Saturday, April 02, 2022

Jason Pramas and the future of the Somerville Media Landscape


Interview by Doug Holder

Well--with all the closing and mergers of  community newspapers, I decided to contact Jason Paramus to get his take on it, and what he offers community newspapers through his advocacy and projects. 

Jump to navigationJump to searchJason Pramas is the executive editor and associate publisher of the alternative newsweekly DigBoston, and executive director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism that he co-founded with Chris Faraone in 2015.

Jason, the Boston Phoenix, the Real Paper, and other alternative newspapers have folded over the years. Why do you think your paper DigBoston has survived?

My colleagues Chris Faraone (a former Phoenix reporter) and John Loftus and I took over the Dig from its founder Jeff Lawrence in 2017--when the paper's advertising revenue was at its lowest ebb since its launch in 1999. We've revived its fortunes and helped it to survive since that time through a combination of extremely hard work and an ethos of collaboration with other journalists and news outlets. The key to our very modest success in continuing to exist, however, is that we have built what we call a "hybrid economic model" in which the three principals also run the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. The commercial news outlet and the nonprofit (operating under our own tax-deductible IRS 501(c)(3) Massachusetts Media Fund, Inc. since 2019) that we started in 2015 (as a project of a friendly preexisting 501(c)(3) nonprofit for its first four years) are operated as entirely separate legal entities. But Chris, John, myself, and all of our talent have been able to lean on the for-profit side or the nonprofit side to get paid for our work depending on societal conditions. Which has helped us all to keep on keeping on through difficult times. Still, the market remains extremely tough for small newspapers like DigBoston and we're still recovering from the huge hit our business took in the first year and a half of the pandemic; so we're not ready for a victory lap yet. Same goes for BINJ, as the nonprofit sector is no picnic either economically.

You have been a great advocate of community newspapers for years. Why do you have such a passion for small media?

Because just as local politics is the foundation upon which American democracy is built (to paraphrase North Cambridge’s most famous son Tip O’Neill); so, too, small media is the foundation upon which the national media that serves that democracy is built. You can't have one level of media without the other. Large state, regional, and national news outlets generally look to small news outlets to find out what's happening on the ground--since they could never cover every corner of their turf at the best of times. Thus, if we want a vibrant democracy at all levels, then we need a vibrant news media to cover it at all levels. Including the municipal and neighborhood levels of our society that are traditionally covered best by small local news organizations. Meaning that small media is much more important to a functioning democracy than most folks realize. And since local news media has been in trouble for many years, I've been passionate about helping it to survive the many challenges it faces and thrive in the long run. 

You are involved with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. This organization wants to create a " replicable model that municipalities around the U.S. could use to rebuild their failing infrastructure." Won't that create a uniformity among newspapers--perhaps affecting what makes them unique?

Quite the reverse. The community organizing model our Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism is developing together with local volunteers through our Somerville News Garden project is based on a nonprofit news service (the Somerville Wire) funded, in part, by donations from local residents and business leaders through a new municipal foundation (the Somerville Media Fund that we spun off from BINJ as its own independent IRS 501(c)(3) charity in 2021)--and partly through grants from larger foundations. It also involves a media school (run with the Somerville Media Center public access TV station, of which I am currently treasurer of the board of directors) and a research group (run with Gino Canella, an Emerson College journalism professor). None of those initiatives presume to dictate what kind of reportage that a nonprofit news organization in any other municipality that uses all or part of our model will pursue. And the Somerville News Garden model is explicitly against the creation of any structures that would seek to control the editorial line of similar efforts in other cities, towns, and counties–or, obviously, to interfere in the editorial line of any news outlets here in Somerville. Strengthening the independence of local news outlets by improving their odds of economic survival is always one of our core goals. 

In your Somerville News Garden project --in which you hope to save and or protect the media landscape of Somerville--do you see a print paper in the future or only digital?  Do you think a print paper is still needed?

Since there is already an independent commercial community print newspaper, the Somerville Times, serving Somerville--and an independent commercial metropolitan print paper, DigBoston, that also serves the city--the Somerville News Garden project of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism founded the Somerville Wire as a digital-only news service (which readers can think of as a mini-Associated Press). The Somerville Journal, for its part, has just been removed from the scene by its parent company Gannett merging it with the Medford Transcript right after announcing that it's "regionalizing" the content of all its local news properties. Meaning that the Journal is dead whether its successor outlet ever publishes another print edition or not. Which is precisely what our Somerville News Garden has been saying will happen for three years. The Times, the Dig, and any other small independent news outlets that may start operating in the city going forward are free to reprint any Wire articles they like. Large corporate news organizations operating in the city will have to pay for using the content. That said, we do indeed think having newspapers in print is still extremely important here, in tandem with a strong digital presence, to ensure that the entire reading public in Somerville is getting the news and views they need to participate in the political, economic, social, and cultural life of their municipality.


If a newspaper chooses to be under the nonprofit umbrella of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, would they lose a certain amount of autonomy?

BINJ is not a nonprofit umbrella for other news organizations. It was founded in 2015 by Chris, John, and me to produce the kind of investigative journalism that small community newspapers like the Somerville Times and DigBoston can't afford to produce on their own and syndicate it to them for free. We started BINJ's Somerville News Garden project in 2019 as we grew more and more concerned that communities around the Commonwealth and the nation were on the verge of becoming "news deserts"--municipalities that no longer had professional news organizations covering them regularly. We thought Somerville was the right size for a small organization like ours to try to experiment with ways to help reverse the collapse of its news infrastructure. We therefore welcome the arrival of new news outlets to the city, as they will help rebuild the city's news infrastructure ... while remaining completely independent of each other. As we think it should be. News outlets that are IRS 501(c)(3) nonprofits will then be eligible to join the new Somerville Media Fund. Once accepted as what SMF calls a "qualified news organization" the outlet will share all monies raised by that fund equally with all our nonprofit news organizations that are already part of the foundation. But again, each member-outlet will continue to produce its content autonomously. SMF cannot, unfortunately, provide grant funding to commercial news organizations.


What is your ideal vision for the future of Somerville Media?


First, my colleagues and I want to see Somerville residents and businesses take the importance of local news media to local democracy seriously enough to support at least one community news outlet financially for the long haul-- be it commercial or nonprofit. Second, we'd prefer that the community finds ways to support multiple news outlets of different types (newspapers, magazines, news services, etc.) with different editorial lines, together with participating in Somerville's already vibrant social media scene, so that we always have a lively debate going on issues of the day. Based on facts reported by professional journalists in the public interest. Not just on rumor and hearsay. And having more independent news outlets helps keep them all honest ... because they'll be watching each other's reporting and trying to outdo each other in terms of relevance, timeliness, and accuracy. 

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