like Raytheon were the Fat Cat Flyers from Fat Cat Fab Lab, a volunteer-run makerspace in New York City, and Team Fly-by-SDR from Hacker DoJo, a nonprofit community of hackers and startups in Silicon Valley… which is also a makerspace.


Whatever you in the viewing audience think about the Pentagon in particular and the American military in general, we can all agree that there are moral, ethical, social, and political questions that must be asked in a democratic society about the intersection of maker culture and makerspaces with those institutions.


For that reason, I think it’s critical that makerspaces raise and address such questions on an ongoing basis. That they maintain a scrupulous policy of transparency regarding who they work with and why. And that they hold classes and public forums on the moral, ethical, social and political dimensions of why makers make and for whom they make. Something you really don’t see much of at makerspaces at present. But should.


Anyhow, I’m keen to engage with the maker community on this topic and flesh these ideas out more. Folks interested in discussing the issues I’m raising at more length can drop me a line at


A shorter version of this column was originally written for the Beyond Boston regional news digest show—co-produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.




December 12, 2017



Big local corps quiet about huge profits to come from Repub tax scheme… except GE

An interesting WBUR article, “Largest Mass. Companies Are Mostly Silent On GOP Tax Plans,” asked the top 12 corporations in the Commonwealth to comment on the recently passed Republican scheme to transfer vast amounts of money from the working and middle classes to the rich and the corporations they control—euphemistically called “tax reform” in most of the major news media. Unsurprisingly, Bay State business leaders didn’t want to take time away from rubbing their hands together and cackling with glee about all the free money they’re going to get—choosing instead to remain mum for the moment.


But WBUR did get a statement out of General Electric after the Senate vote on the tax plan:


GE commends Congress and the White House for their commitment to comprehensive tax reform. GE supports the Senate tax reform plan because it would upgrade the U.S. to a territorial tax system, bring rates in line with other countries, and allow U.S. businesses and workers to compete fairly around the world, so it’s the quality of our products that determine whether we win global deals, and not tax differences.


No surprise GE would say that, since it will benefit tremendously from the drop in federal corporate tax from 35 percent to only 20 percent. But it will also get to repatriate as much of the lucre it’s been offshoring as it would like at a one-time tax rate of merely 12 percent. And now that the feds are “upgrading” to a “territorial tax system,” the company will make even more money. Why? Because a territorial tax system means that all the profits multinationals sock away in offshore tax havens will be taxed at a rate of zero percent. You read that correctly. Nada. No taxes at all on foreign profits.


Currently, companies like GE stash profits in other countries because, although they have been technically taxed on all profits—foreign and domestic—at the base 35 percent rate (basically a total joke since there are so many corporate tax loopholes that big companies like GE actually end up with a negative tax rate some years, but let’s play along for the purpose of this explanation), they are only required to pay those taxes when they “repatriate” the money back to the US. Which has often been never thanks to a complicated system called “transfer pricing” where corporations book profits in low tax countries, and take deductions in the US and other higher tax countries. And then borrow cheap money on the strength of their foreign bank accounts to make more profits.


The result will be even more offshoring of both money and jobs by megacorps. Because why would a company like GE not move more of both away from the US if foreign profits are  tax free—without nearly as much of the tricky accounting that’s currently needed to play the transfer pricing game? Just really bad news for Mass workers. And for boosters of the GE Boston deal. And anyone who thinks big companies like Amazon are going to have much incentive to add lots of jobs anywhere in the US going forward.


BPDA “PLAN: Glover’s Corner” protested in Dorchester

As the neoliberal capture of the government and the public sector continues apace, earnest technocrats at the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA, formerly known as the BRA) still find it necessary to play the communitarian “public meeting” game when trying to sell bad deals that advance corporate interests to the working families who are all too often the targets of such deals.


Communitarianism being the decades-old fad where institutions representing the rich and powerful work hard to make sure that “every constituency has a seat at the table” when they want to do something that will harm those constituencies. But, of course, the power relations remain unchanged. The rich and powerful remain rich and powerful. Everyone else does not. And “the table” isn’t the real table—where bankers, CEOs, and top government leaders meet to make policy decisions happen. Usually behind closed doors. It’s basically a kiddie table where regular people can pretend they have some impact on a process that’s over before it begins.


