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Jim Oldham: More news is good news

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Wednesday, November 20, 2019

I had chosen the subject and title for this column when someone shared a link to a Nov. 1 Boston Magazine article addressing a similar topic from a different, and more familiar, angle.

Under the headline “No News is Bad News,” Chris Faraone, editor of the Boston weekly, DigBoston, and co-founder and editorial director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, describes the sorry state of local news reporting in Massachusetts.

Mergers, consolidations, closures and staff layoffs have left municipalities across the state without anyone covering what’s happening in town and city halls or in the communities they serve.

While the Pioneer Valley has also been impacted by consolidations and cuts over the years, as media companies struggle with the changing finances of the news business, in Amherst we remain pretty lucky, with the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the weekly Bulletin providing regular coverage of local affairs.

Here, reporters and editors still put in long hours trying to make sure that if you read the paper you can, in Faraone’s words, “explain over cocktails what your local government has been up to lately.” (As a volunteer monthly columnist, I have no connection to this reporting except as an interested reader.)

There is no denying the trends Faraone describes and the dangers they present, so it’s good to celebrate any expansion of local news coverage that occurs. The launch this year of the online news source The Amherst Independent (The Indy, amherstindy.org) is such an event. Dedicated to promoting “effective, vibrant, participatory democracy in Amherst by supporting transparency in Amherst government and governance,” the Indy has, since March, provided news and commentary on town capital projects, budgets, schools, elections and more, adding to and complementing the coverage available in this paper and other regional news sources.

The Indy provides regular reporting on meetings of Town Council, Planning Board and other key government bodies. It has been very informative on the schools, with well-researched articles on the elementary school buildings, the dual-language program, the Crocker Farm expansion study, school harassment policy, the state of the athletic fields and more. Similarly, it has provided important analysis related to all of the proposed capital projects facing the town.

The Indy is produced by a volunteer six member editorial collective, with about a dozen other regular contributors. In addition to in-depth reporting, it posts upcoming events, such as the forum on the Amherst Public Schools (Monday, Nov. 25, 6 p.m. Town Hall); State of the Town Address (Monday, Dec. 2, 6 p.m., ARMS); and Public Listening Sessions on Planned Capital Projects (Tuesday, Dec. 3, and Monday, Dec. 9, various times/locations). It’s not all politics and government; the Indy also lists talks, concerts, and community events.

Two other features I enjoy are the photo of the week, and links to relevant news from around the Valley and around the country. Most photos have been landscapes or townscapes, but the most recent offering is a set of four great pictures celebrating and documenting the powerful Amherst girls cross country team winning its third consecutive Division I sectional title at the Western Mass Cross Country Championships earlier this month.

Not surprisingly, many of the local links under “From other sources” point back to Gazette and Bulletin, but in doing so they often provide new ways of seeing these articles, such as the recent juxtaposition of a pair of Gazette headlines reporting election results on each side of the river: “Status quo prevails in Amherst School Committee elections” and “Sea change for Northampton City Council: Five newcomers elected.”

The feature also links to sources many of us might not otherwise see, such as an article in The Graphic, the student newspaper of Amherst Regional High School, (thegraphic.arps.org/) offering a student perspective on adding more electric buses to the school district’s fleet.

Jim Oldham served as a Town Meeting member from Precinct 5 between 2002 and 2018 and as a member of the Community Preservation Act Committee from 2013 through 2019. He has written a monthly column for the Bulletin since 2007.