Talking about the future of local news at TEDxLowell

I’ll be speaking at TEDxLowell this Sunday, April 27, on “Telling the Local Story: The Fate of Community Journalism in a Time of Cultural Upheaval.” Essentially I’ll be talking about what led me to write “The Wired City” as well as what’s next for local news. You can check out the slides for my presentation above.

It looks like a great slate of presenters. I’m especially looking forward to hearing from Becky Curran, a motivational speaker with dwarfism, who’ll talk about “The Media’s Perception of Little People and the Disability Community.” Way back in 2003 or ’04, I spoke about my first book, “Little People,” at Providence College. Becky was a student at PC and took part in the discussion.

Becky and I will be part of Session 1 at TEDxLowell, which will be held from 1 to 4:30 p.m. The event will take place at the United Teen Equality Center, located in downtown Lowell at 34 Hurd St. There is an admission fee; I hope that won’t dissuade you from dropping by.

Would John Henry sell the T&G to an out-of-state chain?

Worcester skyline. The Telegram & Gazette headquarters is the larger building on the left.

Worcester skyline. The Telegram & Gazette headquarters is the larger building on the left.

This article was previously published at WGBH News.

John Henry has some explaining to do to the people of Central Massachusetts. According to the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, a paper that Henry acquired along with The Boston Globe last year, Henry may be preparing to sell the T&G to Halifax Media Group, a chain based in Daytona Beach, Fla. Halifax owns 35 daily papers, mainly in the Southeast.

Rick Edmonds, who analyzes the news business for the Poynter Institute, writes, “Halifax’s way of operating remains mysterious but appears typically to involve newsroom layoffs and a booster-ish editorial tone.” Edmonds’ article is recommended reading, as it has a lot of details about Halifax and its competitors in the community-newspaper business — including GateHouse Media, which owns about 100 papers in Eastern Massachusetts.

The idea that Henry might sell the T&G to an out-of-state chain with a penchant for cost-cutting is alarming. But would he really do it? Back in November, he met with the T&G staff and said his preference was to sell to local owners — and that if such owners didn’t materialize, he might keep the paper. Here’s some of what T&G reporter Lisa Eckelbecker reported on Nov. 26 about Henry’s visit:

“I think it’s important for the Telegram & Gazette to be under local ownership,” he [Henry] told a gathering of the newspaper’s staff in the newsroom Tuesday afternoon. “I have been talking to local people who have expressed an interest. There’s absolutely nothing imminent.”

Mr. Henry told the newspaper’s employees that a potential sale would not happen until 2014 and that it would only be to the “right buyer.”

“I think you need a local owner,” he said. “A local owner can sit down with advertisers, readers and community leaders and ask for their support. I’m looking for someone with tremendous energy and a passion for this newspaper.”

Mr. Henry also said that if he cannot find the right owner, he would keep the T&G.

“This is not a forced sale,” he said. “If we don’t find the right owner, you’re stuck with me.”

In March, the T&G’s Shaun Sutner reported that the chances of a sale to local ownership had all but evaporated, as a group led by retired T&G editor Harry Whitin and Polar Beverages chief executive Ralph Crowley had taken itself out of the running. But Henry, rather than reasserting his love for Worcester and its environs, has apparently been quietly pushing ahead with a possible sale.

Now, a couple of caveats. First, just because Halifax executives are nosing around the T&Gdoesn’t mean that Henry would sell to them. Let’s not forget that the New York Times Co. let the truly alarming “Papa Doug” Manchester of U-T San Diego kick the tires on the Globe, but in the end handcrafted a deal that allowed Henry to take charge. Perhaps Henry will do something similar now that the situation has been reversed.

In addition, even if Halifax did acquire the T&G, we don’t really know what kind of a steward it would be. Virtually all newspaper companies lay people off when they acquire a new property. The real issue is whether they cut so deeply that their papers are no longer able to fulfill their journalistic mission. According to Edmonds, Halifax’s papers still engage in investigative journalism; its largest paper, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, won a Pulitzer in 2011 (although that predated the paper’s 2012 acquisition by Halifax).

Still, there’s little question that the Telegram & Gazette would be better off in the hands of local owners. Given that the paper’s reported value is just $7 million, it would be nice to think that the local owner might prove to be John Henry himself.