Which is why it’s nice to see that housing activists with the Dorchester Not For Sale coalition decided to crash a recent BPDA transit-oriented public meeting on its “PLAN: Glover’s Corner”—which is slated, among other things, to add hundreds of units of housing that will be mostly unaffordable to current Dot residents.


According to the Bay State Banner and the Dorchester Reporter, the Dorchester activists are taking a page from JP and Roxbury housing activists with the Keep It 100% for Egleston coalition who protested the larger BPDA PLAN: JP/Rox—which might ultimately involve thousands of units of new housing—until the city relented and mandated that 36 percent of the new units (and 40 percent overall, including units currently permitted for construction) must be affordable.


The definition of “affordable” for the JP/Rox plan area is pegged to percentages of the average median income of the Boston region set by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). So, for example, according to an August Spare Change News article, some “affordable” units being rented and sold as part of the 3200 Washington complex are being offered to households making 70 percent of the region’s average median income, and some to households making 100 percent.


But JP and Roxbury advocates have continued to protest PLAN: JP/Rox even after it was made official because its definition of “affordable” remains too high.


Spare Change continues, “For the Boston metropolitan region, the average median income is just over $100,000, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average household income for all of Jamaica Plain is $76,968. However, households within the plan’s range have an average income of just over $50,000.”


According to a March Bay State Banner article, activists three goals for the plan are “to deepen the affordability level on designated affordable housing units so that they are attainable by households making less than $35,000 per year; increase goals for the portion of new housing that’s designated as affordable from 36 percent to 55 percent; and require the conversion of 250 market-rate units into affordable units..”


So while their activism raised the amount of “affordable” housing the BPDA planned to offer in the deal from 30 percent to 36 percent, it’s not going to help many people currently living in or near the affected neighborhoods to stay in the area unless the definition of affordable is changed to reflect economic reality. Given that fact, Mayor Marty Walsh’s much-vaunted progress on getting more affordable housing built on his watch is based largely on smoke and mirrors because much of it remains unaffordable to the people who need it most.


The Dorchester activists, meanwhile, are demanding that the BPDA accept a six-month moratorium on PLAN: Glover’s Corner, use the extra time to provide more data to the community on the plan, and do things like provide childcare at public meetings to allow more locals to attend.


Thus far, the BPDA is blowing off such demands and trying to plow forward without significant changes to its plan. Boston City Councilor Frank Baker, who attended the Glover’s Corner meeting, agreed with the BPDA in a recent Spare Change article, saying “As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a valid request.”


Seems the fight for housing justice is far from over in Dorchester.


Townie (a worm’s eye view of the Mass power structure) is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.




With a little help from its friends, the “regulators” at the Department of Public Utilities


December 5, 2017



It is perhaps understandable that one of the most important Massachusetts news stories of the year was buried in the avalanche of reports coming out of Washington last week. But Eversource Energy, a large investor-owned utility serving much of Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, just got a big rate hike approved by the Commonwealth’s Department of Public Utilities Commission. This despite strong opposition from Mass Attorney General Maura Healey—who believes the company should be forced to cut its rates, rather than being allowed to needlessly accumulate more profits on the backs of consumers.


According to Commonwealth magazine, “Eversource Energy won approval to hike power rates $36.9 million a year for its 1.4 million electricity customers, a slimmed-down boost from the company that initially requested a $96 million increase.” A situation the company had the temerity to complain about when it has already been making solid profits under the rate system that has been in place since 2005. The new rates—which will slam Western Mass especially hard—are slated to go into effect on Jan 1 and last until 2022.


