On Saturdays, a magazine-like and shorter Boston Globe

IMG_0036If you get the print edition of The Boston Globe, you’ll notice something different today. The paper has undergone a considerable redesign — it looks much more like a magazine, and the Metro section starts on page two. A lifestyle section called Good Life comes after the A-section.

At 42 pages, the paper is 10 pages shorter than last Saturday’s. In a page-one message that does not appear on the Globe’s website, editor Brian McGrory writes, “Readers will still get all the news we always offer, compressed into the A section for a faster, hopefully easier reading experience.”

The opinion pages have been cut from two to one. Last Saturday, the right-hand page was filled with letters from readers.

The Saturday paper has always been the weakest for daily papers, with significantly lower circulation* and not much in the way of ads. As print advertising continues to wane, it makes sense for the Globe to put its resources into other areas, such as the Sunday print paper and digital.

Still, it will be interesting to see what customers who pay for Saturday home delivery have to say about this.

*More: I just looked at figures from the Alliance for Audited Media, and I learned that the Globe’s print circulation on Saturdays is actually better than it is on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. This is a topic I’ll be revisiting, but for now I just want to put it up as a marker for future discussion.

Memo Friday II: Boston.com GM addresses speed issue

Also on Thursday, The New York Times posted the results of a test showing that Boston.com loads slower than any mobile news site it measured — and that the way it handles advertising is the cause. According to the Times, it takes Boston.com 30.8 seconds to load all those ads, about three times worse than the next-worst offender.

Boston.com general manager Eleanor Cleverly responded with an email to the staff vowing to do better. A copy of her email wafted in through an open window here at Media Nation:

As you may have read, NYTimes.com published an article and related graphic, “The Cost of Mobile Ads on 50 News Websites,” that profiles performance on many of today’s most trafficked destinations. An unfortunate, but accurate conclusion from their report is that Boston.com remains a standout in the time and data burden it places on users when loading advertisements and content.

This is not news to us at Boston.com. Optimizing our mobile and desktop load time and ad experience has been top-of-mind since the beginning of the year. We are in the process of one major project, the migration of Boston.com from our legacy CMS Methode to WordPress, that has allowed us to tackle some foundational improvements in an ongoing effort to solve the problem. Further, we’ve setup collaborative teams to address our mobile ad experience and ad blocking as a BGMP-wide [that’s short for Boston Globe Media Partners] concern. Key questions and applicable solutions will be relayed over the next quarter.

We’ll continue to keep the digital group updated, but it will take changes across the organization to realize real quantitative returns. We collectively got us to this point, and it will take a collective effort, putting the reader experience first, to make Boston.com the best-in-class website we envision it to be.

My door is open to additional conversations on the topic and creative solutions are always welcome.


Memo Friday I: Herald editorial workers approve contract

The word went out Thursday evening: after months of negotiations, union editorial employees at the Boston Herald approved a new contract, while commercial employees rejected it:

And here is a copy of an email to those editorial employees from Herald staffer and Newspaper Guild official Bill Brotherton, which begins with a statement from John Flinn, the union’s vice president of human resources:

The Boston Herald is very pleased that the Company and the Union have come to an agreement on the Editorial contract following 18 very difficult and protracted negotiating sessions. We thank the Editorial Bargaining Committee for their time and effort and the Editorial Union members for ratifying the agreement. We are very disappointed that the Commercial Guild members rejected our best and final contract offer.

The email continues:

And now, a word from your negotiating committee: Thanks again to everyone who voted and those who assisted the negotiating team with tireless behind-the-scenes efforts. It is much appreciated. Laurel [Sweet], Jim [Lazar], Brian [Whelan] and I give you our heartfelt thanks.

We will continue to support our Commercial brothers and sisters as they resume negotiations; here’s hoping the company is reasonable and bends a little. Commercial members took a 10 percent pay cut and were hit with 5 unpaid furlough days in the last contract; they expected that all or some of that would have been returned this time around. More givebacks were unacceptable; that is why Commercial rejected the tentative agreement.

And even though we in Editorial have a new contract in place, there are many other issues in our workplace that must be addressed and dealt with. I am encouraged by the enthusiasm, commitment and activism shown by all of you during the last 15 months; our union local is stronger than it has been in a long time.

