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Aug. 21, 2019, 3:15 p.m.
Business Models

The Boston Globe continues its regional expansion experiment, with students in a suburb

“Investigative reporting is great to have, but first we need the basics — and we’re no longer getting them.”

Earlier this summer, The Boston Globe officially launched its new section focused on Rhode Island after poaching three veteran reporters there.

“This is in many ways kind of a digital-age version of what we did many years ago in the suburbs,” Globe editor Brian McGrory told me in June. But now “you don’t have to be directly adjacent to Boston. We saw opportunity in Rhode Island where, quite honestly, great newspapers like The Providence Journal were seeing significant cuts, and that market is particularly engaged in news. We saw the opportunity to create a digital regional enterprise by heading down there and hiring local reporters.”

Well, now the Globe is going back to the suburbs: The outlet announced it’s doubling down on coverage of neighboring Newton, Mass. This city of about 90,000 people, along the Charles River west of Boston, has a median household income of $119,000, the highest of any city of its size in the commonwealth.

(Newton is also home to the Boston Marathon’s infamous Heartbreak Hill and enough people of note to earn its own “List of people from Newton, Massachusetts” Wikipedia page. Matt Damon! Priyanka Chopra! Atul Gawande! Harriet Beecher Stowe! Timothy Leary! Mary Baker Eddy! Sumner Redstone! Anne Sexton! David Mamet! Isaac Asimov! Jack Lemmon!)

But instead of hiring longtime local journalists, the Globe is working with Boston University’s (unpaid) journalism students as part of a college course. The Globe also has paid co-op and internship programs that pull in a lot of college students in the area, but their work on this project will only be for course credit.

Newton already has local coverage from a Newton TAB, a site in GateHouse’s WickedLocal network with no paywall. (Top stories Wednesday afternoon include a an elementary school’s renovation, Newton teachers planning a protest in contract negotiations, and a local doctor receiving a lifetime achievement award.) While Newton residents are more likely to already be Globe subscribers than are Rhode Islanders an hour away, the Globe is clear that this is a push for more subscribers — by going back to hyperlocal reporting.

“While many regional news organizations continue to cut local coverage, this partnership with Boston University will allow the Globe to deepen its coverage of Newton and test whether this attracts and retains subscribers, which are business imperatives for long-term sustainability,” the announcement Wednesday said. The Globe hit the milestone of more digital than print subscriptions in May with 112,000 subscribers.

Gail Spector, a former editor of the Newton TAB and longtime Newton reporter, will teach the BU class, which will primarily be made up of juniors and seniors and is a core requirement for journalism majors. The course description (meeting 8 a.m. Tuesday mornings, if you want in!) promises students “you will learn and practice in-depth reporting in a community. You will develop sources, walk the streets, cover a beat, attend meetings, shoot photos and provide readers with public interest journalism. This is a working newsroom.”

The students’ reporting will be part of a special section for Newton on the Globe’s site with other full-time reporters’ work (starting early next month) and a weekly newsletter. The Globe’s Newton section already highlights the (same) elementary school renovation, a local architect’s obituary, and Newton’s mayor considering limits on youth use of e-cigarettes.

It’ll be a valiant effort, but perhaps more of a test kitchen for the coverage relying on student labor rather than hiring full-timers. Many of the BU students will likely be new to the Boston area (let alone Newton), as BU gets students from all 50 states. More local journalism is not a problem; the Globe may see Newton as more fertile subscriber ground needing just a nudge more content rather than more practiced investigative or political reporters like Rhode Island has.

(While on a different scale, it’s not that far off from how The New York Times has thought about its investment in Australia and Canada coverage. These are markets that already find a lot of the newspaper’s content appealing — so maybe a little more focused attention could convert a lot of almost-subscribers into subscribers.)

Local blog UniversalHub had some resident reactions:

Instead of hiring professionals to be reporters the Globe instead is using unpaid interns who get “course credit”.

The globe can play it off as “preparing future journalists for a career” while saving $$$, smothering competition, and never having to worry about any of that pesky Union talk ever again.

No one is recapping meetings — not GateHouse local papers and not the Patch. Getting recaps of gov’t meetings is very important for staying informed. Currently, if we’re lucky, the local public access cable station will broadcast tapes of the meetings but most people don’t have time to listen to them all. The local papers used to provide coverage of school committees, city councils/aldermen/selectmen, important committees, etc.

Investigative reporting is great to have, but first we need the basics — and we’re no longer getting them.

Map of Newton, Massachusetts, in 1894 by Geo. H. Walker & Co. via the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

POSTED     Aug. 21, 2019, 3:15 p.m.
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