Testimony in Support Hybrid Access for Public Meetings in Massachusetts

The following comments were provided by NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman in support of Massachusetts Senate Bill 2024 and House Bill 3040. Silverman shared these comments on July 26, 2023, to the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight.

Good afternoon.

I’m Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. NEFAC represents free press and journalism interests throughout the region. Thank you for the opportunity to testify in support of An Act to Modernize Participation in Public Meetings.

You’ve already heard how this legislation would increase government accountability and provide equitable access to those unable to attend public meetings in person. There’s another compelling interest at stake here and that’s the ability of journalists to report on local news and keep the communities they cover informed.

By requiring public bodies to provide hybrid access, Senate Bill 2024 and House Bill 3040 allow journalists across the state to attend multiple meetings remotely and provide much needed local coverage that would not otherwise exist. At the same time, the bills require public bodies to meet in person so journalists, not to mention other constituents, can still meet offline with officials and have conversations not easily had via Zoom.

My fellow panelists will share specific examples of how this legislation will strengthen local news, but I want to emphasize what’s at stake. At a time when misinformation is rampant and trust in national media is declining, we are dependent on local news.

The Knight Foundation recently reported, that compared with other sources of information, Americans say local news does the best job of keeping them informed, holding leaders accountable and amplifying stories in their communities. Six in 10 Americans say they have more trust in local than national news to give them information they can use in their daily life, and nearly eight in 10 say they have more trust in local news to give them information they need to get involved in their community.

The benefits of robust local journalism are well-documented: less government corruption and municipal mismanagement, increased civic engagement and less partisan polarization, more economic investment and better public health information, among many others.

Our dependence on local news is of such a priority that a state commission was established in 2021 to research journalism in Massachusetts and make recommendations on how the industry can be strengthened. One way to help the industry is to require hybrid access for open meetings. Not only would this be a much-needed assist for newsrooms covering multiple municipalities, but it would also help the increasing number of small non-profit and community media outlets that are now covering local government. We can provide a way for local reporters to cover multiple open meetings without being restricted by travel, time and conflicting schedules.

This legislation will help journalists do their jobs and will improve local news coverage across the board. But ultimately these bills are for the benefit of the readers, listeners and viewers who don’t attend public meetings and depend on local reporters to inform them about what they’re missing.

Thank you for your time.