Grassroots network of researchers and frontline medical workers publicizes hard data on the ongoing coronavirus crisis; encourages political activism for science-based public health policy
A Home in the Digital World
Grassroots network of researchers and frontline medical workers publicizes hard data on the ongoing coronavirus crisis; encourages political activism for science-based public health policy
Environmental zap action in front of Gov. Baker’s Swampscott home gets lots of attention with little useful context due to shrinking local press corps
[W]e’re asking all journalists, journalism educators, journalism students, media reform activists, and DigBoston readers who agree that the state journalism commission should be created to call your Mass state senator today and ask him/her to tell Sens. Eric Lesser (D – Longmeadow), Michael Rodrigues (D – Somerset), and Patrick O’Connor (D – Weymouth), who are on the conference committee, to keep the journalism commission in the final economic development bill.
[W]e’re asking all readers who are concerned about the collapse of local news media to contact your state representative and ask them to cosponsor Amendment #40 of H. 4879. The more cosponsors the amendment has, the more likely House Ways and Means will pass it. If that happens it has a good chance of making it through the full legislative process for this session. And becoming a law. Which would be a promising outcome for the future of local news in the Commonwealth.
Following the US assassination of a high-ranking Iranian commander
As the old saying goes, democracy is not a spectator sport
It has been nine months since DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism partnered with the Somerville Media Center to organize an event asking Somervillians what kind of coverage was missing from their city’s remaining news media. The February 2019 Somerville Community Summit ultimately attracted 115 locals—many of whom were members or staff of 22 co-sponsoring civic organizations—to give powerful testimony to 15 professional journalists about six topic areas that they thought were getting short shrift. In an age when the consolidation of news media by a handful of giant corporations and the rise of digital media owned by another handful of big companies have done tremendous damage to local news production… in Somerville, and around the nation. Turning municipalities into what media researchers call “news deserts”—areas that no longer have professionally produced news outlets.
That first event was the result of the lived experience of my Dig and BINJ colleagues—Chris Faraone and John Loftus—and me over the nearly four years to that point during which we tried (with some success) to provide Boston-area communities with reportage that would otherwise be absent from the regional news ecology. We noticed local cities and towns having their newspapers of record (some of them over 100 years old) gobbled up by the huge media conglomerates, squeezed for profit, and then—often as not—discarded like so much refuse. Leaving Mass municipalities without the news that is the lifeblood of our democracy.
And we believed, as we still believe, that the more community news organizations that were forcibly shrunk to a fraction of their former capacity or shut down outright, the more that democracy is in danger.
So, we decided that it was important that we initiate a community organizing effort in the wake of the February summit to help Somerville rebuild its news infrastructure—strengthening the independent news outlets that remained, and possibly creating new news media to replace what was lost. All with the goal of helping a community talk to itself about issues of the day. In the way that it and communities around the nation had done for over two centuries since the founding of our republic.
As I said in my Dig editorial on the first event, Somerville Community Summit: Convening a City to Improve Its News Media, such a grassroots effort could not be primarily led by paid organizers from an organization like the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. The effort could be sparked by a group like BINJ, but its success or failure would lie with local volunteers who would either step forward to help improve news production in Somerville in their own interest… or not.
Which is why it has been great to see the positive response we’ve gotten to the community organizing campaign—the Somerville News Garden—that we launched via BINJ in late June. Twenty-five Somerville residents stepped up at the first meeting, and about 15 of those folks have become very active with the garden in the intervening months. With the result that the role of BINJ staff has started getting less central to the endeavor.
All to the good given that the news garden already has four projects in progress: the Somerville PR Wire that is almost ready to launch a volunteer-curated website that will put a feed of pitches and event listings from community members in front of all the area journalists interested in covering Somerville on a regular basis, a quarterly volunteer-run PR Clinic that will train Somervillians on how to talk to local journalists about issues and happenings they’d like to see covered, a Research Group that has just begun deploying its first survey instrument to Somerville residents to find out what kind of news they consume about the city and where they get it from, and a Neighborhood Media School that has already recruited educators to teach our first batch of inexpensive courses on journalism and news analysis starting this winter.
