My Testimony for An Act establishing a commission to study journalism in underserved communities

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I come before you today in support of H.181 & S.80, An Act establishing a commission to study journalism in underserved communities. This bill, which I have filed for the first time this session, alongside Senator Brendan Crighton, would convene a state commission of experts, journalists, publishers, and other stakeholders to study and report on the state of journalism, specifically in Massachusetts.

Expansive national research from the University of North Carolina reported a net loss of almost 1,800 local newspapers, including more than 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies, since 2004. As a result of many outside transformational factors, mostly traceable to the Internet, the print news industry is in a tailspin.

In this time of great change, local media outlets are increasingly being gobbled up by hedge fund media conglomerates. The two with the greatest presence in MA are:

  • GateHouse Media, with nearly 80 weekly and daily publications, depending on when you count, and is owned by New Media Investments Group, which is managed and controlled by Fortress Investment Group, which itself was acquired by SoftBank, a Japanese company.

  • Digital First Media, now MediaNews Group, owns the Boston Herald, the Sentinel Enterprise in Fitchburg, The Sun of Lowell, just to name a few, is owned by Alden Global Capital.

 I mention them not with the intention of vilification, but these hedge funds are not local stakeholders as newspaper publishers historically have been. They exist to make money for their shareholders, some demanding profit margins as high as 17%, unheard of in the news business. The important work of newsgathering is incredibly labor intensive and expensive, so many papers have been shuttered, literally sold for parts, or merely a shadow of their former selves.

 Here in Massachusetts, GateHouse Media, announced on May 31, that it will be condensing 50 weekly Massachusetts newspapers into 18 larger weeklies. Just a week prior, the company laid off 200 employees calling it “a small restructuring.” What remains in many communities are known as “ghost newsrooms”, where fewer and fewer journalists with less resources, (like photographers or editors) are left to cover more and more territory. At some point, credible coverage of local happenings is no longer possible.

This has major consequences to the functioning of each of these communities but collectively our very democracy is at risk.

Local news is essential to the foundations of our democracy. From educating town meeting members on the warrant items before them to something as human as helping us get to know our neighbors and their stories. Newspapers are sometimes referred to as a first draft of history and in that role they tell the story of our communities. Local news outlets provide civic education and informed engagement and that makes a healthy democracy.

 Strong newspapers are a village square where facts are gathered using journalistic ethics. At a time when facts themselves, and journalism as an industry, are under attack, we need now more than ever to have this discussion.

 This bill would create a 17-member commission of industry members, experts, a few elected officials, and academics to create a report on the state of journalism in the Commonwealth. As this is a newly filed bill this session, discussion regarding the composition of the commission is welcome. The process will make it better.

 The report produced by the commission would examine several factors, such as the adequacy of press coverage of cities and towns, the ratio of residents to media outlets, the history of local news in Massachusetts, strategies to improve local news access, and the impact of social media on local news. This bill was filed with an intentionally light touch and in recognition and appreciation of the hard, unglamorous, complicated, not terribly profitable, work of newsgathering.

 It provides what we hope is a helpful opportunity to explore some experiments in journalism that appear to be working. For example:

  • A group of local business people in the Berkshires, led by Fred Rutberg, purchased the Berkshire Eagle back from Digital First.

  • In Lynn, a local stakeholder group led by Ted Grant, rescued the Lynn Item, recognizing that a complicated city of nearly 100,000 people needs to stay informed.

  • One paper in Arkansas gave all of their print subscribers a free iPad to help them into the print free future.

  • Nonprofit models abound and Report for America is funding journalists in a similar way to Teach for America.

  • Philanthropically, The Knight Foundation is on the forefront.

In closing, we are proud to present a vehicle for a public discussion allowing Massachusetts to lead a national conversation about journalism and how best to support it in a changing world. This is a vital issue to our democracy at all levels, and I am hopeful that we can see it passed this session. Thank you for your time.

Preyel Patel