And now that I’m 62 years old, I’m looking for volunteers to play a larger role in union activities. I expect to be involved and here at the Herald for many years to come, but the time is now to train and prepare the next generation of union leaders, to take part in grievance procedures and learn how to keep the company honest. There’s no money involved and it’s a thankless job, but it is rewarding and well worth the time. It’s very easy to become a shop steward, and the Newspaper Guild offers seminars online, in Washington, D.C., and TNG officers are more than willing to come to Boston to teach Union 101 classes and show us the ropes. If interested, please let me know.
Again, thank you all for your support and patience.


Earlier: Guild reaches tenative agreement with Herald.

Snapchat news targets the young and the underinformed


Previously published at WGBHNews.org and republished in The Huffington Post.

Two years ago, then-CNN reporter Peter Hamby lamented the negative effect he believed Twitter and other social media were having on presidential campaign coverage. In a 95-page research paper (pdf) he wrote while he was a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Hamby put it this way:

With Instagram and Twitter-primed iPhones, an ever more youthful press corps, and a journalistic reward structure in Washington that often prizes speed and scoops over context, campaigns are increasingly fearful of the reporters who cover them.

On Tuesday, Hamby was back at the Shorenstein Center, this time to tout the journalistic virtues of an even more ephemeral media platform: Snapchat, built on 10-second videos that disappear as soon as you view them. Hamby, who is barely older than the 18- to 34-year-old users he’s trying to reach, told a friendly but skeptical crowd of about two dozen that Snapchat is bringing news to an audience that is otherwise tuned out.

“Because our audience is so young, I view our mission as educational,” he said. “I think it’s OK that our mission is to illuminate the issues for young people. That’s not to say we won’t get into more serious, complicated things.”

My personal philosophy about new media platforms is to watch them from afar and to more or less ignore them until it’s no longer possible to do so. That served me well with networks like Foursquare and Ello, which seem to have faded away without my ever having to partake. On the other hand, I’ve been tweeting since mid-2008, which is about the time that Twitter’s emerging importance as a news source was becoming undeniable.

Snapchat, it would appear, has reached that turning point. It already has about 100 million daily users, the vast majority of them between 18 and 34, as Michael Andor Brodeur notes in The Boston Globe. And it is starting to branch out beyond those 10-second disintegrating videos.

The newsiest part of Snapchat is called Discover — channels from media organizations such as CNN, ESPN, Vice, BuzzFeed and National Geographic that provide short graphics- and music-heavy stories aimed at providing a little information to a low-information audience.

CNN’s fare of the moment comprises such material as the fight between Afghan and Taliban forces in the city of Kunduz; an FBI report that crime rates are dropping (a story consisting of nothing more than a video clip of a police cruiser with flashing lights, a headline and a brief paragraph); and the re-emergence of the Facebook copyright hoax.

Perhaps the most ambitious news project Snapchat has taken on — and the one in which Peter Hamby is most closely involved — is called Live Stories. Snapchat editors look for snaps being posted from a given location and, with the consent of those users, weave together a brief story. They disappear after 24 hours; the only one playing at the moment is “Farm Life: Worldwide,” which is as exciting as it sounds. But Hamby mentioned stories from presidential campaign announcements, the Iran nuclear deal, music festivals and the like that he said drew tens of millions of viewers. (If you want to get an idea of what a well-executed Live Story looks like, Joseph Lichterman of the Nieman Journalism Lab found a four-and-a-half-minute piece on the hajj that someone had saved and posted to YouTube.)

“At CNN we would cover an event with one or two cameras,” Hamby said. “With Snapchat we have everyone’s camera at our disposal.”

For me, at least, the most frustrating part of my brief experience with Snapchat (I only signed up Tuesday morning) has been finding worthwhile — or any — content that’s not part of the Discover channels or the Live Story of the moment. The search function is not especially useful. I did manage to friend several news organizations and presidential campaigns.

