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Oct. 18, 2023, 2:28 p.m.
Business Models

The New Bedford Light and The Newton Beacon are just part of a new wave of local news in Massachusetts

“People in Massachusetts once had more journalism available; they’ve lost more, they have grieved more; they have hungered for what they had. So, they now have been quick to embrace a rebirth of journalism that matters.”

Sue Cross, executive director and CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), holds open calls a couple times a month for anyone looking to form a news organization.

At a Shorenstein Center panel co-sponsored by INN on Tuesday, Cross explained that recently, she’s noticed a pattern among attendees of these calls: “Almost every one of these open calls, over the last two years, has involved someone from Massachusetts.” What’s more, “the majority of people calling in were not journalists,” she added, but people from community foundations, elected officials, the League of Women Voters, a bookstore owner, and “random business people,” among others.

“When we talk about news as part of democracy, as part of civic life — we can see that happening here,” Cross said, with the proliferation of more than a dozen hyperlocal nonprofits in small cities and towns throughout the Bay State in just a few years (including, full disclosure, The Lexington Observer, where I worked before joining Nieman Lab).

Yet there’s another, more sobering story to be told about local news in Massachusetts, the same one unfolding in communities around the country: This urgent interest in creating new local news sources is, in large part, fueled by the losses of more traditional sources of local news, as ad-supported newspapers, many owned by Gannett, shutter or cut to the bone. Those two contrasting observations, Cross said, sparked the inspiration for organizing a panel about the nonprofit local news renaissance happening in communities around Massachusetts, which was attended by many of the reporters and community members fueling that renaissance.

At the panel, editorial and business leadership from two new hyperlocal nonprofits — The New Bedford Light and The Newton Beacon — explained their origin stories and described business and editorial successes and challenges, while leaders from two local civic and news operations spoke to the broader community need for local news.

The New Bedford Light

Walter Robinson is a journalism legend, perhaps best known for directing the Boston Globe Spotlight team that uncovered abuse in the Catholic Church in one of the quintessential examples of local reporting with a global impact. Robinson is an editor-at-large for the Globe today, but he’s also now a board member for part of the new vanguard of local news: nonprofit The New Bedford Light. (He’s also advising another fledgling nonprofit, the Plymouth Independent, which plans to begin publishing in about a month.)

As a decades-long Globe reporter, Robinson remembers the heyday of local news in Massachusetts. In 1980, there were 55 reporters working full-time at the Massachusetts State House, he said — a number that sounds almost like a pipe dream today. And, he added, The Boston Globe never achieved a penetration rate of more than 35% in eastern Massachusetts (whereas The Washington Post, for instance, left newspapers on more than 70% of doorsteps in the greater DC metro area at one point), because of its stiff hyperlocal competition in the suburbs. “Unlike any other major city I know of, Boston was ringed by strong, prosperous, competitive dailies that covered the hell out of their readership areas,” Robinson said, adding that as a Globe metro editor in the ’90s, he sometimes felt “under siege” from the scale of the competition he faced from the suburbs, which he said often beat him to breaking news.

But while the Globe has continued to thrive relative to many other regional dailies, even expanding its regional coverage recently, Robinson noted that most of those suburban newspapers are now owned by either Alden or Gannett — “enough said.”

“People in Massachusetts once had more journalism available; they’ve lost more, they have grieved more; they have hungered for what they had,” Robinson said. “So, they now have been quick to embrace a rebirth of journalism that matters.”

Before June 2021, “there was no journalism of consequence” in New Bedford, a city of 100,000 people, Robinson said.

The Light’s story started with “two major backers,” with a three-year commitment from one and a one-year commitment from the other, together accounting for almost 50% of the publication’s first-year budget, said Lean Camara, the Light’s newly appointed CEO and previously its chief strategy officer. With just two major backers to begin with, leadership at the Light understood the importance of building on those initial investments immediately. Another anonymous donor provided support with a $100,000 gift structured as a match, with small donors matched three to one and larger donors matched one to one, a structure repeated for three years. “That really helped build a broader community investment into the Light,” Camara said.