Photo (cc) by Terageorge and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Violence begets violence

The death penalty may have cost three innocent people their lives. From The New York Times’ story on Frazier Glenn Miller, the anti-Semite who killed three people in Missouri:

In recent years, Mr. Miller has also been a devoted pen pal to incarcerated white supremacists, among them Joseph Paul Franklin, a convicted murderer who was executed in Missouri in November. Ms. Beirich, of the law center, said that Mr. Miller was very close to Mr. Franklin, whose birthday was Sunday, the day of the shooting.

More: Lest I be misunderstood, Miller is of course 100 percent responsible for his actions. He, not the death penalty, killed three innocent people. But this hatemonger had somehow made it to the age of 73 without killing anyone. Then the state of Missouri took the life of his friend. Who knows what effect that may have had on his twisted mind?

It is beyond dispute that states with the death penalty also have the highest murder rate. And some research suggests that’s no accident, as the potentially homicidal are more likely to identify with the executioner than the condemned.

Globe wins Pulitzer for ‘story none of us wanted to cover’

Brian McGrory during the Pulitzer announcement.

Brian McGrory during the Pulitzer announcement. (Photo courtesy of The Boston Globe.)

This article was published earlier at WGBH News.

Within moments of the announcement that The Boston Globe had won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting, Martine Powers tweeted from the newsroom. “This was a story none of us wanted to cover,” she quoted editor Brian McGrory as saying. The staff, she said, then observed a moment of silence at McGrory’s request for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.

The Globe easily could have won two or three Pulitzers for its coverage of the bombings and their aftermath. The breaking-news award, of course, was well-deserved, and frankly it was unimaginable that it would go to anyone else. But the paper also had worthy marathon-related finalists in Breaking News Photography (John Tlumacki and David L. Ryan) as well as Commentary (Kevin Cullen, who emerged as the voice and conscience of the city after the attack).

McGrory’s classy response to winning underscores the sad reality that the Globe’s excellent coverage was driven by a terrible tragedy — the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001. (The Globe was also a finalist in Editorial Writing, as Dante Ramos was honored for a non-marathon-related topic: improving the city’s night life.)

The Pulitzer also caps what has been a remarkable year for the Globe. On Marathon Monday 2013, McGrory was relatively untested as editor and the paper’s prospects were uncertain, as the New York Times Co. was trying to unload it for the second time in four years.

The Globe’s marathon coverage — widely praised long before today’s Pulitzers were announced — have defined McGrory’s brief term as editor as surely as the paper’s pedophile-priest coverage (which earned a Pulitzer for Public Service) defined Marty Baron’s. Moreover, the Globe now has a local, deep-pockets owner in John Henry who’s willing to invest in journalism.

But the focus should be on Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu and Sean Collier, as well as their families and all the other survivors. Good for McGrory for reminding everyone of that.

A couple of other Pulitzer notes:

• A lot of observers were waiting to see whether the judges would honor the stories based on the Edward Snowden leaks. They did, as the Pulitzer for Public Service went to The Guardian and The Washington Post.

Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, then affiliated with The Guardian and now with the start-up First Look Media, as well as Barton Gellman of the Post, were the recipients of the Snowden leaks, which revealed a vast U.S. spying apparatus keeping track of ordinary citizens and world leaders both in the United States and abroad.

The choice is bound to be controversial in some circles. U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has already called the award “a disgrace.” But it was the ultimate example of journalism speaking truth to power, and thus was a worthy choice.

• The oddest move was the Pulitzer judges’ decision not to award a prize in Feature Writing. I thought it might go to the New York Times’ series “Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life,” or possibly to the Globe’s “The Fall of the House of Tsarnaev.” (I should note that neither of those stories was listed as a finalist.)

The Pulitzer process can be mysterious. But it would be interesting to see if someone can pry some information out of the judges to find out why they believed there wasn’t a single feature story in 2013 worthy of journalism’s highest honor.

A story told with sensitivity and craftsmanship

MA_BGLater today the Pulitzer Prizes will be announced. And it seems likely that The Boston Globe will win at least one — maybe more — for its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath.

