The local news renaissance in Mass. needs to spread beyond the affluent suburbs

Downtown Marblehead, Mass. Photo (cc) 2011 by Daniel Mennerich.

By Dan Kennedy

People are starting to notice the local news renaissance in Eastern Massachusetts that’s been inspired by the Gannett newspaper chain’s never-ending cuts.

Dana Gerber reported in The Boston Globe on Tuesday about “The Great Marblehead Newspaper War,” where three independent start-ups have been launched in response to Gannett’s evisceration of the Marblehead Reporter last year. These days Marblehead is served by a for-profit digital project, the Marblehead Beacon; a well-funded digital and print nonprofit, the Marblehead Current; and the Marblehead Weekly News, a for-profit print newspaper started by The Daily Item of Lynn, which is itself independently owned.

Just a few days ago, Mariya Manzhos reported for Poynter Online about The Concord Bridge, another well-funded nonprofit start-up. And there are a number of others, including The Bedford Citizen, which at this point has to be considered venerable: the nonprofit digital site was started a decade ago by three volunteers in response to cuts by Gannett’s predecessor company, GateHouse Media, at the weekly Bedford Minuteman. Now the Citizen has a small paid staff and is the only news source in town, the Minuteman having been shut down last year. (The Citizen is one of the projects that Ellen Clegg and I are profiling in our book-in-progress, “What Works in Community News,” to be published in early 2024 by Beacon Press.)

But there is an ongoing problem, and it’s one I spoke with Gerber about when she interviewed me: these startups are highly concentrated in affluent, mostly white suburbs like, well, Marblehead, Concord and Bedford. Yes, there is The New Bedford Light, an extraordinarily well-funded nonprofit that’s gotten national attention, but that’s the exception. Most local outlets that serve more diverse communities, such as The Bay State Banner and the Dorchester Reporter, tend to be for-profit publications that have been around for a while; we’re seeing little in the way of new ventures to cover such places. And many have little or nothing. Cambridge Day does a good job, but it’s essentially a one-person shop. Why is Marblehead, with a population of under 20,000, getting more comprehensive coverage than a city of 117,000 people? (I should note that the Cambridge Chronicle is one of just three Gannett weeklies in Eastern Massachusetts that purportedly still covers some local news, although you wouldn’t know it from its website.)

As Manzhos notes, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism has provided some assistance to local news outlets. What we need, though, are news outlets that provide ongoing accountability journalism in each of the state’s 351 communities — city council, select board, school committee, police, development and the like. I hope that will happen.

We’re also closer than you might think. If you haven’t seen it before, here is a spreadsheet we maintain of every independent local news outlet in the state. Obviously some are better than others, but some of these are excellent. You can always find it in the upper-right corner of this website.

Author: Dan Kennedy

I am a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a contributor to GBH News in Boston. My blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net.

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