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EDITORIAL: SAVE COMMUNITY MEDIA

Cute kids love community media. Photo courtesy of Somerville Media Center.
Cute kids love community media. Photo courtesy of Somerville Media Center.

Tell the FCC That You Support Your Local Cable Access Station by Dec 14

 

December 12, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

At DigBoston, my colleagues and I put a lot of effort into working with local community media stations around Greater Boston. Because they are the heart and soul of grassroots democratic public broadcasting in the United States. And because we get so much out of hanging out with their staff and members that we just love them to pieces.

 

Somerville Media Center, Cambridge Community Television, Brookline Interactive Group, Malden Access Television, Boston Neighborhood Network, roughly 300 other stations around Massachusetts, and over 1500 nationwide provide a multitude of useful services to the cities and towns they’re based in. Perhaps better known by the older appellations “cable access stations” or “PEG (public, education, and government) access stations,” they broadcast city government meetings, public school events, and neighborhood happenings of all kinds. Something no other media institution does anywhere near as consistently.

 

In addition, many community stations allow literally anyone in their locales to walk in off the street and get trained to make media of their own—on increasingly sophisticated equipment, for cheap or even free—amounting to tens of thousands of homegrown productions of every conceivable description every year. Effectively creating the only US broadcast alternative where free speech, hard won in running legal battles all the way up to the Supreme Court, is taken very seriously. They are generally member-driven and run by small staffs of extremely committed experts. A fair number of whom were originally trained at community media stations when they were kids. As were many staffers at major media outlets to this day.

 

For all that great work, such stations require very little money to run. Federal regulation and laws enacted since the early 1970s have created a system in which cable companies like Comcast have to negotiate franchise fees with cities and towns for the privilege of laying their cables on public streets. The maximum annual franchise fee was codified in the federal Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, 47 U.S. Code § 542 (b): “For any twelve-month period, the franchise fees paid by a cable operator with respect to any cable system shall not exceed 5 percent of such cable operator’s gross revenues derived in such period from the operation of the cable system to provide cable services.”  

 

Some of the resulting funds can then be used to run community media stations. Local governments can also negotiate for other things, too—including what are called “cable-related, in-kind contributions” like capital expenses for studio facilities and broadcasting equipment. Another important concession the cable companies have to provide local governments is the channels that the stations broadcast on. This helps the stations’ bottom line by relieving them of the cost of leasing those channels. Which does mean that cable companies lose whatever profits they might have otherwise made on those channels.

 

Together the franchise fee and the in-kind contributions provide most of each station’s annual operating budget and physical plant—and the free cable channels help keep costs low.   Though many community media stations still have to raise extra money to make ends meet every year by charging dues to members who can afford to pay, crowdfunding, and applying for grants. Like PBS or NPR on a smaller scale.

 

Unfortunately, since the original Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules mandating the establishment of such stations in many municipalities, the cable industry has been trying to eliminate them. In the interest of making even vaster profits than they already gouge from consumers. First by legal challenges culminating in the 1979 Supreme Court decision FCC v. Midwest Video Corp. that struck down the earlier cable access rules and directly resulted in the 1984 cable act as a “compromise” between community media stations and the cable industry. And later by successful lobbying campaigns to give states the sole power to negotiate franchise fees for all their cities and towns in the interest of “efficiency” (read: worse deals than many of those municipalities had been negotiating on their own). Which is how the system currently works in many states—though not, happily, in Massachusetts.

 

Further, as new monopoly telecom companies like Verizon arose (both ironically and predictably) after the government breakup of the old AT&T telephone monopoly in the 1980s, they began expanding well beyond their core telephone businesses. Seeing cable television as a growing market, they successfully lobbied for provisions in the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 that allowed them to provide cable service as well. This caused the cable companies to bring even more political pressure to bear to end the franchise fee system as “unfair”—since the telecoms aren’t covered by the 1984 cable act and don’t have to pay the fees that support community media stations.

 

Also, the landmark global communications advance represented by the internet has further eroded the position of community media stations in some respects over that same period by providing other ways for Americans and immigrants alike to create their own media programming and reach audiences all over the world. Though usually not local audiences of the size and quality that community media stations can provide.

 

Meanwhile, the cable industry has continued to do its level best to shrink the number of community media stations with all kinds of crafty business and policy tricks. For example, Comcast’s practice of refusing to list the schedule of community media stations in its program guide—which drastically reduces the local audience for each station—makes it easier for the cable giant to make the case to get rid of the legal mandate to fund those stations through the franchise fee.

 

Now, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai—a former Verizon lobbyist who is the living embodiment of “regulatory capture” (the control of a government regulatory agency by the very industry it’s supposed to regulate) and who, it must be said, is an Obama appointee—is moving in for the kill. Fresh off his successful assault on net neutrality. Another anti-democratic communications move that virtually no one supported… except the cable and telecom industries.

