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Image via Environmental Defense Fund
Image via Environmental Defense Fund

As Earth approaches several catastrophic global warming “tipping points”


January 24, 2018



Before writing more columns examining Boston city government’s emerging plans to cope with the effects of global warming, I think a quick review of what area residents are likely to face in the coming decades is in order. Because it’s important to disabuse people of the idea that we’re dealing with “just” a handful of significant problems over time—a rise in air temperature, an increase of extreme weather events, and a rise in sea level—that those problems are isolated to just Boston or the United States, that they are going to continue until the end of the century and then stop, and that there are some simple things we can do to prevent those problems from becoming unmanageable.


The reality is far more frightening. According to Mother Jones, “In 2004, John Schellnhuber, distinguished science adviser at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the United Kingdom, identified 12 global-warming tipping points, any one of which, if triggered, will likely initiate sudden, catastrophic changes across the planet.”  


There’s been much research and debate since that time about which systems can be considered tipping points and which ones need more research before we can be sure, but the Environmental Defense Fund has a page on its website with an overview of the latest science. It’s called “Everything you need to know about climate tipping points” and you should read it in full. But here’s a quick summary of the tipping points that the Earth is passing or on its way to passing. Largely due to humans continuing to burn CO2-producing oil, gas, and coal decades after it was known to be suicidal to do so.


1) Disappearance of Arctic Summer Sea Ice

The poles are warming faster than the rest of the planet. In the Arctic, sea ice has been melting much more quickly than it used to for much more of every year as the average global temperatures rise year after year. Scientists are now predicting ice-free Arctic summers by mid-century. The less of the year that ice covers the Arctic, the less sunlight is reflected back to space. Sunlight that is not reflected warms the Arctic Ocean, leading to other problems and more global warming overall.


2) Melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet

Of particular concern to Bostonians because of our relative proximity to Greenland, the melting of its ice cap may continue for the next few hundred years until there is none left. Unlike melting sea ice that doesn’t add water to the world’s oceans, melting ice from land does. This will ultimately result in global sea level rise of up to 20 feet, and the process is underway.


3) Disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet

This tipping point may already have been passed—with the West Antarctic ice sheet already starting to collapse. Like the Greenland ice sheet, it too is expected to take hundreds of years to finish melting, but when it does it could raise the global sea level up to 16 feet.


4) Collapse of Coral Reefs

With oceans already warming and becoming more acidic, the algae eaten by the coral that make up the world’s often huge and spectacular reefs is being jettisoned, resulting in coral bleaching. This process weakens the coral and hastens its death. Which is accelerating the destruction of marine spawning and feeding grounds globally with dire consequences for many nations whose economies rely on them—and for biodiversity. Scientists now predict that the remaining coral reefs will collapse before there is rise in the global temperature of 2 degrees from the old normal average. Most climate models show the world reaching that threshold before the end of this century.


Beyond these, there are several other expected tipping points being studied: the disruption of ocean circulation patterns from the massive influx of fresh water from melting ice (especially in the North Atlantic, which would play havoc with Boston’s climate), the release of marine methane hydrates (which would accelerate the global warming already being caused by the CO2 emissions considered the main cause of climate change), ocean anoxia (a process creating growing oxygen-deprived “dead zones” in our oceans that can no longer support most life, aka “bye bye seafood”), the dieback of the Amazon rainforest (caused by human activity like cutting down huge numbers of trees with devastating consequences for biodiversity coupled with the loss of a major CO2 sink), the dieback of the boreal forests (still being studied, but means the death of more vast forests in and around our latitude of the planet), the weakening of the marine carbon pump (the Earth’s oceans have been absorbing much of the excess carbon in the atmosphere, but through this process will become less effective at it), the greening of the Sahara (some positive effects would come from this, but many basic ocean life forms rely on nutrients from the desert sand blowing into the ocean and will be negatively affected by losing it), and the increasingly chaotic Indian summer monsoons (could result in extensive drought in one of the Earth’s most populous regions).


Other processes underway may also be potential tipping points, including the collapse of deep Antarctic ocean circulation, the appearance of an Arctic ozone hole (joining the existing Antarctic ozone hole in causing rising UV levels in the Arctic with various negative effects), the aridification of the US Southwest (as moisture moves to the upper Great Plains), the slowdown of the jet stream (which could leave more weather systems stuck in place for weeks at a time, including extreme systems like our recent polar vortex-induced cold wave, among other negative effects), the melting of the Himalayan glaciers (which help provide fresh water for much of South Asia’s population), a more permanent El Niño state (which could result in more drought in Southeast Asia and elsewhere), permafrost melting (which results in more CO2 and methane being released, accelerating global warming further), and tundra transition to boreal forest (with uncertain effects).


Adding the above to the general effects of global warming that we’re already experiencing—areas that got lots of rain getting less and areas that got little rain getting more rain storms for more of the year, hotter temperatures overall leading to an array of bad effects like tropical diseases moving north, and the “sixth extinction” of large numbers of species of animals and plants—and keeping in mind that this is happening everywhere around the planet, readers should understand that we’re not facing a localized crisis.


And remember, all the processes mentioned above are interlinked in complex ways that are absolutely not fully understood by our current science.


So Boston is not just going to “trial balloon and town hall meeting” its way out of this array of existential crises. Surviving even one of the major problems caused by global warming—like the flooding from rising sea levels I wrote about last week—is going to be very difficult… and very expensive. And who’s going to pay for it? Well, going forward, in addition to pointing out that we’ll have to devote an ever-increasing percentage of public budgets to these problems, expect me to call for the corporations that started and continue to profit from global warming—the oil, gas, and coal companies—to pay for cleaning up the mess they created. To the degree possible. Which might not be sufficient to the monumental tasks at hand.


Still, it will be critical for Boston to join municipalities like New York City in suing the carbon multinationals Exxon, Chevron, BP, Shell, ConocoPhillips, and others for redress. While divesting the city from all investments in those companies’ stocks. And suing, and ultimately deposing, governments like the Trump administration that are aiding and abetting these corporations’ destruction of the planet.


