Rep. Lori Ehrlich (D-Marblehead) and Sen. Brenden Crighton (D-Lynn) have filed a bill that would create a commission to study local journalism in underserved communities.
It is a broad proposal.
In addition to local journalism, the commission would study the adequacy of press coverage, the history of local news in the state, the ratio of residents to media outlets, print and digital business models for media, the impact of social media on local news, strategies to improve local news access, and public policy solutions to help sustain local journalism and identify career paths and professional development opportunities for aspiring journalists.
Rep. Ehrlich and Sen. Crighton are right to be concerned. Local journalism is beset with problems and challenges.
But a commission with the task they have outlined would not likely be of much help.
And that is if the proposal gets though the Legislature in the first place; government assisting the Fourth Estate would invite speculation of conflict of interest. In fact, it could invite not just speculation but actual conflict.
But even if the proposal comes to fruition, what Rep. Ehrlich and Sen. Crighton would charge it to find out is hidden in plain sight.
The bill’s sponsors point to a study out of the school of journalism at the University of North Carolina titled “The Expanding News Desert.”
The study is heavy with data and facts and dwells on declining newspaper advertising revenue, shrinking newsroom staffs and declining readership. But it fails to cleanly tie them together, which can easily be done.
For starters, the title of the report is misleading or, more to the point, uses the wrong metaphor.
A desert is barren because it cannot support life. But the cultivators, not the environment, are what’s hurting journalism.
Corporate ownership of media, into which the report goes in great detail, exacts a dreadful toll on the newspapers it acquires.
Big companies buy newspapers and eviscerate their newsrooms in order to extract the expected profits. Readers notice and circulation declines. Advertising revenue, without the readership, follows suit and the cycle repeats itself, leading to closed papers and consolidation.
This isn’t causing a news desert; it’s simply engaging in poor journalistic stewardship. And it can lead to opportunity.
A couple from Truro this month started a new newspaper down Cape called the Provincetown Independent. And some time ago a retired judge bought the Berkshire Eagle, once one of the great newspapers in the Northeast, and is turning the paper around.
But there is nothing a state commission can do about all this, no insights the commission can generate that can lead to a better outcome.
In contrast to the corporate approach, the Enterprise has not cut its newsroom; in fact it has grown a bit with the addition of our website. And circulation, both print and digital, is growing.
It is true that print advertising revenue, on which newspapers have relied on for years, has leveled off while expenses—the price of newsprint, medical insurance, salaries—have not.
Media companies must therefore create new sources of revenue, and most are learning to do that. The Enterprise, for example, now provides digital marketing services such as social media marketing and search engine optimization.
A state commission can study this business model, but it is unlikely to come up with anything new; some of the best minds in media have been at it for quite a while. More likely, a commission would simply follow in well-worn footsteps of media thought leaders.
One area in which a state commission could be very useful is in the study of the impact of social media.
“The dueling hashtags and their attending toxicity are a grim testament to our deeply poisoned information ecosystem—one that’s built for speed and designed to reward the most incendiary impulses of its worst actors,” wrote Charlie Warzel, a New York Times opinion writer, on Tuesday. “And with each news cycle, the system grows more efficient, entrenching its opposing camps. The poison spreads.”
Fortunately, what Mr. Warzel describes is a parallel universe to that of journalism; educated and engaged people tend not to live there.
If a state commission on journalism were to find a way to shrink the poisoned information ecosystem, that might benefit journalism because one way to do that is to educate and encourage community engagement.