Tag Archives: Banyan Project

Hyperlocal news, civic engagement and spirituality

Banyan tree

Banyan tree

Is there a connection between hyperlocal journalism, civic engagement and spirituality? Not directly. But in “The Wired City” I argue that New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass’ emphasis on community and right actions are tied to his involvement in Judaism.

In Haverhill, Massachusetts, Banyan Project founder Tom Stites is working to launch Haverhill Matters, the first of what he hopes will be a network of cooperatively owned news sites, in line with the way Unitarian Universalist congregations govern themselves.

Stites, among other things, is the retired editor of the UU World, the denomination’s quarterly magazine. In the current issue, I write about my fellow UU Stites:

Although both Haverhill Matters and the Banyan Project are purely secular endeavors, Stites sees some parallels between his idea and Unitarian Universalism’s Fifth Principle: “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” “If you think of news communities and religious communities — meaning congregations — as comparable, the authority of the congregation comes from its members,” says Stites. “It’s a democratic institution, things are decided by discussion and vote. With the co-op model it’s the closest in all possible ways to the congregational polity model. There really is a real congruence there.”

I also offer some thoughts about the New Haven Independent and community-building as well as The Batavian, whose publisher, Howard Owens, sees a strong, locally owned business community as a key to fostering civic engagement. I hope you’ll take a look.

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

Return of hometown news: Indy, local and online

70-Cover-LARGE

This article appears in the Summer 2014 edition of Yes! magazine and is (cc) by Yes! Republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

On a cold night in January, eight people gathered in a harshly lit classroom at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Mass. Over cookies and bottled water, they discussed their latest plans for a project that has been years in the making—a cooperatively owned online news operation to cover their working-class city of 60,000.

The site, set to launch by the end of 2014, will be known as Haverhill Matters. It is the fruition of an idea called the Banyan Project, developed by Tom Stites, a retired journalist whose career included stops at The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. As with food co-ops, the site will be owned by the members, who will be able to join by contributing money or labor—perhaps by writing a neighborhood blog or covering governmental meetings. If it is successful, Stites hopes to roll out similar news co-ops around the country.

The goal is to serve “news deserts,” a term Stites adopted from “food deserts.” Although Haverhill is covered by a daily and a weekly newspaper, they do not compete: Both are owned by an out-of-state corporate chain that has cut its staff significantly in recent years. The papers no longer have an office in Haverhill. Stites believes that just as a lack of fresh, nutritious food can be harmful to personal health, so, too, can a lack of fresh, relevant news be harmful to civic health.

How would Haverhill Matters make a difference? Mike LaBonte, who co-chairs the planning committee, cites the voluminous coverage given to the 1971 opening of a farmers market by the independent daily that then covered the city. Forty years later, he says, an attempt to revitalize the market received minimal attention.

“There are some aspects of the news that are simply not covered,” LaBonte says. “What I’m hearing from an awful lot of new people is ‘How do I find out what is going on in Haverhill?’”

The Banyan Project may prove to be one way of revitalizing civic engagement through local journalism, but it is far from the only way. Across the country, as traditional news organizations have shrunk, independent online news organizations have sprung up, sparking renewed interest in community not just through news coverage, but also by creating a conversation around that coverage.

Ongoing dialogue with readers

One of the oldest of these online news communities is the New Haven Independent, founded in 2005 by Paul Bass, former star reporter and political columnist for the alternative New Haven Advocate (killed off by its corporate owners). The Independent is staffed by four full-time journalists and is supported through foundation grants, donations from wealthy individuals, sponsorships by large institutions such as colleges and hospitals, and reader contributions.

From the beginning, Bass has carved out a niche that is distinct from the local daily newspaper by fostering an ongoing conversation with his community. Examples range from the ambitious, such as citywide forums on education reform and local politics, to the accidental, such as a mayoral candidacy that played out in the Independent’s comments section in 2007. In that instance, a local real-estate agent announced he was running, only to face a barrage from other commenters after he expressed ignorance of the city’s African American neighborhoods. To his credit, he withdrew shortly thereafter, writing that he realized he had much to learn about his adopted city.

Bass takes comments seriously. Pseudonyms are allowed so as to protect police officers, teachers, parents, and other city stakeholders who would be uncomfortable speaking out under their real names. But every comment is screened by someone on the Independent’s staff before it is posted—or rejected. Bass had to tighten up the rules following an outburst of online sociopathy sparked by an unusually contentious mayoral campaign in 2011. Among other things, would-be commenters now have to register using their real names, though Bass still allows them to post under their pseudonyms. Overall, though, the comments are far more civil and substantive than is the case at most news sites.

