Monthly Archives: February 2011

A harder future for non-profit journalism

What does the future of non-profit news look like? Maybe not as bright as we had hoped.

Nieman Journalism Lab director Joshua Benton gave a talk recently on “Eight Trends for Journalism in 2011.” There are a lot of interesting nuggets, and I want to give it a more careful read later. (Thanks to Jay Rosen for flagging it on Twitter.) But I was particularly struck by Benton’s prediction that we may have reached a peak in non-profit journalism, and that the slogging will be tougher from here on out. Benton writes:

I do think that 2011 is going to see some trimming back, because a lot of these news organizations were started on initial gifts from very well intentioned wealthy people, or local foundations that gave lump-sum payments. And a lot of them are having a real difficult time transitioning to anything that looks sustainable.

The non-profit project I follow most closely is the New Haven Independent. Benton’s prediction will not be news to the founder and editor, Paul Bass. In fact, he and I talked last summer about how to move from a model that relies mostly on foundation grants to one that relies mostly on user contributions and sponsorships, similar to public radio.

Since last fall, the Independent has used Journalism Online’s Press Plus system to ask for voluntary contributions.

Still, a site like the Independent, serving a small, poor community, is hardly a public radio station, many of which draw on large, affluent regions, and whose listeners can thus afford to give.

Ultimately, I wonder if local foundation officials will have to face up to the reality that journalism is a social service essential to the community fabric and needs to be funded on a sustaining basis.

I understand that when foundations give money to non-profit news organizations, they have that much less they can allocate to traditional programs helping young people, the homeless and the like. No doubt that makes for a very hard sell.

But a good non-profit news organization can foster the kind of civic engagement that makes it more likely people will take an interest in their community — and perhaps to donate money to those foundations. I think that’s called a virtuous circle.

Clif Garboden, 1948-2011

Clif Garboden

Early yesterday afternoon I received some very sad news. Clif Garboden, former managing editor of the Boston Phoenix, had died. It was not entirely unexpected. Clif had gone through devastating treatments for cancer a half-dozen years ago, and had recently been diagnosed with a recurrence. He died of pneumonia before treatments could really get under way.

Clif was simultaneously a caustic, profane social critic and an unabashed idealist — two qualities that I think are often found together.

His 2004 outburst following the election results, “Screw You, America,” is a classic example of the former. I remembered every word of it when I re-read it this morning — it’s that good.

His essay for the Phoenix’s 40th-anniversary issue was an example of the latter. Clif genuinely, deeply believed that we in the alternative press were doing God’s work in holding powerful institutions accountable. It was a bracing idea, and something to ponder when the day-to-day frustrations of journalism were getting us down.

Clif’s contributions to the Phoenix were legion, ranging from his hilarious “Hot Dots” television listings to his leadership in the creation and growth of ThePhoenix.com — a site regularly recognized for its excellence by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, an organization of which he was a past president. (Here is a tribute posted at AAN.org.)

Indeed, he did so much that it’s sometimes forgotten he was also a first-rate photographer. Here is his Flickr photostream. When Howard Zinn died a little over a year ago, Clif let me publish a photo he had taken of Zinn during a 1967 debate over the Vietnam War. The richness of tone and lighting is striking. As Clif once explained of his student days at the BU News:

In the darkroom, we pushed standard black-and-white film to wantonly high speeds with specialty developing concoctions so we could shoot everything with available light — imparting an atmospheric, realistic look to our pictures and abandoning the flat, grain-less, over-lit direct-flash intrusiveness of standard press photography.

Tributes to Clif are pouring in on Facebook and at ThePhoenix.com. The lives of all of us who were fortunate to know him were enriched by the experience. He possessed a great soul, and we are all going to miss him deeply. I already do.

Will HuffPo prove to be AOL’s MySpace?

Click for full cartoon at Politico

Does AOL have a MySpace problem?