 

On Sept 25, under Pai’s watch, the four FCC commissioners (three of whom are Republicans, with one seat on the five member commission remaining empty thanks to Trump administration politicking) released an official document snappily entitled the “Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in Implementation of Section 621(a)(1) of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 as Amended by the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, MB Docket 05-311.” Also known as the “Second FNPRM.” Or, for the purposes of this editorial, the “FNPRM.”

 

If the FCC enacts the FNPRM, cities, towns, and states (where applicable) will no longer be able to negotiate up to a 5 percent franchise fee plus the aforementioned cable-related, in-kind contributions like studios and other necessary infrastructure for community media stations. Instead those governments will be forced to allow cable companies to assign a “fair market value” to the channels it provides community stations and deduct that amount from the franchise fees that keep them going. The companies will also be allowed to catalog a wide variety of cable-related, in-kind contributions to cities and towns and deduct those from the fees, too. Including some contributions related to the stations, according to analysis by the Community Media Center of Marin in California. And it turns out that typical capital costs for community stations are only a fraction of the total in-kind contributions that cable companies historically agreed to provide to municipalities in exchange for using public rights of way for their cables. Cities and towns often have important civic buildings like schools and fire stations connected with cables and equipment provided by the companies that have been used for a variety of important purposes—including emergency services—for decades. Taking those costs off the top of the franchise fees will be significant indeed.

 

Gaithersburg, Maryland Mayor Jud Ashman gets to the crux of the problem with the possible FCC action in his recent testimony against it:

As proposed, the FNPRM’s broad definition of all “cable-related, in-kind contributions” other than PEG capital costs and build-out requirements could be interpreted as “franchise fees,” which could result in:
• Cable companies no longer paying the typical five percent franchise fees permitted by
federal law.
• Cable companies using local rights-of-way for any purpose, regardless of the terms of the franchise agreement, and avoiding paying their fair compensation to the local government for the use of funded assets in the rights-of-way.
• Significant reductions in cable franchise fees, depending on how the “fair market” value for PEG capacity and transmission is calculated within a given jurisdiction. This proposed change would result in PEG programming being drastically reduced, if not eliminated altogether in most jurisdictions.

 

In practice, community media station advocates are saying that the FNPRM will quickly result in a loss of a significant portion of annual revenue for their entire sector. Which will cause many stations to drastically reduce their services… or cease operations entirely.

 

But local government officials like Mayor Ashman are saying that the effect on cities and towns overall will be even worse than the effect on the stations. Because as my longtime colleague Fred Johnson—noted community media policy maven and documentary filmmaker—said to me in a short interview for this editorial, “This is about seizing power and treasure from the cities.”  If the FNPRM is enacted by the FCC, it will be allowing the cable companies to fundamentally devalue the use of public rights of way that have allowed them to make massive profits—by cutting into franchise fee revenue that is already far lower than it should be.

 

Incidentally, the FNPRM also doubles down on the part of the FCC rule trashing net neutrality that claims lower levels of government can’t reintroduce that reform by “prohibiting [cities, towns, and states] from using their video franchising authority to regulate the provision of most non-cable services, such as broadband Internet access service, offered over a cable system by an incumbent cable operator.” But, brevity being the soul of wit, I’ll have to address that issue another day.

 

In any case, to stop all that bad stuff from happening, DigBoston calls on our loyal audience to contact the FCC by this Friday, Dec 14, and join with thousands of other people around the country in demanding that the powerful agency do what’s best for American democracy and leave cable access franchise fees alone.

Readers can find a letter template and simple instructions for how to file your “reply comments” with the FCC on the Somerville Media Center website: somervillemedia.org/federaassaultonlocalmedia/.

 

It’s going to be an uphill fight in the current political climate. But with all of your help, community media stations can survive and thrive for decades to come. And municipalities will be much better off, too.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

EDITORIAL: A NOTE TO BOSTON-AREA JOURNALISM STUDENTS

Let’s talk

 

October 17, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

So you’re a journalism student. This is a tough time to do what you’re doing. No question. According to Data USA, American colleges grant well over 10,000 journalism degrees a year. And sure, some of those are graduate degrees; so not all of those diplomas are going to newly minted journalists. Only most of them. But according to the Pew Research Center, the number of newsroom jobs dropped by 23 percent between 2008 and 2017—from 114,000 to 88,000. A loss of over 26,000 “reporters, editors, photographers and videographers” who “worked in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and ‘other information services’ (the best match for digital-native news publishers).”

 

Many of the journalists who lost their jobs in that period are trying to hang on in a swiftly shrinking news industry. And those who have jobs are desperate to keep them.

 

Yet colleges keep pumping out trained journalists.

 

Here in the Boston area, we continue to have a reasonably strong news sector. But it’s taken some serious hits in the last couple of decades. The region’s flagship daily newspaper, the Boston Globe, has downsized its staff repeatedly over the years through buyouts and occasional layoffs, and its main competitor, the Boston Herald, was recently bought by a venture capital firm and has become a shadow of its former self in short order. Radio news outlets like WBUR and TV news outlets like WCVB have been somewhat more stable, if smaller, employers of journalists. The biggest weekly newspaper, the Boston Phoenix, folded outright in 2013. And an array of community newspapers have suffered from waves of mergers and consolidations—leaving fewer jobs in that part of the market, as well.

