Nonprofit news has made it possible for millions of people to once again have the information they need to make informed decisions, a return to the journalism that holds power to account. For many of us, nonprofit journalism is the antidote for our collective malaise. For two decades now, we’ve looked on in disbelief, and often averted our eyes, as the vigorous journalism we had been accustomed to withered away.
Over the last several years, this existential threat to the roots of our democracy has become ever more dispiriting. Often, it seems, we are a nation where people seek the affirmation they crave rather than the information they need.
Much of the country has been fixated on whether we can trust the news we read and watch.
What is more worrisome to me is that much of what should be in the news is not being covered at all.
Most everywhere, the watchdog has stopped barking.
But the watchdog is awakening. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than here in Massachusetts, where nonprofit news outlets seem to be propagating like rabbits.
But why here? And why now? Why us?
There is no ready answer. But there are some obvious clues. First up: here in Massachusetts, we were spoiled.
Let me give you a couple of examples: the Boston Globe never achieved a penetration rate of more than 35%. In contrast, the Washington Post at one point left its newspaper on 70% of doorsteps in the D.C. metro area.
Why did the Globe operate under such a low ceiling? The answer lies 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. Virtually all of them had State House bureaus. In 1980, for example, there were 55 reporters who covered the Massachusetts State House full time. Most of them were reporters for dominant dailies in communities like Lynn, Salem, Lawrence, Lowell, Framingham, Brockton, New Bedford, Fall River and Quincy.
The bulk of those newspapers are now owned by Gannett or Alden Global Capital, the two chains that have ruthlessly cut journalism jobs at hundreds of local newspapers in pursuit of profits.
People in Massachusetts once had more journalism available. They’ve lost more, they have grieved more, they have hungered for what they had. And so they have been quick to embrace a rebirth of journalism that matters.
Don’t mistake me for a combatant in the trenches of nonprofit journalism. I’m just a board member at the New Bedford Light, and an adviser to the Plymouth Independent, which will begin publishing soon. But it has been invigorating to see what the Light has done in just 28 months. Before June 2021 there was no journalism of consequence in a city of 100,000.
Now, the Light’s news staff of 12 regularly breaks stories about lapses in public safety, real estate seizures by private investors, the large number of homes that get their water through lead pipes, chicanery by the city council — and even the hidden ownership of much of the fishing fleet by a Dutch hedge fund. Government agencies are under the microscope. And voters now have reliable, nonpartisan journalism they can use to cast intelligent votes.
In New Bedford, the Light is closing in on $4 million raised. In Plymouth, when word got out last spring that the Independent was getting ready to publish, more than $200,000 quickly flooded in over the transom.
Not too long ago, philanthropic dollars routinely and reliably flowed to important community institutions, like museums, hospitals and the local philharmonic. After all we’ve been through, it has become increasingly obvious that our civic health needs the sustenance that nonprofit news sites increasingly provide.
For me, and I suspect for many of you, the explosive growth in nonprofit news outlets has been nothing short of exhilarating. We now have the will and the means to expand this pro-democracy movement. Let’s do it.
Walter V. Robinson is editor at large at the Boston Globe, where he also served as city editor, metro editor, White House correspondent and foreign correspondent. Robinson led the Boston Globe Spotlight Team that won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its investigation of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests.
Robinson will speak at a Marblehead Current event on Wednesday, Nov. 29, at the Warwick Theater. The evening will include the showing of the Academy Award-winning film, “Spotlight” based on Robinson and his Globe colleagues.
To learn more about the event and how to attend, visit marbleheadcurrent.org/spotlight/ or use this QR code.
This column was adapted from a speech Robinson gave at an Institute for Nonprofit News conference at Harvard in October.