You may recall that MySpace was a social-media phenomenon when Rupert Murdoch bought it back in 2005 for $580 million. It wasn’t long, though, before Facebook zoomed past it, rendering Murdoch’s new toy all but worthless. The site is now for sale. A large part of it may have been that Facebook was simply better technologically. But surely some of MySpace’s lost cachét was due to a perception among users that anything owned by Murdoch wasn’t cool anymore.

Which brings us to AOL and the Huffington Post. When AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong forked over $315 million for HuffPo, he no doubt thought he was acquiring, among other things, an army of unpaid bloggers. But not so fast.

AdBusters reports that there’s a boycott under way:

Socialite Arianna Huffington built a blog-empire on the backs of thousands of citizen journalists. She exploited our idealism and let us labor under the illusion that the Huffington Post was different, independent and leftist. Now she’s cashed in and three thousand indie bloggers find themselves working for a megacorp.

Follow it on Twitter at #huffpuff.

Two old Boston Phoenix friends have weighed in as well.

Al Giordano writes that he cross-posted 26 of his stories on HuffPo between 2007 and 2009. He stopped, he says, because he “grew uncomfortable with how that website was transparently becoming more and more sensationalist, cult-of-personality generated.” Now he’s removed his posts, replacing them with this:

(As author and sole owner of the words in this story, I did not write them for AOL, and do not wish to have any association with it imposed upon me. The original text may still be found at http://narconews.com/thefield – Al Giordano, February 7, 2011)

On Facebook, Barry Crimmins adds:

What Ariana Huffington sold for $315 mil was a lot of bloggers who work for free and all the eyeballs they attract to HuffPo. Feeling exploited? Stop working for free for HuffPo and stop providing HuffPo with the value of your visits. Believe me, there will be alternatives. True alternatives.

Dan Gillmor says that, at the very least, Huffington ought to start paying people.

It’s hard to know to what extent HuffPo’s unpaid bloggers fit into Armstrong’s plans. At the very least, though, it’s beginning to look like he did not get what he paid for. He could ask old Rupe about that.

Dialing up outrage in New Haven

Michele Kearney

Now, here is an interesting ethical dilemma.

Last Friday morning, the New Haven Independent posted its final revision of a story reporting that the city’s police union had approved a “no confidence” vote in Chief Frank Limon by a margin of 246-21.

The New Haven Police Department has been beset by controversy since Limon’s arrival last spring over accusations of police brutality and over incidents involving officers’ confiscating cameras from people trying to record their actions. Last week, a group of African-American activists demonstrated in favor of Limon, claiming that the chief is working to reform a troubled department.

But I digress. The story closes with a quote from and a photo of a custodian who works at police headquarters. The custodian, Michele Kearney, says:

There’s been a lot of tension ever since he’s [Limon] been here. There is not a lot of morale here. The last chief [James Lewis] was more understanding of what needs to be done. From what I have seen he wanted to hear their opinions and try to work with them. This one here [Limon] seems like he is working against them and not with them.

The story drew 108 comments — a very high number for the Independent. On Thursday at 3:23 p.m. (in response to an earlier version of the story) a commenter who goes by “da hill” criticized the Independent for quoting “unrelated entities” such as Kearney. Editor and publisher Paul Bass responded:

Thanks for the input. Our feeling was that someone who’s in the building cleaning the floors every day, talking to officers, and watching what’s going on, does in fact have a valid perspective to offer on morale and the overall feeling in the building.

At 5:21 p.m., “NO CONFIDENCE” wrote: “I am so happy to see a civilian like Michele, pictured above, tell the citizens of New Haven how Chief Limon treats his officers.  She works in the police department and is definitely well qualified to make those statements.”

A short time later, “Our Town” posted this: “I sure hope ole Michele is in a union, becuase I have a feeling she might not have a job tomorrow for speaking up.”

