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. 

Friday, April 01, 2022

The View From Somerville Edited by Somerville Poet Laureate Lloyd Schwartz


The View From Somerville  Edited by Lloyd Schwartz  Cervena Barva Press, Somerville , MA.

Article by Doug Holder

At a recent poetry reading Somerville Poet Laureate Lloyd Schwartz handed me a poetry anthology. Not just any poetry anthology, but this collection is by Somerville High School students. Schwartz got a grant from the Academy of American Poets, funded by the Mellon Foundation. He has used some of this grant money to encourage and publish young poets. Schwartz writes in his introduction,

 " I asked students to write poems about their city--anything they wanted to write. Some of them asked if the poems all had to be positive,  'No,' I told them, 'in a poem you can say anything.' Can I really say what I think of bike lanes?' one of them asked. I said, 'yes, and I would really like to read that poem.'

Among the many poems I enjoyed, I thought I'd include this little gem--that is sure to bring you back to your school days of yore.


The blue and red at night

The girls bathroom never having soap

The teachers yelling at students to get to class

The cafe sounds like you're at a concert at lunch

The stairs crowded like a pit at a concert

The hall smelling like fart spray

And the school spirit on fridays

----Aryanna Ray

And how about Maya Roldan, whose wistful poem "Wash. ( A walk home, Bon Iver in my ears)" brings lyricism to the sometimes mean streets of our city, "Cinematic chords in/ Weeds and smoke/Chain link/ Overgrowth/Reflection in water, windows..."  

 Do you want to know how Somerville High is like chicken nuggets? Want to hear odes to the Assembly Mall? And who would of thought that the banal Medford St. would inspire poetry? Ah yes, sweet mystery of life! Thanks to all the young poets who gave something of themselves to the city we love!

Red Letter Poem #104

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner




Red Letter Poem #104




Impossible to know, or very nearly: what bewildering joy; what quietly-throbbing grief; what barely-contained wonder – there, behind that paper surgical mask, as we wait on line at the pharmacy or cross paths outside the Italian restaurant waiting for take-out.  Sometimes we try to decipher the complex narrative that seems to be unscrolling from those dark eyes sharing the elevator, or monitoring a toddler’s sandbox excavations.  And at other times, let’s be honest, our own tangled storyline feels too overwhelming, and we simply haven’t the bandwidth to pay the necessary attention.  But I believe we’ve come to share a visceral understanding during these past two years of multiplying crises: over there, in someone else’s movie (where we may only be bit players, if we figure in the action at all), hearts hang in the balance – whether we notice or not.  And what we do or fail to do – what small gesture of kindness or casual disregard – has the potential to alter someone’s experience: for this hour, this day, within this precarious lifetime.


Maria Lisella’s moving poem “Anointing” reminds us of what may be taking place only an arm’s length or two in the distance.  Would I have been able to sense what this woman, across the subway car, was bearing beneath the streets of Manhattan?  Probably not.  Thank goodness, then, for poems (or paintings or songs) through which we might escape our isolation, even if only for a few moments, and see the world through another’s eyes.  And reading this piece, do you instantly imagine yourself as the one ministering to a loved one’s suffering, or the one being comforted?  And which individual in this scene has been more profoundly anointed by love’s attention?  Maria, a poet and short story writer, is the current Poet Laureate for Queens, NYC and, as such, was awarded a Laureate Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets.  Her third collection, Thieves in the Family (NYQ Books) features some of her strongest work, including poems which were nominated for the Pushcart Prize.  She co-curates the Italian American Writers Association poetry readings; and, as an active travel writer, she contributes to diverse publications such as La Voce di New York and the Jerusalem Post.


Maria’s husband Gil Fagiani – whose passing is at the heart of today’s elegy – was himself a poet, though he came to the vocation only in mid-life after fighting his way free from a heroin addiction.  He also became a community organizer, a political radical, and the director of a drug rehabilitation center in Brooklyn where he helped other addicts to rescue their own lives.  His last collection, Missing Madonnas, was issued by Bordighera Press in 2018.  In print, Gil was sometimes referred to as the Poet Laureate of the Street, a title he wore with pride.  Maria is currently working on a joint collection she began with her late husband – and that, I believe, involves an anointing of another sort.






as the winter sky cools on its way to night.You ask me “… before you go, can you …” And I do.Unwilling to go, needing to go, I organize itemson the table, as if anointing them for you, talk youthrough the maze of meds, the need to eat something,anything all day. I swirl and spin the hospital furniture --the walker, the tables into place. Your prayer booksnext to the phone, small laboratory cups of mouthwashes for who remembers why there are three of them.I make my way to Second Avenue, chase the subway car,look up to see a woman giggling. I must have misseda transient, funny incident on the platform. She wantsme to join her, I do, smile back, blink and recall the last thingyou asked. “Would you take a hot cloth, wash my face …”as my grandmother did on cold mornings knowingeach child would tiptoe on chilled wooden planked floorsas my mother did for me to gentle me into mornings.I reach my stop and think quite possibly, I forgotto warm your face as night falls in a place wherethe weather never changes, where you live just for me.