Everything the Somerville News Garden does is meant to be transparent and replicable. So whether our experiments succeed or fail, communities around the country will be able to follow our roadmap and create their own news gardens wherever a news desert is threatening democracy.
In that spirit, I am pleased to give a quick report about the news garden’s first public event—held last Saturday at the ever-fabulous and community-spirited club ONCE Somerville—Real News, Fake News, No News: Reviving Local Journalism in Somerville. But I’d like to set a precedent for truth-telling from the get-go. Because as both a journalist and a longtime labor and community activist, I have noted a tendency for otherwise well-meaning nonprofit community organizing efforts to ever and always “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative” when discussing their progress.
And I’ve stated previously that I don’t think it helps anyone—least of all people interested in duplicating our effort elsewhere—to hear nothing about the news garden but happy-talk of the the type too many nonprofits often aim at major funders. Due, in the main, to the fear of losing big donations by failing to succeed at every turn. An unrealistic expectation at the best of times.
As such, I will start by saying that I thought Real News, Fake News, No News was a qualified success. The main aims of the event were—having already solidified the commitment of the first group of Somerville News Garden volunteers—to attract more Somerville residents to become active with the effort, to provide some public education on the crisis in journalism at the national and local levels, to have a good discussion with community members about specific issues and happenings that they think need more coverage in area news media, and to let attendees be the first people to take our survey.
I think news garden volunteers had varying turnout targets on their minds as they put posters up around the city and activated various social networks, but I was hoping for 40-60 people—given that we knew in advance that some community activists would be working on the Nov 5 municipal elections and that Real News was happening on a nice sunny Saturday, Nov 2.
We ended up with 42 participants. About 25 of whom were new. So that was good. Though not as good as we were hoping. We had enough people to have an acceptably large audience for the excellent presentations by Professor Gino Canella of Emerson College and lifelong Somerville resident and sometime journalist Lynne Doncaster (followed by some great comments by audience members who had worked with the Somerville Journal, Somerville News, and Somerville Times back in the day), and two breakout groups with nice conversations—led by Jane Regan of the newly revived Somerville Neighborhood News at Somerville Media Center—about “Headlines We’ve Never Seen” (resulting in several new article ideas for local journalists to cover). Which then ensured that a reasonable number of participants (led by our Research Group convener Leanne Fan) took our new Somerville Media Consumption Survey (which has already given us some great data and inspired us to start to disseminate the survey instrument widely around the city).
My concerns about the event, however, are twofold. First, although we did direct outreach to the same civic groups that turned out for the Somerville Community Summit, most of them did not respond to our call to attend the Real News event. Which makes sense. Because, a) we were reaching out to staff and active members of those groups who are already busy with their own work, and b) we did not have an audience of journalists on hand this time for those groups to pitch article ideas to. Lessening their desire to attend. But it’s going to be difficult to solve Somerville’s accelerating news crisis without active community groups involved. So the Somerville News Garden needs to find ways to partner with them going forward that are more obviously and directly beneficial to all sides.
Second, it’s hard to expect volunteers (no matter how committed) to handle community organizing campaigns—or serious public events like Real News—while going to school, holding down jobs, and taking care of kids and grandkids. The news garden has one paid staff person, me, attached to it from the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Yet, again, staff can never substitute for a growing number of engaged volunteers when it comes to organizing a community like Somerville to better talk to itself. Fortunately, news garden volunteers did indeed conceive of the Real News event basically from soup to nuts, and did much of the work to put it together. But I still had to step in and nudge things along from time to time. Something else we need to work on.
Now that the event is over and we have interest from over a dozen of the new attendees in starting to work with the news garden, everyone has to try hard to shore up the commitment of the initial volunteers, integrate the new volunteers, and make sure that all those folks can handle work on our four projects without everything devolving into a staff-driven endeavor. Which I think would be the end of the news garden initiative. Because staff-driven campaigns are all too often “astroturf” efforts (fake grassroots) rather than the actual grassroots efforts that are needed to effect long-lasting positive change at the community level.
