Sandstorm State House collage by Jason Pramas
Sandstorm State House collage by Jason Pramas (using public domain images)


More working journalists, less elite institutes


Chris Faraone,* John Loftus,** and I spend a lot of time thinking about how to rebuild American journalism. Pretty much from the ground up, since so many news outlets and jobs in the field have been destroyed in the last quarter century. And a growing number of American cities and towns are now turning into “news deserts”—areas no longer covered by functioning news organizations.


Running DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) as we do, all of us write and speak frequently on these topics. We also do what we can to improve the situation. Mainly by building the kind of hybrid for-profit/nonprofit news operation that we think might help people get the quality information on issues of the day that they need to be engaged citizens in a democracy (or to win the opportunity to become citizens, in the case of beleaguered immigrants from “sea to shining sea”). But also by working directly with communities like Somerville to reverse their slide toward becoming news deserts.


So, we observed the recent filing of a new bill in the Mass legislature aiming to help improve journalism statewide with interest. Dubbed “An Act Establishing a Commission to Study Journalism in Underserved Communities” (S.80/H.181), it appears at first blush to set out to do what politicians everywhere like to do with difficult public policy problems that they don’t really want to deal with: “study” them. Then forget about them.


But upon closer examination, this effort looks more serious than that. Because its main sponsors—Sen. Brendan Crighton (D-Lynn), Rep. Lori Ehrlich (D-Marblehead), and Rep. Jim Hawkins (D-Attleboro)—seem to actually understand the crisis facing journalism. Notably Ehrlich, whose quotes on the bill in the State House News Service make it clear she gets what’s at stake, “As our newsrooms are shrinking, we will have less information and accountability, and that’s not good for democracy.”


However, it’s best not to get too excited about the bill. Since it is, after all, filed in the Massachusetts General Court—where very few standalone bills actually get passed in each two-year session. Most successful legislation is tacked onto to the annual state budget by House and Senate leadership, and passed that way. Virtually all other bills die in committees just like the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses where S.80 has been filed.


On the other hand, the proposed commission is not likely to cost the state much money if enacted. Relying as it would on 17 volunteer commissioners to do the necessary research. So maybe it will get somewhere this session. Perhaps not all the way to passage. But far enough through the legislative process that some similar initiative emanating from somewhere in state government will be greenlighted.


That said, the bill language starts off fairly strong. Resolving to create a commission to “conduct a comprehensive non-binding study” to “review all aspects of local journalism including, but not limited to, the adequacy of press coverage of cities and towns, ratio of residents to media outlets, the history of local news in Massachusetts, print and digital business models for media outlets, the impact of social media on local news, strategies to improve local news access, public policy solutions to improve the sustainability of local press business models and private and nonprofit solutions, and identifying career pathways and existing or potential professional development opportunities for aspiring journalists in Massachusetts.”


It goes on to say that the new body will meet a minimum of five times to do its work and present its findings and recommendations for legislation to “the governor, the speaker of the house, the president of the senate, and the clerks of the house of representatives and the senate no later than 1 year after the effective date of this resolve.” All of which is fine.


Where S.80 falls down somewhat is in how it will appoint its 17-member commission. The first four members mentioned are all to be legislators—including the House and Senate chairs of the Community Development and Small Businesses committee, one representative chosen by the House speaker, and one representative chosen by the Senate president. No surprise there.


Two members will be appointed by the governor.


The other 11 members will be chosen as follows:

  • Four will come from academia (“a representative of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University,” “a professor at Northeastern School of Journalism,” “a representative of the Schuster Institute of Journalism at Brandeis University,” and “the director of the Journalism Lab at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University”).
  • Four from organizations representing working journalists of color (“a member of the Boston Association of Black Journalists,” “a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists,” “a member of the Asian American Journalists Association of New England,” and “a member of the Ida B. Wells Society”).
  • One from a respected state policy publication (“an editor at Commonwealth Magazine”).
  • One from an organization of newspaper publishers (“a member of the New England Newspaper and Press Association”).
  • One from the main statewide organization of city and town officials (“a member of the Massachusetts Municipal Association”).


That breakdown raises some immediate red flags.


First, some of the appointments are pretty specific. Which is understandable since proposals like S.80 obviously don’t appear out of thin air, and key people consulted by sponsoring legislators will want seats on the commission. But some are specific in an exclusionary way.


