State House press gets free office space, parking

Boston Herald is the only outlet that pays any rent

THE MEN AND WOMEN who are elected to state office are provided office and parking space at the State House when they arrive for work on Beacon Hill. The same holds true for the individuals who work in the media and are assigned to Beacon Hill to cover the officials.

With media retrenchment and the decline in State House coverage, the number of reporters working on Beacon Hill has dropped significantly over the last 15 years. But those still remaining occupy a fair amount of office space.

The Boston Globe, which is owned by Red Sox owner John Henry, has its office on the fourth floor at the front of the State House. The Boston Herald, owned by Patrick Purcell, has its own office up on the fifth floor. The State House News Service, which sells news coverage of the State House to clients, has its office on the fourth floor, next to the general press room, which is called the Press Gallery. The Press Gallery has desks for reporters from the Associated Press, the Lowell Sun, the Springfield Republican, Bloomberg, the Cape Cod Times, a few radio stations, and Community Newspaper Holdings, which publishes newspapers in Lawrence, Salem, Gloucester, and Newburyport.

According to state officials, all of the news organizations except one—the Boston Herald—pay nothing for their space. The Herald, which used to occupy free space in the general press room, decided about 20 years ago that it wanted its own private office for competitive reasons and is paying $4,500 a year for it.

In addition to the office space, the city of Boston allows reporters to park for free on Beacon Street next to Boston Common, a short walk down the hill from the State House.  Parking at the nearby Boston Common Garage is $28 for 3 to 10 hours.

Parking for State House press sign

It’s unclear how the State House arrangements with the press corps first originated, but they appear to be long-standing policy. A joint legislative rule first adopted in 1911 says the gatekeepers for press space on Beacon Hill are the Massachusetts State House Press Association and the State House Broadcasters Association, which appears to be defunct.

In order to qualify for free office space and parking, media outlets must first join the press association. The organization used to charge its members annual dues of $60, but stopped that practice several years ago.

Brendan Moss, a spokesman for the Baker administration’s Executive Office of Administration and Finance, confirmed that no press groups pay rent except for the Boston Herald. He knew little about how the space was allotted. Moss says other groups that receive free office space at the State House are private veterans groups and the United States Postal Service.

“We are reviewing all spaces used by outside groups at the State House,” he says, declining to explain what the review would entail.

Steve LeBlanc, an Associated Press reporter who heads up the press association, says he has no first-hand knowledge of the original press arrangements. “Historically, this is the way it’s been set up like forever,” he says.

Robert Rosenthal, chairman of the department of communication and journalism at Suffolk University, says the free office space and parking for the press is justified.

“The reason why it’s important to have members of the press with offices at the State House is that they’re the eyes and ears of the public,” he says.  “The only way we know what’s happening on a day-to-day basis at the State House is because we have journalists there who can inform us.”

Fred Bayles, an associate professor of journalism at Boston University, says free office space for reporters is not unusual. “All of the state houses I have visited or worked in had open space for journalists,” he says.

The story of why the Herald alone pays rent for its space goes back to 1996, when the paper shared space in the press room. Joe Sciacca, who was the paper’s State House bureau chief at the time and is now its editor, says he wanted a private space where he and the paper’s other State House reporter could work on their stories without worrying about being overheard.

“We decided that we wanted to operate out of our own [office] the same way that our colleagues at the Globe were,” he says.

The Herald asked then-governor William Weld’s office to help it find private office space at the State House, which ended up being on the fifth floor. At the time, Weld was challenging US Sen. John Kerry for his seat, a race the Herald was covering on a daily basis.

“In an abundance of caution,” Sciacca says, “we felt it was prudent that we pay rent for the space to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.” The Herald has no plans to stop paying rent for its space, according to Sciacca.

Frank Phillips, the Globe’s State House bureau chief, says he has been told the Globe acquired its office in the early 1870s. At the time, Charles H. Taylor was working as the House clerk and frequently met with Globe reporters in what is now the newspaper’s office. In 1873, Taylor left the State House to go to work at the Globe and quickly became publisher and the paper’s owner. The cloak room where he had met reporters became the Globe’s office, Phillips says he was told.

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The Globe and the Herald also receive free office space at Boston City Hall “in order to increase access and transparency in city government,” says Bonnie McGilpin, press secretary to Mayor Marty Walsh. Free parking is not provided.

Peter Lucas, a long-time State House reporter and columnist who currently writes columns for the Lowell Sun, says reporters have an important role to play on Beacon Hill the same way lawmakers do.
“The press is like part of the United States Constitution,” he says. “The public relies on information. You cover the budget. You cover this, that, and the other thing. It’s all in the public interest. That’s what you do.”