Today, the Light has about 1,400 donors, Camara said. Those donors support a staff of 12 reporters and five additional staff, including some who work part-time.

As the publication grows, leaders at the Light have found that both rigorous investigations and stories that give visibility and voice to the city’s defining arts and culture scene are cornerstones of its success.

Offering a community calendar was a priority for the Light because it provided a way to connect with, and be part of, the community; the publication invested in making “the best calendar in the region” by hiring a designated calendar editor who proactively reaches out to the arts community about events, said Andy Tomolonis, the Light’s editor. Features about local artists are also very important, he added.

Humanizing arts and culture stories and big investigations aren’t mutually exclusive, though. When UMass Dartmouth unexpectedly closed a vibrant downtown arts campus called the Star Store, it was a huge blow to the community, Tomolonis explained, and it’s a story the Light broke and continues to hammer away at because it affects the community — its identity, its students, its businesses — deeply. “That’s the kind of story that, I think, earns us respect in the arts community,” Tomolonis said. And the Light applies this same scrutiny to other aspects of New Bedford, from its fishing industry, to offshore wind, to real estate takeovers and housing.

Election coverage is also important to the Light, Tomolinis said, though it exemplifies some of the formidable challenges of civic engagement. In the most recent election, for instance, the Light did what he considered excellent, in-depth coverage of each of the candidates — but just about 6% of the community turned out to vote, a staggeringly low number.

Beyond coverage, the Light is intentional about being visible in the community, Camara said, including by hosting in-person meet-the-reporter events. New Bedford has a significant Cape Verdean population, a defining aspect of its history and identity, so the Light walks in parades with and participates in celebrations that involve that community. “We really do put a lot of deliberate attention and effort into having increased visibility in the community,” Camara said.

Reactions to the Light have been more positive than its founding editor had ever experienced in a news job, according to Camara. To have people be grateful, and hungry for, local news instead of greeting it with hostility was unusual in that editor’s experience of local news.

The Light continues to grow and add to its offerings. About six months ago, it launched a roughly 40-person advisory council to champion the publication in different neighborhoods and provide guidance, for instance. And in the summer, the publication hosted 10 interns, including high school students; many worked on videos interviewing peers about their perspectives on news events and big societal questions.

The Newton Beacon

Newton is a smaller community than New Bedford, with about 88,000 residents. The Newton Beacon’s inception took the form of several residents, frustrated by the lack of local coverage, organizing a community meeting in 2022 about launching a news nonprofit. They began raising money, largely through word-of-mouth outreach, and did a limited series of articles focused on an override in March as a test run, said Howard Sholkin, the Beacon’s director, before hiring a full-time, paid reporter-editor this summer.

Shortly after March, during a “quiet period” for fundraising, Sholkin said the board sent out an email to its 10,000-person subscriber base updating them on the process of hiring an editor, without asking for money. But between that email, and another email announcing the hiring of that editor weeks later, the Beacon received “several thousand dollars in donations” — one anecdotal indicator of the community’s hunger for hyperlocal news.

By the time the editor, Bryan McGonigle, started, the Beacon had more than 400 founding donors. McGonigle said he was impressed by “how much legwork the board had done”; when he began calling community members to report stories, many already knew about the effort to reboot local news with the Beacon, he said. (Though, on the other hand, he also comes across people who are surprised to learn that there is any local news in Newton.)

Since joining the Beacon, McGonigle has noticed that stories about a controversial zoning law intended to encourage more affordable housing, the MBTA Communities Act, and coverage of public schools have especially interested and resonated with the community. He has no shortage of emails suggesting story ideas, which, he quipped, is “better than silence.”

Similar to the Light, earning trust, for McGonigle, has involved meeting and having conversations with community members in person, as well as communicating in digital and in-person interactions alike as “a normal person” who is accessible and willing to listen. He recalled how one man, a city council candidate, had initially been very suspicious of him; when McGonigle approached him about doing a profile just this week, the man was hesitant. But in an encounter on Monday, the man’s dog took a shine to McGonigle, breaking the ice, and as the man relaxed, he eventually shared how he had lost his wife recently.

