So Newton’s proposed override is currently dominating the local political discourse. On Monday, there was a long article in Fig City News about an online forum hosted by the Charles River Regional Chamber with Newton Mayor Fuller. The purpose of the forum: to discuss proposals for an operating override and two debt exclusions. I am a small business owner in Newton, and a resident, so I was interested in hearing what they had to say.
Reading the article, it was impressive that several local business owners were willing to ask hard questions of the mayor and share their concerns about the reality of operating a business in Newton. One owner quoted in Fig City said “the focus of the override campaign has been on the impact on homeowners, but there has been no discussion about the thousands of dollars by which the override will increase taxes for businesses.”
I was also interested in this excerpt from the Fig City article, which matches my own observations – local real estate titans get breaks and special treatment that small businesses seldom experience.
Today, the same forum was covered in an article by The Newton Beacon, a new entrant to Newton’s news landscape whose motto pledges to be “Independent, Accurate, Unbiased.” Reading it through, I noticed the following section in the Beacon article:
Newton and other cities used grants at various points during the pandemic to help local businesses and that funding could also help, Reibman said. [the Newton business owner] agreed.
“Maybe come up with a concrete way to get grant money or help with some of these expenses,” [she] said at the meeting. “We are nudging up to the line of making Newton very unfriendly for local business. My fear is we get to a tipping point and it no longer makes sense for local businesses to be in Newton and you default to banks and national chains.”
Something didn’t seem right. Is that what she said? What about the bit about real estate that was in the Fig City coverage?
Here’s what Fig City reported (emphasis mine):
“[the business owner] expressed frustration that restaurants are increasingly being asked to shoulder increased expenses via pressure from other businesses (e.g., rents, recycling costs, and third-party delivery costs). She said “businesses have no override, no pot of money we can go to” and “at some point, we make Newton an unfriendly place to do business” — except for banks, real estate, and national chains. She said businesses need concrete support. The Mayor responded that the City gave $610,000 in grants to small businesses and literally delivered concrete barriers to create outdoor dining and will continue to look for other ways to help.”
I checked the video. Fig City had it right. Here’s what the business owner actually said, at around the 35 minute mark:
my fear – because I am so committed to local business – is that we get to a tipping point where we no longer have an economic equation that makes sense for local business to be in Newton, and then you default to Banks, real estate and national chains.”
Here’s the screenshot of Beacon’s coverage of this event, and below it, the YouTube transcript:
Not only did The Newton Beacon deliberately leave out the small business owner criticizing the fact that Newton is more friendly to real estate developers than other small businesses, it gave credit to the head of the Charles River Regional Chamber for something he didn’t say in the public-facing video … and made it seem like this business owner agreed with him.
Here’s what really happened in the video. The small business owner didn’t “agree” with the head of the Chamber. She made the statement about grants on her own. This is her comment about the grant money, made in context of some of her actual costs of doing business, such as water:
“So far I haven’t been able to find any grant that’s a significant thing, so I’m wondering if we can come up – maybe through the chamber’s dining collaborative – some real concrete ways that we might get grant money or help, to really help us with some of these expenses.”
At that point, as Fig City News correctly reported, Mayor Fuller (not the chamber) responded with a comment about grants during the pandemic to help local businesses. As far as I can tell, the head of the Charles River Regional Chamber didn’t say anything about grants at this point in the video. In the video, the business owner never “agreed” with something he said during the forum.
So why make it seem like small business owners “agree” with the head of the local chamber of commerce? Why leave out “real estate” from a pointed criticism of Newton’s business haves vs. have-nots?
Newton Beacon: Follow the money
I think everyone in the city concurs that Newton needs independent media. I’m old enough to remember when Newton had a robust news ecosystem, with multiple newspapers covering the news and affairs of the city.
But let’s be clear about the origins of the The Newton Beacon, which despite its principled motto, owes its existence to a core of voices representing luxury real estate developers, as opposed to a grass-roots movement. These voices may not be writing copy, but they are steering the organization and exerting influence over what gets written.
