At a time when acquisitions of local papers by international chains and waves of mass layoffs mean the news industry itself is often making headlines, a state lawmaker has offered up a plan she hopes will “sound the alarm.”
Representative Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat, filed a bill that would create a 17-member commission to study “communities underserved by local journalism,” including “the adequacy of press coverage,” effects of social media, print and digital business models, and “public policy solutions to improve the sustainability of local press business models and private and nonprofit solutions.”
“It’s my hope that many leaders in the journalism field can get together and come up with some actionable ideas as to how to reverse the trend, and that can involve coming up with new models of journalism or strengthening the models we have already,” Ehrlich said. “I think there’s great concern that the recent shift to digital media may not be as financially viable as once thought, so I think it’s time to really take a hard look at this important issue.”
Ehrlich’s bill, co-sponsored by Senator Brendan Crighton and Representatives David LeBoeuf, Patrick Kearney, Jose Tosado, and Andy Vargas, would give the commission a year to report its findings.
The panel would include lawmakers, gubernatorial appointees, and representatives of journalism schools, news industry groups, and the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
Ehrlich said there is a “strong local media market” around her district, but some other parts of the state “could be classified as a media desert.”
“Although the problem in Massachusetts isn’t as bad as in other states, the consolidation of local newspapers across the state into the hands of large corporate chains, mostly based out of state, is affecting local coverage, and it’s cause for concern,” she said.
Gatehouse Media, whose publications span 555 markets in 37 states, owns nine dailies and more than 100 weekly outlets in Massachusetts. The Colorado-based Digital First Media shook up the state’s news landscape last year when it acquired the Boston Herald, bringing the tabloid under the same ownership as The Sun of Lowell and The Sentinel and Enterprise in Fitchburg.
In late January, the media companies Gannett, BuzzFeed, and Verizon Media Group all announced layoffs, cutting a total that’s been estimated at more than 1,000 jobs.
Though consolidations and downsizing are national trends affecting an industry in the private sector, Ehrlich said she believes state government could still have a role to play in convening specialists to address the issue.
“As our newsrooms are shrinking, we will have less information and accountability, and that’s not good for democracy,” Ehrlich said. “I think there’s a role for the state to sound the alarm and put experts in the room to see what ideas emerge.”