Then, at 11:06 p.m., there was this, from “Ken”:

The maintenance girl was fired immediately and we heard it came from, you guessed it, the chief. This is his MO if don’t agree with or lie for him you’re in trouble. City Hall has demanded she be re-hired by O,R&L.  I guess the The Chief never heard of the First Amendment. OR&L should be questioned about it and if they lie they should lose the city contracts. If it came from the Chief he should be terminated.

O,R&L is a private contractor hired by the city to maintain its buildings.

On Friday at 3:49 a.m., “unbelievable” wrote: “She was FIRED and escorted out of the building like a CRIMINAL! and you talk about wanting to do your best for this city!? … Well New Haven Independent, what are you going to do now??”

What the Independent did was post a story by Bass reporting on Kearney’s situation. The events of the day were convoluted. Kearney was fired; no, she’d been placed on leave. Mayor John DeStefano’s outgoing spokeswoman said the mayor had asked O,R&L to reinstate her. DeStefano said he’d done no such thing. The mayor’s incoming spokesman then said the company had informed the city that Kearney had been reinstated.

And, most controversially, the Independent posted the cell-phone number of the O,R&L supervisor assigned to police headquarters, urging readers to make their feelings known. “Members of the public can call him there if they want to express their opinions on the matter directly,” Bass wrote. Continue reading

A great day for the Huffington Post’s investors

Arianna Huffington

My theory as to why Arianna Huffington would sell her successful website to a troubled company like AOL is that her investors wanted to cash in and weren’t particularly interested about the future of the Huffington Post.

Writing for the Guardian, Graeme Wearden says the beneficiaries of Huffington’s $315 million deal will be three venture-capital firms and a few private investors. Wearden adds that “some shareholders must be sitting on very large returns, as the company has received just $37m of funding over the last six years.”

HuffPo’s business model has three prongs: paid, original journalism by the likes of Howard Fineman and Sam Stein; extreme aggregation that summarizes off-site content so thoroughly there’s really not much reason to click through; and free content from numerous bloggers.

I’m guessing that the latter two prongs will be endangered by the acquisition, as media companies take a new look at HuffPo’s aggregation practices and bloggers who were willing to write for free for a site that they saw as somehow theirs balk at doing it for a corporation like AOL.

Check out this piece by Mayhill Fowler, HuffPo’s star of the 2008 presidential campaign, explaining last September why she would no longer write for free. Although I still think Samuel Johnson put it best.

Perhaps skeptics like me will be proven wrong, but I don’t see what AOL brings to the table. Yes, it has acquired content sites like TechCrunch and Engadget, and its hyperlocal Patch sites are springing up everywhere. But I don’t understand how adding HuffPo creates the “synergies” AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong is talking about.

Indeed, “synergy” has become a punchline from years past, with the ill-fated merger of AOL and Time Warner being a prime example.

Ken Auletta recently wrote a terrific story on AOL for the New Yorker, which, unfortunately, is not freely available online. Auletta portrayed AOL as a company that may be on the brink of financial collapse, and Armstrong as a smart, energetic leader whose content-heavy strategy may nevertheless prove to be flawed and outdated.

By far my favorite part of the story was the revelation that AOL still gets 80 percent of its profits from subscribers, and that perhaps 75 percent of them are older people who don’t realize they don’t need the $25-per-month service now that they have broadband. Not exactly a recipe for success.

With few exceptions, media sensations like the Huffington Post have their moments and then fade away. Arianna may prove she can defy gravity. But she has just made her job harder, not easier.

Why The Daily is straight out of 1994

I haven’t had a chance to play with The Daily yet. If I’m really, really good, maybe Mrs. Media Nation will let me borrow her iPad so I can have a look. In terms of the business model and the approach, though, the mutant spawn of Rupert Murdoch and Steve Jobs looks remarkably like the early-’90s Knight Ridder newspaper of the future come to life.

