State journalism commission’s work hampered by pandemic

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For the Recorder
Published: 7/21/2021 3:33:14 PM

A state journalism commission, created to study the effects of “news deserts” and how to support local news outlets, is expected to have its deadline extended a full year to accommodate for challenges presented by the pandemic.

The commission was signed into law in January as part of the economic development bond bill. It is supposed to have a panel of 23 members who will study the effects of news deserts — areas with little to no local news coverage — and look for ways to support them. The commission is also expected to examine the sustainability of local news business models. State Reps. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn, and Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, are the only two people who have been appointed to the commission so far.

“Due to difficulties posed by the pandemic, the late passage of the legislation, and a short timeline to make appointments and produce a report, tweaks to the language were needed to extend the report deadline,” said Preyel Patel, Ehrlich’s chief of staff.

Officials originally planned for the commission to meet five times over the past few months and report its findings and recommendations to lawmakers by Aug. 1, 2021. A proposed amendment would extend the deadline by a year. The amendment is waiting to be signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker.

The journalism commission still plans to accomplish its original goals, if a little later than intended.

“I look forward to getting the essential work of the commission underway as soon as possible,” said Ehrlich, who spearheaded the legislation. “There are a few administrative tweaks that are necessary, especially to the timeline, working their way through the Legislature, so it is my hope that by fall we can begin to meet.”

The legislation was intended to help officials better understand how to combat the decline of local news organizations in recent years, an issue laid bare by a 2018 University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media study.

The study found that the U.S. has lost a quarter of its newspapers since 2004, and that two-thirds of counties don’t have a daily paper anymore, leaving many communities without any source of local news. The news deserts are also more likely to affect low-income communities, although many middle-class and high-income areas also have lost papers. Around three-quarters of people are not aware of the serious economic situation confronting local news organizations, according to a March 2019 Pew Research survey.

“News deserts and a lack of quality, well-sourced local news coverage hurts all of us, no matter what community we live in, by denying us the facts we need to make decisions about our lives and our government,” Ehrlich said.

The commission plans to include state officials, representatives from journalism schools and industry groups, including the Boston Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Asian American Journalists Association of New England.

“Having been one of the journalists who worked hard to get this passed, I really hope that the commissioners are appointed in the fall and can get on with their important work,” said Jason Pramas, executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston and executive director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, who helped organize the community advocacy that got the legislation off the ground.


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