Amendment creating state journalism commission passes

Body would be charged with proposing solutions to local news crisis

AN AMENDMENT CALLING for a study of the rapidly shrinking landscape of local news in Massachusetts passed the House Tuesday night as part of an economic development bill and now heads to the Senate for action.

The amendment, patterned after a bill filed by Rep. Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead, would create the Commission to Study Journalism in Underserved Communities with the charge to conduct “research and propose policy solutions.”

It’s a very tall order, given the desperate situation local news finds itself in. Over the last decade and a half, corporate acquisitions and layoffs have caused one in five newspapers nationwide to shutter, while numerous others have been hollowed out. A report from the University of North Carolina found that since 2004 there has been a net loss of 1,800 local newspapers.

The Boston Herald, MassLive, Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and other publications have had layoffs and furloughs throughout the coronavirus emergency. But the issue of gutting newsrooms to mere carcasses hasn’t been exclusive to the pandemic. Newspapers have been shrinking for over a decade, and as large conglomerates like Media News Group buy more small enterprises and pile on more debt, the cuts keep coming.

The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan has a book out on the subject called Ghosting the News and two former newspaper editors with the MetroWest Daily News and the Standard-Times of New Bedford laid out what’s at stake on the most recent edition of the Codcast.

In a congratulatory tweet, Ehrlich touted the Lynn Daily Item and Berkshire Eagle, saying that their ownership models would show “us a new way forward.”

Jason Pramas, executive editor of DigBoston and executive director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, said a commission is needed. “Establishing a journalism commission will mean that state government is taking the crisis of the collapse of local news media—and the threat it poses to democracy—seriously enough to look into the problem with an eye to taking concerted action,” he said.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Methuen Sen. Diana DiZoglio and Boston Rep. Ed Coppinger, who co-filed the amendment, would serve as members of the commission as the chairs of the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses.  Described by Coppinger as “urgent and overdue,” the 23-person body would eventually offer solutions on the issue.

The size of the commission grew from 17 people to 23 following testimony from journalists seeking more well-rounded representation, including that of academics from a public university journalism program. The commission would meet at least five times to review and analyze data about journalism in the Commonwealth, and submit recommendations for legislation to the governor, House, and Senate no later than a year after the commission launches.