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TESTIMONY BY INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS AND ALLIES

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At the June 26, 2024 hearing regarding the Mass. journalism commission before the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses of the Mass. legislature


A whirlwind of activity for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and our allies this week, as a legislative front that we’d worked on furiously between 2019 and 2021 suddenly reopened Monday morning. Nearly three-and-a-half years after we helped get a law passed to establish a Massachusetts journalism commission–which the legislature then simply didn’t seat without comment, much to our concern. 

But now its originating committee, the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses, has moved to restart the commission initiative by filing an “outside section” to a larger bill that will be passed shortly. A full 15 months after we got a meeting with the staff of its then-new House and Senate chairs for the two-year current legislative session to try to get them to do what the chairs for the previous session had failed to do: start up the journalism commission at last. And after the committee held a fact-finding hearing yesterday for which we fielded eight of the 11 people that testified, on very short notice  … it seems they’re on the verge of making that happen.

My colleagues and I will doubtless provide analysis of this swift-moving situation in the weeks to come, but for now I’m pleased to provide the text of all eight statements by the three independent news outlet leaders, two journalism professors, and one media policy advocate that joined Chris Faraone and me yesterday at the podium (virtually and in-person) as part of our informal “independent news publishers and allies” panel at the State House.


Chris Faraone, Editorial Director, Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism; Editor, Talking Joints Memo

Good morning legislators, staffers, colleagues, and any of the few remaining journalists in Massachusetts watching along from the back booth of a coffee shop that is their newsroom.

My name is Chris Faraone, and I am the editor of Talking Joints Memo, a for-profit site that covers cannabis, and a co-founder of the Massachusetts Media Fund, a 501(c)3 where I have been an editor and organizer for nine years. Operating as the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, we collaborate and publish with plus advocate for outlets all across the state. 

I take no pride in asking this body, or anybody in this building, for help. Going back to my days as a staff writer for the dearly departed Boston Phoenix, I’ve seen the cracks in your culture up close, even spelunked some dark corners myself—from hand-recording votes by the Governor’s Council, which still has no digital records, to identifying hundreds of pieces of art and ephemera that were pilfered from these halls over centuries. In all of my forays into your lawmaking affairs, I have found few fans of Fourth Estate forensics under the magical dome where no official needs to fear a FOIA.

Yet despite all that, I humbly sit here seeking pity—not like a reporter groveling for grant money, because we are past that, but more like a diabetic who needs insulin or else. And now that I have set the mood, regarding the proposal to seat a commission to assess the ravaged landscape and potentially propose solutions, I offer three points to consider: 

First — Apprehend the extent of the wreckage. Take all the devastating closures that many will testify about today, and multiply them by the countless gifted people who have been pushed out of the profession. Then square that by the millions in municipal ad dollars that Gannett ghost papers are gorging on, and you still won’t find a number that encapsulates the agony and despair we face daily in these jobs.

Second — Please seat a limited number of academics. While their perspectives are important, a body guided by idea mongers without skin in the current market is unlikely to move at a speed faster than bureaucratic to deliver results. If billion-dollar institutions like Harvard and BU care so much about saving the journalism ecosystem—from beloved bootstrap culture sites, to the Spanish-language press, to nonprofit shops like BINJ—then I respectfully ask, Where the hell have they been all these years?

Third — Whatever comes of this, please do not forget about the smaller independents and our dedicated readers, many of whom can’t afford to access paywall sites and deserve more substance than corporate radio and television coverage provides. Massachusetts doesn’t need a white paper to rationalize handouts for the haves; nor should the already privileged be further prioritized. Rather, the people of the commonwealth would benefit from an effort that recognizes the remaining Fremen wandering this barren news desert as crusaders worth saving, and not as specimens for studying.

So while I do not personally seek a seat on the journalism commission, and frankly have my hands full at the moment covering the Cannabis Control Commission, I admonish you to seat some actual stakeholders who demonstrably take actions to advance media causes beyond just their own.


Lara Salahi, Distinguished Professor of Journalism, Endicott College

Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today on an issue that is so vital to our communities and our democracy: the state of local journalism.

My name is Lara Salahi and I’m a distinguished professor of journalism at Endicott College. 

As my colleagues have pointed out… We don’t need a commission solely to study the problem further; the evidence is already clear. What we urgently need is action. 

I am here to ask that you seat a commission on local journalism, but with a crucial distinction. This commission should not only include members who study local news—although research is vital and valued — as a faculty member who actively researches this field, I can attest to its importance—but it must also include those of us who practice community-centered journalism. 

