The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism raised $5,000 in three weeks to keep running the Somerville Wire, Editor Jason Pramas announced in a Feb. 2 editorial. The donations of 40 Somervillians allowed the Wire, an online, independent news service, to avoid a long-term spring hiatus.
The Wire will soon be housed under the Somerville Media Fund, instead of BINJ, to create a clearer, more streamlined home for Somerville-specific media, Pramas said. He hopes this transition to the Somerville Media Fund will ease future fundraising campaigns. Pramas serves as treasurer of the Somerville Media Fund.
The new funding allows the Wire to hire a quarter-time reporter for four months. However, the paper still needs another $10,000 to keep the reporter on for a full fiscal year and $50,000–$100,000 to make the Wire a more permanent part of the Somerville media scene. Pramas will volunteer as the Wire’s editor and bookkeeper to keep the paper afloat.
Somerville City Council President Matt McLaughlin, who has previously worked as a journalist for The Somerville Times and as a public affairs specialist for the U.S. army, said the Wire fills a vacuum in local journalism that has existed for a few years.
“We live in the Golden Age of corruption in local government because there’s no media,” McLaughlin said, quoting Producer David Simon.
While the Somerville Times still publishes content about the city regularly, the state of local journalism in the area is dire. Somerville City Councilor At-Large Jake Wilson said he is alarmed by the number of people who are unaware of local government’s activities.
“There’s such a knowledge gap I find even between people who are … trying to be plugged in to what’s going on in the city and those of us who are in the meetings,” Wilson said. “I don’t know how we’re supposed to have a thriving local government and democracy.”
He added that he has been concerned by recent city decisions that have not received news coverage.
“There have been some fairly big moments,” Wilson said. “Some of them got coverage, [and] some of them did not really get media coverage, and it was pretty shocking to me.”
In 2015, journalists Chris Faraone and John Loftus approached Pramas about joining their nonprofit investigative journalism incubator project. The three have been running the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism ever since, largely thanks to funding from the Reva and David Logan Foundation. BINJ acquired DigBoston, one of the city’s two alternative newsweeklies, two years later.
In 2019, BINJ started the Somerville News Garden to try out its nonprofit model in a small, diverse city threatened by the loss of local media.
“Somerville, that is good. It’s diverse. It’s interesting,” Pramas said. “It’s under the same threats so many other communities in the U.S. are, but it’s not terminal yet.”
Pramas, Faraone and Loftus started the Somerville Wire in February 2021, as part of the Somerville News Garden, and the paper has been publishing four to five Somerville-specific pieces each week since. The Wire’s goal is to help the “community talk to itself,” BINJ explains on its website.
“We produced hundreds of pieces of journalism in that time,” Pramas said. “We got an audience of a couple thousand.”
Pramas said that BINJ currently operates using a “hybrid economic model,” in which Pramas, Faraone and Loftus rely on both DigBoston and BINJ for their salaries. However, the pandemic economy crushed DigBoston’s ad revenue and print circulation, and the now-virtual outlet may soon transition to new ownership.
“The idea is that you kind of lean alternately on one side or another,” Pramas said. “[We] have built a replicable model that other cities could use.”
Despite short-term success with the Wire so far, Pramas is not optimistic about any of the economic options for news organizations and believes that news outlets must cooperate to save democracy.
“There are three economic models that you could possibly use to do a news organization right now: … commercial, nonprofit, and cooperative. I’ve done all three, singly and in tandem. None of them work,” he said. “We don’t want to compete with what’s left here. … We, as a nonprofit, produce journalism for Somerville … and any outlet in the city that’s not a major corporate outlet is free to use it.”
Pramas hopes to one day see a national endowment for journalism at the federal level that supports news organizations from regional boards. In the meantime, the Wire is focused on connecting with its new partners, hiring a reporter and fundraising the remaining money to keep that reporter on staff. The paper is hosting a donor assembly meeting with the Somerville Media Fund board of directors and its recent donors to discuss issue areas to focus reporting on and next steps for the paper.
Wilson hopes that Somerville residents will continue to stand up for local journalism.
“I’m really shocked that we as a community have not stood up. … I’m surprised we haven’t come together and figured out how to have a fully functioning local media,” he said. “There’s a decent amount of money at least in some corners of Somerville nowadays. … I’d like to see some of that money come together and get behind an initiative.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article described the Somerville Wire as a newspaper, even though it operates as a news service. The previous version also incorrectly implied that the profits from DigBoston support the Somerville Wire, which they do not.