Prototype "Medville Transnal" front page. Collage by Jason Pramas.
Prototype “Medville Transnal” front page. Collage by Jason Pramas.

Gannett merges its Somerville Journal and Medford Transcript newspapers as BINJ’s Somerville News Garden project and the Somerville Media Center launch a new municipal foundation to fund local journalism

Nearly three years ago, after hosting a community forum on the crisis in local journalism attended by 115 residents of Somerville, including representatives of over a dozen civic organizations, my colleagues and I at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism resolved to start a community organizing project in that city aimed at experimenting with a replicable model that municipalities around the US could use to rebuild their failing news infrastructures in the interest of democracy.

The Somerville News Garden, as I dubbed it in advance of its founding in June 2019, had pulled over 40 Somervillians—with a core of a dozen committed activists—into its orbit by that winter. And spent a lot of time discussing the many problems that were leading cities, towns, and counties around the nation to become “news deserts” that no longer had professional journalists covering local political, economic, social, and cultural developments.

One key driver of the crisis was clear from the start of the organizing effort: media consolidation. That is, the buyout and absorption of municipal news outlets by multinational corporations. Whose only goal was to squeeze these generally “legacy” print newspapers for the last drops of profit that could be wringed out of their advertising and legal notice revenue streams—cutting editorial staff and therefore the very content that had been their reason for being as they went—prior to selling off their remaining assets and shutting them down when sufficient returns had been extracted from them. With no consideration whatsoever of the critical role such publications had long played in thousands of communities as the main public agoras for discussion and debate of issues of the day. Providing, for all their many flaws, a vital service to the American democratic process.

Over the last couple of pandemic years, as the Somerville News Garden work crystallized into four initiatives—the Somerville Wire news service (ably staffed by BINJ Assistant Director Shira Laucharoen for more than a year already), the Research Group, the Neighborhood Media School, and the recently launched municipal foundation Somerville Media Fund—Somerville residents would occasionally ask me why BINJ and local activists were expending so much effort on our project.

After all, they’d say, Somerville still has its traditional newspaper of record, the Somerville Journal. Plus, the local independent commercial newsweekly Somerville Times. And DigBoston—the metro alternative newsweekly run (separately from BINJ) by my partners Chris Faraone and John Loftus and me, and widely distributed around Somerville. And the Somerville branch of the national Patch online news chain.

So, our interrogators would ask, why were BINJ and our allies going around saying that Somerville’s news infrastructure was in danger of crashing and burning?

I would reply that the Somerville Journal was owned by Gannett—the 900-pound gorilla of multinationals in the local news space—that had bought up more than 100 newspapers and magazines in Massachusetts alone. And that it was only a matter of time until it tossed the desiccated husk of that news property it was crushing for profit away like so much garbage. The Somerville Times was surviving on what was likely a very thin profit margin, as was DigBoston, and both small newspapers were, shall we say, living dangerously. Patch was stable, but not very widely read in Somerville, considering it lacked a print edition. A medium that still matters more to the dissemination of local news than casual observers might think.

In conversations since 2020, I would also note that the lifestyle magazine Scout Somerville—which used to do some local news reporting—went under at the beginning of the pandemic (as did its sibling publication Scout Cambridge).

On the multimedia front, I would explain that the local public access television station Somerville Media Center (now led by a former Somerville Journal editor, Kat Powers) has definitely been producing some professional news content for years. But, like most similar stations in the US, it is struggling to survive for the long term and is working hard to figure out how to get more “eyeballs on screens.”

Critically, I would point out, all of Somerville’s surviving news organizations together don’t field as much original local content as the Somerville Journal did as an independent newspaper in advance of its sale to a series of large corporations starting in the 1990s. When it had three editors, three or more full-time reporters, its own sales staff, printing press, printing staff, distribution operation, and building.

Once the Somerville Journal is gone, I concluded in such exchanges, it will remain an open question whether the Somerville Times and DigBoston can make it in the long run. Leaving only Patch standing, if both those newspapers should then stop publishing.

That is why we keep moving the Somerville News Garden project forward. Working with Somerville residents to rebuild the city’s failing news infrastructure. Carefully documenting our progress as we go and spreading word of our successes and failures nationwide. In hopes of helping other municipalities to reverse the rolling destruction of their local news organizations.

Our efforts got a big, if dispiriting, boost—and our critics some food for thought—last week when Gannett announced it was merging or eliminating many of its Massachusetts news properties. Including the Somerville Journal. The remnant of which Gannett is merging with the Medford Transcript to create the Transcript and Journal. A publication which is doubtless merely a last brief flash in the proverbial pan before its elimination by its profit-focused corporate parent. And one which Gannett had the unmitigated gall to claim “reaffirms” its “commitment to the sustainable future of local news.”

In fact, what Gannett is doing—and has been doing through the years it was known as GateHouse hereabouts—is destroying the bedrock American institution of strong independent local newspapers. And replacing it with … nothing.

As such, my colleagues and I—BINJ staff and local volunteers alike—will continue our work on the Somerville News Garden project. And in the coming days, the Somerville Media Fund initiative we spun off as an allied 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation will launch its first drive to provide regular operating grants to the two nonprofit news outlets in the city: the news garden’s Somerville Wire news service and the public access station Somerville Media Center.

We will invite all Somerville residents and supporters from around the Boston area to support these vital local independent journalism efforts. Both of which are working together to rebuild the news infrastructure in one small city. Creating a model that concerned residents in other cities, towns, and counties can use toward the same end. Helping to ensure that Americans and immigrants alike have the information we all need to keep democracy alive in the increasingly difficult times we find ourselves in.

The original version of this column ran as an editorial in the Somerville Wire. A shorter version ran in the print edition of DigBoston.

Apparent Horizon—an award-winning political column—is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, editor of the Somerville Wire, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Full disclosure: Pramas is treasurer of the board of the directors of the nonprofit Somerville Media Center and president of the board of directors of the nonprofit Somerville Media Fund.