We need the voices of community reporters, editors, and publishers who confront these challenges daily and who currently practice solutions that can sustain and revitalize community-centered news. 

And most importantly it needs to be a diverse group that does not only include journalists who work at the few legacy news outlets with familiar names. 

Many are women, many are working to serve underrepresented people in majority-minority communities — and what you might notice is that many aren’t seated here today.

At Endicott College – where I am faculty — we recognized the critical need to fill news voids across Massachusetts and took decisive action. We launched a news service specifically designed to report stories for over 30 communities in dire need of stories relevant to their residents. This initiative serves a dual purpose: it engages citizens and exercises our First Amendment rights, while also providing a training ground for the next generation of journalists. This initiative exemplifies how colleges and universities can collaborate with struggling news outlets to ensure that residents are well-informed. Most importantly it fosters greater civic engagement and strengthens our democracy.

A solutions-focused commission should explore similar initiatives to news-academic partnerships. I study these partnerships that have emerged and they have become viable solution to news void in cities and towns across the country. 

When people have access to reliable local news, they are more likely to participate in community affairs and vote in local elections. We know that the absence of local news breeds misinformation, apathy, and disengagement. A solutions-focused commission can also work in partnership with and provide investments to many of the innovative models that are emerging. 

I urge you to seat this commission with a balanced representation of relevant scholars and practitioners. Let us not merely analyze the decline of local journalism but actively work to support the outlets that remain and the start-ups that are serving the Commonwealth and its citizens.

Thank you.


Kris Olson, Co-Founder and Consulting Editor, Marblehead Current

Representative McMurtry and Senator Payano, 

Thank you for your interest in reviving the legislature’s Journalism Commission, which I hope and believe can be an important first step in improving democracy in Massachusetts. My name is Kris Olson, and I am a senior reporter for Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and the co-founder and consulting editor of the nonprofit news organization the Marblehead Current. I also currently serve as the co-chair of the Supreme Judicial Court’s Media Committee and I was nominated to serve on the previous iteration of the Journalism Commission.. To address one of the stated purposes of this hearing, the state of journalism in Massachusetts is not as strong as I or my fellow panelists would like it to be. But there is hope. In the scorched earth created by a broken business model and the ravages of one private-equity-backed national chain in particular, something beautiful has begun to sprout. 

The Marblehead Current is just one of dozens of independent news organizations that have been launched to fill the void that Gannett and others have left. If your city or town does not yet have an independent news outlet, someone is probably thinking about launching one. Now, all we need is a partner to provide a bit of fertilizer to help our budding news organizations grow and flourish. 

In my mind, what we don’t need a journalism commission to do is diagnose the problem. Rather, the commission’s work should be focused on producing recommendations for actionable solutions. 

Thankfully, we would not need to reinvent the wheel. The Illinois Local Journalism Task Force could serve as a model for what a Massachusetts journalism commission might do. That commission’s work recently culminated with Illinois becoming one of two states, New York being the other, to pass tax incentive packages to help support local journalism. 

While promising, tax incentives are not the only potential solution the commission could explore. Time does not permit me to discuss those in detail. But just to mention a couple: The Illinois Commission explored advertising set-asides, which mandates a percentage (often at least 50%) of government advertising dollars to

be spent on ads in local news/media outlets. It also explored grant programs and consortiums like the one in place in New Jersey, which I believe one of my fellow panelists is prepared to discuss. 

The Illinois commission also studied fellowship programs that designate funds to pay early-career journalists to work in local newsrooms. The professors on this panel can attest to the fact that they are seeing many bright young journalists who have already begun producing great work in their classrooms. It would be great if we could create incentives so that, upon graduation, these bright young minds could go to work shoring up the cracks in the foundation of Massachusetts’ democracy, rather than someone else’s. 

In terms of the composition of the commission, it is urgent that the independent community press have strong representation. I love the Boston Globe and am a loyal Boston Globe reader. But thanks to John Henry, the Globe is in a unique situation. It is far better equipped to sail into the headwinds the journalism industry will continue to face. To the extent the Globe has representation on the commission, it should probably come from its union, the Boston Newspaper Guild, as the perspective of labor could be valuable. 

It should also go without saying that Gannett forfeited any claim to representation on this commission by abandoning most, if not all, of the communities it serves. Rather, the solution to what the Illinois Journalism Task Force aptly called a “democracy problem” lies at the grassroots, and the members of this panel have been working on it, some for longer than others. 