– Maria Lisella



                                               (first published in SHREW Magazine)





The Red Letters 3.0: New Beginning


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Thursday, March 31, 2022

John Okrent, This Costly Season



            John Okrent, This Costly Season.  Arrowsmith.  2021. 62 pp. $20.00

             Review by Ruth Hoberman


            In March 2020, the Northwest and the Northeast shared a peculiar horror: that first onslaught of deathly ill people, the sirens and scrambling for masks and ventilators, the fear of contagion—all weirdly juxtaposed with daffodils and nesting birds.  John Okrent’s recent collection of sonnets, This Costly Season, recreates the anxiety, despair, and rare glimmers of hope so many of us felt during that time.

            A physician as well as a poet, Okrent practices family medicine at a community health center in Tacoma, Washington—the state where the first coronavirus case in the United States was confirmed on January 21, followed in late February by the first death. By March 17, the date of Okrent’s first poem (each poem is titled only by its date), the U.S. death toll had surpassed one hundred:  “Driving to clinic,” the poem opens, “—on the radio a pulmonologist/in Italy tells of choosing among the dying/which ones not to save.”  Fear is becoming the norm.  The gun shop is packed, the poem notes, and “Everyone’s eyes seemed wider/above their face masks.”

            Okrents experiences as a doctor give him credibility, but he turns his attention mainly to what he sees going to and from the clinic, and to the pandemics impact on his family.  “Home from clinic,” he writes in “March 19, 2020,”  “I throw my clothes/straight in the wash and get in the shower/before I touch my wife and daughter.”  He’d like to think he can protect his family:  From our cabin we keep the world,” the poem opens.  But its ending acknowledges that home can’t be partitioned off:  “In our cabin we keep the world.” The poem that follows, “March 20, 2020,” elaborates on our interconnectedness, “We keep the world, the world keeps us.” And “March 27, 2020”:  “If you die, I die too.”    

            Okrent’s book is subtitled A Crown of Sonnets, evoking the sonnet’s long history of exploring love and time. While his poems deviate from the traditional rhyme scheme and meter, they retain the form’s fourteen lines, meditative pace, and narrow focus.  Some include internal rhymes, and many end with a turn or summation that has some of the feel of Shakespeare’s concluding couplets.  Most powerful, though, is the repetitive impact of the crown:  as one poem’s last line becomes the first line of the next poem, the scene darkens and intensifies.  That first poem, for example, which opens with the Italian pulmonologist, shifts to an image of Walt Whitman tending to Union soldiers amid “the smell of dead/or dying flesh. And in all the dooryards, the smell of lilacs.” The image evokes the book’s project as a whole—to salvage what there is of beauty during fearful times.  But it also sets us up for the poem’s ending, which imagines the man working at the busy gun shop in his “latex gloves the color of lilacs, only darker.”  And then “March 18, 2020” opens “The color of lilacs, only darker—the clouds/that cover the top of Mt. Rainier this evening/like a shroud.”  Those echoing lines create a sense of claustrophobia, of consequences unfolding, of contagion.  

            Okrent’s title comes from W. D. Snodgrass’s “April Inventory,” a poem quoted in the book’s epigraph and again in “April 20, 2020”:

            That time of year when every crow you see

            carries clump of hair or twig or tuft of down

            into the trees. They brood and hover

            over our duress while spring repays last summer’s

            debts. “We shall afford our costly seasons,” said Snodgrass.

            But this one?  Like a stain, desperation seeps into things:

            the grocery bag, the steering wheel, little hand

            in my hand, midnight bowl of cereal.

Spring’s bank account is full; our own, emptied by loss. The allusion to Shakespeare’s “That Time of Year” is equally bleak:  Shakespeare links winter, fall, and twilight to the approach of death. For Okrent, however, death is already there at daybreak: “The mist hangs low around the whole horizon/like the lid of an eye that’s closing. But it’s only morning.”

            Unless morning means there’s time still to hope?  Okrent’s forty-eight sonnets mention disasters besides the pandemic—the murder of George Floyd, hurricanes, wildfire, a divisive President—and also hints of change, like the Black Lives Matter movement. In “June 1, 2020,” he calls for “more gentle/more genital, more wrestling with angels, more asphyxia’s opposite.”  “June 5, 2020” notes, of a protestor knocked down by police, “blood leaked like a secret from his ear.”  And the next begins, “From the ear, to please the muses, music/reaches for more music”; the speaker and his family, newly tested for Covid, visit family “for the first time in months.” Ultimately, Okrent suggests, in the book’s final poem, “Nothing is wasted,/love least of all.”  That poem concludes, as so many others have begun, with the words “Driving to clinic.”  But this time, there is no mist like the “lid of an eye that’s closing.”  Instead, “day breaks its glass of light on the harbor/and I take it—like a chance—like a cure.”

            With their repetitive box-like form and those reverberating final lines, Okrent’s poems are at times despairing, but always graceful and controlled. There’s a muffled quality to them that I found added to their impact, as if the speaker were too stunned to probe too deeply or to let loose emotionally.  If, in ten years, we’ve forgotten what these last few years have felt like, This Costly Season will be there to remind us:  I bow my head to the gun/of the infrared thermometer, then enter the clinic” (April 23, 2020”).