Civic engagement at the Independent can also take the form of day-in, day-out news coverage of relatively small quality-of-life issues that larger media can’t be bothered with. For instance, in 2010 the Independent reported on two incidents in which city police confiscated cell phones from bystanders so they couldn’t take video of officers as they made arrests.

The Independent flogged the issue for months. The result: statements from the mayor and the police chief affirming the right of the public to take video of police actions; an internal investigation that found officers had mishandled the two incidents; a mandatory training session at the police academy; and a bill filed at the Connecticut Statehouse making it easier for camera-wielding civilians to sue in response to police harassment. Though the bill did not pass, overall it was an impressive display of how a small news organization rooted in the community could punch above its weight.

“I’ve learned that the public can steer the conversation and take the story to a better place than reporters or editors could ever take it alone,” says Bass.

Four hundred miles west of New Haven, in the small city of Batavia in western New York, Howard Owens is promoting a different kind of civic engagement. Since 2008, his community news site, The Batavian, has been covering Batavia and rural Genesee County—first as part of the GateHouse Media chain, and then independently after Owens’ executive position with the company was eliminated in early 2009. Like Bass, Owens takes online comments seriously; unlike Bass, he requires commenters to use their real names.

Owens has done his share of in-depth coverage at The Batavian, competing with—and sometimes beating—the local daily paper. What keeps his readers engaged, though, is his close attention to more mundane matters: fire alarms, accidents, new park benches being installed, and the like.

“If the siren goes off, people want to know what’s going on,” he explains. “I’ll put something up even if it’s a false alarm. We go out and cover a lot of things that the newspaper tends to overlook as not being important or not worth their time.”

Owens is especially passionate about The Batavian’s relationship with local businesses. As a for-profit, the site depends on advertising, and one of Owens’ beliefs is that “advertising is content.” The Batavian is filled with small ads—nearly 150 of them—from pizza shops, funeral homes, doctor offices, heating companies, tattoo parlors, car dealerships, dog groomers, and the like. Owens does it for the money, of course. But he also is a strong believer in the importance of locally owned enterprises in building a self-sufficient community. As a matter of principle, he refuses to accept ads from Walmart and other national chains.

“We saw declining news readership as both a symptom and potentially a cause of declining civic engagement, thinking that newspapers have sort of lost their focus on their local communities,” says Owens. “We wanted to return that focus by concentrating solely on one community.”

Ordinary Citizens Working with Journalists

The New Haven Independent and The Batavian are proving that both nonprofit and for-profit models can viably foster independent hyperlocal news sites. Both of them, though, depend on professional journalists. In Haverhill, Tom Stites and local activists are hoping to find out whether volunteers can produce worthwhile journalism if they’re provided with a sense of ownership and put to work alongside professionals. The Banyan model calls for two full-time paid employees, an editor and a general manager. The rest of the coverage will come from volunteers, including neighborhood residents and students. It’s a tall order, given how labor-intensive local journalism can be.

Before it can happen, though, the Haverhill Matters planning committee needs to find out if residents will support the project. Committee members figure they need $50,000 in donations from so-called founding members, as well as continuing support in the form of $36 annual fees from at least 1,200 members. At a time when most news sites are free, it’s an ambitious undertaking. The Haverhill Matters launch has been postponed on several occasions. At the January planning meeting, Tom Stites said 2014 has to be the year that it finally gets off the ground.

“We enter 2014 with some momentum. We’ve got to keep it. We’ve got to build it. We’ve been picking away at this thing for a couple of years,” Stites said. “If we don’t do it this year, chances are it won’t get done.”

For those who believe in the importance of local journalism and civic engagement, the experiment unfolding in Haverhill will be important to watch.

Banyan Project targets 2014 for its Haverhill launch

This article was previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Having overcome a series of logistical obstacles, Haverhill Matters, the Banyan Project’s long-delayed demonstration site, appears to be on track to launch sometime in 2014. Banyan’s founder, veteran journalist Tom Stites, hopes the pilot will foster the rise of local news organizations that would be cooperatively owned and managed, similar to food co-ops and credit unions.

Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 11.15.37 AM“We enter 2014 with some momentum. We’ve got to keep it. We’ve got to build it. We’ve been picking away at this thing for a couple of years,” Stites said at an organizational meeting on Tuesday evening. “This is the kickoff, right now here tonight, of the pivotal year. If we don’t do it this year, chances are it won’t get done.”

