State lawmakers try to bridge widening local-news gaps

On the last Friday in May, GateHouse New England distributed the final edition of the Hopkinton Crier—a small, 32-year-old weekly paper covering the idyllic Massachusetts town most famous as the start of the Boston Marathon. On Friday, June 7, GateHouse replaced the Crier with Village News, a regional weekly newspaper whose coverage includes Hopkinton as well as nearby Westborough, Southborough, Northborough, and Shrewsbury—towns whose weekly papers had also been subsumed. 

“We’ve brought together the most important news, information and entertainment from your area and put it all in one easy-to-find place,” read a short note to readers placed in the Village News’ first edition. “We are introducing some change, but much remains the same.” The note, whose authorship was not disclosed, likened the new consolidation to “minimalist millennials” and “Marie Kondo’s tidying,” further remarking that “everyone nowadays seems to be distilling their surroundings to their most essential purpose.” 

The Crier was not the only GateHouse paper quietly laid to rest in Massachusetts. According to a now-widely circulated memo dated May 31, the company condensed 50 of its Bay State weekly publications into 18 regional publications at the exact same time. The mergers came just a week after GateHouse eliminated about 200 positions nationwide, a move that CEO Mike Reed described to Poynter as “a small restructuring.”

ICYMI: Reporter’s food-bank trips highlight issue of low pay in local journalism

Peter Meyer, Vice President of GateHouse’s New England division, tells CJR via email that the 50 weeklies targeted during the consolidation “were among the weakest” of GateHouse’s “110-plus weekly titles in New England.” Nearly half of those 50 titles, he says, had paid circulation of less than 500 a piece.

“These print titles simply were not large enough to stand on their own, but by merging neighboring weeklies the new titles will continue to serve valued readers and advertisers,” says Meyer, who is optimistic about how the New England weeklies will function going forward. “I think readers and advertisers will work with us and support the new Village News and other regional weeklies, as long as we deliver the community news they expect, which we are fully committed to doing.” Meyer says the change will not reduce the number of reporters. 

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

Richard Lodge, a former longtime editor at the GateHouse-owned MetroWest Daily News, says he isn’t convinced that a hyper-local weekly is a viable publishing model in a digital-media landscape. (GateHouse’s WickedLocal.com sites will continue to cover local news on a town-by-town basis, Lodge says—a point Meyer makes, as well.) 

“I worry there’s going to be kind of a vicious cycle here,” Dan Kennedy, associate professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, says. “There’s a possibility that readers are really turned off by the consolidation of their local weekly into other weeklies, and they either drop the paper or don’t renew it.” That could lead to less revenue for GateHouse, which could then lead to greater cuts, Kennedy says. 

The final issue of The Westborough News, one of five GateHouse-owned papers in Massachusetts merged under the name Village News. Via Monica Busch.

Kennedy, with state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, recently developed Massachusetts House Bill 181, which proposes a commission to study “communities underserved by local journalism.” The commission—whose 17 members would include representatives from the state government, nearby universities, local publications, and industry trade organizations—would also review public-policy solutions for state news media business models, potential nonprofit solutions, and “identifying career pathways…for aspiring journalists in Massachusetts.” Ehrlich, referencing concerns about government involvement in news production, says the bill was conceived with deference to reporters’ role as civic watchdogs.

“I see it as advocating for democracy,” Ehrlich says. “Without a functioning news industry, you know, our democracy breaks down.” The commission’s authority would be limited to simply researching the news media’s status in the state, Ehrlich says. Some of the issues she is concerned about are dwindling newsroom staff and newspaper closures. Many local newsrooms, she says, “are shadows of their former selves.”

The commission would meet at least five times over the course of one year. During those meetings, members would sift through data and “existing literature” about journalism in Massachusetts, according to the bill. At the end of the year, members would be required to submit a summary of their findings, as well as any policy recommendations, to the governor’s office, as well as state legislative leaders.

Kennedy, a respected media critic and commentator, would sit on the commission, and makes clear that its role would not involve political meddling. Referencing its role in addressing local news’ sustainability efforts, Kennedy says, “I don’t really see that there’s any action the commission could take that is going to be any sort of a solution to the problem, except maybe calling attention to some good projects that are going on, in the hopes that other people might emulate them.” Educating the public, he says, “is as important as anything.”

Massachusetts is not the only state whose government is taking the temperature of the local news industry. Last year, New Jersey passed a bill establishing a Civic Information Consortium, a body that will fund media projects tasked with improving “the quantity and quality of news and information in New Jersey communities,” according to a press release from Free Press, a media advocacy nonprofit that helped push the initiative forward. The consortium was established in 2018, but has yet to secure funding — although $2 million was set aside for the group as part of the next fiscal year’s budget. 

There’s also activity at the federal level. In the first week of June, US Rep. Mark DeSaulnier introduced the Saving Local News Act, which is aimed at making it easier for news organizations to claim nonprofit status. DeSaulnier said in a press release at the time that he hopes the bill would make it easier for news outlets to “focus on quality content and flourish unencumbered by ever-increasing demands for greater profits.”

The future of H181 depends on whether or not it is ultimately passed in committee, where the bill is currently immersed in the public hearing process. So far, says Ehrlich, criticism has focused in particular on who would sit on the commission. She’s heard complaints that such a commission should include people from journalism nonprofits or from some of the state’s public universities. (Northeastern, which is based in Boston, is private.) Ehrlich said she’s fine with that, and that she’s open to amending the bill. At the end of the day, she says, she wants to make sure that Massachusetts communities have thoughtful, local news coverage. 

“I think people still want to know what’s going on in their community,” Ehrlich says. Local news, she adds, is “how we get to know each other.”

RELATED: Two new bills in Congress propose a helping hand for a hurting industry

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Monica Busch is a reporter from Massachusetts. You can find her on Twitter as @somethingmonica.