“When people see that there’s a human being writing the news, and not these hedge-fund-run, big companies,” McGonigle said, “people tend to trust their local reporter.” He added, “in every job I’ve been in, [people] would be nice to me and tell me how much they hated my newspaper.”

Sometimes, building trust with the community means admitting you messed up without being defensive. McGonigle mentioned posting something shortly after the terrorist attacks in Israel by Hamas (now a full-scale, horrific war) noting increased local police security but that all was ok. A woman reacted angrily to the wording of one of his sentences, and he responded receptively, explaining how he had intended the sentence and making an adjustment. He then found out that the woman is an Israeli who had lived in Gaza, and is married to a Palestinian. So McGonigle was able to deescalate and have a civil exchange with someone he “met out of her anger,” he said. He might profile her for a future story.

In his local election coverage, McGonigle shared that he covered the election of the first transgender city council member in the state for the issues the candidate championed, rather than focusing on her identity. The candidate “campaigned on potholes,” McGonigle said, so that’s how he covered her. The candidate later thanked him “for making the article about bread and butter issues like potholes and zoning,” making her identity a part of the story rather than the story itself, because that approach “changes how people perceive their elected officials.”

The Beacon is a shoestring operation; its paid staff consists of McGonigle, as its full-time editor, while a few freelancers are paid for individual stories (an editorial council, and the Beacon’s board, are both volunteer entities). This fall, the outlet hopes to “double” the money it has raised to date, and eventually hopes to develop corporate sponsorships as another source of revenue, Sholkin said. But the publication is already thinking creatively and collaboratively about expanding its coverage while remaining efficient; for instance, it recently agreed on a partnership with Boston College, and will run the student publication’s metro section on the Beacon’s website. The Beacon would be open to exploring content-sharing partnerships with other towns in the future, Sholkin added.

Why communities need local news: the bigger picture

Geeta Pradhan, president of the Cambridge Community Foundation, sees the need for local news from a civic perspective. Cambridge, for instance, is “a city of contrasts” between wealth and poverty, global citizens and lifelong residents, town and gown — a city where “everyone has an opinion and every opinion is right,” Pradhan said. But “when you have that kind of a contrast, you have a city that is pulled apart,” she added. While the foundation has tried to play a uniting role, “really, what we need is that local news.”

The Cambridge Chronicle, the city’s legacy newspaper, no longer covers local news; sources like Cambridge Day and even The Harvard Crimson strive to provide the city with hyperlocal news, but many stories still go uncovered, and robust local news, from Pradhan’s perspective, could help give the diverse community the shared fabric it is missing. For that reason, the foundation recently underwrote a marketing study exploring how Cambridge could strengthen its local news, and is already seeing the explicit demand for local news from community members.

Pradhan noted that the city recently faced controversy over $55 million spent on bike lanes. Only after the funding had been invested, and the changes made, she said, did local business members speak out about how the loss of parking was hurting their businesses and leading some to close — an example of conversations that local news could have sparked before the changes, instead of after.

Greg Ball, a board member for Horizon Mass and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, spoke to how news, and information, are a necessary foundation for any advocacy, because communities need the facts about what the problems are to make meaningful change.

Ball also reflected on the importance of engaging young people with local news by experimenting with non-traditional, shorter, more visual formats, and reaching audiences on platforms like TikTok. Getting young people to consume news, when they’re inundated with so much low-quality infotainment constantly, is as challenging as asking, “How do you get people to eat their vegetables when everybody’s eating McDonald’s on a regular basis?”

He added that a fundamental question for news organizations to effectively serve communities remains, “How do we meet the people where they’re at, as opposed to where we them want to go?”

Photo by Amels on Unsplash.

Correction: A previous version of this story included outdated information about The Cambridge Chronicle, which no longer covers local Cambridge news. The story also incorrectly stated that The New Bedford Light has 14,000 donors; the correct number is 1,400.

POSTED     Oct. 18, 2023, 2:28 p.m.
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