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First aid for local news

Amid the good news of Commonwealth Fusion Systems’ decision to locate its fusion research center in Devens, it was a shock to discover how little Harvard residents knew of the move prior to the appearance of two company spokespersons at a meeting of the Select Board two weeks ago. 

The Devens Enterprise Commission followed the letter of the law by sending copies of Commonwealth’s application for a pair of Level 2 unified licenses to the abutting towns of Harvard, Ayer, Shirley, and Lancaster, where they were available for public scrutiny—for anyone who happened to know they were there. Hearing notices were posted on town websites, including Harvard’s, and residents were free to attend any of those meetings via Zoom—but how many knew?

When it came time to place a hearing notice in a print newspaper, the DEC chose the Nashoba Valley Voice, which is distributed in Ayer, Shirley, and Lancaster, but is a rare sight in Harvard, where the number of its subscribers approaches zero. By contrast, the Harvard Press reaches more than two-thirds of the households in town. Because state law deems placement of a print ad in one publication to be sufficient notice, readers of the Press, arguably the most engaged of Harvard’s voters, were left in the dark.

The recent establishment of a legislative committee to examine ways the state might aid the survival of a vibrant independent press in Massachusetts offers an opportunity to illuminate this information hole, while helping to support hyperlocal papers like the Press. Why not require public agencies to place a legal notice in every print publication that serves readers in their area of jurisdiction? In the case of MassDevelopment and the DEC, this would entail placing notices in both the Harvard Press and the Voice, as well as any other newspaper that publishes in the Devens stakeholder towns.

Enacting this simple requirement would benefit the state and its remaining independent press in two ways: First, it would result in a public that is better informed of developments at regional powerhouses like Devens. Second, the additional income would help make up for the loss of advertising dollars newspapers have suffered during the pandemic, underwriting their survival in an advertising market sucked dry by the dominance of Facebook, Google, and social media.

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