BOSTON – Local news outlets are being "shuttered" across the Commonwealth, and if they don't get assistance, it's Massachusetts residents who will suffer, advocates said Tuesday.
"What remains in many communities are known as ghost newsrooms, where fewer and fewer journalists with less resources, like photographers or editors, are left to cover more and more territory," said Rep. Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead. "At some point credible coverage of local happenings is no longer possible."
Legislators and journalists at Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses hearing urged lawmakers to create a special commission to study local journalism in Massachusetts. Wafa Unus, a professor of journalism at Fitchburg State University, said that she sees these ghost newsrooms in Fitchburg.
"Although Fitchburg is still served by the Fitchburg Sentinel and Enterprise, the large brick building that reporters once inhabited on Main Street is now empty and the one reporter who covers the 40,000 citizens of the city works remotely," Unus said. "Like many other local publications, the newspaper suffered cutbacks, mergings, layoffs, and now struggles to sufficiently cover the city."
She said that the small student paper at the university, The Point, on a slow day will often have four times the number of active reporters covering the city than the Sentinel and Enterprise.
"As a professor of journalism, addressing this news gap is a teaching opportunity," she said. "But as a citizen and resident of Fitchburg it is a responsibility."
The proposed commission would study communities that are currently underserved by local news, the impact of social media, the quality of news coverage in cities and towns, the ratio of news outlets to residents, the history of local news, business models for print and digital outlets, public policy ideas to help sustain outlets, and strategies to improve access to local news.
After a year, the commission would present a report and recommendations to the Legislature. Lawmakers emphasized the importance of a reliable source of local news for residents.
"My Facebook posts or my tweets shouldn't be the main source of information for any of my constituents," said Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn.
The bill outlines the 17 people who will sit on the commission, including the chairs of the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses, an additional senator and representative, two appointees from the governor, and representatives from several journalism schools and professional associations.
Ehrlich also pointed out that a major threat to local news is the large media groups that buy up outlets, like Gatehouse Media or Digital First Media. These large companies often cut staff and merge outlets with other nearby papers to raise profits, she said. At the end of May, Gatehouse merged 50 Massachusetts papers into just 18, and a week before that the company laid off over 100 employers in a "restructuring."
"I mention them not with the intention of vilification, but these hedge funds are not local stakeholders as newspaper publishers historically have been," Ehrlich said. "They exist to make money for their shareholders, some demanding profit margins as high as 17 percent, a number unheard of in the news business."
The CEO of GateHouse's parent company, New Media Investment Group, Mike Reed, told Poynter "We are doing a small restructuring - at least that's what I would call it - that I'm sure will be misreported. We have 11,000 employees. This involves a couple of hundred."
The goal is to analyze the best way to assist local news outlets, Crighton said.
"We need to take a deeper dive into this industry to make sure we have a model in place that is sustainable for the long term," he said.
Ultimately, Unus said, it's about bringing stakeholders and ideas together.
"I hope that the bill would encourage us to look at local journalism not as a creator of small community news products, but as a service to the people, as a fixture to the democratic process," she said. "The work is being done in academic and professional circles already, and it is time for these conversations to happen in the government as well. What better place than Boston, the birthplace of American journalism, to start this discussion?"