Last Saturday, DigBoston, our nonprofit wing Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ), and our frequent partner the community access television station Somerville Media Center (SMC) turned out over 100 Somerville residents to the ONCE ballroom on Highland Ave to talk to 15 area journalists about local issues and happenings that they thought needed more news coverage. Straightforward as the event appeared from the outside, it represents a new tactic in the battle to save American journalism. So it’s worth discussing its genesis in some detail. The better to help communities around the country to replicate it at speed.
Like everyone else in the American news industry, my colleagues and I have watched the expansion of “news deserts”—geographic areas, and areas of interest, that increasingly get little or no coverage from trained journalists working for reputable media outlets at any level—with growing concern.
It’s a problem that goes hand in hand with the rolling destruction of the news media by a variety of related forces—from the rise of vast social media platforms to the absorption of hundreds of local news outlets by a handful of giant conglomerates. A wave of contractions and closures that started with daily and weekly print newspapers but has now expanded to affect huge digital news operations like Buzzfeed and Vice as well.
We’ve watched as a few billionaires have stepped in to support certain legacy properties like the Boston Globe—even as other billionaires bought up media outlets like the Las Vegas Review-Journal just to defang critical reporters. We’ve also watched as the nonprofit sector has attempted to help out. Primarily at the national level and in major cities. Leading us to start our regional investigative reporting incubator BINJ and inspire several similar operations to pop up around the US. In part to address problems we observed emanating from the better funded but less locally focused efforts than our own.
But none of these attempts have been enough to stem the tide of consolidations and closures or ameliorate its effects. And the Boston area has hardly been immune from the mounting crisis for democracy the loss of a robust news sector is creating.
Which is why I found myself mulling over what the Dig and BINJ could do to address the problem directly in early December. Unlike a lot of other journalists, I have also spent decades as a labor and community activist. Working on political struggles large and small. By the early 2000s, I was focused on refining a technique called “network organizing” (that was briefly fashionable in liberal foundation circles 20 years ago) with colleagues like Suren Moodliar (then of the North American Alliance for Fair Employment) to meet the needs of my former nonprofit, the Campaign on Contingent Work. Which, as the name suggests, was trying to figure out how workers in bad jobs could organize themselves for justice in situations where unionization wasn’t possible.
Given my left libertarian bent, I was very critical of the organizing style typical of most major unions and nonprofits I had worked with. Whose model tended to be what I call “magic wand” organizing. Built on the false idea that most great social movements were sparked by cadres of trained, educated “organizers”—who essentially waved the equivalent of magic wands over communities of working people and “organized” them into grassroots political forces to win victories against the rich and powerful. Most notably in the 1930s and the 1960s in the recent American context.
My belief was, and remains, that groups of ordinary people generally organize themselves politically (socially and otherwise) when conditions require them to do so. The crucial missing ingredient is usually good information about what other groups of people have done in their situation. During great social upheavals this information arrives in swift wave fronts from all quarters. At other times it does not. So what an experienced activist can do to improve the likelihood of the necessary organizing happening is to help convene communities of interest in ways it might take them a while to hit upon themselves if left to their own devices. Then share the information they need to get going. And basically “accompany” the incipient social movements that might result. Assisting with relevant skills and experience when necessary and appropriate. Rather than jumping in front of such efforts and trying to control them in a top-down undemocratic fashion.
Where network organizing comes in is “getting the right people in the room” when convening a community as well as providing the channels to share vital information between communities. The idea was originally based on the same kind of mathematical models that led to the World Wide Web. Models that said that every person is part of one or more “small world networks” of coworkers, friends, family, etc. Which might have anywhere up to a couple of hundred members. Each of those networks had one or more “rich connectors”—people that were communicative and maybe a bit more extroverted—who connected to the connectors of other networks.
The key to network organizing is that if you identify the connectors of many networks at the same time and convince them to support whatever campaign you’re trying to build, you can then get those connectors to mobilize the members of their networks and spread information without much extra effort on your part. Automatically increasing the reach and power of your campaign by an order of magnitude.