Failing that, Boston and all of human civilization is literally sunk… burned… and perhaps ultimately suffocated. Dying not with the bang of nuclear war—itself a fate we also need to organize immediately to avoid given the federal government’s return to atomic sabre rattling—but with an extended agonizing whimper.


It’s up to all of us to stop that from happening.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.




Unless Boston builds proper defenses against global warming-driven sea level rise


January 17, 2018



So, Boston’s Seaport District flooded early this month during a bad snowstorm in the midst of several days of arctic temperatures. And nobody could be less surprised than me. Because I’ve spent a lot of the last quarter century closely following developments in the science of climate change. And the “bomb cyclone” that caused the flooding, and the polar vortex that caused that, are both likely to have been caused by global warming. Yale University Climate Connections just produced a great video that features several luminary climate scientists explaining why at Definitely check it out.


No question, though, that it’s good to live in a region where local government at least recognizes that global warming is a scientific reality. The city of Boston is certainly ahead of most municipalities in the US in terms of laying plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to become “carbon neutral” and to deal with some of the anticipated effects of climate change. Particularly, flooding from inexorably rising sea levels and increasingly powerful and frequent storms. Which the more reactionary Boston TV newsreaders still insist on calling “wild weather.” But its plans are largely just that… plans. And they are still incomplete and, frankly, woefully inadequate to deal with the magnitude of the crisis facing us all.


Boston city government has initiated an array of climate change initiatives, including Greenovate Boston, a section of the Imagine Boston 2030 process, and—most germane to this discussion—Climate Ready Boston. They are all producing very nice reports grappling with some of the challenges to humanity presented by global warming in the decades to come. But the reports are written by planners and experts who are clearly pulling their punches for reasons that remain somewhat opaque. And in doing so, any good that might come out of the reports and the policy actions that will result from them is essentially undone.


A look at metro planning on global warming-induced flooding is a good way to illuminate the problem in question. The Climate Ready Boston program released a 340-page report in December 2016 that was meant to be a comprehensive assessment of the threats presented to the city by global warming—with plans for possible correctives. It does mention the idea of building giant dikes, storm barriers, and retractable gates (which they call a “harbor-wide flood protection system”) across Boston Harbor as the method with the most potential to save much of the city from major flooding. Which makes sense since Mayor Marty Walsh signed a 2015 agreement with Dutch officials to work together to manage rising sea levels, according to Boston Magazine. And the Dutch are recognized world experts on giant storm barriers and hydroengineering in general, lo, these last few hundred years.


But there’s no firm commitment for harbor-wide defenses in the report. Yet it should be obvious that they are absolutely necessary if Boston is going to continue as a living city for even a few more decades. At least Amos Hostetter of the Barr Foundation—who is a major player in Boston’s climate efforts—put up $360,000 for the UMass Boston Center for the Environment to study their feasibility last year, according to the Boston Globe.


More concerning than its waffling on building big dikes, the big Climate Ready Boston report chooses to focus on the possibility of sea level rise of no more than 3 feet by 2070—although it allows that a rise of 7.4 feet is possible by 2100:



The highest sea level rise considered in this report, 36 inches, is highly probable toward the end of the century if emissions remain at the current level or even if there is a moderate reduction in emissions. … If emissions remain at current levels, there is an approximately 15 percent chance that sea levels will rise at least 7.4 feet by the end of century, a scenario far more dire than those considered here.



Similar caution is on display with an October 2017 Climate Ready Boston report called “Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown”—focusing on tactics to protect two Boston neighborhoods on Boston Harbor at high risk for flooding caused by global warming. Once again, the authors’ assumption is that global warming-related sea level rise in Boston will be no more than 3 feet higher than year 2000 figures by 2070. Even though such estimates—which we have already seen are conservative by Climate Ready Boston’s own admission—also indicate that we could face 7-plus feet of sea level rise or more by 2100. And even higher rises going forward from there. Because sea level rise is slated to continue for generations to come.


What’s weird about such methodological conservatism is that a 2016 paper in the prestigious science journal Nature co-authored by a Bay State geoscientist says the lower figures that all the city’s climate reports are using already look to be wildly optimistic.


According to the Boston Globe:



“Boston is a bull’s-eye for more sea level damage,” said Rob DeConto, a climate scientist at UMass Amherst who helped develop the new Antarctica research and who co-wrote the new Boston report. “We have a lot to fear from Antarctica.” … If high levels of greenhouse gases continue to be released into the atmosphere, the seas around Boston could rise as much as 10.5 feet by 2100 and 37 feet by 2200, according to the report.


What’s even weirder is that the same UMass scientist, Rob DeConto, co-authored a detailed June 2016 report for Climate Ready Boston called “Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Projections for Boston: The Boston Research Advisory Group Report” with 16 other climate scientists that look at an array of possible outcomes for the city—and include a discussion of the higher sea level rise figures mentioned in the Nature paper. The report concludes with an admission that current science doesn’t allow for accurate predictions of climate change in the second half of the century. All the more reason, one would think, that models predicting higher than anticipated sea level rise should not seemingly be dismissed out of hand in other Climate Ready Boston reports.


The Globe also reported that a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says Boston can expect a sea level rise of 8.2 feet by 2100. Both 8.2 foot and 10.5 foot estimates are higher than the 7.4 foot estimate that Climate Ready Boston says is possible by 2100, and well above the 3 feet that it is actually planning for by 2070.


The same team that produced the larger Climate Ready Boston report authored the East Boston and Charlestown report; so they are doubtless quite well-aware of all this. Which is evident in this sentence about the (insufficient) extensibility of their proposed neighborhood-based flood defenses: “If sea levels rise by more than 36 inches, these measures could be elevated at least two feet higher by adding fill, integrating structural furniture that adds height and social capacity, or installing deployable flood walls. With this built-in adaptability, their effectiveness could be extended by an additional 20 years or more.”


