Commentary: Breaking news and how to fix it

Lori Ehrlich and Brendan Crighton

Newspapers are more than just a record of facts and stories about our communities, they are the foundation of a healthy democracy. With local journalism in the midst of a slow-burning crisis, not only is the availability of news about our own neighborhoods and local governments at risk, but also the foundations of democracy itself.

In the past 15 years, nearly one in five newspapers has disappeared and countless others have become shells of themselves, preyed upon by hedge funds and big, out-of-state corporate chains looking to sell off their assets for a profit.

Just last month, Gatehouse Media announced layoffs and the consolidation of 50 weeklies down to 18, with the already hard-working journalists who remain left to cover more territory with fewer resources.

Those deeply diminished newsrooms, often the only sources of objective and credible news for the communities they serve, are reduced to news aggregators with little ability to do the original reporting citizens rely on.

Nobody has the ability to attend every community meeting and have their ear to the ground on every issue. Democracy requires a town forum where news can be reported and decisions can be made and debated based on facts reported by journalists.

Expansive research from the University of North Carolina found a net loss of almost 1,800 local newspapers nationally since 2004. Earlier this year, the media industry lost about 1,000 employees to layoffs in one week.

Dire as it is, the news is not all bad. A few newspapers are demonstrating that newsgathering is still possible, and in some cases, even profitable. The paper you are reading now, The Daily Item, is now owned by a group of local stakeholders including Lynn residents and business owners. They know the importance of news coverage to the functioning of a city, so much so that they’ve put their own skin in the game.

Elsewhere, Berkshire Eagle co-owner Fred Rutberg and a team of local stakeholders purchased the then-declining regional paper back from Digital First Media, a division of New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Alden’s track record of buying papers, such as the Boston Herald, to slash costs and quality in order to raise profits put news coverage of the Berkshires in jeopardy.

With a faithful eye on quality news gathering and reporting, Mr. Rutberg has overseen a 60 percent increase in digital subscriptions with print holding steady.

Across the country, philanthropists and publishers are experimenting with new approaches to running a newspaper. Some papers have tried providing all of their subscribers with free iPads to convert them to digital subscribers, while organizations like “Report for America” have placed recent graduates into two-year reporting fellowships, modeled after “Teach for America.” We all have a stake in the survival of a free press, which is why we have filed a bill that has started what has already been a productive conversation.

The bill — H181/S80 — is an act establishing a commission to study journalism in underserved communities, would create a diverse 17-member commission tasked with charting a path forward for local journalism.

The commission would be required to review the adequacy of press coverage of cities and towns, the ratio of residents to media outlets, the print and digital business models for media outlets, the impact of social media on local news, strategies to improve local news access, and more. By filing this, we believe that government can facilitate this critical discussion and let journalists lead the way without infringing on the freedom of the press.

Local news outlets serve as anchors of our communities, connecting readers to their neighbors and making government accountable. Without them, at a time when facts are under attack, our communities become prone to hyperbole and divisiveness.

I am looking forward to working hard on this critical issue for the future of Massachusetts for the rest of this session, and invite anyone who is interested in preserving local news to join the conversation.

State Rep. Lori Ehrlich represents Marblehead, Swampscott and part of Lynn in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. State Sen. Brendan Crighton represents Lynn, Lynnfield, Marblehead, Nahant, Saugus and Swampscott in the state Senate.

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