Municipal news service ending three-year run due to positive and negative developments
In January 2023, I penned a missive explaining that the Somerville Wire had run out of money. I was gratified when readers donated several thousand dollars within a couple of weeks to keep it going. The municipal news service that my Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism colleagues and I had launched as part of our Somerville News Garden project in early 2021 was then able to live on from February 2023 until a few weeks ago under the aegis of the local foundation, Somerville Media Fund, that we had spun off to help support nonprofit journalism hereabouts.
However, that new arrangement required me to work for free doing bookkeeping and paperwork for SMF while also editing news articles produced by our third and final staff reporter, Ryan DiLello, who I had recruited last February to take over from Linda Pinkow—and who herself had taken over reporting duties from Shira Laucharoen for several months after Shira got a full-time writing gig in spring 2022.
And I could have tried to raise several thousand more this month and keep Somerville Wire puttering along for the better part of another year. But it’s definitely time to close up shop.
Because, for starters, I’m increasingly busy as executive director of BINJ since we launched our student-driven statewide news outlet HorizonMass last August—which I also edit. So I simply no longer have time to run an additional small nonprofit (SMF) and an additional publication (the Wire).
But more importantly, while Somerville is still in danger of becoming a “news desert” (a community that no longer has a professionally-produced news outlet covering it), it’s now getting more news coverage than it was in 2021. Both because the Cambridge Day launched a print edition called the Week last year and expanded its Somerville coverage significantly and because the Boston Globe, likely noting the uptick in local journalism in Cambridge and Somerville of late, launched its Camberville newsletter recently and increased its coverage of both cities. Picking up our Ryan (who also writes for the Day) as a freelancer in the process, I hasten to add.
Considering that a) the Somerville Times continues publishing a print commercial newspaper weekly, b) Billy Tauro continues to put out his Somerville/Medford News Weekly commercial “blog in print” as well, and c) there are many lively social media groups focusing on Somerville happenings (including some useful information and some … um … less useful information), Somervillians can scrape together something like an accurate picture (or at least, you know, a picture) of what’s going on in our fair city week to week … whether we stoop to seeking out the very occasional relevant blurbs still spit out by two corporate “zombie” publications that insist on pretending to exist (Gannett’s Transcript and Journal and Patch Somerville) or not.
Meanwhile, the Somerville Education Foundation is now in the process of converting into the Somerville Foundation with help from a lot of local players. Meaning that Somerville will soon have its own equivalent of the Cambridge Community Foundation or the Boston Foundation—capable of raising far more money than our tiny Somerville Media Fund ever could for a raft of important causes in town. Its organizers have pulled me into the organizing effort and I’m pleased to announce that the new foundation will have a media and journalism “domain of action” when it starts up. Obviating the need to keep the Somerville Media Fund going, although I still have to meet with our board and decide whether to shutter it or convert it to another kind of nonprofit or maybe make a little scholarship fund out of it or something.
However, the main reason for stopping publication of the Somerville Wire is that it’s not possible for one very-part-time volunteer (me) to raise enough money to hire the two full-time (or at least half-time) staffers that it really requires to make a go of it for the long haul. The Somerville Media Fund would have to pull in at least $50,000-100,000 annually for the Wire to have a bare bones staff and that is clearly not in the cards at this juncture.
It has been an honor to serve the people of Somerville with news and views week to week for the better part of three years. And we’re crestfallen we have to close it down. But we end the Wire’s run with a real sense of pride.
From the perspective of my main nonprofit, BINJ, the Somerville News Garden project—of which the Wire was an integral part—accomplished the task we set for it between its launch in 2019 and its conclusion in 2023: To demonstrate that it was possible for a community in danger of becoming a news desert to organize to provide professionally-produced news on its own behalf and to create a replicable model that other communities could use toward the same goal. After community meetings of up to 130 people and much discussion with over 30 volunteers in 2019 and 2020, the Somerville News Garden launched a community news outlet that produced over 300 original news articles, Somerville Wire, and a community foundation, Somerville Media Fund, to act as its fiscal sponsor.
The Wire ultimately served an audience of about 2,000 people and it certainly would have grown larger if we had the bandwidth to keep it going. That’s quite an accomplishment considering the publication was just a part-time shoestring operation throughout its run.
Now, going forward, my colleagues and I at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, can point to the Wire and SMF and tell concerned residents of other communities around New England and the US that “yes, you all can start a municipal foundation if you don’t already have one, raise some money, and hire a professional or two to help revive local journalism in your city, town, or county … at least a little bit. We know it can work because we’ve done it.” I’m just sorry we couldn’t keep it going.
In closing, I’d like to personally thank my fellow BINJ principals Chris Faraone and John Loftus who helped launch the Wire, my fellow Somerville Media Fund board members Michael Capuano, Alain Jehlen, Mary Ellen Myhr, and Kat Powers who helped advise and fund the Wire, community members who sent the Wire opinion pieces and tips, the dozens of Somerville residents who donate to support the Wire, and, last but not least, our Somerville Wire Staff Reporters Shira Laucharoen, Linda Pinkow, and Ryan DiLello for all their hard work over the years.
And, finally, I want to encourage Somerville Wire readers to start checking out the Cambridge Day weekly, if you haven’t already (either digitally or in print copies of the Week at drops around town). That’s where you’ll find more consistently solid coverage of Somerville than any other local news outlet still standing–a fine example of which from this week can be found here.
Otherwise, I hope you’ll all become regular readers of HorizonMass. In addition to statewide news and views, we’ll doubtless cover Somerville from time to time. So be sure to send us tips and press releases at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can reach me there, too, with any questions or comments about the end of the Wire.
This article is syndicated by the Somerville Wire municipal news service—a project of the IRS 501(c)(3) tax-deductible nonprofit Somerville Media Fund.
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Jason Pramas is executive director of the Somerville Media Fund and former editor of the Somerville Wire … and also executive director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and editor-in-chief of HorizonMass. He thinks of the closure of the Wire in part as an exercise in “title reduction” … 😂