Jason Pramas and the future of Somerville’s media landscape
Well, with all the community newspaper closures and mergers, I decided to reach out to Jason Pramas to get his perspective and what he offers community newspapers through his advocacy and projects.
Pramas is editor and associate editor of the alternative newsweekly DiggingBostonand executive director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism which he co-founded with Chris Faraone in 2015.
Doug Holder: Jason, the boston phoenixthe real paper, and other alternative newspapers have folded over the years. Why do you think your paper DiggingBoston survived ?
Jason Pramas: My colleagues Chris Faraone (former Phoenix journalist) and John Loftus and I took over the Dig of its founder Jeff Lawrence in 2017, when the newspaper’s advertising revenue was at its lowest since its launch in 1999. We have revived his fortunes and helped him survive since then thanks to a combination of extremely hard work and an ethic of collaboration with other journalists and media. The key to our very modest success in continuing to exist, however, is that we have built what we call a “hybrid business model” in which the top three also run the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. The commercial media and non-profit organization (operating under our own IRS 501(c)(3) Massachusetts Media Fund, Inc. tax-deductible since 2019) that we started in 2015 (as a a pre-existing friendly 501(c)(c)3) non-profit for its first four years) are operated as entirely separate legal entities. But Chris, John, myself and all of our talents were able to lean on the for-profit side or the non-profit side to get paid for our work based on societal conditions. Which has helped us all keep going through the tough times. However, the market remains extremely difficult for small newspapers such as DiggingBoston and we are still recovering from the huge blow our business suffered in the first year and a half of the pandemic, so we are not yet ready for a victory lap. The same goes for BINJ, as the nonprofit sector is no picnic economically either.
DH: You have been a strong supporter of community newspapers for years. Why do you have such a passion for small media?
JP: Because just as local politics is the foundation on which American democracy is built (to paraphrase North Cambridge’s most famous son, Tip O’Neill), small media is also the foundation on which the national media that serve this democracy are built. You cannot have one media tier without the other. Big state, regional and national media outlets usually look to smaller outlets to find out what is happening on the ground because they could never cover every corner of their territory at the best of times. So, if we want vibrant democracy at all levels, we need vibrant news media to cover it at all levels. Including the municipal and neighborhood levels of our society which are traditionally better covered by small local news outlets. This means that small media is much more important to a functioning democracy than most people realize. And as local news media have been struggling for many years, I became passionate about helping them survive the many challenges they face and thrive in the long term.
DH: You are involved with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. This organization wants to create a “replicable model that municipalities across the United States could use to rebuild their failing infrastructure.” Won’t this create uniformity between newspapers, perhaps affecting what makes them unique?
JP: Quite the contrary. The community organizing model that our Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism develops with local volunteers through our Somerville News Garden project is based on a non-profit information service (the Somerville Thread) funded, in part, by donations from local residents and business leaders through a new municipal foundation (the Somerville Media Fund which we created out of BINJ as its own independent IRS 501 charity (c)(3) in 2021) – and partly by grants from major foundations. It also involves a media school (run with the public broadcaster Somerville Media Center, of which I am currently board treasurer) and a research group (run with Emerson College journalism professor Gino Canella) . None of these initiatives claim to dictate the type of reporting that a nonprofit news organization from another municipality that uses all or part of our model will pursue. And the Somerville News Garden The model is explicitly against the creation of any structure that would seek to control the editorial line of similar efforts in other cities and counties – or, obviously, to interfere in the editorial line of any media outlet here in Somerville. Strengthening the independence of local media by improving their chances of economic survival is always one of our main objectives.
DH: 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 printing paper is still necessary?
JP: Since there is already an independent community print newspaper, Somerville’s timeserving Somerville, and an independent metropolitan commercial printing newspaper, DiggingBoston, which also serves the city. the Somerville News Garden Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism project founded the Somerville Wire as a digital-only news service (which readers may think of as a mini-Associated Press). the Somerville Diaryfor its part, has just been taken off the scene by its parent company Gannett, merging it with the Medford Transcript right after announcing that it was “regionalizing” the content of all of its local news properties. Meaning that the Log is dead whether or not his successor publishes another printed edition. This is precisely what our Somerville News Garden says that will perform for three years. The temperaturethe Digand any other small independent media that may start operating in the city in the future are free to reprint any Cable items they like. Major news companies operating in the city will have to pay to use the content. That said, we do indeed believe that having newspapers in print is still extremely important here, in tandem with a strong digital presence, to ensure that all of Somerville’s reading public gets the information and opinions they need to participate in the political, economic, social and cultural life of their municipality.
DH: If a newspaper chose to be under the aegis of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, would it lose some autonomy?
JP: 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 love Somerville’s time and DiggingBoston cannot afford to produce on their own and syndicate them for free. We started BINJ’s Somerville News Garden project in 2019 as we became increasingly concerned that communities across the Commonwealth and the country were on the verge of becoming “news wastelands” – townships that no longer had professional news organisations. covering 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 in 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 organizations that are IRS 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations 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 funds raised by this fund equally with all of our nonprofit news organizations that are already part of the foundation. But again, each member outlet will continue to produce their content independently. Unfortunately, SMF cannot provide grants to commercial media outlets.
DH: What is your ideal vision for the future of Somerville Media?
JP: 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 financially support at least one long-term community media outlet – whether commercial or non-profit. Second, we would prefer that the community find ways to support multiple news outlets of different types (newspapers, magazines, news services, etc.) with different editorial lines, while participating in the already vibrant social media scene of Somerville, so that we can always have a lively debate on current issues. Based on facts reported by professional journalists in the public interest. Not just on rumors and hearsay. And having more independent media helps them stay honest, as they will monitor other people’s reporting and try to outdo each other in terms of relevance, timeliness and accuracy.