Monthly Archives: July 2012

Talking local news today on WGBH Radio

I’ll be on “Boston Public Radio” on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) today from 12:30 to 1 p.m. talking about local journalism in the post-newspaper age (hmmm … that could be the subtitle of a book) with host Kara Miller, Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab and Tom Stites of the Banyan Project. Hope you can tune in.

From the New York Times, political #fail in three acts

Three examples from Sunday’s New York Times of political coverage that makes you want to bang your head against an immoveable object until you’ve forgotten what you’ve just read:

• Maureen Dowd’s column, a characteristically superficial attack on Mitt Romney that veers into the ditch when, about halfway through, she sneers at Romney’s “shiny white family.” Seriously? What color is the Dowd family, Mo?

• Jeff Zeleny’s news analysis, in which he opines — oh, sorry, writes analytically — that both the Romney and the Obama campaigns are relying mainly on negative advertising.

Of course, there are few things more satisfying to the media mindset than asserting that both sides are just as bad. But as Zeleny writes as an aside to which he attaches no seeming significance (and as Greg Mitchell flags), the Romney campaign’s ads are five-to-one negative, whereas Obama’s are a relatively cheery two-to-one negative.

Even worse, Zeleny makes no attempt to assess whose negative ads are more truthful. The mere existence of negative ads on both sides is not the least bit newsworthy if one side’s consist of unfair attacks and the other’s are more or less on the level. All in all, a worthless exercise, yet the Times played it at the top of the front page. (Younger readers may be interested to learn that some news sites print a portion of their content on dead trees.)

• Public editor Arthur Brisbane, nearing the end of his somnolent stint as the Times’ in-house critic, laments that political coverage is too focused on the negative campaigns being waged (naturally) by both sides and not focused enough on the issues.

Now, this is a difficult one for me to wrap my arms around, because I’m as critical as anyone of horse-race coverage and the political press’ obsession with polls and tactics. But the alternative Brisbane proposes — “substance” and “issues” — strikes me as absurd given the historical moment in which we find ourselves.

This election will not be decided on issues. There is nothing important to learn by studying the fine points of Romney’s or President Obama’s tax proposals or financial-regulation plans.

Rather, this election is about broad themes, tribalism and cultural signifiers. There is more significance in polls results showing that one in six Americans believes Obama is a Muslim than there is in 50 stories telling us where he and Romney stand on cap-and-trade. Political coverage that avoids that central truth is destined to fail.

Where is our Hunter Thompson?

Photo (cc) by unwiederbringlichbegangenes and reproduced here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

A horrifying and important piece of journalism

Jenifer McKim discusses her story. Click on image to view video.

The most horrifying and important piece of journalism I’ve seen in quite a while is Jenifer McKim’s front-page story in Sunday’s Boston Globe on an international child-pornography ring — a story that took McKim from Milford to the Netherlands. I have no stomach for describing what McKim found, but you should read it if you haven’t already.

The point is so obvious that it scarcely needs to be made, but journalism like this isn’t possible without resources. In the video, McKim says she worked on the story for a year. The Globe has money (if not as much as it used to), lawyers and institutional muscle. Without those assets, it’s hard to imagine this story ever would have been fully told.

Readers show increasing willingness to pick up the tab

New York Times figures include International Herald Tribune. Boston Globe figures include Worcester Telegram & Gazette and Boston.com. Courtesy of Paul McMorrow.

Advertiser-supported journalism isn’t going away, but it’s not going to recover, either. The forces aligned against it are just too overwhelming. Classifieds aren’t coming back. Print is dying. And online advertisers are staying away from news sites even as Internet ads overall continue to grow, as this Reuters report by Jennifer Saba shows.

Which is why the New York Times Co.’s progress in tilting the revenue equation away from advertising and toward readers is so important. Joe Coscarelli of New York magazine writes that circulation revenue at the company’s Big Three newspapers — the Times, the International Herald Tribune and the Boston Globe — is rising faster than ad revenue is falling.

(Coscarelli doesn’t say so, but his Globe numbers are almost certainly for the New England Newspaper Group — the Globe, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and Boston.com. The Times Co. does not break out those numbers separately.)

Here are the details. In the second quarter of this year, which ended on June 30, the Times Co. lost $88.1 million. Advertising, both in print and online, fell 6.6 percent, to $220 million. But circulation revenue rose 8.3 percent, to $233 million. News-business analyst Ken Doctor tells Coscarelli that the Times Co. may be the first major newspaper company to pull in more money from circulation than from advertising.

