Journalists mounted unusual lobbying effort to help beleaguered local news outlets
For those of you who didn’t notice—and you can be forgiven for that considering there’s been very little coverage of the matter in question thus far—the bill aimed at creating a Massachusetts journalism commission to help state government figure out how best to support beleaguered local news outlets was passed into law as part of a huge economic development bill last month.
Why am I writing about it now? Two reasons. First, it’s one of the most important pieces of legislation aimed at helping preserve the institution of journalism passed at any level of American government since the rolling collapse of the news industry began in the 1990s. And second, the law made it through an incredibly tough state legislative process not just because of insider politics as usual—although such politics were critically important to its passage—but also because of a grassroots lobbying effort that the nonprofit I run with my DigBoston colleagues Chris Faraone and John Loftus, Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, was an integral part of.
Our political ground game was particularly noteworthy given that the necessary lobbying was mainly done by a bunch of journalists, journalism professors, and journalism students. People who have by and large taken minimal involvement in politics as a point of professional pride over the last hundred years or so. Doing our level best to remain far enough above the constant fray that is representative government to be able to provide the public fair and accurate reporting on debates that affect their daily lives.
That said, the law was not the brainchild of a journalist. It was conceived of and filed by the mother of a journalist: Rep. Lori Ehrlich. By 2018, she had become very concerned about both the declining fortunes of the local newspapers she had grown up with and the stories her daughter was telling her about how difficult it was for professional journalists to keep those newspapers (and other news outlets large and small) going in the age of the internet and so-called media consolidation. Which is, put less delicately, the acquisition of once-independent local news media by giant corporations interested far more in fattening their bottom line than they are in providing Americans the news and views they need to be active citizens in a democratic society.
After consulting with Northeastern University journalism professor and longtime Boston journalist Dan Kennedy and others, Ehrlich filed the state journalism commission bill together with Sen. Brendan Crighton in early 2019 and began the hard work of convincing the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses to agree it deserved a shot at passage. In March of that year, her efforts got some attention in political circles. And immediately drew criticism from… well, me, in this very column.
My critique was that I thought it was a good idea to have a commission looking at the plight of local news outlets, but I insisted that it was critical that the journalists leading those outlets needed to have seats on said commission plus journalist organizations and journalism professors from a wider array of (ideally) public colleges from around the state. I also wanted to expand the commission from its proposed 17 seats to as many as double that number to make that vision possible.
In my initial dispatch on the bill, I promised to get a bunch of journalists to attend its hearing before the joint committee and testify in favor of those and other changes. So imagine my surprise when I heard about what ended up being a June 18, 2019, hearing from a friend at the national media reform advocacy group Free Press barely 24 hours in advance. Seems there had been a snafu with announcing the hearing and it wasn’t posted on the legislature’s website… until Chris Faraone and I started raising hell on social media that very same day—culminating in a late afternoon phone call with the joint committee’s co-Chair Sen. Diane DiZoglio, followed by her call to her House counterpart, Rep. Ed Coppinger, and their agreement that a second hearing would be called with proper public notice for a few weeks hence.
The pair were as good as their word and on July 10, 2019, that second hearing was held. And a good thing it was. The unadvertised first hearing had drawn only a handful of supporters. Not enough to impress the joint committee. I spent the intervening weeks contacting journalists and college journalism departments around the state inviting people to testify in favor of the bill. I then assembled a panel to lead off our testimony and made sure many others would either speak from the floor or send written testimony into the committee. Free Press, independently at that point, prepared to send a staffer to deliver its own testimony. The result? Over 80 journalists, journalism professors, journalism students, and allies packed a small State House hearing room to support the bill—and to voice their very informed criticisms of its initial language with an eye toward making it stronger.
Jordan Frias of the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, Laura Kiesel (who reports for DigBoston and larger publications), Brave Journalist 1 from a Big News Corporation That Shall Not Be Named, Bill Shaner (who worked for the GateHouse-owned Worcester Magazine at the time), Marc Levy of Cambridge Day, Heather Franklin of Free Press Action, Prof. Tom Gardner of Westfield State University, Prof. William McKeen of Boston University, Dominga Martin of the Mass Poor People’s Campaign, and David Jacobs from the Boston Guardian all joined me in giving testimony. Many others sent in written testimony—including Chris Faraone, who also published his remarks to the joint committee in his DigBoston column. The committee members responded positively and Rep. Ehrlich spoke at the hearing and made clear that she was fine with the committee changing the composition of the proposed commission to better reflect its communities of interest. Press coverage inevitably followed. The bill definitely gained momentum from that moment onward.
