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April 20, 2023, 10:57 a.m.
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The Harvard Crimson aims to fill local news gaps with a new Cambridge-focused newsletter

“As local journalism resources become scarcer in Cambridge, it is more important than ever for us to look beyond our campus and to our community and the issues facing it.”

Here in our backyard of Cambridge, Mass., The Harvard Crimson is breathing new life into the local news landscape.

On April 7, the Crimson sent out the first edition of its Metro Briefing newsletter, a new weekly roundup of coverage of the Cambridge-Boston area. The Metro Briefing includes summaries of the top local news and arts stories from the past week and a list of local events.

In recent years, student journalists have filled local news gaps around the country, covering statehouses and reporting on higher education to partnering local professional publications. Beyond the Crimson, Cambridge’s primary local news outlet is Marc Levy‘s nonprofit news site Cambridge Day. (Cambridge Day’s newly formed advisory board launched a crowdfunding campaign on Tuesday to raise $75,000; by comparison, the Crimson’s 2020 tax filings show the paper made more than $756,000 that year, 80% of it from donations.) The Gannett-owned Cambridge Chronicle serves the city in name only; on Thursday, there was not a single story on the site’s homepage about Cambridge.

The Crimson’s managing editor Brandon Kingdollar and newsletters editor Elias Schisgall answered my questions via email about the Crimson’s decision to expand its local news offerings. The interview is slightly edited for length and clarity.

If you’re a student journalist filling in local news gaps in your community in an innovative way, get in touch: hanaa@niemanlab.org.

Hanaa’ Tameez: Where did the idea for the Metro Briefing newsletter come from? How many people work on it?

Brandon Kingdollar: In the past few years, the Crimson has worked to expand its newsletter offerings, launching new briefings focused on our magazine, sports section, and arts section. We began seriously discussing a metro briefing last year that would meet the needs of our Cambridge and Boston readership and developed the concept throughout the winter and spring before launching this month.

We want the Crimson to be a resource for local residents, and we felt it was important to offer a curated selection of stories most relevant to them each week.

Elias Schisgall: As the newsletters editor, I manage a team of three wonderful writers on our metro team who will be writing and curating the newsletter for the rest of the year and helping to brainstorm exactly what form it will take. Because the newsletter is still in its infancy, there’s a lot of room for growth, innovation, and creativity, and I’m excited to work with our metro reporters to see where everything goes.

Tameez: Why was it important for the Crimson to launch this newsletter now?

Kingdollar: Last fall, the Crimson moved from daily print publication to weekly publication as part of our shift toward being a digital-first newsroom. We view our newsletters as one of the “front pages” of a digital-first Crimson.

Moreover, as local journalism resources become scarcer in Cambridge, it is more important than ever for us to look beyond our campus and to our community and the issues facing it. With these two trends in mind, we felt the timing was right to debut a metro briefing newsletter.

Schisgall: The Crimson’s shift to a digital-first strategy and the expansion of our metro coverage coincided this year, creating a really exciting opportunity to produce a newsletter with a specific focus on local coverage.

Last year, I reported on local politics in Cambridge, and while I’m incredibly proud of that coverage, I was part of a pretty small team doing metro reporting on a regular basis. This year, we have a far larger team of writers doing deep reporting on a range of local topics — many of which, such as education in Cambridge, we hadn’t devoted many resources to before — and the volume of metro coverage is much greater.

Tameez: How has the Crimson’s metro coverage has changed, evolved, or expanded in the years that you all have been at Harvard?

Kingdollar: I spent all of my time as a reporter for the Crimson on our metro team, first covering government relations and subsequently police accountability, so the section holds a special place in my heart. In general, we’ve dedicated more resources to general metro reporting that doesn’t directly tie to Harvard, though we still seek a Harvard angle in most of our coverage. I’ve seen our metro team become larger and more engaged during my time at the Crimson — a change that I believe has benefited our ability to provide in-depth coverage of local news.

Tameez: Tell me about the Crimson audience’s interest in off-campus local news up until now.

Kingdollar: Two-thirds of respondents to our 2020 readership survey reported that the Crimson is their main source of Cambridge news. While readers primarily come to the Crimson for its coverage of Harvard and issues affecting students and faculty, local readers are a critical segment of our audience. We’ve consistently sought to provide reliable and informative coverage of Cambridge’s government, local advocacy, and Harvard’s impact on its surrounding communities.

Our metro briefing already has an audience of 1,300 subscribers, and we hope to grow it further by providing residents with consistent, diligent metro journalism.

Tameez: Who do you think the audience for this work is?

Kingdollar: With our metro beats covering local government, education, business, and advocacy, we hope our newsletter and coverage genuinely interest all Cambridge and Boston residents, especially those who live in the neighborhoods around campus, like Harvard Square and Allston. We also hope Harvard affiliates can rely on this coverage to learn more about the city they live, work, and learn in.

Tameez: Cambridge is sort of an odd news desert. How are you thinking about covering Cambridge local news going forward?

Kingdollar: We recognize that the Crimson has an important role to play in stepping in to supplement a shortage of in-depth news coverage of Cambridge’s government and the issues affecting the city’s residents. This year, we expanded our metro coverage team with a new beat, Cambridge education, which has produced extensive coverage of the work of the Cambridge Public Schools school committee and advocacy by Cambridge parents and educators.

In addition to the new metro briefing, we are always looking for new opportunities to reach Cambridge and Boston residents with our coverage. A Cambridge advocate emailed us today and said they were glad to see the new metro briefing launch, calling it “great news for us in the community.”

Tameez:Is there anything else that you think is important to know about this initiative?

Schisgall: One important aspect of this newsletter, in my view, is that it unites local coverage from multiple sections of the Crimson. Our magazine, Fifteen Minutes, and our arts section also produce really exciting and engaging content focused on local cultural and artistic happenings.

Until now, these different sections had been relatively isolated from each other. I believe the metro newsletter is a great opportunity to take Cambridge- and Boston-centric content from Arts, News, and the magazine and consolidate them in one central place.

Photo by Guido Coppa on Unsplash

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (hanaa@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     April 20, 2023, 10:57 a.m.
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