So it seems fitting that, on Sunday and today, the Globe published a two-part feature that may be a contender for a 2015 Pulitzer. Written by David Abel and photographed by Jessica Rinaldi, with a video produced by Abel and Scott LaPierre, the package tells the story of the Richards, the Dorchester family that more than any other has come to symbolize the region’s heart-breaking loss and resilience.

In reading the first part, I noticed that Abel offered little in the way of the Richards’ experience when the bombs went off and took the lives of three people, including 8-year-old Martin Richard. (Martin’s sister, Jane, lost part of her left leg. Their parents, Bill and Denise, were injured as well. Their brother, Henry, was not injured physically.)

Toward the end of part two, Abel tells the story — and does it with great sensitivity and craftsmanship.

The phrase “Boston Strong” has been misappropriated by many. Last fall I actually saw it flash on a sign outside a liquor store, followed by that day’s specials. Good grief.

The Richards are Boston Strong.

Polk Award winners put human faces on statistics

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Update: On April 14, Eli Saslow, whose work is described below, won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.

Turning a topic into a story. Giving statistics a human face. Upsetting conventional assumptions about life’s winners and losers.

Three series spotlighting social inequality have won one of journalism’s top prizes. At a Long Island University panel discussion last Thursday, George Polk Award-winning reporters detailed how they did it. (Here is the complete list of 2013 winners.)

New York Times reporter Andrea Elliott, a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer, was combing the Web for a new subject when she came across these numbers: one in five American children lives in poverty.

Wanting to avoid the debate about adult responsibility for their condition, she decided to write about poverty’s effects on kids.

What’s the “narrative magnet”? she recalls she and her editors asking. What would get readers to read? Their answer: People, not numbers.

After weeks of chatting with women clustered around a filthy Brooklyn homeless shelter, she “found a young mother with a lot to say and who wanted to say it” and her feisty 11-year-old daughter, Dasani.

The more officials tried to bar her from the shelter, the more determined she was to get in.

Once there, she and photographer Ruth Fremson dived into immersion journalism, spending 15 months with the family to produce the nearly 29, 000-word series “Invisible Child.”

Conventional journalistic rules didn’t apply. “‘Off the record’ doesn’t mean anything to these folks,” Elliott said. “My stance is just to hang out with no agenda and try to fade into the background.” She protected people’s privacy by withholding or changing last names.

Elliott’s series, which she’ll expand into a book, focused on the personal, but she stressed the wider economic effects of child poverty. With so large a percentage of the future work force growing up in detrimental circumstances, she said, employers will face major problems finding qualified employees in the future.

Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow also used data to find a story and dogged reporting to make it come alive.

The Pulitzer Prize feature-writing finalist last year said,  “The stories we do at the Post have to be big.” So he sifted through big data: some 47 million Americans get food stamps; the $78 billion program has tripled in the past decade.

Then he turned those numbers into people. “Reporting is sifting information through a funnel,” he said. “That’s the most rewarding part of the job.”

He found that one-third of residents in Woonsocket, R.I., qualify for food stamps. He traveled to Woonsocket; to Tennessee, where he met hungry children; to a Texas county where processed food threatens health; and to a Washington neighborhood facing benefit cuts.

He and photographer Michael S. Williamson found a multi-general cycle of dependency and a whole industry centered around food stamps. Grocery stores hire more workers when they arrive on the eighth of each month. Cabs line up to take package-laden recipients to their houses. Food stamp recruiters try to sign up 150 people a month for the program.

Like Elliott, he handled his subjects with care. “After a while they forget you’re following them,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to let a stranger into every corner of your life.”

Well, at least the folks who helped cause the 2008 financial crisis lost big-time, right?

Not so much, Alison Fitzgerald and three Center for Public Integrity colleagues found. They detailed Wall Street bigwigs’ loss of jobs but not mansions.

Fitzgerald, who began her career at The Boston Phoenix and won several major awards while at Bloomberg News, said the center’s three-part series began with the question “What’s up with these guys?” as the fifth anniversary of the crisis (which coincides with the statute of limitations on prosecution) approached.

Another question:  What does “they got away with it” mean?

Almost none of the ex-corporate chieftains would talk to them, but one agreed to speak on background. But they got information from golf caddies (about how much or little they tipped) and bridge partners, and from reams of court documents and real-estate transactions.

Tracking most-2008 careers produced one surprise: many top executives are back in the mortgage business.

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