Returning to my musings of last December, I decided that if I wanted to use the limited resources of DigBoston and BINJ to convene a Boston-area community under threat of becoming a news desert—and encourage the community to organize itself to make sure it had the news coverage it needed to remain a democratic polity—then I should deploy the network organizing techniques that I had once used for labor campaigns and the like.
The question was which community to try to convene. Because Boston proper was too big. And it’s not under as dire a threat of becoming a news desert as some of its near suburbs. So I wanted a city that was definitely under such a threat. A city that was large enough to have a fairly diverse population and a good deal of news getting underreported, but small enough to able to pull together a cross-section of the community in a single venue for a useful discussion. A city that had once had a fairly vibrant news media but now had a shrinking number of professional (and trained amateur) journalists devoted to its coverage. And a city with a fairly broad spectrum of active civic, social, and cultural organizations amenable to the aims of the event I wanted to call.
That’s how I chose Somerville. In addition to meeting the criteria above, it was also home to the excellent Somerville Media Center. An organization that was already working closely with Dig and BINJ. And one that my crew just happened to have a meeting with in mid-December. So I pitched them the idea at the meeting. They went for it. And we were off to the races.
Once the effort was underway, the first order of business was to identify the networks I wanted to connect to what I had already dubbed the Somerville Community Summit. Since there were no existing lists I could use, I opened up a spreadsheet and got to work researching civic, social, and cultural organizations that had solid networks in the city. I did not reach out to explicitly political organizations. Because I knew that if I did that the event could easily descend into the kind of public screaming match that would end any attempt to solve Somerville’s media deficit. Instead, I focused on groups (and a few unusual individuals) that had a decent track record of getting things done and represented a broad array of interests. From neighborhood assemblies to arts groups to social service agencies. Knowing that the many local political factions would end up being represented by default if our outreach was strong enough.
I then talked to lots of friends in Somerville, identified the best people to contact in the organizations in question, and then invited them all to participate in the summit. But more than that, I asked them to get their organizations to co-sponsor the summit and turn out their members. Then I showed them my list of organizations and asked them to suggest ones I’d missed. Meanwhile, I talked to all the journalists I could find that covered Somerville—including reporters and editors for a variety of outlets—and invited them to attend.
The pitch to the connectors in the organizational networks was that they would get to talk about issues and happenings that weren’t getting enough news coverage to pretty much all the journalists trying to cover them. The pitch to the journalists was that, for the first time, many of the constituencies they worked so hard to cover would be convened in one place. And I told both groups that after the journalists had all introduced themselves to the attendees and representatives of each co-sponsoring organization plus individuals off the street had spoken for two minutes each, there would be informal networking between residents and journalists for 30 minutes. So that relationships could start forming between everyone present, and some stories could start to be produced on the spot.
After weeks of work, 20 of the 30 organizations I identified had co-sponsored the summit. And virtually all the journalists I invited agreed to go. At the same time, Dig ran weekly ads for the event and many organizations pushed it on social media. The buzz we generated accelerated. And about three weeks out it became obvious that the community response was so strong that our original 60-seat venue at the Somerville Media Center wasn’t going to be big enough. So I asked ONCE if they’d co-sponsor and let us use their ballroom for the event, and they agreed.
The summit was simple, powerful, and came off nicely. All Erica Jones of Somerville Media Center, my colleague Chris Faraone, the Dig interns, and I had to do day of was sign people up to speak, review the purpose of the summit, lay down a couple of ground rules for the discussion (mainly “be nice”), and give out a handout I’d written about how to interest journalists in story ideas. Journalists introduced themselves, over 30 residents made statements about the things they thought needed more coverage, folks networked… and now the community can move forward to thinking about how to organize to strengthen and expand their city’s news media. With everyone involved in convening the summit looking primed to help shepherd the process along. But without “organizers” inserting themselves between residents and journalists.
Which is reason for hope. And a model that can spread to other communities around the US. Horizontally, and eminently democratically.
Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston and network director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Stay tuned for the SMC summit video, and for notice of upcoming Somerville journalism-related trainings and events.