The point here is not that the Boston city government is doing nothing about global warming-induced flooding. It’s that the city is potentially proposing to do too little, too late (given that most of the flood defenses it’s proposing will remain in the study phase for years, and many will protect specific neighborhoods but not the whole city when finally built), for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Though it’s probable that those reasons are more political and economic than scientific. Avoiding scaring-off the real estate developers and major corporations that provide much of the current city tax base, for example. The kind of thing that will make life difficult for politicians who then make life difficult for staffers and consultants working on global warming response plans.


Regardless, if experts like the Dutch are basically saying, Boston really needs to build the biggest possible harbor-wide flood protection system to have any hope of surviving at least a few more decades, then we can’t afford to do one of the more half-assed versions of the big cross-harbor storm barrier plan mentioned in the original Climate Ready Boston report—or, worse still, fail to build major harbor-wide defenses at all. If major studies by climate experts are saying that 3 feet of sea level rise by 2070 and 7.4 feet by 2100 are overly optimistic figures, then we need to plan for at least the highest reasonable estimates: currently, the NOAA’s 8.5 feet or, better yet, the Nature paper’s 10.5 feet for the end of the century. It’s true that we could get smart or lucky and avoid those numbers by 2100. But what about 2110? Or 2150? Or 2200? Sea level rise is not just going to stop in 2070 or 2100.


Are city planners and researchers willing to gamble with the city’s fate to avoid sticky political and economic fights? Let’s hope not. For all our sakes. Or the recent Seaport District flood—and numerous other similar recent floods—will be just the start of a fairly short, ugly slide into a watery grave for the Hub.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.



Making can be cool, but conscious making is cooler


December 19, 2017



For many of us living in and around Boston in recent years, it has become common to see lots of communications from makerspaces around holiday time. Which is totally understandable. Such creative centers produce neat things year-round, so it’s only natural that their members would turn to producing gifts like busy elves (and holding workshops about how to produce gifts like… um… smart busy elves) as fall turns to winter.


However, if you’re someone who thinks critically about social institutions and their interaction with technology, then you might join me in feeling some concern about the trajectory of these spaces. Which boils down to this: Do makers and the makerspaces they found think about why they make, and for whom they make? Obviously, it varies from maker to maker and space to space, but my observation has been that the maker movement could do much better on that front. So I thought I would run through some of my apprehensions on that theme and make some suggestions for reform. In the spirit of holiday giving and all that.


There’s no question that makerspaces have been a boon to society in many different ways. Described by the Somerville nonprofit makerspace Artisan’s Asylum as “community centers with tools,” these logical outgrowths of the hacker and DIY cultures—and the older crafter culture, amateur radio culture, and cultures around magazines like Popular Electronics and Popular Mechanics—have grown to become a significant social force in the last decade. Particularly in places like the Boston area that have lots of colleges producing lots of engineers, scientists, and artists.


But it’s important to remember that—as with science, technology, and art in general—there is a problem with pushing “making” in the abstract without thinking about its social and political consequences. Because tools and techniques may be inherently neutral, but people and the institutions we create are not.


Including makerspaces. So it’s worth being aware that, according to PandoDaily, in early 2012 O’Reilly Media’s MAKE division —publisher of Make magazine, perhaps the best known popularizer of the maker movement—announced that it had won a grant from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to participate in the agency’s Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach (or MENTOR) program. The money was to be used to start 1,000 makerspaces in high schools around the country.


Now DARPA may be most famous as the super clever agency that brought us the Internet. But it worked on that project in part—protestations from its fans and allies taken as given—to help solve the insoluble problem of how to keep America’s military, research, and control centers in communication with each other after an all-out nuclear war. And somehow help our government survive the unsurvivable.


It is also the super clever agency that has brought us an array of very nasty war machines in the last six decades. Notably, according to Air & Space magazine, the Predator drones that have killed hundreds of innocent people around the world—including many children—in recent years at the behest of presidents from Bush to Obama to Trump. Because they’re just not as accurate as our military and political leaders would have us believe. And because those leaders don’t really care about what they call “collateral damage” when they’re prosecuting what human rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights claim are extralegal assassination campaigns.


As it turned out, the DARPA MENTOR high school program never really got off the ground because it lost its budget in President Obama’s big “Sequestration” budget cut of March 2013. And it’s certainly worth mentioning that the program sparked protests from within the maker community.


But DARPA continues to participate in a variety of science and technology events aimed at high school kids—notably the young robotics crowd that overlaps with makerspaces.


And DARPA is also aiming events squarely at makerspaces… and some makerspaces are definitely participating. For example, according to the DARPA website, this November the agency held the DARPA Bay Area Software Defined Radio (SDR) Hackfest at NASA Ames Conference Center in Moffett Field, California. The relevant webpage explains that “Teams from across the country will come together to explore the cyber-physical interplay of SDR and unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, during the Hackfest.”


“Unmanned aerial vehicles” is another term for drones. Two of the eight teams invited to participate along with teams from military contractors like Raytheon were the Fat Cat Flyers from Fat Cat Fab Lab, a volunteer-run makerspace in New York City, and Team Fly-by-SDR from Hacker DoJo, a nonprofit community of hackers and startups in Silicon Valley… which is also a makerspace.


Whatever you in the viewing audience think about the Pentagon in particular and the American military in general, we can all agree that there are moral, ethical, social, and political questions that must be asked in a democratic society about the intersection of maker culture and makerspaces with those institutions.


For that reason, I think it’s critical that makerspaces raise and address such questions on an ongoing basis. That they maintain a scrupulous policy of transparency regarding who they work with and why. And that they hold classes and public forums on the moral, ethical, social and political dimensions of why makers make and for whom they make. Something you really don’t see much of at makerspaces at present. But should.