We sincerely appreciate your interest in finding ways to support our work. If you commit to this project and see it through to fruition, I promise you will be able to take pride in having played a role in ameliorating an urgent democracy crisis. You will have made your communities better in countless ways and also made the pursuit of your other legislative priorities that much easier. With an informed citizenry, everyone wins.


Candace Clement, Managing Director, Free Press Action

Good morning. My name is Candace Clement and I am a lifelong Massachusetts resident and the
managing director of Free Press Action, a non-partisan, non-profit organization focused on the most
pressing issues facing our media system and our democracy. Though our work is national in scope, we
were founded here in the commonwealth, and have nearly 6,000 members in the state.

Local news and civic information are public goods. Without adequate sources of information,
community members are left disempowered and disconnected. And increasingly, that’s the position that
Massachusetts residents find ourselves in. Our hyper-commercialized media system has allowed
corporate chains and hedge funds to hollow out newsrooms across the state, and our civic health and
democracy are suffering as a result.

So we applaud lawmakers’ efforts to revive the journalism commission. But the details matter
here and it is crucial that lawmakers keep a core question in mind: Will Massachusetts invest in a new
sustainable future for local news, one rooted in community need rather than corporate profit? Or will we
simply prop up an ailing media system that has long failed to provide the kind of public service
journalism that’s most needed?

Despite the failures of our commercial system, independent community publishers, ethnic media
outlets, and nonprofit newsrooms are defining a new path forward for local news. As lawmakers weigh
who should be appointed to this revived commission, we urge them to ensure that these voices are
included.

The commission should also put a heavy emphasis on engaging with the public. Communities
should have ample opportunity to name their information needs directly – particularly the communities
of color, rural communities, and low-income communities who have long been underserved by our
media system.

And we urge the commission to look to promising policies elsewhere that aim to directly
increase the production of quality public service journalism. Here are a few examples:

● In New Jersey, the state legislature created a Civic Information Consortium, which provides
grants to news outlets and community organizations who are working to address information
gaps and improve civic health. The consortium is firewalled from any sort of government
interference, and its board is made up of a diverse set of media experts and community
stakeholders. This kind of public grantmaking should be a top priority for Massachusetts.
● In California, Washington, and New Mexico, lawmakers have set aside public funding to support
local news fellowship programs, where reporters are trained up and then placed in newsrooms
where they’re needed most.
● And just this summer, lawmakers in California have explored a payroll tax credit for local news
funded by a small tax on the digital advertising revenues of tech platforms, which could help
stop the immense job loss crisis plaguing journalists. If designed correctly, this kind of legislation
could stabilize the current media system while building a bridge towards a less commercialized
future.

Directing public funding towards local news and civic information isn’t just good public policy: it’s
popular. A recent Free Press poll found that a majority of Americans believe that we should increase
public funding to create and expand local and independent news. An even larger percentage expressed
support for policy proposals that would diversify the ownership and operation of independent
news-and-information sources. More than half of all respondents — including 66 percent of Black
Americans — support independent bodies using public funds to directly invest in quality local
news-and-information initiatives.

We urge the commission to understand that this is not just an industry crisis, but a community
one. Instead of just providing a life raft to an ailing industry, the commission should focus on how it can
create a long-term future for local news. We look forward to working with lawmakers as they advance
their efforts on this crucial issue.


Jason Pramas, Executive Director, Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism; Editor-in-Chief, HorizonMass

Senator Payano, Representative McMurtry, and honorable members of the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses,

For the record, my name is Jason Pramas. I’m executive director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, a nine-year-old statewide investigative reporting team, and editor-in-chief of its biweekly news outlet HorizonMass. 

Also, I’m the author of the final version of the journalism commission bill that was passed into law in January 2021 and that is under discussion today.

When I joined the law’s architect and lead sponsor, former Rep. Lori Ehrlich, in working for its passage back in the summer of 2019, I used to tell legislators that the local news sector was in rolling collapse. But now, I believe it’s in terminal collapse. Nationwide. Massachusetts alone has lost a couple of dozen local news outlets since 2021, including DigBoston, a metro print newsweekly I co-owned with Chris Faraone and John Loftus that went under one year ago, and the Somerville Wire, a local news service that we spun off from the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism–which went under a few months back. This crisis in local news has been caused by a variety of factors over the last 30 years, including: massive hedge-funds buying up local news outlets and crushing them for short-term profit, social media giants using the latest technology to monopolize both advertising revenue and audiences, and most recently the pandemic economy.

The situation is so bad that even the hundreds of small, nonprofit and commercial community news outlets that have been founded over the last two decades to try to replace some of the thousands of local outlets that have gone under are struggling to survive. To the point where I myself founded a national trade association called the Alliance of Nonprofit News Outlets last year, now 43 member-outlets strong, to attempt to push foundations and government at all levels to give more money to support our work in the public interest.