Genuine community commitment will be critical if we’re going to do more public events in all of Somerville’s neighborhoods and get more buy-in from all the different populations that make up the city. Right now, the news garden is primarily reaching white, educated homeowners with a habit of reading newspapers—most of whom are older and have lived in Somerville for a long time. We need to reach younger people, immigrants, and a variety of other folks if the news garden is going to truly represent the community it’s aiming to assist. Each of those groups has different interests and consumes different kinds of news in different media. One solution on the journalism front will decidedly not fit all.
These are the challenges the Somerville News Garden currently faces. And at the end of the proverbial day, our new organization will only succeed if significant numbers of Somervillians think that local news is important enough to put volunteer time into saving. We’re getting a fine response in our first few months of organizing. But 42 people at a well-advertised public event is not 60 people. Or the 115 we got at the last February’s community summit.
All of which is to say that Somerville residents reading this are cordially invited to join the Somerville News Garden and work with us to strengthen local journalism in the interest of democracy. Interested? Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s talk.
Click here to sign up for Community Journalism Crash Course workshop sessions with journalist and educator Jane Regan at Somerville Media Center, Nov 12 or Nov 14.
Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston—and executive director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Another Cambridge arts institution is being pushed out of its longtime home by a greedy landlord. And once again, local artists are mobilizing to “discuss and organize for meaningful political action to support the arts” in that city—as the Facebook event page of Monday’s Emergency Organizing Meeting: Cambridge Arts and 2019 Elections put it.
Green Street Studios may soon be no more. According to the Cambridge Day, “The dance space announced its closing Oct. 2, naming Oct. 27 as its last day in operation after Peter Givertzman, president of the Oriental Furniture shop and owner of the building as of April, nearly tripled the organization’s rent, according to the studio’s board.
“It joins such recent closings in Central Square—a state designated cultural district—as the Out of the Blue art gallery and Mobius performance art space and the EMF music community and its New Alliance Gallery. Cambridge has also seen the departure of the Deborah Mason School of Dance, Comedy Studio and Bridge Repertory theater company in recent years.”
Over 50 people showed up to the meeting at the soon-to-be-shuttered dance studio. Former Cambridge City Councilor Nadeem Mazen ran the hour-and-a-half presentation and provided the diverse crowd in attendance with perhaps the finest and most succinct explanation of how politics works in the City of Squares that I have ever seen. He was joined by Nate Fillmore of Cambridge Bike Safety—who related lessons from his organization’s successful campaign for more bike lanes—and democratic socialist city council candidate Ben Simon of the Cambridge Artist Coalition… who was slated to review the failed fight to save the EMF building, but mainly focused on the uphill battle artists face when trying to push back against capitalist landlords and real estate developers. Points that were well-received by the clearly distressed attendees, and echoed by city council candidate Nicola Williams from the audience.
All in all as good a start as any incipient grassroots political movement could ask for. But now the hard work must begin. With the 2019 Cambridge City Council election just three weeks away, the artists have little time to affect the composition of that body in ways that will improve their chances of winning funding for the new public arts spaces that could ease the financial pressure on the area’s remaining independent arts organizations.
So, as Mazen indicated, they’re going to have to launch a well-organized campaign to lobby the city’s byzantine political apparatus to get the desired result—whether they have a friendly council and city manager or not. Without getting mollified or marginalized along the way.
Given that, as a longtime community and labor activist, I thought I should offer the new formation some relevant reflections. And as an artist. Specifically a visual artist, if not a very active one (what with the whole being a journalist and running a weekly newspaper thing). Moreover as a principal in a short-lived effort (2014-2015) to effectively restart the Boston Visual Artists Union of the 1970s in broader form with a membership organization called Mass Creative Workers. I wouldn’t go so far as to call my meditations here anything so grand as advice—considering that the activist artists group that I helped organize fizzled out shortly after its launch—but I hope it is received in the spirit it is intended nonetheless. As food for thought.