Any user can create a story that will stay up for 24 hours. So far, though, I’ve only managed to see relatively useless clips from Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham. Hamby gives points to former candidate Scott Walker and current candidate John Kasich for their imaginative use of Snapchat. But as best as I can tell, Kasich hasn’t posted a story in the past day. His campaign website — like those of a few other candidates I looked up — does not include his Snapchat username, even though it includes buttons for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Snapchat is mobile to a fault — you can install it on an iOS or Android device, but not a laptop or desktop computer. That makes it fine if you’re on the go. But for an old fogey like me, it complicates the process of finding worthwhile material. And vertical video! Yikes!

In listening to Hamby on Tuesday, I was struck by his animus toward Twitter. “I think Twitter has made the tone of the coverage more negative,” he said. “Twitter is a uniquely toxic, negative space.” And though you might dismiss that as simply putting down a competitor, he said much the same thing in his 2013 report, citing a Pew Research Center study to back him up. Hamby quoted John Dickerson, now host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” as saying of Twitter:

It makes us small and it makes us pissed off and mean, because Twitter as a conversation is incredibly acerbic and cynical and we don’t need more of that in coverage of politics, we need less.

Will Snapchat prove to be the antidote to Twitter? Count me as skeptical. Five to eight years ago, when Twitter pioneers were using the nascent platform to cover anti-government protests in Iran and earthquakes in California, Haiti and elsewhere, we had no way of knowing it would devolve into one of our leading sources of snark, poisoning the public discourse 140 characters at a time. (And I’m not sure I agree that that’s what it’s become. I mean, come on, just unfollow the worst offenders.)

But to the extent that we have to bring news to where the audience is rather than waiting for people to come to us, then yes, Snapchat may prove to be a valuable home for journalism. I just hope it whets users’ appetites for something more substantial.

The Worcester Sun charts a path from digital to paid print

Worcester Sun co-founders Fred Hurlbrink Jr., left, and Mark Henderson.

Worcester Sun co-founders Fred Hurlbrink Jr., left, and Mark Henderson.

Previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Mark Henderson is certainly not the first person to launch a hyperlocal website in the shadow of the daily newspaper that used to employ him. Nevertheless, his ideas about how to build the site into a sustainable business are unorthodox enough to merit attention.

Henderson, a former executive with the 150-year-old Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, Mass., unveiled the Worcester Sun in August. From the start, the Sun’s content has been protected behind a hard paywall of $2 a week. There are no discounts; if you want to subscribe for a year, it will cost you $104.

Once the Sun has attracted a critical mass of paid digital subscribers (Henderson won’t reveal the magic number except to say that it’s well short of 1,000), he’ll add a Sunday paper for $1 a week, perhaps as soon as next spring. Print matters, Henderson says, because that’s still where most of the advertising is.

“If you’re going to start something new, monetizing digital is tough,” says Henderson. “And you can’t look at print as a medium without understanding that there is a ton of money still to be made there. Especially in Sunday print. We could use Sunday print to boost us into the stratosphere, to get us into a stable orbit where we can launch other things.”

Bootstrapping paid digital to break into paid print? Matt DeRienzo, interim executive director of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, says he’s skeptical but intrigued. “Sunday print is going against the grain. There’s a lot of reasons the cards are stacked against them,” says DeRienzo, the former editor of Digital First Media’s Connecticut publications, which include the New Haven Register. But he adds: “The best ideas are going to come from people who live in and care about their community and who are closest to the problem. Who’s to say it’s not going to work?”

With a population of 183,000 — the second-largest city in New England after Boston — and a median household income of about $46,000, more than $20,000 below the state average, Worcester is a city facing economic challenges. It’s precisely the sort of community that could benefit most from independent media projects such as the Sun, says Catherine Tumber, a scholar with the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University.

“No one else is coming to their rescue,” says Tumber, the author of the 2011 book “Small, Gritty and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World.” “They have to rely on their own resources and civic ecosystems in order to reconstruct their cities and maintain quality of life there.”

Last week, I met Henderson and his business partner (and cousin) Fred Hurlbrink Jr. in a brightly lit coworking space on the first floor of the Innovation Center of Worcester — formerly the Franklin Street headquarters of the Telegram & Gazette, the daily newspaper where Henderson worked for nearly 25 years. Across the street is City Hall and the Worcester Common. On the other side of the common looms the mid-sized tower that is the current home of the T&G.