The newspaper business had long earned some 80 percent of its revenues from ads. It was often said that the news was free, with readers asked to pay only for printing and delivery. The question facing the industry is whether there are enough readers who value newspapers to pay much more for print than they used to, and to pay anything at all for online access.

The Times and the Globe both have smart, flexible digital-subscription systems that are being closely watched by newspaper executives. (The Telegram & Gazette has a paywall as well, though I’m not familiar enough with it to offer an assessment.) But the Times has been much more successful than the Globe in selling digital subscriptions — 509,000 for the Times and the IHT in the second quarter, compared to about 23,000 for the Globe, according to Chris Reidy of the Globe.

The caution flag for the Globe is that the Times is an utterly unique product — for all its flaws, it is surely the highest-quality, most comprehensive news source in the United States. And it may be the one news source people are willing to pay for.

The Globe is an excellent regional paper, but it’s unlikely that online subscriptions will ever be more than a small part of its revenue stream. Globe executives themselves seem wary of pushing the paywall too hard, as they continue to offer quite a bit of Globe content on the free Boston.com site. Indeed, the chart above, put together by Paul McMorrow of CommonWealth Magazine, shows that circulation revenue as a percentage of overall revenues actually dipped slightly in the second quarter at the New England Media Group.

In other words, the latest numbers are great news for the Times. For everyone else, they are something to aspire to, with no guarantee of success.

Mayor Menino versus Chick-fil-A, Round 2

I think it’s very difficult for the city’s top elected official to go after a person, a company or some other organization without making it sound like a governmental threat.

Nevertheless, Mayor Tom Menino’s letter imploring Chick-fil-A to stay out of Boston (via Universal Hub) does a reasonably good job of getting his point across while acknowledging that he’s only expressing his personal views.

If you read between the lines, he seems to back off a bit from what he told the Boston Herald: “Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion.”

Meanwhile, Gizmodo reports that Chick-fil-A’s homophobia-induced meltdown continues.

Earlier coverage.

Prosecutors, defenders seek to muzzle OpenCourt

Despite a ruling by the state Supreme Judicial Court in its favor, OpenCourt continues to run into legal roadblocks in its quest to cover proceedings in Quincy District Court.

In the latest move, the office of Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey and the Committee for Public Counsel Services — that is, public defenders — are seeking to block OpenCourt from expanding its livestreaming operations to a second courtroom known as Jury Room A.

The request will be heard by a single justice of the SJC.

According to OpenCourt:

As of this writing, OpenCourt is the only news organization currently prohibited from covering trials in Courtroom A, also known as Jury Room A.  Rule 1:19, the Massachusetts Camera in the Court statute, presumes that courtrooms are open to media….

Members of OpenCourt have for months openly planned to begin coverage of Jury Room A, and were set to begin livestreaming proceedings on Monday, July 16. Those plans are currently in a temporary state of limbo as we await  single justice review.

Morrissey recently received a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award for attempting to block OpenCourt, which is affiliated with WBUR Radio (90.9 FM),  from posting archives of its livestreamed footage, a move that was shot down by the SJC.

Update, Aug. 15: SJC Associate Justice Margot Botsford ruled on Tuesday in favor of OpenCourt. The Boston Globe covers her decision here. The full text of her ruling is available here.

Globe publisher announces work-force reductions

The Boston Globe and its affiliated media properties are downsizing again, according to an internal memo from Globe publisher Christopher Mayer that was obtained by Media Nation earlier today.

No details, but Mayer writes that the work force at the New England Media Group — the Globe, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and Boston.com — will be shrunk through a combination of voluntary buyouts and “some involuntary reductions.”

Update: At the Globe, 23 people in advertising and 20 in the newsroom will be offered buyouts, while another 10 were laid off. At the T&G, one person was laid off while five to 10 have been offered buyouts.

The memo follows.

Dear colleagues,

Today the New England Media Group took steps to reduce its work force. These involved primarily offers of voluntary buyouts but also some involuntary reductions throughout the New England Media Group. At this time, all affected employees have been notified.

This move, difficult as it is, is part of a program to rebalance the business and will allow us to reallocate resources toward the investments we need as we innovate and introduce new products. This will also assure that we continue to meet the needs of our advertisers, and provide readers the high-quality journalism they expect from us.

The Globe still has by far the largest newsroom in New England, and it continues to deliver groundbreaking, award-winning journalism across all media platforms. We continue to offer effective solutions for our advertisers using the Globe and Boston.com as we add new offerings such as BostonGlobe.com, Ricochet, eBooks, ePaper, and the upcoming RadioBDC. Even more exciting initiatives are in development from our SEO company branch.

