There is rarely a straight path to passing a bill into law in any legislative body on the planet. And that is certainly true of the small percentage of the thousands of bills filed in each session of the Mass legislature that actually make it to the governor’s desk for a signature.
Even more rare is the spectacle of professional journalists getting involved in the legislative process at any level. But that’s exactly what Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and DigBoston colleague Chris Faraone, dozens of other professional journalists—some bravely risking their jobs—and I have done in backing a bill to establish a state journalism commission championed by Rep. Lori Ehrlich (D – Marblehead) and advanced by Chairperson Ed Coppinger (D – West Roxbury) of the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses with ongoing assistance from Prof. Dan Kennedy of Northeastern University. Joined by a bunch of journalism educators, journalism students, and advocates from the excellent Northampton-based national media reform organization Free Press.
The bill, “An Act Establishing a Committee to Study Journalism in Underserved Communities,” originally called for state government to appoint a 17-person commission to “(i) conduct a comprehensive, non-binding study relative to communities underserved by local journalism in Massachusetts; (ii) review all aspects of local journalism including, but not limited to, the adequacy of press coverage of cities and towns, ratio of residents to media outlets, the history of local news in Massachusetts, print and digital business models for media outlets, the impact of social media on local news, strategies to improve local news access, public policy solutions to improve the sustainability of local press business models and private and nonprofit solutions, and identifying career pathways and existing or potential professional development opportunities for aspiring journalists in Massachusetts.” The body would then make policy recommendations to state leaders based on its findings.
Chris Faraone and I were critical of the bill in spring and early summer 2019 after it was first introduced. Our main concern was that we didn’t feel the original draft had enough seats for working journalists and journalist organizations. Which was vital given that hundreds of local journalists have lost their jobs and dozens of local news outlets have ceased to exist in recent years—creating “news deserts” whose residents were no longer getting the information they need to actively participate in the democratic process at the local level. And we also thought the commission should hold public hearings around the state to give stakeholders from a diverse array of communities an opportunity to testify about the effects they were noticing from the loss of local news coverage in their areas.
Without getting into details we’ve already covered in earlier articles (see below), we ended up organizing a second hearing on the bill before the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses and got over 80 journalists, journalism educators, students, and media reform folks to attend. With many testifying in favor of the bill if the kinds of modifications we were suggesting were included.
After the hearing, we started working with Free Press to get the bill language improved and were gratified when Rep. Ehrlich started working with us. We all had a good meeting with Chairperson Coppinger in January of this year. And by early February, a great revised bill was ready to move out of his joint committee. In which the commission would have 23 seats—including no less than eight for journalists and three for journalist organizations—plus public hearings on the crisis in local news in every country in the state… and the representation for journalists serving disenfranchised communities that Free Press had pushed hard for.
However, the bill didn’t get out of that first committee because of some last minute wrangling between House and Senate leadership. A typical twist on the legislative road, as mentioned above. But Ehrlich and Coppinger indicated they’d work to get it through the legislative process later in the session. The pandemic hit later that month and we didn’t hear anything about it until late Friday afternoon when Ehrlich got the journalism commission bill language attached to the Economic Development Bill H. 4879 as Amendment #40. Which is being debated this week by the House Ways and Means Committee. Coppinger then signed on to the amendment as a cosponsor.
So, we’re asking all readers who are concerned about the collapse of local news media to contact your state representative and ask them to cosponsor Amendment #40 of H. 4879. The more cosponsors the amendment has, the more likely House Ways and Means will pass it. If that happens it has a good chance of making it through the full legislative process for this session. And becoming a law. Which would be a promising outcome for the future of local news in the Commonwealth.
Go to malegislature.gov/search/findmylegislator to find your state rep’s contact information, and email or call in to ask him/her to cosponsor H. 4879 Amendment #40 a.s.a.p.
Questions? Contact Chris Faraone and me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previous DigBoston articles on the journalism commission bill:
PROPOSED STATE JOURNALISM COMMISSION NEEDS BROADER MEMBERSHIP
SECOND HEARING CALLED ON MA JOURNALISM COMMISSION BILL
NO MASS COMMISSION TO STUDY JOURNALISM WITHOUT REPORTER INPUT
GIVE MA JOURNALISM COMMISSION SEATS TO WORKING JOURNALISTS
Jason Pramas is executive director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.