Henderson, 49, rose from the paper’s sports department to deputy managing editor for technology and, starting in 2009, online director. He left on June 2, 2014, the day that John Henry, who had purchased The Boston Globe and the T&G from the New York Times Company, sold the T&G to Halifax Media Group of Daytona Beach, Florida, after previously saying he intended to sell to a local group. Halifax cut about 20 journalistsfrom the full-time newsroom staff of about 80. Further cuts came a few months later when Halifax turned around and sold the paper to New Media Investment Group, an affiliate of GateHouse Media, based in the suburbs of Rochester, New York.

Hurlbrink, 38, had two stints with GateHouse — first as a copy editor at The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham and later at the Design House, run out of the Framingham plant, which handled design and some copyediting tasks for multiple GateHouse papers. In August 2014, GateHouse announced that the operation would be closed and moved to Austin, Texas.

Even with a shrunken Telegram & Gazette, Henderson and Hurlbrink find themselves in the midst of a highly competitive media environment. In addition to the T&G, Worcester is covered by MassLive.com, part of Advance Digital; GoLocalWorcester, which has sister sites in Providence, Rhode Island, and Portland, Oregon; and Worcester Magazine, whose parent company, Holden Landmark Corporation, is controlled by GateHouse Media chief executive Kirk Davis but is not part of GateHouse.

In the face of such competition, Henderson and Hurlbrink say their plan is to steer clear of breaking news and offer depth and analysis instead. “We’re never going to cover breaking news,” Henderson says. “Will we cover the opiate epidemic rather than three people who OD’d in the last 24 hours? Yeah, we’ll take a look at that. But we’ll devote the resources to do it and give people an insight that they didn’t have before.”

The Sun’s content so far reflects that philosophy, starting with the August 9 debut, which featured an essay on the city’s bygone newspaper scene by Worcester native Charles P. Pierce, the high-profile journalist and author who these days spends most of his time blogging about politics for Esquire. The Sun has also published stories on the privacy concerns posed by surveillance cameras, the city’s sagging downtown business district, and a mother’s quest to find the educational resources she needs to help her daughter with ADHD. The site also offers such quotidian fare as profiles of local businesses, editorials and, yes, obituaries.

“I think there’s a niche,” says Timothy McGourthy, executive director of the Worcester Regional Research Bureau. “I think it provides kind of a thoughtful human-interest approach to Worcester. It’s a generally positive approach to the city. I think the challenge is going to be getting the word out in the marketplace.”

The Sun’s paywall — as well as that of the T&G — is based on technology provided by Clickshare, whose website touts the software as a “flexible system” that allows for different types of paid access, billing and payment processing, and various options for e-commerce. Bill Densmore, who founded Clickshare in the mid-1990s, believes that print and digital serve two different types of audiences — and that Henderson and Hurlbrink are smart to try to serve both.

“A lean-back experience once a week makes a lot of sense to me,” says Densmore, a research fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. “It’s an experiment, really, and an important one, both for the existing industry and for people starting on the digital side and wondering where that leads. I think the marriage of print and digital makes a lot of sense, particularly if you’re not trying to put out a daily paper, which increasingly seems anachronistic to me and to people in the digital world.”

Starting and maintaining a community news site is a hard way to make a living, but the allure is undeniable. LION counts about 130 member sites, and of course there many more that are not LION members. New ones pop up regularly. Just this week, The Boston Globe reported on a project called The Spark, cofounded by a former photographer for the GateHouse-owned Enterprise of Brockton.

It’s the same allure that has kept Henderson and Hurlbrink going despite setbacks — including a $150,000 Kickstarter campaign that fell well short of the mark. So far, they say, they’ve invested $200,000 in money and time. Soon they hope to unveil the first in a line of ebooks. And they’ve got plans to launch online verticals in areas such as education and local sports. “I think there are places we can go where we can be effective,” says Hurlbrink.

If all goes according to plan, they foresee a staff of 20 full- and part-time journalists. The key, adds Henderson, is to fill a niche — and not worry about what the competition is doing.