Anyhow, I’m keen to engage with the maker community on this topic and flesh these ideas out more. Folks interested in discussing the issues I’m raising at more length can drop me a line at


A shorter version of this column was originally written for the Beyond Boston regional news digest show—co-produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.



September 18, 2016


When seemingly random things happen in city government, they’re always worth a second look. Which was certainly the case last week when Mayor Marty Walsh announced a new partnership between the City of Boston, the World Economic Forum, and the Boston Consulting Group to test self-driving cars—aka autonomous vehicles—on city streets.

The stated goal is “a year-long engagement focused on creating policy recommendations and supporting on-street testing of autonomous vehicles … to advance the safety, access and sustainability goals identified by the public during the Go Boston 2030 transportation planning process.”

The rationale—“building on prior World Economic Forum research into Personal Mobility and Self-Driving Vehicles, conducted in partnership with The Boston Consulting Group, and the Future of Cities”—is framed primarily in terms of ending urban traffic congestion, reducing carbon emissions linked to global warming, and reducing poverty.

Sounds like a worthy endeavor, right? Perhaps in a better world. But not the way this technology is being rolled out. Or, more precisely, the way it’s being shoved down the public’s throat. Despite being one of the least-mentioned transit options by residents participating in the aforementioned Go Boston 2030 process—appearing with similar frequency to waggish questions like, “When can I fly around the city like the Jetsons?”—it’s suddenly a policy priority.

Put bluntly, this plan has all the makings of yet another corporate boondoggle. This time on an international scale with profound implications at the local level. Think Boston 2024 on steroids. A passing glance at the players tells the tale.

The World Economic Forum is an extremely powerful network of the global capitalist elite. They work hand-in-glove with the leaders of every major industry to ensure that the rich and powerful get ever more rich and powerful—and democracy be damned. The Boston Consulting Group is a multinational “management consulting firm” that is one of the architects of the “race to the bottom.” Where companies are encouraged to move jobs to countries with the cheapest labor costs and worst human rights standards in the quest for ever larger profits. Its recent accomplishments include flacking for charter schools and the privatization of public education worldwide. Then there’s the junior partner, the City of Boston, that takes virtually all of its major policy cues from corporate think tanks and foundations. A pattern established by a series of mayors since the 1950s. Most notably, the late Tom Menino.

Such corporate networks and organizations have the money and connections to turn their priorities into the priorities of hapless government officials like Mayor Walsh—who always seems to be chasing after bragging rights for Boston being a “global city,” or a “city of innovators” or whatever—even when the resulting policy prescriptions directly attack his core grassroots constituencies. As we’ve seen with the GE Boston Deal debacle.

For example, Walsh is known as a labor mayor. Someone who was put into power by local unions. Yet when considering this particular policy issue—self-driving cars—in that light, a number of serious potential problems for Boston area workers immediately present themselves.

To focus on the most obvious one, switching over from our existing fleet of cars and trucks to self-driving cars and trucks—in the service of expected mega profits to the auto, energy, and technology industries—will likely result in massive job loss to a huge number of professional drivers. Many of whom are taxi drivers and limo drivers whose jobs are already under threat of destruction by mostly unregulated “online transportation network companies” like Uber and Lyft. And many people who hold those professional driving jobs—like truck drivers or MBTA bus and train drivers—are members of labor unions like the Teamsters and the Boston Carmen’s Union that are already threatened by technologies being developed for private interests. Not for the public good.

What are the plans to help workers displaced by self-driving cars? Apparently the usual corporate non-plans. A September 2015 report by the Boston Consulting Group put it this way: “Rather than wage a doomed battle against progress, affected incumbents might be better advised to use the current ‘calm before the storm’ to adapt their business models to this new technology and position their businesses to profit from a new era of mobility. That is the key message that [vehicle manufacturers], dealers, and suppliers must convey while they work with governments on good-faith efforts to mitigate the impacts on those most negatively affected.”

The report’s most specific suggestion is that governments should provide: “job-retraining and placement services and compensation for income losses from unemployment.”

Anyone who has ever seen what actually happens in instances of mass layoff knows exactly what will follow in practice. In the best possible scenario, some affected workers—not all—will qualify for extended unemployment, and receive some training for job markets that don’t have enough openings to make up for the jobs being destroyed. After unemployment runs out—and even extended unemployment typically runs out in one-to-two years depending on the program—the displaced workers who have not managed to find new jobs are screwed.

And as shown above, the industries and “consultants” doing the damage to the affected workers will not have to pay a cent for any of the havoc they wreak. The burden of such “externalities” as the immiseration and dislocation of thousands of professional drivers in Boston alone is to be borne by already overwhelmed and underfunded public programs—where they have not already been eliminated by the ongoing corporate onslaught against the public sector led by those same industries and consultants.

On those grounds, the city should pull out of this incipient arrangement and pursue only those future transit options purpose-built to help working people rather than harm them. Self-driving vehicles could be of great benefit to humanity depending on how they’re produced and deployed. But shadowy corporate networks like the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group—given their long history of looting public goods for private profit—are absolutely the wrong institutions for municipal governments to be partnering with on such a critical project as the introduction of a major new technology.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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August 22, 2016


Now that broadband internet is a public utility, both cable companies and telephone companies need to pay for public access television — not try to defund it

Last week, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) was pleased to welcome the Alliance for Community Media (ACM) 2016 Annual Conference to our mini metropolis. Staff, board members, and volunteers from public access television stations from the around the nation were camped at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel — sharing skills, networking, and, unfortunately, discussing the best way to survive in a hostile political climate. Because despite being one of America’s greatest remaining democratic communications resources, public access TV is perennially fighting to preserve its funding. In honor of the ACM conference, I wrote the following commentary for the pilot episode of Beyond Boston — a video news digest that BINJ just launched this month in partnership with several area public access TV stations, including: Brookline Interactive Group (BIG), Cambridge Community Television (CCTV), Malden Access TV (MATV), and Somerville Community Access Television (SCAT). Our aim is to feature news produced at local public access TV stations and link it to news we produce at BINJ. Expanding the reach of all our work by effectively merging our audiences. Check out the show on participating stations and on the new Beyond Boston YouTube channel. And read on to get some perspective on the crisis facing a vital community media resource.