For example, why a professor from the Northeastern journalism department, yet no professors from other important journalism departments like Emerson College, Boston University, and UMass Amherst? In fact, all the academic picks come from private Boston area schools. What about the rest of the state? Cities like Framingham are definitely on their way to becoming news deserts, and regional public colleges like Framingham State University have journalism minors or concentrations. Why aren’t any of them on the list?


Second, why is state government continuing to pay obeisance to Harvard University by giving its institutes no less than three seats on the commission? What, you say, there are only two? Shorenstein and Nieman? Well, actually, the Ida B. Wells Society is a new project of the Shorenstein Center. So that’s effectively a third Harvard seat. At least at this early stage of what looks to be a worthy attempt to create “a news trade organization dedicated to increasing and retaining reporters and editors of color in the field of investigative reporting.” Though naturally, if Harvard can be restricted to one seat, the Wells Society should definitely get it over its parent center or Nieman.


Third, why is Gov. Charlie Baker to get two picks for the commission if the bill passes? Probably a sop to the Republicans, but one pick would be more than fair.


Fourth, no labor unions representing journalists are included. If the purpose of the S.80 is in large part to address the ongoing destruction of jobs in journalism, then this is a striking omission that must be remedied immediately. Especially in a period when the shrinking number of journalists that have full-time unionized jobs with benefits at outlets like the Boston Globe are fighting for their existence—while journalists with similar jobs have belatedly unionized WBUR and the Daily Hampshire Gazette. The reporters at the Gazette join reporters at the Globe and many other Mass news outlets as members of the NewsGuild-Communication Workers of America. So that union deserves a commission seat. WBUR reporters, for their part, joined SAG-AFTRA, another union representing news industry workers that should also get a seat.


Plus the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists—not a union, but an association that includes both full-time and contingent reporters—is on the front lines of the fight to save journalism and needs a seat at this particular table.


Fifth, there are no slots being proposed for independent news organizations that are actively experimenting with ways to increase community engagement while developing stable economic models that will allow new entrants to the field to not only survive… but to thrive. Funding investigative journalism of the type that many politicians will never really like—but that is absolutely essential to the maintenance of any functioning democracy—in the process. And here I will be completely shameless in proposing a seat for BINJ, the investigative reporting incubator run by Chris Faraone, John Loftus, and me.


Especially in light of Faraone’s searing critique of academic centers of the very type being proposed for commission seats in the current S.80 language sucking up millions of dollars in public and private monies annually for over a decade to try—and thus far largely fail—to solve the myriad problems besetting American journalism. Starting with the crisis of otherwise solid news organizations collapsing every day for lack of funds… that both governments and foundations continue to lavish on academia. Only the tiniest fraction of which ever results in the production of useful and desperately needed journalism in this Commonwealth and this nation.


Adding such additional seats will not only make for a more balanced commission, it will also result in better legislative proposals being made to state government should its enabling bill be enacted.


Because news industry labor unions and grassroots journalism outfits like BINJ are not going to call for more public money to be thrown at, say, Harvard institutes. Or the owners of major legacy news outlets like the Boston Globe.


We’re not going to call for developing more apps or other inappropriate applications of available technology either.


We’re going to call for cash money to be spent funding journalists to do our job—covering the news. As the proposed commission will only be meaningful if it pushes for public funds to be put into community news production. Which is exactly what is vanishing as the rapacious business practices of giant media conglomerates like GateHouse, Digital First, and Gannett result in the news deserts that are jeopardizing our democracy today.


We’re going to call for solutions like a state version of the National Endowment for Journalism proposal that I have joined others in fielding nationally. A quasi-public elected body that would disburse state funds to reputable news outlets to increase the amount of journalism produced around the Bay State.


We’re going to back ideas like the Community Information Districts that our colleague Simon Galperin, currently a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, is calling for at the local level. Those districts would allow municipalities to fund news production the way special service districts are already funded to provide cities and towns with fire protection and sanitation services—by levying small fees on area residents.


We’re going to, in summation, fight hard to keep journalism alive in Massachusetts and give communities from Pittsfield to Provincetown the information they need on issues of the day.


Whether we’re granted a seat on the commission—assuming it’s called into being—or not, we’ll be showing up to testify at every hearing for bill S.80. And we’ll bring friends.


Including, we hope, many of our faithful readers.


Disclosure: Chris Faraone and Jason Pramas are members of the Society of Professional Journalists.


Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.


*Chris Faraone is editor-in-chief and associate publisher of DigBoston and BINJ’s editorial director.


**John Loftus is business manager and publisher of DigBoston and BINJ’s operations director.