Over the months that followed, BINJ and Free Press started working together on the grassroots organizing effort in support of the bill and began strategizing directly with Rep. Ehrlich and her staff. By fall 2019, our relationship had strengthened to the point where the representative asked me to draft a version of the bill that addressed the major criticisms that journalists and media advocates had expressed in our summer testimony. Working with Free Press, we agreed on draft language. I wrote it up and sent it to Rep. Ehrlich’s staff. We were extremely pleased when Ehrlich kept almost all of our changes in the final version of the journalism commission bill.
On Jan. 29, 2020, Rep. Ehrlich, Candace Clement of Free Press, and I met with Chair Coppinger of the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses to discuss the bill. At that time, we found out that he used to be a journalist himself and that he was supportive of it. Things looked good and we were fairly positive that the bill would make it out of committee.
However, State House politics being what they are, an unrelated dispute between the House and Senate sides of the joint committee led to our bill not being passed. Which under normal circumstances would have meant that it was dead in the water. Like literally thousands of other bills that never even come close to making it out of committee in every two-year legislative session. It was Feb. 5, 2020, the day that all bills were either voted out of their assigned committees or died there. There was no time for more lobbying. So it seemed that all our work to that point might have been for nothing.
But Chair Coppinger was not giving up. He assured Rep. Ehrlich and our grassroots coalition that he would find a way to revive the bill. This meant that it was clearly necessary for BINJ, Free Press, and other advocates to do the one thing that grassroots organizers/protestors are usually almost genetically incapable of doing: stand down for a few months and let politicians play an inside game.
Yet that we did. And as spring turned to summer, we heard that Coppinger had spoken with House Speaker Robert DeLeo about the bill. On July 24, 2020, Rep. Ehrlich’s legislative aide told us that she and Coppinger had gotten the journalism bill added as a “outside section” to the economic development bill. One of those bills that the legislature has to pass every session because it’s necessary for the functioning of local and state government. The very way that most bills get passed in the Commonwealth—as part of large bills. So we asked our network to push their representatives to back it.
A few days later, the House passed its version of the economic development bill with the journalism commission language intact. Reps. Ehrlich and Coppinger had come through. The Senate also passed a version of the economic development bill. But it did not include our language. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the legislature removed its normal July 31 time limit for passing the session’s legislation. Both versions of the bill moved to the Conference Committee where House and Senate members would hammer out a compromise version like any other legislative session. But they would have until the 2019-2020 session officially ended on Jan 5, 2021 to do so.
So Rep. Ehrlich’s staff encouraged us to activate our grassroots network again to lobby the Conference Committee members to agree to put the journalism commission language back into the economic development bill. Which we then did. Naturally, it took the committee until the last minute to agree on the final version of the bill, but the full legislature did ultimately pass the compromise bill on Jan. 5. And the journalism commission language made it through.
However, we were still not done waiting. With the legislative session over, Gov. Charlie Baker had 10 days to sign the bill. If he chose not to sign it, exercising his right to a “pocket veto,” the legislature would have to restart the bill all over again in the new session. Happily, on Jan 14, he signed it into law. And didn’t kill our language with a line item veto prior to doing so.
The journalism commission law calls for the now-23-member body to be seated within 30 days of its passage. However, the chairs of the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses play a key role in choosing many of those members—including the eight seats for independent news outlets and two seats for representatives of public college journalism departments we had added to the law’s language. And the new chairs have not been chosen as of this writing. So in the meantime, BINJ and Free Press and our network of allies are now coming up with a suggested list of candidates for those seats and will ask the chairs to select at least some of them. One of our picks will be yours truly and I sincerely hope I am called upon to serve on the commission. But whether I am or not, you can be sure that the grassroots coalition my colleagues and I organized to help pass the law will do our best to ensure that the MA Journalism Commission helps independent news organizations all over the Bay State get as much aid and comfort as possible from state government to start to reverse the ongoing collapse of our industry in the interest of democracy. Journalists and members of the public who would like to work with us are welcome to email me at [email protected] to plug in.
Apparent Horizon—an award-winning political column—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s Pandemic Democracy Project. Contact [email protected] for more information. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2021 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.