Public access television is one of greatest innovations of the grassroots movement for media democracy in the last half century. Also known as community television,  it has helped cities and towns nationwide to have their very own cable TV channels. Allowing residents to keep up with local news and views while enjoying a wide variety of arts and entertainment programming — most of which is produced by their family, friends and neighbors. Filling the gap in local nonprofit media options left by PBS and NPR.

One of the best things about public access television is the way it’s funded. Community media pioneers like noted filmmaker George Stoney helped craft regulations back in the late 1960s that made everything go. They were based on the principle that cable companies should pay an annual franchise fee to cities and towns in exchange for being able to build out their systems on municipal rights-of-way. In other words, companies like Comcast have to pay local governments for stringing their cables along public streets. That money can then be used to equip and sometimes staff public access stations. And those stations get used by the local population to celebrate their culture. Expanding free speech in the process.

That funding mechanism worked pretty well — despite a bunch of political speed bumps there’s no time to discuss today — until the telephone companies joined cable companies in offering broadband internet service about a decade back. Soon people in many places were getting all the content carried over the old cable systems and much much more from both telephone companies like Verizon and cable companies like Comcast. This created a problem for funding public access stations because cable companies offering broadband still had to pay the franchise fee to local governments that is used to finance those stations. But telephone companies that now also provide broadband don’t have to pay that franchise fee.

This has potentially provided the cable companies an opening to get rid of the franchise fee by stating that it’s unfair that they have to pay when the telephone companies don’t. Putting public access funding in extreme jeopardy. However, last year, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that broadband internet service is a public utility. Raising the possibility that both cable companies and telephone companies could be mandated to pay a franchise fee to cities and towns in exchange for stringing their broadband wires on public land.

The FCC is still figuring out how to proceed on that front, and they are under intense pressure from cable companies and telephone companies to free them from all responsibility for funding public access stations. So it is critical that everyone who supports public access media gets together with other interested folks in your community and starts building a new grassroots movement to demand the FCC apply the franchise fee to both cable companies and telephone companies. A win on this issue will keep public access stations funded for decades to come. And that’s a big win for democracy.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.


 Photo by Jason Pramas. Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas.

Photo by Jason Pramas. Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas.

June 21, 2016


Problems with GE Fort Point arrangement show need for democratic economic development planning

A new wrinkle surfaced earlier this month in the plan to use a big chunk of the $270 million in public aid and tax breaks being shoveled at General Electric to buy two of the three buildings that are slated to make up its new headquarters in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood.

In part 5 of this ongoing series of columns on the GE Boston deal, I mentioned that said scheme called for the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) to purchase the two former Necco company buildings from Procter & Gamble—along with part of the big parking lot outside its Gillette plant—and lease the buildings back to General Electric. Soon after, it emerged that while GE would pay up to an estimated $100 million to refurbish the buildings and build a new third structure on the site, it would not be paying rent. At all. For the entire 20 years of the lease. And that the terms of the agreement struck with the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts only put the vast multinational on the hook for “annual operating expenses, property taxes not abated or subject to a PILOT [Payment In Lieu of Taxes] agreement, and interior renovations costs.”

John Barros, Boston’s chief of economic development, subsequently insisted that despite the agreement making no mention of rent payments for the former Necco buildings, by gum there would be some kind of payments! Yet there has been no further news on what those payments might look like. Or if the company will, in fact, ever be asked to make any payments in exchange for using the buildings at all.

Key to the plan was BRA ownership of the buildings—because that allowed GE, a corporate behemoth infamous for making huge profits and paying very little in taxes, to use the part of the promised $120 million in state grants that wasn’t used by the BRA to purchase the buildings to rehab them and make other site improvements. Since the state money in question cannot be used on private property.

Now it turns out that the BRA won’t be involved in the deal at all. Instead, according to the Boston Business Journal (BBJ), the state’s economic development arm MassDevelopment will own the Necco buildings and the $120 million in state funds “would be used in [its] acquisition of the Necco buildings as well as to improve utilities at the site, create a public park and improve the existing Harborwalk.”

As regards the lack of rent, a rather uncritical April 1 BBJ piece, “Of course GE won’t pay rent in Boston, so stop bellyaching,” noted that “the revitalized site could generate roughly $1.75 million in annual gross tax revenues to the city.” An estimated $35 million over 20 years. The next day, the Boston Globe quoted a higher estimate using “City Hall” figures indicating that a “comparably sized office property in that part of the city” would pay $48 million in taxes over 20 years—which a later piece interpreted as the city pocketing $23 million over its $25 million in tax abatements to GE.

But when WGBH’s Jim Braude had interviewed Boston Mayor Marty Walsh a few days prior, hizzoner agreed there had been no discussion of GE paying taxes to the city to that point. After first putting it as an evasive double negative, “There’s been no discussion of not paying taxes.”

All that said, it comes down to this: The City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are giving millions of public dollars to a mind-blowingly wealthy conglomerate that doesn’t need it. To engineer the public purchase of two out of three headquarters buildings on which it will likely not pay much, if any, rent. Nor will GE likely pay significant taxes on the parts of the complex it is to own outright—if its past record as one of the biggest tax scofflaws in history is any guide.

The terms of the essentially secret deal that led to this situation—brokered by high public officials and GE leadership with no public oversight whatsoever—are already being violated. The place of the BRA in the complicated and highly questionable real estate transaction at the heart of the accord has now been taken by MassDevelopment. Once again with no opportunity for public comment or oversight.

Things just happen. Politicians and CEOs cut backroom deals. Much of the press lays down on the job. And the public gets shafted.

But what if the public didn’t have to bow down to private interests? What if we didn’t have to get shafted on deals like this? Imagine a Boston and a Massachusetts in which the public good—rather than short term gain for a few privileged actors—was the guiding political economic motivation.

