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Launching new programs to help revive local journalism
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.
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