Gannett merges his Somerville Diary and Medford Transcript newspapers as BINJ’s Somerville News Garden Project and Somerville Media Center launch new municipal foundation to fund local journalism
Almost three years ago, after hosting a community forum on the local journalism crisis attended by 115 Somerville residents, including representatives from more than a dozen civic organizations, my colleagues and I from the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism decided to launch a community-organizing project in this city aimed at experimenting with a replicable model that municipalities across the United States could use to rebuild their failing information infrastructures in the interests of democracy.
The Somerville News Garden, as I dubbed it before its founding in June 2019, had drawn more than 40 Somervillians – with a core of a dozen committed activists – into its orbit that winter. And spent much time discussing the many issues that were leading cities, towns, and counties across the country to become “news wastelands” that no longer had professional journalists covering local political, economic, social, and cultural developments. .
One of the main drivers of the crisis was clear from the start of the organizing effort: the consolidation of the media. That is to say the acquisition and absorption of municipal media by multinationals. Whose sole purpose was to squeeze these generally “heritage” print newspapers for the last drops of profit that could be wrung from their sources of advertising revenue and legal advice – by cutting editorial staff and therefore the very content that had been their reason for being as they went – before selling off their remaining assets and closing them when sufficient returns had been extracted from them. Without any consideration of the critical role these publications have long played in thousands of communities as primary public forums for discussion and debate on current issues. Providing, despite all their many flaws, a vital service to the American democratic process.
Over the past two pandemic years, as the work of the Somerville News Garden has crystallized into four initiatives – the Somerville Wire news service (whose staff has been ably staffed by BINJ Deputy Director Shira Laucharoen for over a year already), the research group, the Neighborhood Media School, and the recently launched municipal foundation Somerville Media Fund – the residents of Somerville sometimes asked me why BINJ and local activists spent so much effort on our project.
After all, they would say, Somerville still has its traditional newspaper, the Somerville Diary. Additionally, the local independent business weekly Somerville time. And DiggingBoston– the alternative subway news weekly run (separately from BINJ) by my partners Chris Faraone and John Loftus and myself, and widely distributed in Somerville. And the Somerville branch of the national online news channel Patch.
So, our interrogators asked, why were BINJ and our allies walking around saying that Somerville’s news infrastructure was in danger of collapsing and burning?
I would answer that the Somerville Diary belonged to Gannett – the 900-pound gorilla of multinational corporations in the local news space – who had purchased more than 100 newspapers and magazines in Massachusetts alone. And that it was only a matter of time until he threw away the withered husk of this new property he was crushing for profit like so much trash. the Somerville time was surviving on what was probably a very low profit margin, just like DiggingBoston, and the two little newspapers lived, shall we say, dangerously. Patch was stable, but not very widely read in Somerville, as it lacked a print edition. A media that is even more important to the dissemination of local news than casual observers think.
In conversations since 2020, I would also point out that the lifestyle magazine Scout Somerville– which did local reporting – went bankrupt at the start of the pandemic (as did its sister publication Cambridge Pathfinder).
On the multimedia side, I will explain that the local public television station Somerville Media Center (now run by a former Somerville Diary editor, Kat Powers) has certainly been producing professional news content for years. But, like most similar stations in the United States, it is struggling to survive in the long term and is working hard to figure out how to get more “eyeballs on the screens”.
Critically, I would point out that not all of the surviving Somerville news outlets carry as much original local content as the Somerville Diary did as an independent newspaper before its sale to a series of large corporations beginning in the 1990s. When it had three editors, three or more full-time reporters, its own sales staff, a printing press, a staff printing, a distribution operation and a building.
Once the Somerville Diary is gone, I concluded in such exchanges, it will remain an open question whether the Somerville time and DiggingBoston can do it long term. Leaving only Patch standing, if those two papers were then to cease publishing.
That’s why we continue to push the Somerville News Garden project forward. Work with the residents of Somerville to rebuild the town’s failing new infrastructure. Carefully document our progress as we go and publicize our successes and failures nationally. Hoping to help other municipalities reverse the continued destruction of their local news outlets.
Our efforts received a big, albeit disheartening, boost, and our reviews were sobering last week when Gannett announced he was merging or eliminating many of his Massachusetts news properties. Including the Somerville Diary. The remnant of which Gannett merges with the Medford Transcript to create the Transcript and Diary. A publication that is arguably just one last brief flash in the proverbial pan before its disposal by its for-profit parent company. And the one Gannett had the absolute nerve to claim “reaffirms” his “commitment to the sustainable future of local news.”
In fact, what Gannett is doing – and what he has done over the years, he was known as GateHouse around here – is destroying the grassroots American institution of strong local independent newspapers. And replace it with… nothing.
As such, my colleagues and I, BINJ staff and local volunteers, will continue our work on the Somerville News Garden project. And in the coming days, the Somerville Media Fund initiative that we created as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit Allied Foundation will launch its first campaign to provide regular operating grants to the two news outlets at city non-profit: the Somerville Wire news service news garden and the Somerville Media Center public access station.
We will invite all Boston-area Somerville residents and supporters to support these vital local independent journalism efforts. The two work together to rebuild the information infrastructure in a small town. Creating a model that relates to residents of other cities, towns, and counties can be used for the same purpose. Help ensure that Americans and immigrants have the information we all need to keep democracy alive in the increasingly difficult times in which we find ourselves.
The original version of this column was published as an editorial in the Somerville Wire. A shorter version was published in the print edition of DiggingBoston.
Apparent Horizon, an award-winning political column, is broadcast by the MassWire News Service from Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is Executive Director of BINJ, Managing Editor of Somerville Wire, Managing Editor and Associate Publisher of DiggingBoston. Full disclosure: Pramas serves as Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the nonprofit Somerville Media Center and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the nonprofit Somerville Media Fund.