Let’s say that the same city and state money being lavished on General Electric was put into something that many people have said was important—like strengthening and expanding the arts sector in Fort Point in ways that go much further than anything proposed in the city’s new arts plan. A sector that, after all, was largely responsible for making what the BRA likes to call the “Seaport District” attractive to big developers and corporate interests to begin with.

In that alternate Boston, the city and state would pull out of the GE deal. The state would buy the Necco buildings directly from P&G. Perhaps it would pick up the adjacent 253 Summer Street building as well. And it could even buy some of the available P&G parking lot and build desperately needed public housing—following the mixed-use zoning ideas for the area in the 2006 BRA “100 Acres Plan” a good deal more closely than that agency is at the moment. City and state money would refurbish the space as a creative industries incubator with an emphasis on new businesses run as worker-owned co-operatives. The focus of the project would be twofold. Create good arts jobs, and help Fort Point remain a major arts hub. That would be a much better use of public money than dumping it on GE. Especially because the entire development process would be transparent and subject to democratic oversight.

A robust popular movement will be required to make this kind of vision a reality. And such movements rarely appear on cue. But it sure would be nice if one did this time around.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.



GE Housatonic graphic

May 11, 2016


General Electric tries to cheap out on cleaning up its PCB apocalypse on the Housatonic River

In 1929, Swann Chemical Company began commercially producing polychlorinated biphenyls for industrial use as an electrical insulator and as a coolant. PCBs were immediately a huge success, and Monsanto bought Swann six years later. From 1932 to 1977, the big General Electric plant in Pittsfield, Mass used large quantities of the chemical in manufacturing electrical transformers and other products. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, as much as 600,000 pounds of PCBs was dumped into the adjacent Housatonic River and the surrounding soil over that time. In 1979, the EPA banned PCBs as a definite animal carcinogen and a probable human carcinogen. One which can take hundreds of years to naturally degrade to nontoxic levels.

As GE finished winding down its Pittsfield operation over the next couple of decades—ultimately eliminating 13,000 mostly unionized jobs, and driving a spike through the economic heart of the Berkshires—state agencies and the EPA initiated a number of regulatory actions culminating in a 1997 proposal by the EPA to add the Housatonic site to the Superfund National Priorities List. After long negotiations, the company managed to stop the site from being tarred with the Superfund designation and in 1999 agreed to what the EPA called a “Consent Decree” to cleanup PCBs in the Housatonic from the former site of GE’s Pittsfield plant to a couple of miles downriver in a first phase that has since been completed. And then to cleanup what was termed “Rest of River” in a second phase.

Having spent $100 million on the first phase (as part of the initial Consent Decree settlement), GE is now fighting to be able to cheap out on cleaning up the rest of the river. Mainly by trying to save the estimated $250 million cost of shipping PCB-contaminated river sediment and surrounding soil by rail to a huge toxic waste storage facility in Texas, as demanded by the EPA’s current “Rest of River” plan, via an alternative proposal for three new dumps in Western Mass. Two of which are right near the Housatonic. Yet are somehow expected to store a chemical infamous for its ability to leech out of dumps, spread miles underground—possibly right back to the river it was dredged from—and also evaporate and travel long distances in the air. GE appealed the EPA’s plan last October. A move that could land the whole affair in the US Court of Appeals in Boston, and drag a process that will take at least 13 years to complete out even longer.

Local communities are understandably furious, and river advocates have started holding protests at the proposed GE dump sites. It should be understood that the effects of PCBs on the environment are dire. And that so-called Rest of River cleanup is meant to fix some (but nowhere near all) of the damage done up to 140 miles downstream through Western Mass and Connecticut into Long Island Sound. PCBs—found in the Housatonic at levels far above the EPA safety threshold—not only raise cancer risks in humans and animals alike, but also cause direct immune, reproductive, endocrine, and neurological effects. With children being the most vulnerable human population.

But even the planned EPA approach to Rest of River cleanup on the Housatonic—which activists think is woefully insufficient—is still too expensive for GE’s taste at an estimated $613 million. The corporation won’t rest until it knocks at least $250 million off the top. And damn the environmental consequences.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether—given the buzz coming from Western Mass—there might be a connection between the Housatonic situation and the $270 million in public funds, services, and tax breaks that Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh have agreed to lavish on GE to induce them to move their headquarters to the Hub. But one has to wonder—in light of the recent investigation by the International Business Times showing that GE employees and the employees of GE’s lobbying firms donated nearly $1 million to the NY Congressional delegation over last three election cycles—why so many Empire State pols just happened to stand down from the fight to stop EPA approval of GE’s halting its dredging of PCBs in the Hudson River Valley last year? And if a scheme like that could happen one state over, why couldn’t it happen here?


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.


BINJ_GE Press Conference_040416_DSC_2449_©2016 Derek Kouyoumjian

Photo by Derek Kouyoumjian

April 8, 2016


General Electric brass, pols celebrate government giveaway while public opposition grows

While General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh cavorted with assorted political and business glitterati on the 33rd floor of the 60 State Street tower this week—celebrating the seeming fruition of the deal they cut last fall with zero public oversight— about 75 activists representing 36 community organizations picketed outside in the driving snow to criticize the $270 million-plus in state and city tax breaks, direct aid and services being lavished on the $117 billion multinational in exchange for moving its headquarters to Boston. 

According to one of the organizers, Eli Gerzon of Jewish Voice for Peace-Boston, the reason for the rally was simple, “This GE deal is a clear example of supporting abusive corporations instead of human beings … The idea that it will help everyday people is just the same old trickle-down economic logic that has failed us over and over. We’re not falling for that again. We need our budget and public funds to support human beings: public transportation, local good paying green jobs, schools, and housing. We don’t want to invest in a company that pollutes rivers in Massachusetts, dodges taxes, and builds warplanes used against Palestinians and other people of color around the world.”