 

Meaning that students like you keep getting degrees in journalism—and related majors like communications, English, and literature. And you keep fighting to wedge your foot in newsroom doors in hopes of grabbing any of the declining number of full-time reporter jobs while the grabbing’s still decent. Despite the lack of anywhere near enough of said jobs to go around in cities like this one.

 

Why? Well, from my frequent conversations with aspiring journalists from schools around the area, near as I can figure, you all uniformly think that being a journalist is an important job and you’re very keen to do it. I’m sure journalism’s enduring popularity with students is also partially due to the surprising tenacity with which an air of romance and adventure hangs around the profession—helped along by an array of books and movies from All the President’s Men to The Year of Living Dangerously that remain touchstones in popular culture. Even as journalism’s reputation continues to take a beating from right-wing politicians and their followers.

 

The one explanation for your collective ardor for jobs in a waning profession that I’ve never heard from any journalism student is that you all are somehow doing it for the money. And how could you? Journalism is one of the worst-paying professions out there—with an average annual wage of $51,550 for full-timers in the US last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though more and more working journalists are freelancers without a steady gig… rendering even that figure functionally fantastical.

 

Nevertheless, such passion is precisely what motivates my colleagues and me at DigBoston. We’re certainly trying to make a living as working journalists… and trying to make it possible for as many of our peers as we can to do the same. But we’re mainly in the news game to provide our readers with the information they need to be engaged citizens (and residents) in our still relatively democratic society—while covering all the stuff that makes life worth living. And to have fun doing it.

 

For us, money isn’t the most important consideration. Not because we don’t need money to survive like (almost) everyone else. We totally do. Rather because if that were all we were focused on, we wouldn’t be able to practice journalism in this era of uncertainty. Since we know that nobody has yet hit upon a new economic model to fund news production anywhere near as successful as the failing old models once were.

 

Despite that fairly grim reality, we really like to help train other people to be journalists. Especially young people who have decided to take the leap and devote their lives to the trade. To pass the torch and all that. So, periodically, we like to write notes like this one to let journalism students know that if you’re serious about risking everything—your future economic security, your love life, and your sanity (on occasion)—to speak truth to power, or simply for the joy of writing solid copy about any subject that you’re really passionate about, then we want to talk to you.

 

We have an increasingly robust internship program at DigBoston. We’ve been attracting a growing number of fantastic and talented students to spend 6-8 hours a week working with us for a semester (or two). And we haven’t reached our capacity. We even accept recent graduates in some cases.

 

It’s a competitive application process, and we don’t pick everyone. But if you’re a journalism (or photography or multimedia or visual arts or design) student interested in working with a crew that does what we do first and foremost in the service of democracy, drop us a line at internships@digboston.com.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

EDITORIAL: WHY ADVERTISE WITH DIGBOSTON?

To support independent journalism and beat back marketing propaganda, for starters

 

September 26, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Many people have taken to loudly bemoaning the supposedly sudden arrival of “fake news” since the 2016 presidential election… while becoming belatedly aware of the accompanying slow decline of print newspapers that are—whatever else one might say about them—the beating heart of American journalism.

 

Every other kind of news media owes its existence to these “dead tree” publications. Traditional radio and TV news outlets, and every form of digital news operation on the internet, are all possible because print newspapers—most commercial, some nonprofit—have been fielding thousands of reporters in hundreds of cities for decades. Doing the kind of deep ground-level reporting that makes all the hot (and more often shallow) takes on other media possible.

 

Advertising has been the main source of income for commercial print newspapers since the mid-19th century, and the advent of web-based online advertising blew a vast hole in that revenue stream. Precipitating, in no small part, the downward spiral in their fortunes over the last quarter century.

 

One result of newspapers shrinking and all too often ceasing to exist has been what one might call the rise of the marketers. With fewer and fewer full-time reporters doing their jobs, marketing firms have leapt to the fore. Offering a flood of “free” content to every conceivable type of news operation. Ceaselessly expanding the empire of the original fake news in the process. A fake news that, make no mistake, has existed for as long as there has been news.

 

Because rich and powerful institutions have always hired marketers or their equivalents. And marketers—in thrall to whichever institution hires them—are paid to lie to the public. And are therefore the polar opposites of (most) journalists. Especially journalists at an independent metro newsweekly like DigBoston.

 

As a journalist-owned, journalist-run newspaper, we send reporters out into the communities we cover every week in search of information that’s as close to whatever truth may be happening as it can be. We then do our damnedest to faithfully report what we observe to our audience.

 

So, we can say with certainty that no human organization is good all of the time. Least of all the big corporations that run our society. But big corporations are the very institutions that spend the most money on paying marketers to spew propaganda at every level of news media.

