After some fast action by your pals at DigBoston and BINJ
Almost immediately after rising on Monday, I knew that I wasn’t going to have a normal start to my week. Production on DigBoston commences over the weekend for my colleagues and me, and concludes early Wednesday morning when each issue goes to press. But this week, production had to wait. Because there was a bomb of an email in my inbox.
It was from a media advocacy organization that had contacted me after reading my March 20 column “Proposed State Journalism Commission Needs Broader Membership.” In which I had taken the lead sponsors of a new bill in the Mass legislature entitled An Act Establishing a Commission to Study Journalism in Underserved Communities (S.80/H.181) to task for failing to include more slots for working journalists, journalist associations, and news industry labor unions—among others—on the commission they propose to establish to investigate the linked crises facing local news outlets. And propose “strategies to improve local news access, public policy solutions to improve the sustainability of local press business models and private and nonprofit solutions, and identifying career pathways and existing or potential professional development opportunities for aspiring journalists in Massachusetts.”
I had also been quite “shameless” in asking for a slot for the investigative reporting incubator Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) that I run with my Dig partners Chris Faraone and John Loftus. Because it is at the forefront of experiments to prevent Bay State communities from becoming “news deserts”—areas no longer covered by professional news operations. I had written the column not just because BINJ wasn’t mentioned as an organization worthy of a commission slot but also because it cut checks to more than 60 struggling local freelance journalists last year alone. So our group has much more to say about what state government needs to do to help local reporters and our news outlets than, say, Harvard think tanks, the Mass Municipal Association, and some of the other questionable commission picks in the current bill language.
In any case, the media advocacy organization had been interested in potentially working with Dig and BINJ to follow through on the promise I concluded my column with: To testify at every hearing on the bill. And to bring “friends”—including members of our reading audience.
I knew it was going to be a while until the bill’s hearing before the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses. So, since a date had not yet been set at the time of my writing on the matter, I resolved to check in at the committee page of the legislature’s website every couple of weekdays until the hearing date, time, and location was posted. Which is, after all, the way a person on the street would expect to get information about upcoming hearings.
This I then did from March 21 to last week—when, as usual, I saw that no hearing information had appeared thus far. Thinking nothing of it, I figured I would just check the site a couple of times this week and wouldn’t have been surprised if the hearing ultimately wasn’t announced for a couple more months.
However, upon reading the email from the media advocacy organization in the opening work hours of this week, I was shocked to discover that one of its staffers happened to mention the bill in a tweet last Friday. And then followed up with its lead House sponsor, Rep. Lori Ehrlich, to talk it over. Upon doing so, the organization was stunned to find itself invited to submit testimony at the committee hearing that we had both been waiting for news about… this Tuesday, June 18, at 11 am. Just four days hence. Not enough time for a busy advocacy group to get a staff member there in person. Another staffer from the group sent the above email to me Monday morning—assuming I already knew all about the hearing date. I called that second staffer back minutes later and said that I, too, was stunned. Because I had heard nothing about the hearing date being set.
I hung up the phone and checked the pages on the legislature’s website where one could reasonably expect to find the bill’s hearing information posted, and it still wasn’t there.
Then Chris Faraone and I got on Twitter and Facebook and put out a number of firm tweets and posts to Rep. Ehrlich indicating our displeasure that there was still no notice about the journalism commission bill on the legislature’s website with less than 24 hours to go. I tweeted out screenshots of the web pages missing the critical information.
Minutes later, the hearing info appeared on all those web pages. One supposes that someone in the joint committee had gotten it posted at speed. I then tweeted new screenshots for comparison. And Chris and I began scrambling to spread the word to fellow journalists and allies to prepare to testify on really short notice. Meanwhile, I spoke to a friendly legislator on background, asked how we should proceed, and was told that I should email the bill’s lead sponsors and ask for them to get the committee to postpone the hearing.
I sent the email shortly after 3 pm, included the committee co-chairs—Sen. Diana DiZoglio and Rep. Ed Coppinger—their vice chairs, three other legislators on the committee that I’m acquainted with… and some members of the press and leaders of some journalism organizations.
Right before 5 pm, Sen. DiZoglio called me and explained that there had been some technical—and what one might call interdepartmental—problems behind the scenes with getting the hearing announced on the website. She was also very concerned to have found out from my email that the hearing information hadn’t been posted there in a timely fashion. She offered to talk to Rep. Coppinger and see if he would agree to hold a “special second hearing” on the journalism commission bill in “a couple of weeks”—to make sure that anyone who had not received sufficient notice to make the first hearing could make the new one. I said that would be great, she made the call, the representative agreed, and the senator said they would let us know as soon as the additional hearing date was set. But she indicated that she did want the special hearing to be held as soon as possible. Rather than making stakeholders like DigBoston and BINJ wait for another regular committee hearing—which could be some time in the future.
True to her word, as DigBoston goes to press on Tuesday evening, Sen. DiZoglio just told us that the second special hearing on the journalism commission bill will be held on Wednesday, July 10 at 2 p.m. in State House Hearing Room B1.
I recounted this level of detail for our audience because we ended up with a fine outcome to what would otherwise have been an unfortunate situation. Where many voices that need to be heard on the journalism commission bill would have been absent from what may well have been its only committee hearing. Voices that could result in stronger bill language. Strong enough, perhaps, to help it surmount the many hurdles facing any piece of legislation in the General Court of Massachusetts.
Naturally, I’d like to thank Sen. Diana DiZoglio and Rep. Ed Coppinger for proffering a reasonable alternative to my colleagues and me in the form of a special second hearing on the bill—and to extend further thanks to all the members of the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses. I’d also like to thank the lead bill sponsors Sen. Brendan Crighton and particularly Rep. Lori Ehrlich for understanding why Chris Faraone and I needed to push them in public on the linked issues of a) including working journalists and their organizations in the language of the bill that will create a state journalism commission and b) providing adequate notice of an important hearing on that bill on the legislature’s website.
But I must ask readers for a favor. Now that there will be a second hearing of the journalism commission bill, it’s vital there be a good turnout. To ensure that working journalists and journalist organizations are well represented in any commission that will be operationalized should that bill pass. And to guarantee that the rest of the legislature and public at large understands how important it is to figure out ways to reverse the ongoing destruction of local news media in the Commonwealth and around the United States. In the interest of maintaining our democracy. However flawed, as I often say.
So, I would now like to encourage all of you who care about the future of journalism in a democratic society to attend the special second hearing on the bill. To testify on the importance of making any journalism commission that should be created by the legislative process underway into a body that represents working journalists and our organizations first and foremost. Or simply to attend and stand with us. To demonstrate that you believe that our society has to find solutions to the many crises besetting American journalism. And that said solutions can start with what we do right here in Massachusetts.
Hope to see readers at the hearing. And to explore what we can do to save journalism in the difficult years to come… together.
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.