Local News Leap of Faith

Copies of The Berkshire Eagle newspaper are placed in a machine before being bundled for distribution in April 2019.

BOSTON — The growth of “news deserts” in Massachusetts and the possible solutions to improving local journalism in underserved communities will be the focus of a new commission approved in the final hours of the previous legislative session.

The initiative by Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn, was part of the massive economic development bill approved by lawmakers and sent to Gov. Charlie Baker last month. It will examine the sustainability of local press business models and the sufficiency of news coverage in communities across Massachusetts.

“Local journalists tell the community stories that bind us together,” Ehrlich said. “They tell us who we are, and where we’ve been and where we’re going. Local news is also essential to ensuring a healthy democracy.”

The legislation comes as almost one-fourth of all newspapers in the United States have shut down in the past 15 years, according to a 2020 report from the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. News deserts — those are communities that do not receive adequate news coverage — are prevalent in low-income and affluent areas, but most are in neighborhoods with high poverty rates, according to the report.

In 2019, Gatehouse Media New England consolidated 32 of its remaining 50 weekly publications in Massachusetts into 18 regional publications. About three-fourths of people are not aware of the serious economic situation confronting local media, according to a March 2019 Pew Research survey.

The commission will consist of 23 members, including appointments by House Speaker Ronald Mariano, Senate President Karen Spilka and Baker. Other members will be representatives from the Boston Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association of New England and the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, as well as universities and other organizations.

Commission members also will explore the ways social media impacts local journalism; identify initiatives to make local news more accessible; and review ways aspiring journalists can pursue and develop their careers in journalism.

The public will be allowed to attend public information sessions hosted by the commission, and submit written and oral comments. The commission will convene at least five times and submit its research findings to lawmakers by Aug. 1.

Jason Pramas, the executive editor of DigBoston, said that while he is concerned about the tight deadline, a journalism commission with a quick turnaround is better than none at all.

“Anything it can accomplish will make it easier for local independent community news outlets to survive the current crisis in journalism and continue to report news and views of the day in the service of our battered, but still vibrant, democracy,” he wrote in an email.

Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and columnist for GBH News, said he views the panel as a first step toward educating the public about independent, local news projects, such as nonprofit news organizations, in Massachusetts.

“I would love it if we could facilitate people learning more about these projects so that they could say, ‘Let’s start one where we live.’” he said. “That’s just a basic level of educating people that doesn’t require money, doesn’t require any changes in law or anything like that.”

Kennedy also said suggesting certain types of tax incentives to the Legislature that would allow people to deduct the cost of news subscriptions also is an option. He said the most controversial and ambitious idea would be a form of direct government funding for local news.

While Kennedy does not know if the commission would take that on, he said “it would have to be done in a way that you’re really insulating journalism from government interference.”

Crighton said a robust press is crucial to combating the spread of misinformation, holding the government accountable and highlighting public health protocols.

“It’s the megaphone that makes the government work better for constituents who don’t know about testing nearby or the risks of this virus,” he said.