Healey, for her part, said the 10 percent shareholder return the rate increase includes is “one of the highest in the country” for a publicly regulated utility, according to the Boston Herald. And Eversource has some serious rate-related skeletons in its closet, it seems. Even as its rent-seeking drama played out at the DPU, the AG started looking into recent allegations by the Environmental Defense Fund that the Eversource and fellow regional utility Avangrid, Inc. rigged gas pipeline reservations on frigid winter days to artificially drive up electric and gas prices to its customers. Then, according to The Republican, shortly after that charge was leveled several New England residents, represented by Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, filed a related class action suit against Eversource and Avangrid for using the pipeline scheme to cause “electricity consumers to incur overcharges of $3.6 billion in a years-long scheme that impacted six states and affected 14.7 million people.”


There is much that can be said about how problematic it is to have former energy industry lawyers like DPU Commission Chair Angela M. O’Connor and DPU Commissioner Cecile M. Fraser—both appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker (Fraser only in July with the Eversource rate hike vote looming)—playing the role of corporate foxes guarding the chicken coop of the public trust. It’s also worth mentioning that the third commissioner, Robert Hayden, was a longtime DPU staffer—and ran for the Mass 10th Congressional seat as a conservative Republican in 2010 on a “small government” platform, according to the Barnstable Patriot. So don’t expect much consumer protection to come from his corner either. But even if the three-person DPU Commission was all pro-consumer, we’d still have to deal with the structural crisis of energy conglomerates using their money and political clout to continue to make state government dance to whatever tune they care to play.


For example, Eversource and other investor-owned utilities have remained extremely hostile to the new wave of renewable energy options. Especially solar, which they have consistently lobbied heavily and successfully against to prevent it from becoming widespread enough to potentially break their regional monopolies.


Reining in such entrenched corporate utilities will take a long, hard fight by a broad coalition of consumers and local governments. But there is one seemingly small change to state law that would go a long way toward winning such a conflict. A group called the Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice (MAMEC), led by Lexington resident Patrick Mehr, got state legislators to file an important “muni choice” bill with significant support from dozens of cities, towns, and major stakeholder organizations around the state no less than eight times in 16 years between 2000 and 2016. If passed, it would have struck language from state law that gives investor-owned utilities like Eversource veto power over the establishment of new municipal electric utilities in the Commonwealth. It was shot down all eight times by the cheap and oft-used device of sending each attempt into “study.” Basically the same thing as killing the bill without as much PR blowback for state pols in the pocket of major corporations.


Turns out that 41 cities and towns in Massachusetts already have municipal—that is, publicly owned and managed—utilities. And advocates like MAMEC say they provide generally better service and, more to the point, significantly cheaper rates than energy corporations like Eversource. Sadly, the last new muni utility came online in 1926. It will take passage of a muni choice bill to allow more cities and towns to exercise that option.


MAMEC and its allies may have lost many battles against powerful, well-connected foes. But that doesn’t mean the idea of expanding the number of muni utilities is a bad one. Far from it. Because every new muni that comes online is another stake in the heart of the greedy, environmentally destructive, investor-owned utilities that will keep taking Mass consumers for a ride until they are brought to heel. Failing that, consumers can expect to get spanked with regular and ever more painful rate hikes for the foreseeable future.


So, I encourage readers to get active in the fight for a more fair, democratic, and environmentally conscious regional energy system. Working to get more public-spirited DPU commissioners seated is certainly a good interim goal. But creating a larger network of publicly owned and managed municipal energy utilities will go further down the road toward extricating us from the structural mess we’re in thanks to the big investor-owned utilities like Eversource. Though even that won’t solve all the myriad problems with our current byzantine system of electricity generation and distribution.


Regardless, check out MAMEC at Patrick Mehr told me that the group remains active, and it seems like a good starting place for those of you who don’t want to continue to take rate hikes lying down.


Frankly, increased public pressure on Eversource and other investor-owned utilities in our region cannot come soon enough. Turns out the recent rate hikes are only the first part of the DPU order relating to Eversource. The second part is being released on Dec 31, according to a DPU press release, and advocates are warning that even worse rate shenanigans are in the works. So, find a good group working for utility reform and join it, or start your own utility reform group… or continue to be a victim of price gouging by investor-owned utilities. Those are your options. Choose wisely.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.