For some years now, Stites, who’s worked as an editor at The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune among other places, has talked about fostering news co-ops in so-called news deserts: communities underserved by traditional media. (Here’s a story I wrote for the Nieman Lab about Banyan’s Haverhill plans in 2012, and here’s a followup I wrote last May.)

Haverhill, a city of about 60,000 in the Merrimack Valley north of Boston, is covered by a corporate daily and an affiliated weekly, both of which are headquartered in nearby North Andover. The city is also home to an online radio station currently seeking a low-power FM license and a robust community television operation, both of which will partner with Haverhill Matters.

Since last spring, a committee of local volunteers has been working to get Haverhill Matters off the ground. At Tuesday’s meeting, held on the Haverhill campus of Northern Essex Community College, Stites and seven committee members agreed on a rough timetable:

  • By next month, the Haverhill Matters website will go live with a message to the community in an attempt to generate interest and paying members.
  • By late March, committee members will have recruited 30 people to become founding members (at $250 a piece).
  • Those 30 founding members will, in turn, recruit another 170 founding members (for a total of 200) to provide Haverhill Matters with an initial budget of $50,000.
  • Once the money is in place, an organizer will be hired to get the site up and running.

Reaching the $50,000 threshold will trigger something else as well — the site’s first journalism project. Stites proposes asking the co-op’s members for ideas about a significant piece of enterprise reporting. Those ideas will be put up for a vote, and a freelance journalist will undertake the winning assignment, all the while soliciting the community for suggestions, documents, and the like.

The goal, Stites said, is to use the crowdsourced reporting project to generate more interest in the project. Anyone will be able to read Haverhill Matters for free. But in order to post comments and take part in the site’s online community, people will have to become members — either by paying $36 a year for an individual membership or, as with a food co-op, contributing labor. But rather than bagging groceries, a Haverhill Matters member might write a neighborhood blog.

Fully staffed, the site would have a full-time editor, a full-time general manager who would also be engaged in the journalistic side and a part-time office manager who could also offer technical support.

The process laid out Tuesday was a somewhat convoluted one, which brought some sharp observations from Amy Callahan, an English professor who runs the journalism/communications program at Northern Essex. Her basic question: Why not start a small, minimally funded news site as soon as possible and give it a chance to grow over time? Why wait until $50,000 is in the bank?

Callahan’s questions were good ones. But having watched the process unfold since last April, I’ve come to see that launching a co-op is not a simple matter. There are numerous rules and regulations that must be followed in order to make sure that it’s viable and run by the members. Starting a nonprofit or for-profit news site is simple by comparison.

I can also understand the need to hire and pay a full-time organizer. “I’d love to believe it could be done more incrementally,” said committee co-chair Mike LaBonte. But the site needs a paid organizer, he added, “because we’ve been doing this with the spare time we don’t have.”

If Haverhill Matters succeeds, Stites hopes it will lead to news co-ops around the country. The Banyan Project, a nonprofit, would sell these nascent co-ops software and advice, which Stites believes would make it easier for local organizers. Haverhill Matters would not be the first news co-op (that distinction belongs to a site in Hawaii), though its status as the pilot for a more ambitious project makes it notable.

There’s no question that innovative approaches to providing local news are needed. Newspapers continue to struggle. AOL wiped Patch off its books Wednesday, spinning it off and handing majority control to an outside investment firm. And though there are a number of independent local news sites, there’s a ceiling on how many are feasible: Few people possess the necessary combination of journalistic skills, technological acumen, and entrepreneurial ambition to run one successfully.

Banyan promises something different — community news produced by a community-owned news organization. That’s why it’s worth keeping an eye on Haverhill in 2014.

New Haven Independent seeks to build community radio station

6011084575_3a9019d5ea_nThis article was previously published by the Nieman Journalism Lab.

The New Haven Independent, which launched eight years ago amid the first wave of online-only community news sites, may soon expand into radio.

The nonprofit Independent is one of three groups asking the FCC for a low-power FM (LPFM) license in New Haven, Conn. If successful, editor and founder Paul Bass says that “New Haven Independent Radio” could make its debut at 103.5 FM in about a year.

“It would be a fun thing if we get it. I’m told it’s very hard,” Bass says. “We’re by no means talking as if we’re going to get this license. We thought it would be worth a shot.” He envisions a mix of news from the Independent and La Voz Hispana de Connecticut, the Independent’s content partner (and landlord), as well as music, public affairs, and shows produced by local nonprofit organizations. The station would be on the air at least 16 hours a day.

