Launching new programs to help revive local journalism
It has been just over a year since my Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and DigBoston colleagues and I organized the Somerville Community Summit to give area residents a chance to speak for two minutes each to 15 journalists about what kind of neighborhood news they thought wasn’t getting enough coverage.
We felt the time was right for such an event. Because we had become more and more acutely aware of the rolling collapse of local news media in municipalities around the Commonwealth and the nation since founding BINJ in 2015. And that crisis concerned us greatly.
So we resolved to see what we could do to help reverse that collapse in one city—big enough to have a diverse population and small enough to be manageable for a small team like ours. Even if the only practical outcome would be sparking more coverage of Somerville in the short term.
After 115 people showed up to the summit on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of winter, we decided that we should start doing something with BINJ that it had not originally been set up to do… community organizing. Specifically, bringing local volunteers together on an ongoing basis to try to figure out what we could do to strengthen and expand news production in Somerville. Figuring that if we could create a model that would work there, we would hopefully be able to replicate that model in other cities and towns in similar straits. Statewide, and perhaps nationally. The goal being to help communities talk to themselves about issues of the day in the interest of democracy.
Over the summer we launched the effort as a new project of BINJ that we dubbed the Somerville News Garden. Since we supposed that the metaphoric opposite of the “news deserts” (areas with little or no professionally produced news coverage) that too many Mass cities and towns are on their way to becoming would be “news gardens” (areas with lots of such coverage). And we began holding regular meetings and talking with the Somervillians (volunteers we call “gardeners”) who came forward about what we could do and how we could go about it. Today we have over 40 people in our network—although our core of activists has remained steady at around 15 regulars who do work and show up at meetings.
We’ve gradually developed three programs—after some trial and error that I’ve chronicled in earlier updates—that we think will help increase the amount of useful news coverage in Somerville:
1) The Research Group. Which is conducting surveys, interviews, and focus groups with Somervillians to learn about their news habits and preferences, and tailor our news garden activity to meet these needs. Its first Media Survey is already underway—with a plan to get hundreds of local residents to take it by this fall and issue a white paper analyzing its results. To meet that target we will be holding several pop-up newsrooms around the city that will bring journalists together with people from different constituencies and walks of life to talk at more length in small groups about what kind of local coverage they feel is missing from Somerville’s remaining news outlets. Including a larger pop-up that we’re just organizing with Scout Somerville magazine for the early afternoon of April 19 at Aeronaut Brewing Company. At each event, we will also ask attendees to fill out the media survey—and encourage them to ask their friends, family, and coworkers to take it when they get home. In addition, we will be trying out a trivia night with the same purpose in a local bar next month. If those events are successful, we will schedule more of them. We are also working with area civic and cultural organizations to distribute the survey to their members.
2) The Neighborhood Media School, run in partnership with the city’s public cable access station Somerville Media Center, which will train area residents in the fundamentals of reporting and multimedia production (video, audio, and photography). Its initial short (four to six week) courses will start in April. The school will also offer two-hour classes called “Civic Media Literacy: Understanding Fake News and Misinformation”—taught by Prof. Gino Canella of Emerson College— aimed at teaching all comers how to understand the news media in this fractious election year. A subject we’d also like to see offered as units of high school civic classes in the near future.
3) The Somerville Wire. A news source that will provide a new outlet for professional journalists already covering the city while providing a paying market for area residents trained as journalists at the Neighborhood Media School. All articles published by the Wire will be available for syndication to any area community news outlet that would like to run them gratis and to any major corporate news outlet for a reasonable fee. It will also offer its stories to the public at large via a new website to be launched in Summer 2020. The Wire will be run directly by BINJ.
But that’s not all we’re doing. Through our longtime working relationship with Somerville Media Center, we’ve become aware of a major threat to the existence of cable access stations—now better known as community media centers. The Trump administration FCC, working on behalf of cable corporations like Comcast, has helped those companies take another step toward allowing them to defund the centers entirely. An objective they have had since they were first forced to negotiate with cities to pay for the privilege of laying their cables on public streets back in the early 1970s. With part of that money going to fund access studios and staff ever since.
Now the FCC is going to be allowed to start forcing cities and towns to pay for services that used to be covered by the contracts between municipalities and the cable giants—which will cause community media centers to lose significant chunks of their annual income going forward. Potentially forcing many to close their doors.
It has occurred to us that the Somerville News Garden model may not just prove useful in helping cities and towns rebuild their disintegrating local news infrastructure. It may also help community media centers like SMC to survive federal government attacks on them. By having journalism nonprofits like BINJ raise money to pay the centers to use their facilities to produce multimedia news content—and also make it a core mission to offer them general financial support and provide the resulting content to them free of charge. Providing a new funding stream for an important form of local public media, and creating a way to allow community media centers—which historically have avoided producing news because of their close relationships with city governments—to run news content on a regular basis without creating political friction. Making them part of the solution to the crisis in local journalism.
We’ll have to see how all this goes in Somerville over the months to come and report back to readers on our progress. In the meantime, Somervillians who would like to get involved in the news garden or get more info about our courses should drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Folks who would like to donate to BINJ to support our work on the Somerville News Garden are most welcome to do so at givetobinj.org.
Jason Pramas is executive director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. He is also a member of the Somerville Media Center board of directors.