These voices include the Chamber of Commerce itself, whose impact on Newton’s political life and major real estate developments cannot be overstated. Over time, the chamber’s board and premier membership tiers have been over-represented by large real estate developers including Northland Development Corporation (the same company which bought a 2020 referendum in Newton) and Mark Development, the luxury apartment developer which has taken over Washington Street from West Newton to the Lake.
Further, out of seven board members listed on the Beacon before it was launched, many are/were developers or represent them in some capacity. At least one of the names on the original list of board members neglected to mention the development affiliation (partner in a development company), instead concentrating on nonprofit and volunteer activities. Note there are some people on the board (as well as other supporters of the Beacon) who have solid media experience, but they are unfortunately in the minority.
While not having a seat on the board, the Charles River Regional Chamber is calling the shots on hiring and other matters. This should come as no surprise. Ten years ago, the organization enjoyed a great deal of support from the now moribund Newton Tab. The chamber could depend on a Tab reporter or editor including pro-development narratives in most stories about big developments on Washington Street, Needham Street, and elsewhere in the city (for an example, see “Riverside MBTA developers Robert Korff and BH Normandy negotiating in bad faith?“). The head of the Charles River Regional Chamber (previously known as the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce) was a former Tab editor, which means that he personally and professionally knew the reporters who covered the city for the Tab. A similar degree of access is baked into the cozy relationships with the current editorial staff of The Beacon, both of whom used to work for the Tab, and know the chamber’s leadership team very well.
I attended (via Zoom) the public meeting last June about the formation of the Newton Beacon. Many local residents were worried about the lack of a real news organization covering the city. It was also clear that the head of the chamber and the pro-development voices pushing for the Beacon were concerned about the loss of exposure for their interests and the lack of “a common set of facts” in the debates circulating on social media and in politicians’ newsletters.
Here’s what I think, as a former journalist (daily newspaper, daily TV show, trade magazines, and online media) and former board member of various nonprofits associated with media and technology: The way things are headed now, the journalists who end up working for the Beacon on a permanent basis will be carefully selected by the Beacon’s real estate-dominated board and the head of the Charles River Regional Chamber to make sure that they are willing and able to:
- Under the guise of covering “both sides of the story,” give an outsized voice to a handful of rich developers and their proxies on the Newton City Council and Newton City Hall when it comes to stories about development and zoning, despite thousands of local residents in the affected areas repeatedly voicing objections.
- Work closely with the chamber of commerce on pitches and positive spin on anything related to development and upzoning in Newton.
- Downplay or ignore comments by Newton residents, small business owners, and others who raise questions or voice opposition.
As we can see with this article about the operating override and debt exclusions, the Beacon erased a small business owner’s negative reference to local real estate development, and gave credit to one of the Beacon’s primary creators for things that he didn’t say (at least not in the video) and “agreement” from a small business owner that he didn’t receive. This is not an oversight, a flub, or an “oops, we goofed!” moment for the Beacon. It’s a subtle move to advance an agenda, and makes a mockery of the Beacon’s supposed editorial independence.
Bottom line: It’s a terrible sign for independent media in Newton when an organization that strenuously presents itself as “unbiased” and “fair” makes subtle but crucial changes to the facts in a way that puts certain business interests and powerful people in a more favorable light. The Newton Beacon, if it truly is committed to providing independent journalism in Newton, needs to sever all formal ties with the Charles River Regional Chamber, completely reform its board to remove the dominant influence of the local real estate industry, and start covering the news like a real news organization, as opposed to the PR arm of the chamber of commerce and local real estate investors. Concentrate on digging up and accurately reporting the facts, ask hard questions of the powers that be, and report the very real concerns of residents and small business owners who are watching their city and livelihoods turned upside down while for-profit, luxury developers strip-mine our city for profit.
Comments are welcome below.