As such, I think that action is definitely required from state government to help ensure that local news coverage does not disappear from most Massachusetts communities in the coming years. With dire consequences for our already beleaguered democratic institutions. Including this General Court.

Action that, in the case of the journalism commission, should focus on figuring out the best way for state government to start getting direct aid to local, independent news outlets on the ground within the next two years.

In closing, I understand that this committee plans to reduce the number of seats on the journalism commission from 23 to just nine. If that’s the case, I think it’s imperative that the majority of those seats be given to leaders of a diverse array of small, independent, news outlets around the Commonwealth. Because we’re on the front lines of the struggle to keep local journalism in the service of democracy alive and we know more than anyone else about what approaches to supporting our efforts are likely to be the most useful.

Thanks very much for your time.


Gino Canella, Professor of Journalism, Emerson College

My name is Gino Canella, and I’m a professor of journalism at Emerson College and a journalist. I research journalism and the political economy of media systems.

I was invited here by Jason Pramas. I worked with Jason from 2019 to 2022, researching the Somerville News Garden, a community news initiative that he helped to found. The News Garden was created to provide reliable, public service news to Somerville residents – something that has been disappearing in recent years since a corporate chain bought the city’s daily paper, the Somerville Journal, and merged it with the Medford Transcript – forming the Journal and Transcript – a so-called “zombie paper” that does not have a local reporter and does not cover Somerville or Medford.

Jason and I, and a team of community volunteers, surveyed and interviewed residents for our study, asking them about their news preferences and habits – where they get their news, what they read and view, essentially trying to understand what people think the role of local journalism is in society.

Researchers have argued that local journalism’s role is to promote civic and political participation; others say that journalism exists to hold powerful institutions accountable. While it does these things and more, our study found that local journalism provides something much more fundamental: residents said local news introduces them to their neighbors, and helps them make sense of what is going on around them.

One long-time resident told us that as the city has experienced so many changes recently, with new residents moving in and large development projects being built, that she feels like she “lives in a mystery.” She has lived in Somerville since 1971 and told us that she often goes through newspaper archives to understand what life was like in previous eras. She worries that as wedding announcements, obituaries, high school sports and other stories have moved to social media, we are losing our ability to archive municipal histories.

Since 2005, more than 2900 papers in the U.S. have closed. The papers that have survived have done so by dramatically cutting staffing. According to a 2018 study, 47% of newsroom staffing has been eliminated since 2004. And studies have shown that low-income and rural communities are affected most by these closures – as they have fewer local news outlets than affluent and suburban communities do.

While some analysts are wary of using government money to intervene in the problems facing local journalism –worrying that newsrooms will lose their editorial independence if they are funded by the same agencies they are covering – I urge you to do what other states have already done: intervene in the information crisis facing so many communities throughout the Commonwealth and support local news, in particular the independent news outlets that are most under threat in the current economy. This is not a problem the market can solve or that we can grant fund our way out of. If we don’t act, we are not only losing a critical piece of our democracy, we are also losing the ability to preserve the present for future generations.


Marc Levy, Founder and Editor, Cambridge Day

I’m glad the panel seems to be back on track, and I hope when it begins its work membership is tilted toward the kind of journalists who are deep in the day-to-day muck of running a small news publication – not the kind of top-level expert who doesn’t really understand the issues anymore, be they from a paper such as The Boston Globe or from deeply theoretical academia.

I actually began Cambridge Day in part as a learning lab for a technological solution to the growing problem of news deserts. After years of preparing and making pitch presentations to rich people, private companies and foundations, I realized I was just kind of a nobody and nobody they wanted to listen to; I gave up on a national or even international solution and refocused on just doing the work I could in my little territory of Cambridge and Somerville. I do still think a bigger solution is possible. As unlikely as this is, it would be exciting if the panel had a role in that kind of systemic change along with its potential to disburse or direct funds to small newsrooms.

Toward that end of funding, I’d like to see a panel with a broad but discerning criteria for what newsrooms are worthy of getting financial aid to help them cover a community. The spectrum of publications worthy of funding might be wide-ranging, but there should be a way to not reward the ones lacking a really rewarding civic role or not even making an effort toward it. Yet the test shouldn’t be too prescriptive, either, given that wide spectrum; this might be the sort of thing where you “know it when you see it,” which is why the selection of who is on the panel can be crucial.