“We’ve never said we’re here to take the T&G out,” says Henderson. “Other people have. We don’t agree with that. Our stated goal is to serve our audience, the city of Worcester, the best we can. And if we have an opportunity to grow our audience, all the better.”

Charles Fountain’s colorful new take on the 1919 Black Sox

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Print the legend?

Charles Fountain doesn’t.

Meticulously researched and colorfully written, his new book, “The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball” (Oxford University Press, 290 pages, $27.95), offers a host of new information about the often-told 1919 Chicago Black Sox saga.

He’s unearthed a ton of fresh material, including the papers of American League founder Ban Johnson and the files of cover-up maestro Alfred Austrian.

Fountain, a long-time Northeastern University School of Journalism friend and colleague, sorts through the myriad versions of how and why the World Series was fixed, never resorting to easy conclusions. He separates what’s ain’t from what’s so. When the facts are murky, he’s content to present — not pontificate.

This tapestry of baseball and social history encompasses 19th-century game-throwing, the 1920s melange of politics, sports and gambling, and colorful portraits of legendary lawyers and sportswriters.

61zSPKXvyGL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_We learn that “hippodroming” — game-fixing — is as old as organized baseball itself, as supposed amateurs took “sporting men”’s money to drop flies and strike out. And we see the machinations of White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis as they try to contain and manipulate the burgeoning Black Sox scandal.

Fountain, the author of two well-received sports books (on famed scribe Grantland Rice and on the history of spring training), is especially good on tracing the incestuous relationships between writers and their subjects — and on the wink-and-nod clubbiness and vicious newspaper competition that prevented the biggest baseball story of the (or perhaps any) era from leaking earlier.

“The Betrayal” is a treasure trove of bizarre incidents, including Keystone Kops detective efforts fueled with Scotch, fishing trips and apartment-sharing with a conspirator’s paramour. There are vignettes galore about larger-than-life characters like lawyer-jury rigger William Fallon and criminal mastermind Arnold Rothstein.  Fountain even manages to bring in “Jazz Age siren” Peggy Hopkins Joyce for a cameo.

Fountain also offers a reporting primer. The criminal trial of seven players and four gamblers began in torrid heat. How hot? Ninety-four degrees. (Fountain looked up that day’s weather report.)

From Attell (Abe: boxer, bagman and one of the saga’s host of double-crossers) to Zork (Carl: gambler and plotter), “The Betrayal” is a richly detailed page-turner.

There’s only one real rattlesnake here but plenty of two-legged ones in executive offices and judicial robes — as well as in dugouts.

“The Betrayal” is a must-read for anyone interested in American sports, morality and justice — and how they occasionally mesh.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Holding campus police departments accountable

Photo (cc) by xx. Some rights reserved.

Photo (cc) by jakubsabata. Some rights reserved.

Should police reports at private colleges and universities be considered public records in the same way that those at public colleges and in cities and towns are? You would think so. After all, as Shawn Musgrave reports for the public-records website MuckRock:

Sworn campus police may carry weapons, make arrests and use force, just like any other officer. Statute grants special state police “the same power to make arrests as regular police officers” for crimes committed on property owned or used by their institutions. Particularly in Boston, campus borders are difficult to trace, and some of the most populous areas lie within university police jurisdiction.

Yet because police departments at private institutions of higher learning are non-governmental agencies, they are not subject to the state’s notoriously weak public-records law, which requires police departments to show its log of incidents and arrests to any member of the public upon request.

Campus police departments do not operate entirely in the dark — as Musgrave notes, they must make certain records public under the federal Clery Act. And he found that many departments provided their logs when he asked for them. But privately employed police officers exercise the same powers as those working for the public, and they should be subject to the same disclosure laws.

Musgrave’s report, posted on Sept. 15, has been gathering steam. Today his story is on the front page of The Boston Globe, which has long had a relationship with MuckRock. Earlier it was flagged by Boston magazine and by Boston.com.

As Musgrave reports, state Rep. Kevin Honan, a Brighton Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would bring campus police departments and other privately employed police officers under the umbrella of the public records law. It’s a bill that has failed several times previously. But perhaps increased public scrutiny will lead to a better result.