First point: If organizing any group of humans into any kind of political formation can rightly be likened to the sisyphean task of “herding cats,” organizing artists is more like herding a far-ranging group of particularly ornery and single-minded mountain lions. An activity, therefore, not for the faint of heart. While I think that increasingly tough political economic circumstances are going to force artists to work together in their own collective interest more and more, it’s going to be tough going no matter what shape a new organization takes. So activist artists should try extra hard to be kind to each other as they undertake any such endeavor. It will make a difference.
Second point: Activist arts organizations often assume that they provide some intrinsic value to the community they work in (saying things like “the arts benefit everyone!”). But other community members may not see it that way. Which can lead to trouble in any political campaign when hoped for community support doesn’t materialize. And the political establishment—seeing no air beneath the arts movement’s proverbial wings—then feels it is free to ignore artists’ entreaties. A good way to forestall such an outcome is for activist artists to make sure that their first order of business is really doing stuff to directly help local neighborhoods and other communities of interest in tangible ways. Be it a nice public arts effort with neighborhood kids, or simple acts of human solidarity like pitching in en masse at a holiday food drive. Then when push comes to political shove, community members will be much more likely to turn out in support of local artists. Because they’ll agree that artists really do provide value to their community.
Third point: Strongly related to the previous point, activist arts organizations have to take great care not to fight for gains just for themselves. This issue came up right at the end of Monday’s meeting. If winning more public arts spaces is an important goal for the new group—and I agree that it is—the fight for those spaces should be linked to ongoing fights that benefit all working people in Cambridge. Not just artists. The logical struggle to undertake in this case being the battle to get the city to leverage its own funds plus state and federal money to build desperately needed social housing. When such new publicly funded housing complexes are finally built, they would be excellent places to site new community arts centers. Because the people that will be among the most likely to use them will be living right there. And because the number of people that need decent government-run housing are legion. Yet the number of artists are relatively small. Though many artists are also people that need proper housing. So linking the smaller movement to the larger one makes all kinds of sense. Understanding that coalitions between people with divergent interests can be tricky, and that I wouldn’t suggest activist artists build such coalitions willy-nilly with any random political activist campaign that happens to be around.
That’s enough from me for now. Fellow Cambridge artists should know that I am watching this new campaign with interest going forward. And allow me to reiterate my brief statement at the meeting indicating that my colleagues and I at DigBoston are very interested in publishing opinion articles from artists working to win city funding for public arts spaces in the so-called People’s Republic—and for the arts in general. Since we believe that the best representatives of social movements are always the people who bring them into being—keeping them going against the odds, in the face of often-stiff resistance. Good luck to all.
Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. He holds an MFA in Visual Arts. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
It’s sad when a local public official claims powerlessness before real estate developers, the market, and state government. But that’s exactly what Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern is doing in the latest round of the already half-century long East Cambridge Courthouse saga. Which I wrote about in some detail in my May 22 column, “Cambridge Councilors Can Stop Undemocratic Courthouse Deal.” To understand why I think that McGovern is abrogating his responsibility to defend the public interest in the battle over the future of the property in question, a (necessarily dense) brief review is in order.
The 22-story East Cambridge Courthouse was built by Middlesex County government starting in the late 1960s and finished—despite strong protests from the neighborhood—in 1974. It was far taller than the surrounding area, ugly, indifferently constructed, and filled with asbestos. The county government went bankrupt and state government inherited the structure in 1997. The state moved the courthouse staff to Woburn in 2008, and the unfortunate denizens of the prison on top of the building to other area prisons by 2014.
Meanwhile, the state offered the building to the city of Cambridge. But the city manager of the time rejected that deal while the City Council stood down—despite community support for the city taking over the building, remediating the asbestos, levelling it, and developing much-needed public housing and other public improvements on the site—leaving the state to put out two poorly run calls for bids from commercial developers to buy the property. In December 2012, the state announced that Leggat McCall Properties (LMP) had the winning bid. And that developer signed a $33 million purchase and sale agreement with the state for the property in January 2013.
