As local news withers, we’re losing sense of identity

When Rick Holmes retired as the opinion editor at the MetroWest Daily News in 2017, he was worried about the decline in journalism and what it would mean for local communities.

“The local paper introduces us to our neighbors. It’s a mirror, through which communities see themselves. It expresses and reflects community values. It establishes the facts on which public debates are based. In its pages, the community defines itself, argues with itself, sets its priorities and, most of the time, finds consensus,” Holmes wrote in his farewell column.

In the three years since he wrote his goodbye, the situation has only worsened. His paper, and the chain it was a part of, merged into an even bigger organization called Gannett. His position was abolished and his old paper now rarely runs a locally produced editorial on a local issue.

“I don’t believe Gannett has any editorial page editors anymore,” Holmes said on the CommonWealth Codcast. “Even the Providence Journal no longer has an editorial page editor. So how is a paper like that, the most important media presence in the state, going to exercise any leadership if they don’t have anyone to research those topics and write about them and provide that leadership in the pages of the paper. It’s a tremendous loss.”

Holmes dredged up his concerns for the local news business while writing a review for CommonWealth of a new book called Ghosting the News by Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post. It’s a book that documents the withering away of local news, not just in Massachusetts but across the country.

“It’s not necessarily a new story, but it’s a very important story about what is being lost almost without anybody noticing, which is the quality and quantity of news coverage at the local level,” Holmes said.

Bob Unger, the former editor and associate publisher of Southcoast Media Group (which owned the New Bedford Standard-Times), said on the Codcast that he recalls a time when the newspaper helped set the community’s agenda on such issues as education and dental disease among young people.

Unger said the Standard-Times in 2005 had 56 full-time staff members, a dozen part-timers, and a generous budget for correspondents. Now, he said, the paper has two to three generally inexperienced reporters and  turnover is high.

“They’re green, just out of school often, with no experience and lacking the resources to cover a dynamic city with challenging economic pressures, social issues, and so on,” Unger said. “There’s real frustration down there with the news coverage they’re presenting with a diminished news organization like that. There are fears the South Coast could become a news desert.”

Holmes said the intangibles associated with less news coverage are even more important. “We have communities that really don’t separate themselves from each other, don’t distinguish themselves from each other anymore, and that’s a terrible loss,” he said. “You’ve got a place like New Bedford and Framingham, where I worked, they’re distinct places, they have their own character, their own identity, their own issues, and yet when all we’re doing is getting our news from social media or the local TV stations all those differences are lost and there’s something irreplaceable about losing that sense of identity and common purpose.”

Unger said Holyoke lost its daily newspaper, the Holyoke Transcript Telegram, in 1993 and over time lost its identity. He said Holyoke is now a suburb of north Springfield.

Neither Holmes, who is living in Vermont, nor Unger have an answer for the decline of local news. In some communities, wealthy individuals (John Henry at the Boston Globe) or investors (Berkshire Eagle) have stepped in, stabilized, and in some cases grown news coverage. Nonprofit operations, including CommonWealth, have filled some gaps in coverage. There is even rumbling about taxpayer support for news gathering.

“Up until very recently we would have thought that idea was absurd,” Holmes said. “Newspapers don’t like being dependent on politicians. It may be one of those things – a bad idea whose time has come.”

BRUCE MOHL


FROM COMMONWEALTH

Rick Holmes, the former opinion editor at the MetroWest Daily News, reviews Ghosting the News by Margaret Sullivan.

Joe Kennedy, stepping up his attack on Ed Markey, says the senator’s vote in 2013 for an obscure amendment maintaining ICE detention beds shows why change is needed.

The House approves a police reform bill by a 93-66 vote. The chamber also approves a sports betting bill.

Gov. Charlie Baker may have extended the state’s eviction and moratorium, but what’s going to happen to all the back rent that is owed?

Four high school and college students form gen z gop, attempting to provide an ideological home for Republicans who back Baker’s brand of Republicanism. Baker says he called all of the families who lost someone at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, and talked to 80 percent of them.

Telehealth is burgeoning, but how to pay for it is a big concern.

