An amendment to an economic development bill calling for a statewide commission to look at what’s happening to local newspapers passed the Mass. House of Representatives on July 28 and now awaits action by a conference committee. The state Senate’s version of the bill did not include the journalism commission amendment.
The legislation was originally filed by Rep. Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead and Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn to “review all aspects of local journalism, including, but not limited to, the adequacy of press coverage of cities and towns” and to study “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.”
But the desperate plight of many local newspapers has already been well documented by scholars at the Pew Research Center, the University of North Carolina, and others. One study found that 1,800 U.S. communities had lost their local newspapers since 2004.
“The problem has been here for a while and it is not going away,” said Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University’s College of Art, Media, and Design.
The standard explanation for the sad state of local journalism is that the internet has killed it. But that argument doesn’t explain why a significant number of independently owned small newspapers — almost all of them weeklies — appear to be doing all right, with strong support from their local communities.
Many local newspapers that have gone out of business were once thriving independents that were purchased by chain conglomerates. These chains, such as Gannett (formerly GateHouse) and Digital First Media, siphon off cash flow, lay off staff, outsource operations like design, production, and customer service, and sell off assets to produce outsize profits for investors, leaving little or nothing for the shrinking newsroom.
Worth Robbins of Harvard, a small town west of Concord, knows first-hand how necessary local news is for his community. The Harvard Post, which the Independent’s founder launched in 1973, had once been the town’s most reliable source for local news. Then it was sold to Community Newspaper Company, which was sold to GateHouse. The Post decreased in quality until it ceased publication in 2013.
“The paper was no longer by Harvard, for Harvard,” said Robbins.
In 2006, Robbins and a group of partners decided to launch a new weekly, the Harvard Press, that would remind residents of what the Post had once been.
The response was overwhelmingly positive. “People value accurate and comprehensive coverage,” Robbins said. “The picture for high-quality local news is improving. In the White House, they’re saying that the press is the enemy, but that is not falling on sympathetic ears. People here are saying, ‘No, we need that.’ ”
Erika Brown, editor of the Manchester Cricket in Manchester-by-the-Sea, echoes Robbins’s sentiments on community building. “When a community doesn’t have a strong local paper, they are no longer bound together, and they become less informed,” Brown said. “Cities with no local newspaper have lower bond and credit ratings from banks, because they aren’t seen as trustworthy.”
Brown purchased the Cricket in November 2018, when it was in a state of what she called “benign neglect.” There was no original reporting. Under her leadership, the paper had 27-percent growth in print subscriptions in the first year, and a 20-percent increase in 2020.
Brown doesn’t plan to stray from the four towns on Cape Ann that the Cricket covers. “We need micro-newspapers that want to be micro-papers,” she said. “We can’t just have the Boston Globe. The stories that only local papers report on truly celebrate local life, and they are everywhere you look.”
“Local papers give us a clear and shared set of facts that are the bedrock of civic life and discourse,” said Marblehead’s Rep. Ehrlich. “In addition, without a common narrative and understanding of the problems we face, solutions are elusive.”
Although the internet has undoubtedly cut into newspapers’ advertising revenue, advertising and subscription-based business models have continued to be successful for many local newspapers. Robbins explained that the Harvard Press “reached out to the community and told them that we would not be able to survive without subscriptions.” Two-thirds of Harvard’s households now subscribe to the Press. The paper also has a large number of “sustaining subscribers,” who pay an additional amount to secure the Press’s future.
Robbins is not hopeful about what the economic development bill might include for small independent newspapers, if the commission does come up with remedies. “I feel like the whole issue of whether government should help local news is kind of messed up,” he said. “A big part of the purpose of local news is to be the watchdog on government.”
The newspaper did receive coronavirus disaster support that covered two months’ worth of payroll. Under the circumstances, Robbins said, “I’m happy we got that.”
But Robbins would rather look to the community for support. “Although one nice thing happened for us this summer. The town picks someone as its ‘citizen of note,’ ” Robbins said. “They get mentioned in the town report. And this year, they picked us.”