LYNN — A “news desert” is rapidly expanding across the nation, said state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, and she wants a legislative commission to study ways to sustain and expand local media.
Legislation Ehrlich filed with state Sen. Brendan Crighton maps out specific topics to be studied by a 17-member special legislative commission, including “the adequacy of press coverage of cities and towns” and “public policy solutions to improve the sustainability of local press business models and private and nonprofit solutions.”
“As someone who counts on democracy to work and as a citizen, if people aren’t informed, they don’t know how to interact with government and to hold it accountable,” she said.
The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Business holds a hearing on the commission proposal Tuesday, June 18, 11 a.m. in the State House, room A2.
“I imagine there will be a lot of interest. There is a level of concern enough that there will be a robust hearing,” Ehrlich said.
Crighton said local media is vital to keeping public officials accountable and giving people the information they need to make informed decisions in a democracy. He said forming the journalism commission provides an opportunity to gauge the extent to which local media has eroded at the city and town level.
“We need to talk about it with experts in the room,” he said.
Ehrlich would like to see the commission made up of journalists from a variety of backgrounds, races and ethnicities as well as publishers, journalism academics and elected officials.
A self-described “news junkie,” Ehrlich composed a mock newspaper front page announcing the hearing on social media above the words, “Breaking news — news deserts are on the rise.”
“It comes down to can we get our news from trusted sources? It’s more important than ever. My hope is to ensure we get the news we need,” she said.
Government can encourage approaches to reinvigorating local media presence, said George Arwady, publisher of The Republican/Masslive.com in Springfield, but he added: “We can take care of our own business models.”
The Vermont Standard has published since 1853 and continues to serve 12 central Vermont communities, said owner Phil Camp, “because we provide good journalism.”
“It is vital there be a way for people to have a reliable, respected place to go for local information which they want, need and deserve in order to be knowledgeable and involved citizens,” Camp said.
Ehrlich said her bill deliberately takes “a light touch” on the subject of government involvement in the media and government providing assistance to newspaper owners.
But she is concerned about a pattern of large business conglomerates “buying newspapers and selling them for parts” in a bid to reap large profit margins.
“The industry is really going through hell,” she said.
She applauded organizations like the Knight Foundation for taking active roles in sustaining and expanding local news organizations.
Knight’s website states that the Foundation doubled its investment in journalism to $300 million this year “…focused on rebuilding local news ecosystems in communities across the United States.”
Formed by newspaper published John and James Knight, the Foundation’s self-described goal is to promote excellence in journalism.