 

And increasingly, understaffed and underfunded news outlets take even this worst of free marketing copy—this disinformation, this fake news—and run it. Day in and day out. The public, for their part, can be forgiven for having trouble discerning reasonably honest reporting from unreasonably dishonest marketing copy. There’s nothing new about that either. Some people are critical about any news they encounter. Some are not. But marketing has gotten so sophisticated and so pernicious that even the wary have trouble telling the difference between journalism and propaganda.

 

At DigBoston, our audience doesn’t have to worry about that quandary. We exist to report the news in the public interest. In our own way, and with our own unique broadly left-leaning voice, to be sure. But we take our job very seriously, and we work very hard week in and week out to do it to the best of our collective ability. For 20 years and counting.

 

Given that, if you know nothing else about us, know this: We do not run the propaganda that paid marketers fill our email inboxes with 24/7. Like this morning’s stupid, stupid example entitled “Wondering about a sponsored post.” That is, “wondering if you all are brainless enough to run this marketing copy for free and pretend it’s a real article by an independent journalist.” To which my colleague Chris Faraone gave our standard mocking reply, “$2,000 a post”—a price we know no marketer will ever pay.  

 

However, we’re a free newspaper. As such, even more than those bigs that have a number of different ways to make money, we rely almost completely on advertising to keep publishing.

 

We offer advertisers a lot for their money, even in today’s viciously competitive media market. Our ads are obviously cheaper than larger publications. More importantly, though, they reach people who read, who support music and the arts, who are tastemakers, and who… patronize our advertisers.

 

Because of that fact, our existing advertisers love us. And we love them back.

 

But we need more of them. We need to grow our news operation if we’re going to give the many communities in Boston and environs that we cover the constant attention they deserve. To do that we need to be able to pay more full-time reporters, and part-time ones, too. To do that, we need a bigger business staff and more salespeople.

 

All of which is only possible if more institutions that could advertise with us—all the local businesses and charities who serve the communities we cover—step up and do so.

 

Rather than spend advertising dollars on marketers who straight-out lie to people and harm our struggling democracy rather than help it.

 

Folks interested in advertising with DigBoston can email our sales staff at sales@digboston.org.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

EDITORIAL: MEDIUM WELL

Facebook middle finger
Image by gfkDSGN. CC0 Creative Commons. Modified with permission by Jason Pramas.

 

Democracy requires public control of social media giants

 

May 16, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

In this edition of DigBoston, our Editor-in-Chief Chris Faraone has already written at some length about how Medium—which is essentially a glorified blog farm with a puzzlingly opaque social media component—screwed our nonprofit, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ), a few days back by precipitously terminating the paid subscriptions of dozens of our monthly supporters on the platform.


After we questioned the company’s action, a low-level flunky claimed we had been given a whole entire week’s advance notice in an email that we subsequently explained we never received. After we very publicly cried bloody murder, and got our plight written up in Nieman Lab and Columbia Journalism Review, Medium leadership offered us, and a number of other small publishers, four months of the income we would have made had they not kicked us to the digital curb.


There are many problems with the way events transpired, but the worst one is the fact that mere mortals such as ourselves do not control our presences on corporate social media bigs in any way, shape, or form. The billionaires that own them—that became rich by creating “walled gardens” under their micromanagement and have stubbornly resisted the creation of public and nonprofit social media alternatives—are the only people that could reasonably be said to control them. Even though many of them have built their fortunes on technology originally created by publicly funded basic scientific research that they were allowed to essentially steal. Not dissimilar from leaders of the former Soviet Union that were allowed to privatize once-public industries and become billionaires themselves. Distorting the politics of various successor states toward oligarchy in the process.


And, under today’s robber baron capitalism, billionaires of any provenance are extremely difficult to bring to heel with any kind of public regulation or taxation. Let alone criminal charges.

 

Medium is hardly the worst, or anywhere near the largest, of the social media scofflaws in question. Its founder, Ev Williams, seems to be a thoughtful and genial enough fellow for someone in his position. But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. … Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”


Truer words were never spoken. Especially when it comes to a person who has used his power and privilege to change the business model of Medium—a corporation that’s been valued in the hundreds of millions—on more than one occasion.


So, BINJ and the other affected publishers are the latest victims of the caprices of a billionaire. Who ironically wants to help improve media with the selfsame company that just made life more difficult for a group of struggling media outlets.

 

It is precisely for this reason that both the nonprofit side (BINJ) and for-profit side (DigBoston) of this operation that I half-jokingly call the “Greater BINJ-DigBoston Mediaplex” are working to help build alternatives to corporate social media. As we announced in an editorial a couple months ago.

 

We believe that digital media can only move forward by returning to the most promising visionary thinking of the earliest internet pioneers. Including the idea that only a decentralized communication network can be truly democratic.  And that the ethos of democracy must be baked so deeply into its architecture that it can never be displaced.

 

Our enterprise can only play a small part in this “strategic retreat.” But we are pursuing that initiative with vigor. Both by moves we are making to change how BINJ and DigBoston use the internet and by trying to organize our peers in the news industry to change our collective digital lot for the better.