That said, these continue to be challenging times for our industry and our business. We face rapid change in how readers get their information and how advertisers communicate their messages. That requires us to make tough choices along the way about how to allocate our resources. We must continue to introduce new products even as we improve the efficiency of our operations. Meantime, we remain steadfast in our commitment to readers and advertisers — and to all of you who help us achieve great things each and every day in the midst of these challenges.

Sincerely,

Christopher Mayer
Publisher, The Boston Globe

In Alan Lupo, Alexander Cockburn met his match

If you read the New York Times obituary of the radical journalist Alexander Cockburn, then you may have found yourself surprised by this tidbit about his departure from the Village Voice:

Mr. Cockburn, a fierce critic in the columns of Israeli policies in the Middle East, was dismissed from The Voice in 1984 after The Boston Phoenix reported that he had accepted a $10,000 grant from a group that its critics called pro-Arab. David Schneiderman, The Voice’s editor at the time, suggested that the grant created a conflict of interest.

The Phoenix has now reposted that article, which was reported and written by the late, great Alan Lupo. An essential bit of Boston journalism history, and well worth your time.

Mayor Menino, Chick-fil-A and the First Amendment

There may be more to say later, but I want to offer a few quick thoughts on Mayor Tom Menino’s declaration that he intends to keep Chick-fil-A out of Boston because of the company president’s opposition to same-sex marriage, as reported by Greg Turner of the Boston Herald.

Chick-fil-A has long been at odds with the LGBT community. But things got a lot worse this week, when company president Dan Cathy said, according to the Washington Post, that “we’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.”

That brought this response from Menino: “Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion.”

My gut reaction is that Menino is wrong. It seems to me that there wouldn’t be any end to this if government officials decided to approve or reject business licenses on the basis of their executives’ religious or political beliefs. There are First Amendment issues at stake as well. Can’t the head of a company say what he thinks without risking the wrath of the government?

Starbucks, as you no doubt know, has earned a lot of praise for its support of gay civil rights. There are plenty of municipalities out there whose officials might be tempted to deny Starbucks the right to operate inside their borders. And they could point to Menino for support.

Earlier this year my employer, Northeastern University, disinvited Chick-fil-A from opening in the student center after a number of people protested. I was among those who signed an online petition asking to keep Chick-fil-A off campus. But I see a huge difference between voluntarily inviting a business to operate on your private property, as would have been the case at Northeastern, and acting to keep a business off someone else’s private property, as Menino proposes to do.

Chick-fil-A has a serious issue on its hands, and it may well have to do some damage control that goes beyond the cosmetic. The San Jose Mercury News reports that residents in Mountain View, Calif., want to keep the chain out of their community. And we can expect to see a lot more of that.

Menino actually missed his best argument for keeping Chick-fil-A out. Restaurant executives apparently want to open in a tourist-heavy area along the Freedom Trail. If I were doling out food licenses in Boston, I would be very reluctant to hand over such a prime location to a business that is closed on Sundays.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Making it on his own — with a little help

In the Boston Herald, columnist Jessica Heslam writes that Brian Maloney, the owner of the Roxbury trucking company that Mitt Romney visited yesterday, made it without any help from anybody, dadgummit:

The government didn’t help — at all. No tax breaks. No “Good guy, Brian.” Just hard work did that and a few other dedicated people that came along with me. Who’s going to pay for Obamacare?

In the Boston Globe, Callum Borchers reports:

Maloney founded his company as an auto body shop in Cambridge in 1966, while pursuing an MBA at Boston College. In the late 1970s, according to a 1986 Globe profile of the business, “he approached Boston city officials because a preferential bank loan was possible if his firm relocated to the Crosstown Industrial Park,” where Middlesex Truck & Coach remains to this day.

In its first year at the new location, Maloney’s company accepted a $560,000 federal government contract to overhaul 10 buses. Within a half-decade of the move, Maloney reported, his company had quintupled its annual revenue.

And political analyst Jon Keller of WBZ-TV (Channel 4) coaxes a rather different quote out of Maloney:

The only way I was able to come here, because I had no money, was with an industrial revenue bond.

That would be a government industrial revenue bond.

No one would question the hard work and dedication Maloney put into building his business. The only point President Obama was trying to make — and which Romney is now distorting beyond recognition — is that we’re all part of a larger community, and even the most successful among us didn’t make it entirely on our own. As Obama put it, “There’s no question your mom and dad, your school teachers, the people that provide roads, the fire, the police. A lot of people help.”

Oh, wait — sorry. That was Romney.

Maloney’s sincerity aside, he turns out not to be the best spokesman for the I-made-it-alone argument. Then again, Joe the Plumber’s name wasn’t Joe, and he wasn’t a plumber.