Brian Zayatz, Managing Editor, The Shoestring

Good morning, my name is Brian Zayatz, I’m the managing editor of The Shoestring, a nonprofit independent news site serving Western Massachusetts since 2017. We have a focus on investigations and government watchdog reporting, and we are a two person team with a budget of under $80,000.

The news ecosystem is bad on the eastern side of the state, but it is even worse out here. The Shoestring was founded amid ongoing layoffs at our local daily newspaper, and in the time since, the situation has only gotten worse, with entire departments being slashed, consolidation of staff across newspapers owned by the same company, and even NEPM facing major layoffs last year.

And I want to stress again: we are a two person team with a budget of under $80,000, and we are consistently breaking some of the biggest investigative stories west of the Quabbin – stories that, had they not been reported, would have been costly for our communities, or allowed the abuses of powerful players in our communities to go unchecked.

Right now there are still independent publishers like us, and the other small newsrooms we partner with, left to save. in a year’s time, that could not be the case. There is no escalator for those of us who are working with little startup capital to grow into more sustainable operations, and for every lucky publication that receives foundation support, there are many more who don’t. We have seen how the foundation world has little interest in asking those of us on the frontlines who are preventing our communities from becoming news deserts what we need.

Massachusetts has the opportunity to be a laboratory of good policy, like we’re beginning to see in places like New York and California. That work starts with seating this commission with small publishers who do this work under harsh conditions to keep independent reporting alive in their communities. We’re the most vulnerable to going extinct in our state’s news landscape, and if we do, it’ll be our neighbors and communities who suffer most.


Note: Our fellow publisher John Muldoon sent in testimony to the joint committee separately, but has graciously allowed us to republish it here.

John Muldoon, Publisher, The Local News

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to submit testimony. It is my first time doing so at a Legislative hearing so I apologize in advance if I fail to observe some of the niceties.

My name is John Muldoon and I am publisher of the nonprofit Local News in Ipswich and Rowley. We also distribute in Topsfield and Boxford, and online.

We have five full-time employees, two part-timers and a whole slew of freelancers and volunteers. I started a local website in 2015 and, with others, started a weekly print edition in 2019.

We won 20 awards at the New England Newspaper & Press Association journalism competition this year, and I was just named Small Business-Person of the Year for Ipswich by the Greater Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce.

I would like to thank you for addressing this issue but I have to confess to feelings of trepidation whenever the state gets involved.

What I mean is that however well meaning legislators or regulators may be, there is a significant risk of imposing undue burden on the public.

I realize these examples are outside the scope of your work but I would argue they are illustrative and useful.

The cases in question are the specialized stretch building code and MassSaves.

We all agree climate change needs to be addressed immediately. But the specialized stretch code imposes costs on home ownership now for the promise of incrementally fewer carbon emissions in coming years.

That is a well-meaning plan that has not been fully thought through.

Meanwhile, utilities continue to take money off consumers to sock it away in MassSaves — where it sits while homeowners are out of pocket for some wildly expensive efficiency projects they have undertaken. In my case, I am waiting almost one year for $20,000 in rebates.

This is a well meaning-plan that, to be honest, has left me feeling scammed.

Therefore, should the legislature proceed with any plan, I would urge you to make it directly applicable to news operators.

I would also urge you to be wary of well-meaning intervenors. By this I mean universities or industry organizations that promise to carry out efforts on your behalf.

Universities are great places and Massachusetts is rightly proud of its world-famous institutions. However, they are academics and they work at academic speeds. They are good to work with but they are not in any position, in my opinion, to be of any material advantage to small operators like me.

I would also ask you to keep an eye on costs. I know you guys in the Statehouse talk of millions and billions. Pretty soon, I imagine, we’ll hear about trillions.

Small operators — in every sector — talk of hundreds and thousands. My own budget is around $500,000.

Once we go over half a million, state regulations require nonprofits to get a full audit. That will cost us $20,000! To put that in perspective, that is half a salary.

(If I could put another bug in your ear, you should raise that threshold to maybe $1 million. That will help all nonprofits around the Commonwealth.)

As I mentioned, the Local News is a nonprofit. It is one of a new wave of emerging nonprofit newspapers around Massachusetts.

If you are thinking about things like tax credits, they should be tailored to help nonprofits too.

So, to summarize. Be careful of a regulatory approach. Be wary of intervenors. And remember you are dealing with small groups where changes measured in the thousands of dollars can make a big difference.



This article was produced for HorizonMass, the independent, student-driven, news outlet of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and is syndicated by BINJ’s MassWire news service.


Jason Pramas is editor-in-chief of HorizonMass and executive director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism

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