 

The former effort involves transitioning away from Facebook—which we adjudge to be the worst of the social media giants—and toward first Twitter then other more democratic social media as it emerges. The latter effort—to which we’re dedicating a small conference this weekend—involves helping construct the democratic social media alternatives we hope to ultimately focus on.

 

But even if such voluntarist endeavors succeed in scaling up to control some reasonable percentage of the relevant markets, they will not stop huge social media corporations and the billionaires that control them from continuing to have far more political, economic, and social power than is healthy for a democratic society.

 

So what will stop them? Not breaking them up into smaller companies. As economist Gar Alperovitz points out in his book, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, old-fashioned trust busting always ends up with the smaller companies reforming into new giants. Thanks largely to “regulatory capture”: Big corporations colonizing regulatory agencies with insiders and then doing what they want—as we’ve seen most clearly of late with former telecom exec Ajit Pai getting the top seat at the FCC, then killing net neutrality.

 

Which way forward then? Alperowitz says that even the libertarian economists of the Chicago school—most famously Milton Friedman—identified the futility of breaking up huge companies. Leading Friedman’s mentor Henry C. Simons to quip, “Every industry should be effectively competitive or socialized.” Failing to do so, he and other Chicago economists thought, would lead to an ongoing series of societal crises. Which would certainly include the new kinds of crises that corporate social media has sparked. Notably “surveillance capitalism” where consumers’ every move is being monitored and thought anticipated in the service of maximizing profit in ways never before seen. With all the resulting negative outcomes—like social media addiction and political chaos—externalized to a failing democratic system largely controlled by an ever-shrinking number of multinationals and financial concerns.

 

And how best to socialize corporate social media? Alperowitz suggests turning the companies controlling the commanding heights of any sector of the economy into public utilities. So it must go with major social media companies. They must be converted into a heavily regulated and government-managed utility in such a way as to maximize democratic decentralized digital communication and provide it as cheaply as possible for the good of all. While, I would add, activists on the ground continue to develop a constellation of independent social media projects run by nonprofits, cooperatives, and social benefit corporations around the new government-funded network to allow for maximum information and technological diversity—and keep a future public social media utility honest.

 

Some kind of national security state panopticon is not what we’re aiming for here. Rather, the new utility could be run by elected regional boards with mandated seats for key community constituencies and space for lots of meaningful grassroots input.

 

Doing all that—plus related work to socialize telecoms and cable companies—will take a massive protest movement. Like most everything that involves uprooting entrenched institutions and replacing them with new, more popular institutions. And that movement will have to be international. It’s the only way to go. Because social media corporations are multinational, and most governments—corporate-dominated as they are—won’t do the job on their own. Not without a protracted struggle.

 

Going forward, DigBoston (and BINJ) will be looking to ally with good organizations willing to fight hard on these issues. And we’ll be sure to let readers know which groups we think are doing the best work as they emerge on the political stage.

 

So, stay tuned to these pages. We’ll be doing our damnedest to guide you through what is sure to be a wild ride.

 

Jason Pramas is the executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston, and the network director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

EDITORIAL: HOW YOU CAN SUPPORT DIGBOSTON

Official Dig Baby

 

A reader’s guide to building a better news weekly

 

April 19, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

What does it mean to support a news outlet? Clearly the answer to that question varies widely depending on whether the outlet is big or small, nonprofit or for profit, subscription- or advertising-based.

 

But in an era when news organizations of all sizes are having a great deal of difficulty keeping their doors open, it’s an important one to consider.

 

For DigBoston, the answer to that question must be based on how we organize our operation. As we’ve said in past editorials, our organization is very porous to the world around us. We don’t cut ourselves off from the communities we serve. Quite the reverse. We’re always working to connect more strongly to those communities. To serve them better.

 

In fact, we are part of many Boston-area communities. You can view our staff, freelance talent, interns, contractors, and advertisers as a network of personal networks—all of which pay close attention to the news we produce together. Everyone in this primary network then connects to the broad spectrum of local communities that make up our overall audience.

 

The better a job we do as journalists, the more that audience becomes part of our primary network—becomes, in short, directly connected to us.

 

The more that happens, the better our news is. Because people who know us personally, naturally come to trust us. We then hear about community developments faster and faster, and the information we communicate gets concomitantly more accurate and more relevant.

 

So to support DigBoston, the most important thing that you can do as an audience member is to reach out to us the way we’re reaching out to you. To become part of our primary network.

 

And here are eight ways you can do that.

 

Read the paper

This seems like the most obvious suggestion, but it is not. Because reading us doesn’t mean reading us every now and then. It means actively looking for us every week. Making it a habit to check out every issue we produce… and making Dig a part of your life, and therefore more strongly part of the culture that makes our city unique. Which is easy enough to do—especially for people living in and around Boston. We typically start putting new articles online on digboston.com every Tuesday, and our print edition hits the stands in Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and busy parts of Brookline on Thursdays.