Meanwhile, GE leadership thought it was appropriate to show a video at their event lauding the city’s “bold innovative thinkers” by calling out Malcolm X, Phillis Wheatley, Susan B. Anthony, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman. Famous radical agitators and intellectuals who probably would have all joined the protesters had they been alive.

In the March 25 installment of this Missing Manual, I predicted that the inevitable GE charm offensive aimed at attempting to placate increasingly perturbed locals would begin by spreading some money around town. And said that nonprofit organizations should refuse to take funds from a criminal corporation that ruined the lives of tens of thousands of poor families by selling them subprime mortgages, helped cause the 2008 financial collapse by selling toxic derivatives based on said mortgages, got bailed out by the feds (who changed the rules just for them), stole untold millions in a years long municipal bond scam, and avoided paying billions in taxes by—among other tricks— offshoring their profits (just like those nice Russian gentlemen we’ve been hearing about in the Panama Papers scandal). A position I stand by.

True to form, this week’s festivities began with the announcement of GE’s plan to donate $50 million to Boston schools, community health centers, and job training programs. But not all at once. Over five years. So, roughly $10 million a year. Looking under the hood of the official press release announcing the minor allotment from the company’s huge and growing PR budget—$393 million in 2014 according to AdAge, over $50 million on digital media alone in 2015 according to Kantar Media—the funds will likely benefit GE more than anyone else.

Here are a few illustrative quotes followed by my commentary:

Boston Public Schools (BPS): GE will reach 100 percent of Boston Public Schools high school students each year through our career labs, computer science courses, and high school design experience to prepare tomorrow’s workforce, by committing $25 million. The donation will provide students the opportunity to explore college and career possibilities, and to understand the skills necessary for future employment. GE will also create “GE Brilliant Career Labs” with both physical and virtual locations to allow students a unique hands-on experience with advanced manufacturing technology and software to assist them through career planning and internships. GE will also assist 100 percent of STEM high school teachers, to better prepare students for college and their future careers.

All roads here lead to GE polishing its tarnished image. The company’s goal being to look like it supports public education while donating less to BPS over the next five years than the $32 million the city is cutting from its budget next fiscal year alone. And at the end of the day, they’re not actually promising BPS students training that will lead to jobs at GE. Just the opportunity “to understand the skills necessary for future employment.” Which means what exactly? Understanding that you’ll either need to be a manufacturing robot in some zero regulation foreign Export Processing Zone, or a white, wealthy, Ivy League-trained manager in the Boston HQ to have a job with GE in the future? Sad.

Boston Community Health Centers (CHC): GE will commit an additional $15 million to developing, and expanding the skills of health care providers at critical Community Health Centers in underserved communities. This will include training in the use of technology, leadership skills, and increased access to specialty care, in order to deliver better treatment for common, complex medical conditions like cardiovascular disease and addiction. The Developing Health Boston program will initially support 22 Boston area CHCs and will provide skills training to more than 75 percent of CHC leaders, health care providers, and staff. As well, GE Foundation partners will help to develop next generation health care workers.

“Next generation health care workers?” More robots. Maybe they’ll revolt like in The Matrix or something. Regardless, it’s frankly insulting to talk about “expanding the skills of health care providers at critical Community Health Centers in underserved communities.” In Boston. Which has some of the best medical training programs in the world. What’s needed is for GE and corporations like it to pay the taxes they owe; so that Community Health Centers—and the US health system in general—no longer have to struggle for needed funds to provide top flight medical care to everyone. Preferably through a new national health program that expands Medicare to cover the entire US population.

Building the Diversity Pipeline: GE has also pledged $10 million to increase the capabilities and outcomes for our diverse students. GE will leverage its employees and leaders to provide training, access to manufacturing labs at GE Garages, and externships for underserved populations outside of the Boston Metro area, including Lynn and Fall River.

Result? GE will fail to provide jobs for “diverse students” from the cities and towns they screw over by not paying taxes.

And what of all those new jobs GE recently claimed would materialize in Boston because of their presence here?

According to an economic impact study conducted by Oxford Analytic, GE’s move adds 4,000 new jobs in the Boston area, between temporary construction jobs and permanent GE employees and vendors ….

This explains why the construction unions predictably haven’t uttered a peep of criticism of the deal—nor have any unions except the ones that used to have lots of members at the plants that GE shut down over the last few decades. As GE Lynn union leader Pete Capano presciently stated after the announcement of the GE Boston deal in January, “There will be more … donations to charity, that allows them to lay us off without looking bad.”  Many of the “4,000 new jobs” will be short-term (and presumably unionized) construction jobs building the new HQ. Which could be seen as a fat paycheck for Marty Walsh’s supporters in the Boston Building Trades Council. The rest will be some new jobs at any GE facility in the “Boston area” (i.e., Massachusetts), and some “vendors”—a category which can include any number of low-wage jobs like delivery people. Not very impressive.

After the press release, the dog-and-pony show began in earnest.

Just before the big soiree, Immelt told the Boston Herald, “Let’s say we’re here for another 40 or 50 years in Boston. Whatever we got in incentives, no one remembers. This is really about the vibe. It’s really about being part of a vibrant community, us adding to the community. So if you don’t feel that when you come, it’s bad to bet on that happening at some point down in the future.”

Ah yes, “the vibe.” GE isn’t coming to Boston because of “incentives” like potentially not having to pay rent on the buildings the Boston Redevelopment Authority is buying on its behalf. Perish the thought. It’s “really all about being part of a vibrant community.” And about the public forgetting such “incentives.” And not guaranteeing that GE HQ will stay in Boston for any specific length of time.

The 60 State Street event featured much more of the same kind of airy rhetoric. But Immelt felt it necessary to nod to the protestors, as recounted in CommonWealth magazine. Perhaps because he found himself on the defensive regarding the public giveaways in nearly every interview he’s given lately.

“ … I empathize with the people that are outside, particularly today. They have to be dedicated.”