The three New Haven applications are part of the FCC’s great LPFM land rush. Legislation signed by President Obama in 2011 eased restrictions on low-power stations, and the FCC is expected to approve about 1,000 applications sometime in 2014. More than 2,800 applications were received by the deadlinelast month, according to the website Radio World. (Thanks to Aaron Read of Rhode Island Public Radio for tipping me off about the Independent’s application.)

According to the Prometheus Radio Project, a longtime advocate of expanded community radio, “the over 800 low-power stations currently on the air are run by nonprofits, colleges, churches and emergency responders.” For years, the radio industry and (believe it or not) NPR fought the expansion of LPFM, arguing that new stations would interfere with established broadcast frequencies — a concern that advocates say is unwarranted.

Like all LPFM stations, New Haven Independent Radio’s broadcast footprint wouldn’t extend much beyond the city limits, although it would stream online as well — which could be significant, Bass says, given predictions that most cars will have streaming Internet radio within a few years.

Inspired by Haverhill

Bass says he got the idea from WHAV Radio in Haverhill, Mass., a nonprofit online community station (it also has a weak AM signal) whose volunteer general manager, Tim Coco, is seeking to expand with an LPFM license of his own. (I wrote about Coco’s radio ambitions last summer.) Coco, who runs an advertising agency and is a local politico of some note, is also among a group of residents working to launch a cooperatively owned community news site to be called Haverhill Matters, under the auspices of the Banyan Project.

“I’m happy I provided some inspiration,” Coco told me by email. “I believe the more local voices, the better for the community.”

Although Bass, if he is successful, may be the first hyperlocal news-site operator to start an independent radio station, the connection between the two media is a natural one. For instance, Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit site that covers Genesee County in western New York, has partnered since 2009 with WBTA, an AM station with a strong community presence. An even more ambitious project is under way in the heart of the country, as the St. Louis Beacon news site is merging with St. Louis Public Radio.

Donna Halper, a longtime radio consultant and historian who is an associate professor of communication at Lesley University, says a multiplatform presence of the sort Bass envisions is crucial at a time when the audience has become fragmented.

“These days, it’s a multimedia world, and even a low-power FM station can get people talking” about your work, she says. “In this kind of environment, the more platforms you are on, the more you have top-of-the-mind awareness.”

On the other hand, industry observer Scott Fybush, who writes about radio for his own eponymous website, warns that Bass may not quite realize what he is getting into.

“Twenty-four hours a day of radio is an unforgiving taskmaster,” Fybush said in an email. “There are lots of applicants in this LPFM window who have what appear to be noble ideas, but keeping a station going with engaging programming day in and day out isn’t easy to do.”

Three-way contest

But that’s getting ahead of things, because first Bass has to win the three-way contest for the New Haven license. And that is by no means assured. (Bass’s application was filed by the Online Journalism Project, the nonprofit entity that acts as the Independent’s publisher of record.)

According to documents on file with the FCC, the other two applicants are a Spanish-language organization and a Christian broadcaster called Alma Radio. Even though LPFM is intended to encourage localism, Alma proposes to broadcast nationally syndicated religious programs, including “Focus on the Family,” hosted by the controversial evangelical leader James Dobson. Alma Radio’s oversight board, according to a “Purposes and Objectives” document it included with its application, is “composed of members who believe and have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Although Bass says his ideas for the station are still evolving, he included a detailed proposal with his FCC application, with such diverse offerings as a morning news program; a daily “La Voz Latino Community Hour”; a collaboration with The Inner-City News, a local African-American publication; community theater; and a two-hour evening program to be called “Joe Ugly Presents Local Hip Hop.” (Joe Ugly is the nom de rap of a New Haven music impresario who runs an Internet radio station called Ugly Radio.)

One of the New Haven Independent’s funders has already put up $3,000, which paid for legal and engineering services. If Bass wins the license, he estimates it would cost $30,000 to build the station and $60,000 to $70,000 to pay a full-time employee to run it — a substantial amount over the approximately $500,000 a year the Independent now receives in donations, foundation grants, and corporate sponsorships.

The opportunity is clear enough. Done right, it would enable Bass to bring New Haven Independent journalism, with its hyperlocal emphasis on neighborhoods, schools, and city politics, to a new audience — and to entice that audience, in turn, into sampling the Independent.