 

Show it to your friends

Don’t keep us to yourself. Pass around our articles on email and social media. And, more importantly, keep a paper copy on hand and physically pass it around to friends and family. Remember that stuff about networks above? By reading us often and sharing our work with your personal network, you’re helping build a fan base that interacts more strongly with us over the long term. Which is a recipe for ensuring DigBoston continues to produce good journalism for many years to come.

 

Use our information

We like it when we make people think about issues of the day. That’s definitely part of why we do what we do. But we love it when people act on the news we put out. If we write about a concert or play or art show, go check it out. If we introduce you to a political activist campaign that you agree with, plug in. Get involved. There’s little point in outlets like DigBoston producing news if no one acts on the stories we report.

 

Talk to us

We say this regularly, but we’ll say it again: You like one of our articles? Don’t like one? A fan of one of our writers, photographers, or artists? Drop us a line. Say hi. It might take us a day or three to get back to you, but we do our best to talk to readers that want to talk to us. For most purposes, emailing us at editorial@digboston.com is the best way to connect.

 

Frequent our advertisers

Another seemingly obvious thing, but we make the money that enables us to put out our newsweekly through advertising. And what’s the best way to keep the ad money flowing? Giving your business to institutions that advertise with us. And making it known that you heard about them from DigBoston. Know a similar enterprise? Spread the word that we’re a great place to advertise and that we’re helping a number of industries grow locally. Consider yourself part of our sales force. Like seriously, because we’re actually hiring a salesperson. Interested in selling for us? Send us a resume and cover letter by email to jobs@digboston.com.

 

Advertise with us

Are you a decision maker who’s looking to drum up business in Boston? Then how about buying an ad? You can start with a four- to six-week run, see how your campaign does, and if you’re happy then make it a long-term contract. Drop us an email to sales@digboston.com to get started. Mention that you read this editorial, and we’ll give you a nice discount. Because of course we will.

 

Donate

Donate?! Yeah, we know it’s kind of counterintuitive. A for-profit company asking for donations through crowdfunding or at least simple, unobtrusive pop-ups on the new website we’re building this year. But even large news outlets like the Guardian are doing it. Because news production is expensive and profit margins for newspapers like DigBoston are razor-thin. We put out a fine product every week with a handful of (shall we say) modestly paid regular staffers and dozens of “stringers” (freelancers). No one is making big bucks. We’re all doing it because we believe in the importance of good community journalism to the democratic society we’re trying to help save. If you’d like to see us expanding our news operation and bringing you more and more news you can’t find anywhere else, definitely toss us a few bucks when we ask for it. Because donations help us pay for the kind of longer-form hard news that a weekly paper like ours couldn’t afford to produce regularly without some extra cash.

 

Give us credit

This one applies to a very specific subset of our audience. We understand our role in the metro news ecology includes acting as an early warning system for larger outlets like the Boston Globe. But that doesn’t mean we think it’s cool when our colleagues at the “bigs” get “inspired” by our work and basically replicate it without granting us the simple courtesy of listing us as a source. We may kick such outlets around from time to time on political and journalistic grounds, but we still mention them as sources all the time. Some reciprocity would be nice. For real.

 

So that’s our list. What’s the takeaway? It’s not “data” or “algorithms” or certainly not robots that are going to keep journalism relevant in 21st-century America.

 

It’s people. Working together to make sure that DigBoston, and other news outlets like us all over the nation, can keep doing what we’re doing… in the public interest.

 

And it all starts with each of you, taking the time to read our work. Every week.

 

Thank you.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

EDITORIAL: STRATEGIC RETREAT

Image by freeGraphicToday. CC0.
Image by freeGraphicToday. CC0.

 

DigBoston to move away from Facebook, help build democratic social media alternatives

 

March 21, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

A decade back it seemed only natural for news publications like DigBoston to stake out turf on Facebook. After all, it provided an easy way for us to reach our audience on a regular basis—via a social media platform that was well on its way to becoming the ubiquitous global behemoth it is today.

 

But now it seems like a particularly good moment to discuss this publication’s evolving thinking on our use of corporate social media. In the wake of the huge and growing Cambridge Analytica scandal that cost Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg $6 billion of his net worth after that story broke last week, according to Fortune.

 

Because Facebook is not working for us anymore—as individuals and as the staff of a metro news weekly.

 

What was once a fun way to keep in touch with friends and co-workers has turned into a huge drag. Every moment of our time on the social network is completely controlled by Zuckerberg’s minions. Who work to make it ever more addictive. To keep users like us on Facebook for more and more of our time—thus spending less and less of our time on any possible competitor’s network.

 

Yet the company also carefully limits users’ access to our own connections. And it continues to make repeated changes to its “algorithm” (the code that governs, among other things, what content users see) and other structural changes that are seriously damaging individuals’—and to our point, news outlets’—ability to reach our own audiences.