Thus began a years-long fight between shifting coalitions of neighborhood activists, politicians, and LMP that supported either a city takeover of the site or allowing the developer to convert the courthouse to a commercial office tower. Over time, even as court challenges by pro-public-use activists failed, LMP was pushed to provide some improvements to its original vision—including taking two floors off the top of the tower, adding 24 low-to-moderate-income apartments, and providing some community space. To date it has paid about $5 million dollars in various costs associated with acquiring the courthouse property, but has not completed its purchase.
Last fall, Cambridge (and Somerville) State Representative Mike Connolly—agreeing with the neighborhood activists that supported a public vision for the site—started a process that resulted in the 2019 release of a “Community-Driven Framework.” Which involved the city stopping the state’s sale of the courthouse to LMP by refusing to offer to lease the 420 parking spaces in a nearby city-owned lot required to complete the deal under the terms of the (hotly contested) Cambridge Planning Board Special Permit, buying the building, remediating the asbestos, tearing it down, and then seeking a combination of city, state, and federal money to build public housing, parks and other improvements of use to the community.
The renewed debate over the future of the courthouse site has resulted in three factions: people who support letting LMP complete the purchase of the property and develop the site on a commercial basis, people who prefer the public vision for the site but are sick of fighting about it, and people who stand behind the public vision represented by the Community-Driven Framework. A framework that—contrary to its critics’ attacks—will accept a role for commercial development on the site, as long as community needs for public housing and other amenities are met.
The latter two camps appear to represent the majority of the neighborhood between them; so the smaller pro-LMP camp is striving mightily to win over the fence-sitters who are sick of the whole fight, and stop the City Council from blocking the lease of the contested 420 parking spaces to LMP. Which is what will happen if four out of nine city councilors vote against the lease. Three councilors are now on record against it: Dennis Carlone, Vice Mayor Jan Devereux, and Quinton Zondervan.
So, the future of the courthouse site hinges on a single councilor. In a vote that has now been delayed until September… after pro-public-use neighborhood activists in the East Cambridge Planning Team community group sent a detailed letter to the city about problems with its recent public process in support of leasing the parking spaces to LMP. Specifically, according to the Cambridge Day, “calling the parking study done by city staff to help guide Planning Board members and city councillors ‘fatally flawed,’” “pointing to spaces identified as available to the public when they are not and spaces they say are counted twice,” indicating “that data identified as being gathered on weekdays were actually gathered on Saturdays,” saying that “there is already a waiting list for use of the parking garage that would see 420 parking spaces subtracted and given to drivers at the redeveloped courthouse,” and perhaps most damningly stating “that the city’s disposition law calls for analysis of alternatives to leasing the parking spaces and retail, but the report lacks them. … [T]he law also calls for explanation of ‘any actual or projected annual revenues or costs’ for the property.” No such analysis or explanation of revenues and costs has been presented to the council or the Cambridge public to date.
Marc McGovern is an archetypal neoliberal municipal politician. That he has taken donations from real estate developers and contractors and their relatives goes without saying—since the real estate industry dominates local politics nationwide—but he clearly believes that the way to run a city in 21st-century America is to attract as much big development as possible, get whatever funds collected from the generally small and inoffensive taxes and fees that developers will accept, and then use that money to keep the city attractive enough to hold onto to the developments that are here and entice more developers to build here. While, secondarily, providing public services to residents that are somewhat better than the services cities without big developments have.
Now he has another prominent local politician, Connolly, on his left calling that model of capitalist governance into question. He doesn’t want to lose the LMP deal and doesn’t want to be forced to help figure out ways to fund the Community-Driven Framework for the courthouse site, so he’s taken to attacking Connolly directly.
First in a Cambridge Chronicle op-ed two weeks ago, and Friday in a Facebook post. The fact of the attack is not particularly surprising. But its shape is. Because in both the op-ed and the Facebook post, McGovern is saying that the mayor of one of the richest cities in America per capita—and the elected city council—can do nothing to stop the LMP deal. Due to the supposedly o’erweening power of the city manager, and the edicts of the Commonwealth’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM)—the agency that controls the courthouse site.