Opinion: Former state senator Ben Downing says it’s time for Beacon Hill to pick up the pace….We’re in the eye of a housing hurricane, by Andre Leroux….Despite COVID, families appear to be prioritizing college savings, by Bahar Akmar Imboden and Bob Hildreth….Telehealth needs to deliver care at a lower cost, say Jon Hurst and Chris Carlozzi.


FROM AROUND THE WEB

BEACON HILL

With an amendment to a COVID-19 spending bill, Juneteenth is declared an official state holiday. (WBUR)

State representatives file a bill to create a new independent bureau and an $850 million fund to oversee programs that address health, education, and economic disparities in communities of color. (MassLive)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

A Berkshire Eagle editorial condemns the remarks of Robert Moulton Jr., a North Adams city councilor and school committee member who called Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization and said the reaction to COVID-19 has gone overboard.

A parent who went to a Quincy High School graduation ceremony on Saturday has tested positive for coronavirus after falling ill at the event and requiring medical attention. (Patriot Ledger)

Communities including Boston, Lawrence, and Chelsea face the prospect of being severely undercounted in this year’s census, which could result in a loss of federal funding. (The Boston Globe)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

The US government and Moderna launch a large-scale trial of a coronavirus vaccine with 30,000 people, half of whom will receive the vaccine and half who will not. (Washington Post)

Gov. Charlie Baker talks COVID with Vice President Mike Pence on Nantucket. (WBUR) Cape Cod Times has more details on the meeting and protesters.

Local boards of health struggle to enforce face mask mandates as complaints rise about their nonuse. (MetroWest Daily News) Massachusetts is one of four states with a large number of cases of a rare pediatric disease linked to COVID-19. (The Salem News)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Senate Republicans and the Trump administration are expected to roll out a new coronavirus stimulus package on Monday that will include another round of stimulus checks and additional supplemental unemployment benefits based on a person’s weekly wages. (MassLive)

ELECTIONS

A bipartisan group met secretly in Washington to game out possible scenarios of what would happen if President Donald Trump refuses to concede a close election. (The Boston Globe)

The organizers of a young Republican group who oppose President Trump officially launched a national group over the weekend with a video to attract a new generation of voters to the GOP.  (Boston Herald)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Pictures of a crowded Boston Harbor cruise ship are raising some safety questions. (MassLive)

Colleges are contracting with hotels to turn hotel rooms into dorm rooms for the upcoming semester. This lets schools create more single occupancy dorm rooms while providing revenue for struggling hotels. (The Boston Globe)

EDUCATION

Colleges impose strict COVID-19 testing measures and quarantine rules on returning out-of-state students. (Telegram & Gazette)

Massachusetts releases new guidelines to govern remote learning this fall, and they include consistent class schedules, minimum day and hour requirements for structured learning, and a return to grading and testing. (MassLive)

Saugus High School holds a fairly traditional graduate ceremony. (Daily Item)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

During heavy rains, overflow sewage gets released into the Merrimack River. The Eagle-Tribune looks at why and what can be done to stop it.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

As the Boston Globe delves into the longstanding allegations of brutality by the Springfield Police Department, which were recently the subject of a scathing review by the US Department of Justice, Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood writes in an op-ed on MassLive that ongoing reforms are addressing the federal concerns.

Merrimack Valley police departments differ in their use of force policies – and in whether the department is even willing to provide its policy to the public. (Eagle-Tribune)

One of the objections the opponents of short-term rentals in Barnstable are raising is the impact on crime rates. (Cape Cod Times)

MEDIA

Sen. Tim Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, takes aim at the 1619 Project, a history curriculum developed by the New York Times that emphasizes the role of slavery. (Arkansas Online)

The Pioneer Valley NewsGuild, the union that represents press and distribution employees at the Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton, will protest outsourcing of jobs at the paper. (Media Nation)

PASSINGS

Michael Brooks, a political commentator on the progressive left, dies of a blood clot at 36. (MassLive)

Ed Ansin, the long-time owner of WHDH-TV Channel 7, dies at 84. (The Boston Globe)