The protesters, as the early voice of rising public discontent with the GE Boston deal, were having none of it—issuing a clear warning to the politicians who brokered it over the heads of area working families. Horace Small of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, who emceed the street rally, said, “Mayor Walsh and Governor Baker needs to understand they need to support people not rich white guys and corporations.”

True that.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.



Image by Kent Buckley 

March 25, 2016


General Electric’s Boston charm offensive presents dilemma for Boston nonprofits, others

General Electric is back on top of the Boston news cycle again. CEO Jeffrey Immelt made the rounds of pressers in person this week, starting with the announcement of a new 2.5 acre GE headquarters site—to be purchased from Procter & Gamble and carved out of their 44 acre Gillette campus. Right on the Fort Point Channel across from South Station and the main Boston post office. After refurbishing two former NECCO buildings on the site and erecting a new third building in the current parking lot, the company expects to spend $80-100 million on the complex.

However, the plot of the GE Boston Deal has thickened once again. It turns out that part of the promised $145 million in tax breaks and direct aid to the company from Boston and Massachusetts will only be possible because the Boston Redevelopment Authority plans to purchase the NECCO buildings and lease them back to GE. Neat trick for a much-hated neighborhood-destroying planning agency that only just got a six-year lease on life from the Boston City Council on Tuesday. Over the protests of the three councilors with any spine on the issue: Tito Jackson, Ayanna Pressley and Josh Zakim. No word yet about why Boston needs to spend an additional $100 million to repair the Old Northern Avenue Bridge at GE’s behest now that the multinational will be sited right near two perfectly functional bridges further up the channel. Or why the state has to throw in another $25 million to make the area around the new headquarters plot more pretty. But Mayor Marty Walsh and Gov. Charlie Baker will no doubt be able to explain that to us in the near future. Or perhaps not.

On Thursday, Immelt gave a speech to the Boston College Chief Executives Club at the Boston Harbor Hotel. Which raised more questions than it answered. Some of his more noteworthy offerings follow:

  • “This move for GE is all about the next 40 years. What do we want the company to look like, how do we want the company to be challenged?” [Reuters] So does that mean that GE’s HQ will be staying in Boston for at least 40 years? Probably best not to hold your breath on that one.
  • “And we think by the time it’s all said and done there should be, you know, let’s say 4,000 jobs around the ecosystem in Boston.” [WCVB video] OK, so we know that 800 jobs that will be sited in the new headquarters will be almost entirely white collar and many jobs will simply be transplanted from GE’s current headquarters in Fairfield, Conn. So what are the other 3,200 jobs that will be conjured into existence by the company’s presence? To the extent that any new jobs are being created at all, since Immelt is careful not to provide any specifics or make any explicit promises. But let’s think: cleaners, counter staff, delivery people, baristas, clowns, and office temps generally make lousy money and get no benefits. Bartenders, servers, dealers, muscle, and high-class sex workers do rather better financially. But again no benefits. And what with their proposed helipad, many of the GE execs probably aren’t going to stick around at night anyway. So it’s not clear that there are going to be many decent jobs created in this apocryphal “ecosystem” Immelt keeps mentioning. After all, this is a corporation that has destroyed tens of thousands of good working class jobs in Massachusetts in the last few decades. But fingers crossed, one supposes.
  • “More recently we’ve worked on community health and even more recently we’ve focused on employability. We like to do things where it’s more than money. You’ll have hundreds of GE people that are mentoring in schools …” [BBJ] Yeeeeeah … General Electric absolutely does not like to do things where it’s “more than money.” They like to make money. And more money. And screw anyone that stands in their way. Lovely attitude to instill in school kids, right? Ask Connecticut how everything worked out down there to get a good idea of Boston’s future with this deal.

Still, this brings up an interesting discussion. Even before the impressive walkout of Boston Public School students a couple of weeks back, GE must have been perfectly well aware that Massholes across the political spectrum are furious about the millions in free public money being shoveled into their coffers. And they’re also well aware that Boston, where they are just setting up shop, is a city that rose up to smash the deal for the Boston 2024 Olympics—a very similar boondoggle—last year.

So we can be sure that Immelt and his crew are going to start spreading money around to local community nonprofits. Especially social justice organizations that are likely to spearhead the fightback against the GE Boston Deal.

Seems like they haven’t been doing much philanthropic giving in the Boston area in recent years either. Other than money to universities like MIT that are going to produce researchers and upper management for them. Looking at the 2013-2014 annual report of United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, GE is listed as giving in the $500,000 – $749,999 category in a region that covers eastern Mass and southern New Hampshire. Yet GE didn’t make the Boston Business Journal list of corporations that donated more than $100,000 to Boston charities for either 2013 or 2014. Meaning Boston wasn’t a place they were trying to buy friends until it lately became necessary.

Given that GE will certainly increase its local donations, that presents a moral dilemma to Boston area nonprofits: Will they take this tainted money? Will they accept funds from a multinational corporation that is quite literally part of the reason that we have such an unequal society with so much poverty and immiseration? Money that many organizations must certainly need badly in these difficult times, but that will merely be a fraction of the PR line for a known corporate criminal with a $117 billion operating budget this year. Are they willing to sell themselves so cheaply?

Moreover, are Boston-area residents willing to continue to work with nonprofits that would be willing to take money from GE?

One way to find out is to shine the light of public attention on the matter and see what transpires. So if you hear about a Boston area nonprofit that knowingly took money from GE—directly, or through a front group—drop me a line at If your info checks out, I’ll add the organization to a public list. Let’s call it a Naughty List. And then we’ll see how much its community continues to support it. By the same token, if you know about an area nonprofit that did not take money GE offered them, definitely contact me and I’ll put it on a Nice List.

Now that I think about it, I can add politicians to the Naughty List and the Nice List, too. And business leaders. And academics. And journalists. I tell you, it’ll be like Christmas in July. Just not for the collaborators.

Welcome to Boston, GE.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.