 

It is now no more possible for individuals to communicate with even a fraction of their connections on the platform than it is for DigBoston to reach more than a handful of our 24,000 followers. Even if we pay a bunch of money for the privilege, which page managers like us are forced to do. On our two branded pages that Facebook refuses to let us merge… because one page has a blue check mark and one page has a gray check mark, you see. And blue check mark pages may not be merged with gray check mark pages. Facebook “help desk” has spoken. And once Facebook makes a pronouncement, however cryptically and episodically, it cannot be challenged. By conventional means, at least.

 

Not that we’re surprised that Facebook has its own agenda. Like many reasonably technologically savvy journalists, we understand how the company works. Digital marketer Mitch Joel explained it succinctly in a helpful Maclean’s piece on the Cambridge Analytica affair: “Facebook’s business model is not based on content, marketing or advertising. You—the consumer—are the product and the money that Facebook generates is based on how well they can monetize your data and target you to their brand partners.”

 

The problem is that we understand all too well that Facebook does what’s best for Facebook—first, last, and always. And my DigBoston colleagues and I have had enough.

 

Like the staff of tens of thousands of other news organizations around the planet, we know that we have been complicit in Facebook’s rise to power.

 

We have posted all our content to Facebook. Which has provided free high-quality information that helped attract our existing audience and many others besides to Facebook’s “walled garden” social network. The vast conglomerate then monetized that audience as described above. Used the vast array of personal data at their command to steal the entire news industry’s digital advertising base away—including ours. And has the temerity to charge us to reach the audience we helped bring to them.

 

Adding insult to injury, according to the Guardian, companies like Cambridge Analytica have found ways to acquire and weaponize that personal data at the behest of operatives like Steve Bannon. Who then use it to help throw elections like the 2016 presidential contest to the political faction of their choice. To name but one of a myriad number of ways that rich and powerful interests—including Facebook itself—are using this “surveillance capitalism,” as it has come to be called, to attempt to control the behavior of entire populations for their own gain.

 

Given that state of affairs, DigBoston has no choice but to start to move away from Facebook. As our editor-in-chief Chris Faraone so colorfully put it in a related context a couple of months back, “… fuck Facebook. With a big, blue middle finger.”

 

But move away to what? All the major social networks are owned by big companies doing basically the same thing Facebook is doing. Though none have its reach and market share. Some, like Instagram, are even owned by Facebook.

 

In the short term, we’re starting to focus more on Twitter—a social media giant that’s slightly less mercenary and slightly more responsive to public pressure. The Lyft to Facebook’s Uber, if you will.

 

In the longer term, we see no ideal alternative on the horizon.

 

So we’ve resolved to help create that alternative.

 

Think this through with us: DigBoston, like legions of other news outlets, has to find a social media solution that meets our need to control and monetize our own data in a platform that our audience is willing to use on a regular basis. Our audience needs a social network that won’t exploit them.

 

There have been numerous attempts to start standalone “less evil” social media platforms in opposition to Facebook et al—Diaspora, Ello, and Minds to name but three. None of them have succeeded. Why? Because no one knows exactly what causes people to abandon existing social networks for new ones. Sometimes people just bail. Friendster, Orkut, and MySpace were once hot, and now are not. So every prediction of Facebook’s demise at the hands of a new entrant over the last many years has proved to be premature. And every claim to have the magic solution that will cause millions of users to jump ship from Facebook and other major social media has proved to be a pipe dream.

 

It is true that Facebook’s audience growth is slowing. Usage in the key US and Canadian markets is dropping, according to the LA Times. And the current scandal has already caused the company to lose more than 6 percent of its value on Monday—over $35 billion—according to Fortune. Yet it could easily bounce back. It remains an immensely powerful multinational. And if it convinces its shareholders to stay the course, it can weather almost any conceivable political storm.

 

What will it take to essentially pull the rug out from under Facebook and companies like it? Returning to the promise of the early internet to democratize global communication, and giving more control over the means of that communication to individuals and the full array of human institutions alike.

 

There are interesting experiments going on in new grassroots social networks that DigBoston is keeping an eye on. Decentralized federated microblogging systems (think an agglomeration of Twitter-like networks that talk to each other) like Mastodon. Fully decentralized social media projects like IndieWeb—a network of “creators” who have developed tools that allow the owners of independent personal websites to interact with each other. Like a Facebook without the Facebook. Without a central control hub of any kind, really.

 

Projects like these are great ideas. But they rely on volunteers, and sometimes a handful of low-paid staff, to function. Meaning they can achieve an initial burst of success, only to suffer a long decline to irrelevance as their evangelists move on to other ventures. Plus you typically need to be someone in or around the tech scene and affiliated subcultures to know about their existence. And they tend to require a fair amount of technical expertise to use.

 

Which is to say that these carefully thought out super democratic social media experiments are not likely to provide the alternative DigBoston and like-minded folks the world over are seeking to build. Not anytime soon. Mastodon had just over a million users last month, according to Mastodon User Count—largely due its community deploying functioning phone apps like the nifty Amaroq for iOS. But that’s obviously a drop in the bucket compared to the 1.4 billion active daily users that Facebook reported in Q4 of 2017. Even allowing for the fact that a nonzero percentage of those accounts are fake, according to Yahoo Finance. And not including many more inactive accounts.

