I’d like to make a proposal for your consideration and would welcome your thoughts, suggestions, and criticisms. I don’t know if this is original or if it has been considered in some form before; but, in any event, I’m moved to make it.
Thomas Jefferson said, “wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”
When it comes to this matter here in Newton, we have to consider that we fail as a community. We all acknowledge that the local weekly newspaper is not only vacuous when it comes to timely and relevant news coverage, with a complete dearth of investigative reporting, but also that it offers incumbent mayors an unedited and unquestioning mouthpiece for their pronouncements. Coverage by the largest regional newspaper, while somewhat improved, also remains spotty at best and appears to be tangential to their strategic business interests. The various city agencies and councilors have their own email and web outlets, but these are products of those organizations and individuals, not subject to editing or supervision by independent third parties. NGOs do a fine job in informing their members, but again understandably with a tilt towards their own agendas. The League of Women Voters of Newton does an admirable job in studying and covering civic affairs, but does not seem to garner an enthusiastic following.
The commercial failure of for-profit excellent news outlets is a common problem across the country, and there has been a vibrant response by some to establish and maintain non-profit organizations to take their place. At the national level, we have Pro Publica and (in my recent field) Kaiser Health News. Locally in Boston, arguably the most competent media outlets covering public affairs are Commonwealth Magazine and WBUR. All of these places devote substantial resources to coverage and investigations and have proven to be sustainable institutions. They bring together an on-going combination of foundation support and donations from companies and individuals; and they maintain high standards of writing, editing, and editorial independence.
I’d like to suggest that Newton is a wealthy enough community to create a similar institution for ourselves, a new on-line entity (or a conversion of this one) to provide our citizenry with a means to be a more well-informed electorate. What would it take? Since production costs of an on-line service are minimal compared paper newspapers or magazines, the costs are mainly related to staffing. What would it take to offer the public a vibrant and excellent team to carry out the task, and to create an organization that would attract the kind of talent needed? The complementary question is what we all would be willing to pay/donate for it? I think the answers to those two questions converge nicely.
Let me frame it this way. Do you think there are 2000 families in Newton who would be willing support such an entity to the tune of a $10/month donation? If so, that produces an annual budget of $240,000. That, plus a number of more generous start-up donations, could provide sufficient funds to hire two full-time reporters and one part-time assignor/editor and one part-time fundraiser. (I’m not necessarily including student interns because, although they are free, they require lots of supervision.) Start-up costs, like filing letters of incorporation and setting up accounts, could certainly be handled by in-kind donations by local professionals. A unpaid board of trustees would hold fiduciary responsibility. The public offering, as with the above-mentioned news outlets, would be to provide the service to any and all with no subscription fee.
It my belief that an organization of this sort could make a substantial contribution to the depth of public understanding and therefore the quality of civic discourse in our city. I think it’s worth a try. Your thoughts?