E-Topia / Designing Cambridge:
How Well Does Media Serve Cambridge Citizens?

Saturday, Nov. 22, 2003
11:15 am-12:15 pm

linked forums: Designing Cambridge: 21st-Century Communications for Our Community and How Can Information Technologies Serve Cambridge?


For over a decade, the convergence of the computer and telecommunications industries has inspired grand predictions of a bright new world of freedom and prosperity . . . an "e-topia." And we have seen advanced communications technologies help to improve business practices, enhance medical services, enrich educational opportunities and deliver a wide array of entertainments to our homes. But how can these advanced telecommunications services be used to foster strong local democratic communities? How are these communications technologies being used, if at all, in the City of Cambridge? And what role, if any, does local government play in making sure 21st-century communications technologies serve public needs?


Michele Babineau is the editor of the Cambridge Chronicle.

Susan Fleischmann is the executive director of Cambridge Community Television (CCTV).

David Goodman is the managing editor of the Boston Community Reporters Project.

Moderator: Andrea Walsh is a lecturer in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT.


BRIAN JACOBSON described a "snapshot" of local media coverage of Cambridge city politics.

Working last fall in Mark Lloyd's MIT graduate course, "Democracy and Communications Policy in Cambridge," Jacobson and the class conducted a content analysis of media coverage during the two weeks preceding the November Cambridge city council elections. The goal of the study was to get a sense of the Cambridge-specific coverage that the average Cambridge citizen could expect to find using some of the major local media. The local media analyzed were WBZ1030 radio's 7:30-8 am weekday and 8:30-9 am weekend programming, WHDH television's daily 11pm newscast, and the daily Boston Globe.

For WBZ1030, the result of the analysis was zero stories about Cambridge in the two weeks preceding the elections, compared to 103 stories covering the remainder of the greater Boston area. For WHDH, three stories covered Cambridge, while 110 stories discussed Greater Boston. Finally, for the Boston Globe, Cambridge averaged two stories per day, and the Greater Boston area averaged approximately eight stories. Jacobson finished by noting that, although not included in the content analysis, the class found that two other sources for Cambridge election information were the Cambridge Chronicle-CCTV co-sponsored candidate debates and the Cambridge Civic Journal, found at www.rwinters.com.

Moderator Andrea Walsh followed the presentation by posing the first of three questions to the panelists:

The content analysis suggests that Cambridge citizens cannot expect to receive news about Cambridge from three of the major news sources serving Cambridge. Do you think that the current media environment in Cambridge sufficiently informs Cambridge citizens about topics such as local politics, health and safety information, community group concerns and activities, and local arts and entertainment?

Michele Babineau (left), David Goodman and Susan Fleischmann

MICHELE BABINEAU argued that the Cambridge Chronicle provided better coverage of Cambridge politics than any other local newspaper. She explained that the intention of the Chronicle, as a weekly newspaper, was to focus on community journalism in the context of how information impacts the local citizen.

DAVID GOODMAN addressed radio in Cambridge. Three radio stations are physically located in Cambridge: MIT's WMBR, WHRB at Harvard, and WJIB. He argued that local media generally do adequately inform Cambridge citizens, and gave an example of a Cambridge Chronicle story about local police educating citizens regarding prevention of break-ins. Goodman explained that this is the type of story often heard on local grassroots radio stations in the developing world. He argued that WMBR does a fantastic job of covering local arts and entertainment. He pointed out that the local radio stations are non-profit stations, and are "resource starved." He argued that, despite the good job generally being done by local radio stations, due to these stations' inability to promote themselves, citizens often are not aware of the information to be found on local radio.

SUSAN FLEISCHMANN began by describing CCTV's mission: "to provide the access to training, facilities and the technology that people need to create their own programs for the community cable channels." Thus, the content is very different from that found in the mainstream media. CCTV's intention is to generally remain content neutral, and it is not a traditional news source. According to Fleischmann, each candidate for City Council was seen on CCTV prior to the election. She described some of the programming to be found on CCTV, and explained that major media are not interested in these programs due to the programs' lack of commercial viability.

The second question was:

Local media that do focus on Cambridge, such as the Cambridge Chronicle and Cambridge Community Television, are not as heavily utilized by Cambridge citizens as other local media. What are some reasons that the citizens of Cambridge choose media with less focus on Cambridge, and how could the media that do focus on Cambridge reach more Cambridge citizens?

BABINEAU said citizens are not likely to read the Cambridge Chronicle for national or international news, and that these issues would not be covered by the Chronicle except in cases in which national or international stories intersected with a local event, such as a large protest. She pointed out that Cantabrigians are well educated, and may prefer newspapers such as the New York Times. Also, citizens may not be interested in civic activities in the community. In order to reach more readers, Babineau explained that efforts are made to inform people who may be interested in local issues, and that as a weekly newspaper the Chronicle tried to provide context to issues such that citizens could find relationships between the stories and their lives.

GOODMAN agreed with Babineau that entertainment news puts enormous pressure on conventional news sources to find ways to situate themselves in the news environment. He explained that one of WMBR's strategies was to engage local community groups by interviewing them and by putting group members on the air. He argued that if the mission was to inform listeners, his strategy was civic journalism. He described the town meeting as a means for bringing community members to the local stations, and discussed the use of call-in shows to get citizens involved in discussions of local issues. He emphasized the importance of connecting with citizens on a personal level.

FLEISCHMANN argued that perhaps citizens do rely on local media, and that further surveys should be done to address this issue. She argued that most people get cable for entertainment rather than as a source of information, and that the question for a non-profit like CCTV is how to compete with the hundreds of channels that come with cable. She discussed cross-promotion as an important means for attracting viewers. She argued that cable companies, rather than seeing the value of local community programming, viewed this programming as a threat because the channels used for local programming could be utilized by the cable companies to generate profits in other ways. She pointed out that CCTV pays the most attention to those who depend on them for the resources to produce local programming, and that perhaps more attention should be given to viewers.

The third and final question:

What are some of the factors influencing the local media's coverage, or lack of coverage, of issues particular to Cambridge?

BABINEAU pointed out that lack of coverage by the Cambridge Chronicle could be explained in large part by the fact that it is a weekly newspaper in a very large city. She also noted the small staff of the Chronicle and the economic difficulties presented by the low advertising revenues in Cambridge.

GOODMAN reemphasized the lack of resources and the inability of non-profit radio stations to promote themselves. He also noted that with a large coverage area and a volunteer staff, it is often difficult to sufficiently cover local issues. He pointed out that it is often easier to report national and international news because these stories are often offered free of charge to stations. He also noted that local groups often focus on national and international issues, and thus it is important to cover national and international issues while making the link to their local impact.

FLEISCHMANN explained that she was "appalled that in the City of Cambridge there is no vision on a municipal level for what a telecommunications infrastructure should be." She argued that the municipality ignores local media, and that the city should pay attention to the potential and need for a telecommunications infrastructure to be provided for the public good.

--summary by Brian Jacobson
--photo by Joellen Easton