 

Still, we can but soldier on. For our part, we’re calling a meeting of journalists and techies later this year. Specifically, editors and publishers of Boston area news outlets and high-level coders associated with thoughtful social media projects like Mastodon and IndieWeb. We’re going to compare notes and see if we can start working together to provide better communications solutions for our news organizations and our audiences that will go at least some small fraction of the way to providing a democratic alternative to Facebook and other corporate networks.

 

We’ll definitely let you all know how that meeting goes. But those of you who think you need to be there, drop me a line at execeditor@digboston.com and tell me why.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. His sad and lonely Mastodon account is @jasonpramas@mastodon.social. Sign up for a free account at mastodon.social and say hi.

EDITORIAL: FEEDBACK REQUESTED

 

DigBoston asks readers to chime in about our coverage, digital presence, and events

 

February 28, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Frequent readers know that my colleagues and I on the new DigBoston staff like to hear from people from all the varied communities that make up our audience, talk with them, and hang out with them. So, it should come as no surprise that we’re very open to suggestions about what we do as a news organization and how we do it.

 

Nevertheless, we believe it’s important that we periodically extend a formal invitation to our audience—our extended community—to give us such feedback. To demonstrate that we’re not only amenable to two-way communication as journalists, but that we actively encourage it. And that, as we’ve said in the past, we think it’s impossible to be good journalists without it.

 

After running this paper for eight months, we can use specific input in three areas: our coverage, our digital presence, and our public events. We’d really appreciate it if respondents put some serious thought into their suggestions, and fill out the fast response form at the bottom of this page.

 

Coverage

The heart of any news publication is obviously its content. DigBoston has a number of regular sections, including News, Music, Theater, Film, Visual Arts, Comedy, and Comics. In addition, we run Chris Faraone’s “Dear Reader” editorial weekly, a number of columns, opinion pieces when we have them, and my occasional editorials (like this one). Increasingly we also have big special features that dive deep into important issues of the day. And nice photos and artwork scattered throughout our publication and featured on the front page of our print edition.

 

In terms of feedback on our coverage, we’d like to hear: a) what people like and want to see more of, b) what people don’t like and want to see less of, and c) what areas readers think we don’t cover but should.

 

General responses are appreciated, but specific responses are always more useful to us.

 

Digital

In this era, it’s expected that a print newspaper like DigBoston will have a robust online presence. We do our best with limited resources, but we know that we still have a ways to go before we’re up to speed on this front.

 

The core of a good digital news operation remains a website. But now that more and more people are getting their news from phones, tablets, and traditional computers alike, websites have to be upgraded to display properly on a variety of screen sizes.

 

At least once a week these days, one or more readers will hit us up to complain about our digboston.com website not being mobile-friendly. And we definitely hear them loud and clear. So this spring we’re building a new website that will look good on any device.

 

Still, since we’re just about to start work on that site, it’s a great time for folks to let us know what kind of other features they’d find useful on it.

 

We’d also like advice on a couple of innovations we’re planning to introduce on digboston.com. Namely, we’re thinking about eliminating ads from the site entirely, and about doing a pop-up on every web article that will take up the bottom third of the reader’s screen (like theguardian.com) and invite them to become sustainers (in exchange for invites to special events, etc.) to help make sure that we’re able to keep providing you all with the kind of hard-hitting news coverage and fun arts and entertainment articles that you can’t find anywhere else in our region. Any advice on those moves would be super helpful.

 

Also, you can find every Dig article on no less than six social media platforms. We post to them pretty much every day. Here they are:

 

 

You can also subscribe to DigBoston content for free on the following news aggregators: Apple News, Google Play Newsstand, and soon Flipboard.

 

We even make the pdf of our print edition available on issuu.com/digboston. And help manage the recently-reactivated /r/bostonjournalism subreddit at reddit.com/r/bostonjournalism/.

 

While that seems like a broad digital presence, there are new social media platforms and news aggregators starting up all the time. So we’d like to know if there are any we should be on, but aren’t. And are we using the platforms and aggregators in question in the best way? If digital mavens have any tips and tricks to share with us, please do.

 

Events

We organize public events all the time, and participate in the events of other organizations as well. We do talks, workshops, courses, concerts, conferences, fairs, and festivals. We now also do a discrete amount of direct political activism by working for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

 

Are you with an organization—particularly a group rooted in one of the many Boston-area communities we cover on a regular basis? Do you like what we do at DigBoston? Are you running an event you’d like us to participate in? Or would you like to propose organizing an event with us? Then drop us a line.

 

And readers in general, are there events we’ve done that you have some input on? Are there events you’d like to see us do? Let us know.

 

Anything else I didn’t mention about DigBoston that you’d like to comment on? Then, again, please fill out the fast response form at the bottom of this page.

 

Look forward to hearing from you all.


 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.