MARBLEHEAD – A journalism study commission championed by state Rep. Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead and state Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn could provide new ways for news to bloom in Bay State media deserts.
Ehrlich, who is one of the Jewish members of the Massachusetts Legislature and a Democrat, also sees a thriving, independent news media as a way to combat disinformation amid a political climate that she said in some way reflects that of pre-World War II Germany. That’s when Hitler discredited the mainstream press as a Jewish “enemy of the people,” and as “Lügenpresse” or “lying press.”
With the collapse of German independent media during the Great Depression, Ehrlich said Hitler disseminated propaganda that rejected facts in favor of conspiracy theories “much like we are seeing today. We have the benefit of history so we must never allow it to repeat.”
Ehrlich said the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 was “the culmination of a broken media landscape” that created “a vacuum filled by conspiracy theorists and peddlers of hatred.” She said now is the time to act to restore journalism’s ability to find facts and fight fiction.
The study commission was tucked into a broader $627 million economic development bill signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker, a Swampscott resident, on Jan. 14.
The commission is tasked with looking at the adequacy of press coverage in Bay State cities and towns; the ratio of residents to media outlets; various print and digital business models; the impact of social media; and public policy solutions to improve the sustainability of the press, among other things.
A statement on the legislation from Ehrlich and Crighton cites research from the University of North Carolina, which found nearly 1,800 newspapers have closed since 2004, creating so-called “media deserts” – communities that lack sufficient local news coverage. Hedge funds demanding a higher profit margin than journalism can generate have purchased several news outlets in Massachusetts in recent years, leading to consolidation and staff cuts, the legislators said.
“I think the situation is so dire right now,” said Ehrlich in an interview. “I think the commission is a proactive way to address this.” Ehrlich sees government as a facilitator of the process, with a 23-member commission made up of a diverse set of journalists, publishers, and others, both in terms of experiences and ethnic backgrounds. Findings are due by Aug. 1, 2021.
There were two public hearings on the bill, and “People came forward with great ideas,” Ehrlich said.
She cited as an example The Berkshire Eagle – a regional newspaper based in Pittsfield that was purchased by a hedge fund – leading to cuts that reduced coverage and circulation. Ehrlich said a retired judge, Fred Rutberg, noticed how terrible the situation was and in 2016 he and a local group of investors purchased the paper and hired journalists out of journalism school.
Like most newspapers, the Eagle has dealt with a reduction in print advertising during the COVID-19 crisis, and ramped up its online platform to balance the revenue stream.
Ehrlich said she sees no conflict in a government study commission looking at ways to save local journalism, which often acts as a watchdog on local government.
“It will truly be up to the experts to decide what to put in the report,” Ehrlich said.
Professor Dan Kennedy of the Northeastern University School of Journalism, a Medford resident, is one of those designated to be on the study commission. He sparked the idea for the commission in an email exchange a couple of years ago with Ehrlich as she complained about a lack of coverage in her district, Kennedy said.
One result of the commission may be an exact picture of the extent of news coverage in Massachusetts. Much of what is known is anecdotal. For instance, Kennedy said, Burlington and Bedford are similar communities and both have a weekly newspaper owned by the Gannett chain that are “not doing a good job.” However, Bedford has a nonprofit community news site called The Bedford Citizen, Kennedy said, that is doing “absolutely fabulous work.” Burlington doesn’t have such a site. The question would be whether such a model would work in more urban and diverse settings.
As to the analogy of today’s media landscape being like that of pre-World War II Germany, Kennedy said the analogy “is a little bit tortured.”
“For all of Trump’s attempts to demonize the media,” Kennedy said, “the Trump years were very good for the national media. Trump never really demonized the local media, but it’s the local media that is in a crisis.”