I was first introduced to the digital newspaper at a conference at Columbia University in 1993. Among the speakers were retired Boston Globe editor Jack Driscoll, a true visionary, and Knight Ridder futurist Roger Fidler.

Fidler presented an idea: a newspaper that you would download onto a digital tablet of some sort. Fidler was so far ahead of his time that his tablet still hasn’t been created. The iPad is a step along the way, but Fidler’s notion was that it had to be light and flexible, with the same image resolution as a quality magazine and so cheap that newspapers would give them away.

Take a look at the 1994 video above, in which Fidler introduces his tablet, and consider all the stuff he and his colleagues had already figured out: an easy navigation system (he envisioned a stylus rather than your finger); embedded videos; interactive advertising.

The problem was that he missed the two developments that did the most to undermine the newspaper business: the Web, which made the kind of closed media ecosystem he envisioned obsolete; and the demise of “branded content” as a selling point. News has become a commodity in ways we couldn’t have imagined nearly two decades ago. So it’s fascinating that Murdoch and Jobs have attempted to resuscitate those two moribund notions.

First, you’ll only be able to get The Daily through a closed system. For Fidler, it was your cable television box and, if you were on the move, digital kiosks of some sort. For Murdoch and Jobs, it’s the iTunes Store.

As for branded content, that’s what The Daily is all about. It’s on but not of the Internet, so you won’t be able to search for individual stories or find links to Daily content on aggregators like Google News or the Huffington Post. It’s a discrete, branded product, and you will either buy it (for 99 cents a week) or you won’t.

Will it work? As I told Chris Lefkow of Agence France-Presse, it will probably enjoy some modest success, but I can’t see it truly taking off. There’s nothing you can get from The Daily that you can’t get somewhere else for free.

A lot of news organizations are experimenting with paid-content models right now, but all of them envision remaining more or less open to the great conversation that the Internet has fostered. The Daily, by contrast, is straight out of 1994.

Interestingly enough, Fidler tells the Poynter Institute that he loves The Daily:

My first impression is very positive. Team Murdoch has done what I’ve always hoped newspapers would do with their tablet editions — create an interactive hybrid of print and Web that is visually rich and enjoyable to read.

So does Slate’s Jack Shafer, with reservations.

Personally, I would love a high-quality (which is to say, non-Murdoch) digital news service that looked like The Daily but that wasn’t cut off from the Web. If that’s where, say, the New York Times is eventually going with its tablet apps, then that is something I’d truly find exciting.

The Daily? I wish Rupe and Steve well, but I’m I don’t plan on becoming a customer.

NU graduate among journalists detained in Egypt

Leila Fadel

Leila Fadel, the Washington Post’s Cairo bureau chief and a 2004 graduate of Northeastern University, is reportedly among a number of journalists who have been detained by Egyptian authorities. According to the Post, Fadel, staff photographer Linda Davidson and a translator who was working with them have been taken into custody. (See update below.)

“We understand that they are safe but in custody, and we have made urgent protests to Egyptian authorities in Cairo and Washington,” Post foreign editor Douglas Jehl is quoted as saying. “We’ve advised the State Department, as well.”

Mubarak’s Egypt is surely not Iran or North Korea, but the situation for reporters has been deteriorating in the past few days. In one high-profile incident, CNN’s Anderson Cooper was assaulted. Journalists at Al Jazeera, whose coverage has been invaluable, have come under attack and harassment as well. The New York Times reports:

The attacks on journalists started almost as soon as violent clashes began on Wednesday near Tahrir Square, as orchestrated waves of pro-government forces swept in, using rocks, bats, and knives and Molotov cocktails against the anti-government protesters.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has a round-up of incidents involving journalists. Says CPJ official Mohamed Abdel Dayem: “The Egyptian government is employing a strategy of eliminating witnesses to their actions.”

More from Reporters Without Borders.

Update (2 p.m.): Fadel tells the Washington Post that she and Davidson have been released. Several local Post employees remain accounted for and are believed to be in custody.