However, City Manager Louis DePasquale is an appointed staffer who serves at the sufferance of the elected city council. So it’s odd to state, as McGovern did in the Chronicle op-ed, that “The city manager has indicated that he will NOT ask for an allocation to bid on this property should it become available.” As if the council’s opinion is moot once the city manager weighs in. Resulting in the spectacle of a sitting mayor—who due to the city’s unusual “Plan E” style of governance is a city councilor elected to be a first among equals by his peers—trying to win a political debate by pretending a staff member the council can fire is able to overrule it on key policy matters.
Then in the Facebook post, McGovern waves around a July 23 letter from DCAMM Commissioner Carol Gladstone to the city manager—stating that it puts “to bed the idea that the State is going to give the court house to the City.” The relevant section of the letter he cites is, “A question has arisen regarding whether the Commonwealth would transfer the property to the City of Cambridge for nominal consideration. The Commonwealth has no plans to do so, due to the pending purchase and sale agreement with Leggat McCall. As required by Chapter 34 of the Acts of 2008, the enabling legislation for this transaction, the Commonwealth expects to obtain full and fair market value for the property.”
But the DCAMM letter puts nothing to bed. It merely restates what is already known in bureaucratese: that DCAMM has no plans to change what it is currently doing. Because the city of Cambridge has not yet exercised its power to stop the LMP deal. Should it do so, the state agency would be forced to go to the table with the city and work out a new plan. Which is the main point of the Community-Driven Framework.
In the service of this line of argument, McGovern has latched onto the current talking points of LMP and its supporters: a) that the building is too much of a health and safety hazard to be allowed to stand long enough to reject the parking spaces, kill the LMP deal, and negotiate a new deal with the state; and b) that the “significant community benefits package” offered by LMP is just awesome, so why would the city want anything more.
To the first point, the health and safety gambit is refuted in a blog comment on an agenda item for this week’s special summer city council meeting by Vice Mayor Jan Devereux: “#7 Report on Condition of the Sullivan Courthouse: As the City Manager’s report states, the building is under close watch 24/7 by two security guards (at the state’s expense) and all the systems and utilities have been shut off. There is no elevated risk of fire in this steel-construction concrete building; asbestos does one thing well, it makes buildings more fire resistant. The Sullivan Courthouse is ugly and too tall and should be demolished, but it is not the imminent public safety threat that some supporters of the developer’s plan have led nervous neighbors to believe.”
To the second point, the cornerstone of the LMP community benefits package is “$23.5 million toward affordable housing.” Sounds great, right? It’s not. It’s peanuts. That figure includes the paltry 24 apartments that neighborhood activists negotiated. In a city where 6,000 people flooded the affordable housing waitlist in 2016 alone, according to the Chronicle. The Community-Driven Framework approach, by way of comparison, could result in many more desperately needed public housing units being built. But that doesn’t seem to matter to McGovern and other LMP allies—who have never demonstrated that $23.5 million is even close to enough affordable housing money to make up for the displacement of more working- and middle-class East Cambridge residents by a fresh wave of highly paid corporate employees in the commercial office space to be built in the courthouse should LMP’s plan go forward. In addition to the displacement being caused by several other major commercial developments underway in and around the neighborhood. Let alone help the city grapple with its accelerating housing crisis. So, LMP would have to pony up a lot more of the huge profits it will doubtless make if the current deal stands before anyone—the mayor of Cambridge least of all—can have the temerity to claim that the developer would be doing right by the so-called “People’s Republic.”
To conclude, I’ll be writing more about the courthouse struggle as the council vote on the parking spaces approaches, but in the meantime I recommend that Cambridge residents—especially those supporters of the public vision for the site represented by the Community-Driven Framework who are tired of fighting—should take anything that Mayor Marc McGovern says about the matter with a 22-story-sized grain of salt.
Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—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.
Over 80 journalists, journalism students, and professors answer DigBoston’s call to turn out Amazingly, I’m on my first real vacation in four years this week. But I think […]