MA local journalism commission takes shape, ahead of August report
In response to the dire state of local journalism both in Massachusetts and across the country, Beacon Hill lawmakers voted in January to form a commission of journalists from all walks of life with the goal of performing a check-up on the industry.
The end goal of House Bill 181, passed last January, is to release its findings this August as to what the next steps should be to help preserve and nourish local journalism.
In the midst of rapid declines in readership, along with dozens of publications closing their doors in recent years, the commission has its work cut out. Its already underway with filling its 23 seats. The bill has been in the works for the last two years, spearheaded by prominent figures in the Massachusetts journalism community.
The group’s 23 members represent a range of different organizations, including the Boston Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the Asian American Journalists Association of New England.
Also included are representatives from public and private universities with journalism programs, as well as eight working journalists, some employed full-time and others who are freelancers.
Jason Pramas, editor of DigBoston and a passionate activist of the press, said that ensuring the commission was made up of a wide variety of journalists was a top priority.
“The biggest thing [for us] was the seats. We got everything we wanted in it,” Pramas said, referring to the wide variety of journalists involved. Pramas believes the bill was a success, albeit an overdue one. “I wish people had thought of this 30 years ago. It was evident to us back then that things were getting bad already,” he said.
Notably, the bill received bipartisan support, he said.
“Anybody that believes in America as a democracy knows that the institution of the press is important, and to not have it is very, very dangerous,” Pramas said. “I think they know it affects local politics if you don’t have that estate keeping people informed and giving information to citizens.”
The decline of local journalism has been well-documented, as newspapers lose their readers at a distressing speed. The switch to digital publication, while a reasonably smoother transition for large publications like the Boston Globe, has had more negative effects on smaller publications, writes Don Seiffert, managing editor of the Boston Business Journal in a 2019 article. Looking at the 200 daily newspapers at the then-newly merged Gannett Co., more than 80% were losing circulation at a faster rate than the national average, Seiffert wrote.
Marblehead state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, one of the presenters for the bill, said she feels a great deal of urgency around the topic.
“I’m an avid news consumer, and I saw a change in journalism. I’m a subscriber to many papers and in the last 10 years they were either changing or disappearing,” she said. A 2020 report published by the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism found that more than one-fourth of the nation’s newspapers in operation 15 years ago were no longer publishing. Furthermore, only about half the working journalists from 10 years ago are still around today.
“[Half of] the local journalists just disappeared. Many local communities don’t even have local news anymore. What I’m seeing in many papers is one person who writes the entire paper, and sometimes that one person is stretched thin across multiple communities. “This is the alarm for an extinction event,” Ehrlich added.
While focused on Massachusetts, the commission’s report could reveal solutions to the same problem present in other communities across the country. “Hopefully we can do a good job, and other states can follow suit,” said Erhlich.
The commission is slated to meet a minimum of five times before this August.