State journalism commission in the spotlight

A worthy effort, but broader representation needed

BUT NOW LEGISLATORS like Sen. Brendan Crighton and Reps. Lori Ehrlich and Jim Hawkins are taking note of the problems with their filing of a bill that would create a state journalism commission to assess “communities underserved by local journalism in Massachusetts.”

The business model undergirding newspapers has imploded, so more power to the legislators who want to take a statewide look at the issue. DigBoston editor Jason Pramas, who drills into the issue in his latest column, tells readers to not get “too excited,” about the bill and offers some pointed criticism of the composition of the commission.

Four of the 17 seats will be eaten up by legislators, including the House and Senate chairs of the Community Development and Small Businesses committee, one representative chosen by the House speaker, and one representative chosen by the Senate president. Two members will be appointed by the governor, with no stipulation on who those two people are. That brings us to 11 seats remaining.

Four seats will go to academia, with three of those affiliated with Harvard University, and the very random, specific choice of a professor from Northeastern University.

The choice for a Northeastern professor is not too surprising, as Northeastern journalism prof and WGBH contributor Dan Kennedy has publicly said he was involved in talks about the proposed legislation. But Pramas raises the point that if academic institutions are included in all of this, why not open it up to representatives from a public university, or one of the other great journalism programs across the state?

Pramas says places like Framingham “are definitely on their way to becoming news deserts, and regional public colleges like Framingham State University have journalism minors or concentrations.”

The bill states one seat has to go to a member of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

That brings us down to five spots for journalists who are unaffiliated with academic institutions and who hopefully will be representative of the entire Commonwealth’s journalism landscape and audience. In a smart move, three seats go to organizations representing journalists of color.

Of the two remaining seats, one is earmarked for a respected state policy publication, with “an editor at Commonwealth Magazine” specifically designated for the slot. (We’re honored, but no one at CommonWealth actually knew we were being  singled out for a seat.)

That leaves one spot for a member of the New England Newspaper Association, which represents 450 daily, weekly, and specialty publications across six states.

Nonprofit news outlets aren’t mentioned in the bill’s section on commission membership.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

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.

That seems like an unfortunate oversight, since organizations like the Boston Institute of Nonprofit Journalism repeatedly go out into the community and specifically ask readers what they want to see reported and what issues they face. The organization recently co-hosted an event with community access television station Somerville Media Center, which brought over 100 Somerville residents and 15 local reporters from outlets that have tiny staffs, like the Somerville Scout. No large media outlets were present. That effort in itself should be rewarded with a seat at the table — how often do you get over 150 people in a room on a Saturday to talk about journalism?

The point of this commission is to review all aspects of local journalism, including the adequacy of press coverage in towns, the ratio of residents to media outlets, digital business models for media outlets, and the potential of nonprofit solutions for some of the problems facing journalists. At the very least, there should be more serious considerations made as to who gets to be part of the discussion. There should also be space made for reporters for outlets that cater to immigrant populations, like O Jornal in Fall River.

Ehrlich was on WBUR in February outlining the bill. Pramas offers the first real pushback about the legislation, raising the ante on what should be expected if the measure moves forward.