Celebrating the simultaneous anniversaries of the Hub’s most independent news outlets
As I’ve written on numerous occasions, Chris Faraone, John Loftus, and I run two very different enterprises simultaneously: an independent alternative weekly newspaper, DigBoston; and an incubator dedicated to producing longform investigative reporting, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ). We’re experimenting with ways that we can coordinate those organizations to create a workable and replicable hybrid commercial/nonprofit economic model capable of helping improve the fortunes of struggling news outlets around the nation. And allow the launch of a bunch of new ones to replace the many that have been lost in the last 25 years.
It’s a lot of work, and quite a juggling act to keep going at times. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.
The result being that in an era when many news outlets—especially local newspapers owned by huge conglomerates out to squeeze them for profit—are crashing and burning, both DigBoston and BINJ are starting to grow.
Happily, both operations have anniversaries this week. BINJ is turning four, and it has been two years since my partners and I took over DigBoston. So it seems like a good moment to reflect on where we’ve been, where we’re at, and where we’re going.
BINJ was born as a natural response to the forces that are destroying American journalism: the rise of corporatized internet, the financialization and consolidation of the news industry at the hands of multinationals, and the sad spectacle of top editors and publishers abandoning that industry’s core mission of providing the information that people need to be active citizens in an at least nominally democratic society. So it’s fitting that it was the project that brought the three of us together.
In 2013, Chris Faraone was laid off from his longtime staff reporter job when our region’s larger alternative weekly, the famed Boston Phoenix, folded. He went back to work at DigBoston, where he previously been employed, as news and features editor—effectively running the paper. John Loftus was operations manager there and had been a driving force behind Boston’s largest streaming audio station, Unregular Radio, before moving on. The two agreed that local newspapers like the Dig needed a service that could fund the production of investigative journalism that they couldn’t afford to pay for on their own.
So, after a good deal of preparation, they launched BINJ in early June 2015—and recruited me as a third principal at the end of that month. Mainly because of my experience running Open Media Boston for 7.5 years as a rare nonprofit news outlet. And literally on the day I lost my job as a communications professor for helping lead a successful union drive of the core faculty at a local university. From there, we began raising money and recruiting talent, and were gratified when we started pulling in just enough of the former to make a go of the latter.
Over the following four years, BINJ produced over 100 feature stories and more than 300 columns (like this one) and shorter news articles. All on a budget that wouldn’t even equal the travel expenses for Boston Globe reporters in the same period. Yet we doubtless put more money in the pockets of freelance muckrakers for that work than any other publication in the region. While covering a range of topics that other Massachusetts news outlets large and small can’t—or won’t—take on.
Including Britni de la Cretaz’s controversial look at the racist history of Red Sox Nation, “The Yawkey Way”; Chris Faraone and Curtis Waltman’s deep dive into the abyss of reckless unchecked state spending on guns and ammo, “Fire Sale”; Haley Hamilton’s landmark series on Boston’s racist system of distributing liquor licenses, “The Thirsty Games”; Cole Rosengren’s examination of the failure of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville governments to mandate a living wage for a mostly immigrant recycling workforce, “Living on Scraps”; and Miriam Wasser’s monumental living history of the half-century grassroots struggle to shut down the Bay State’s only nuclear power plant, “Pilgrims.”
A year and a half into running BINJ, my partners and I had a chance to acquire DigBoston from its founder Jeff Lawrence. Seeing the importance of keeping our city’s sole remaining alternative newspaper alive—and knowing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when we saw one—we were able to purchase the paper in June 2017. After what can only be described as the business equivalent of a Hail Mary play.
Then began two years of constant work. Which shows no signs of slowing up. During which we built BINJ into an ever more robust nonprofit—complete with a significant public education program and a willingness to help journalists in other parts of the country to replicate our success—while getting DigBoston back on its feet and starting to expand the company.
This has all been possible thanks to the efforts of a large number of people: from all the other DigBoston editors, journalists, sales team, and interns as well as the editors and journalists of BINJ (themselves on the scene primarily due to the generous support of the Reva and David Logan Foundation of Chicago). And thanks to both operations’ fruitful partnerships with a broad array of news outlets, journalism organizations, and academic departments: the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, Brain Arts Org, the Emerson College journalism department, KillerBoomBox, MuckRock, the Shoestring, Society of Professional Journalists—New England Chapter, Somerville Media Center, Spare Change News, and many others.
Having achieved a measure of stability for both groups, we can now think more systematically about the future. For the Dig, the way forward is clear: We need to continue expanding the newspaper’s advertising program and increasing related revenue streams (like our Dig Box Office ticketing platform and targeted digital marketing services) to be able to pay more reporters better money to reach more people in more Boston-area communities with more articles every week. For BINJ: We need to raise more money to produce more investigative reporting and to build educational programs aimed at a) figuring out ways to stop cities from becoming news deserts that lose all their professionally run news outlets, and b) training more community members from all walks of life in journalism basics to allow them to help cover their own neighborhoods.
Our overarching reason for doing all this? We believe in democracy, and we know that there can be no democracy without good journalism. And we understand that good journalism requires funding for as many properly paid staff and freelance reporters as possible. Which is why we spend so much of our time figuring out the best ways to raise that money through both BINJ and DigBoston.
Ultimately, day to day, we do what we do because we know that Boston-area communities need solid news coverage—and we’re doing our part to make sure that coverage is on the streets every seven days without fail.
But none of that can happen without the support of you, our audience. The community members we serve. Always remember that we put out the best journalism we can for free in print and online, and that can only continue if our readers donate to BINJ on a regular basis at paypal.me/givebinj. And support our Dig advertisers. Go to their clubs, drink their beer, consume their cannabis… generally buy what they’re selling and tell them where you heard about their product or service. Do any of the above once a month, and I’ll be writing anniversary recaps for years to come.
Even checking us out regularly is a great start. If you’re reading us, it means that we’re doing our job, growing our audience, and taking another step on the road to a better informed, more democratic Hub. So, on behalf of everyone at BINJ and DigBoston, thanks to all of you for keeping Boston journalism going strong.
Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.