The danger, of course, is that the radio project would drain resources and attention away from the Independent itself, diluting its mission with a gamble on a new platform that may or may not succeed. Bass’s answer to that challenge is simple and direct: “We have to make sure it doesn’t.”

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

Assessing Haverhill’s media (III): Public access

Darlene Beal, executive director of Haverhill Community Television

Darlene Beal, executive director of Haverhill Community Television

Later this year the Banyan Project is scheduled to roll out its first cooperatively owned news site in the city of Haverhill, to be called Haverhill Matters. Banyan founder Tom Stites’ vision is to serve what he calls “news deserts” — low- and moderate-income communities, mainly urban, that are underserved by traditional media. What follows is the third of several blog posts in which I will attempt to assess the media landscape in Haverhill as it exists today.

“Eyes Wide Open” may be a travelogue, but it’s not the sort of spritely fare you’re likely to see on the Travel Channel. There are no sun-dappled beaches or cocktail-fueled soirées. Rather, it’s a film with a civic purpose — to get Haverhill residents to take a close look at their downtown and the waterfront along the Merrimack River.

“As we look at each one of these slides, we want you to think about three very simple concepts,” says Haverhill architect Celeste Hynick at the beginning of the film. “What are the positive features? What needs to be improved? And what opportunities exist?” For the next 20 minutes, she and designer Mike Valvo consider the good, the bad and the ugly as picture after picture scrolls by.

The film recapitulates a presentation made last year to a city planning committee appointed by Mayor James Fiorentini. And it is the type of program that helps define Haverhill Community Television (HCTV), which cablecast the film earlier this summer and now hosts it on its YouTube channel.

“Our mission is to empower the community to make television programs,” said HCTV executive director Darlene Beal when I interviewed her last week. “To tell their story to the community. In that sense, we feel like we mirror the community.”

Beal and I met in a conference room at her station’s headquarters, a large converted auto-repair shop in a residential neighborhood just north of the downtown. A 51-year-old Haverhill native and Boston University graduate, Beal has worked as HCTV’s executive director for most of her career. The operation is currently marking its 25th year as an independent nonprofit organization following several years as an appendage of the local cable company.

Haverhill, of course, is not unusual in having a community television station. Virtually every city or town has one, funded by law with a share of the license fees paid by the local cable franchise-holder. Here, for instance, is a list of such operations in Massachusetts.

Why bigger is better

But because franchise-holders generally pay fees on a per-household basis, larger cities and towns tend to have superior community stations. Boston, Cambridge and Somerville, for instance, all offer quite a bit in terms of both quality and quantity. Likewise Haverhill, with a population of about 60,000, including 24,000 households that subscribe to cable, is able to do more than many smaller communities.

HCTV has an annual budget of $750,000 to $800,000, Beal told me, and employs seven people, four of them full-time. There are about 600 members, she said, with about 20 percent to 25 percent involved in some aspect of production. Its Facebook page has attracted 468 “likes” as of this writing.

HCTV operates three channels — an educational channel, with a studio at Haverhill High School; a governmental channel, with equipment at City Hall to carry city council meetings and the like; and a public access channel, with two studios and a classroom based at HCTV’s headquarters. The educational and public access channels are live-streamed on HCTV’s website, which also archives many but not all past programs.

Beal has no way of knowing how many people watch HCTV on television. But according to Google Analytics data Beal shared with me, the website received 127 visits during the last week of July, with 104 coming from Massachusetts — presumably most from Haverhill. The public access channel carries programming from about 6 to 10 p.m. each weekday, and is repeated so that it’s on for 16 to 20 hours a day. Weekends are devoted to programming provided by local religious institutions.

As is the case with public access operations in general, HCTV does not produce its own programming. Rather, it helps volunteers by offering training and loaning them equipment, then cablecasting the finished product. Public access programs in Haverhill include politically oriented talk shows; “Keeping the Peace,” produced by the Haverhill Community Violence Prevention Coalition; “I Get Around,” which highlights community events and organizations; “Law to Talk About,” a legal show; health, and the arts. During election season, the channel runs lengthy sit-down interviews with local candidates.

What you won’t see on HCTV is a newscast. That’s fairly typical. Although Boston viewers can watch “Neighborhood Network News” every evening, most public access systems, oriented as they are toward DIY media, simply don’t have the capacity for such an undertaking. (In 2007 I wrote about “Neighborhood Network News” for CommonWealth Magazine.)

Beal said she would like to see HCTV offer a newscast, but added that past efforts have been spotty because of the limited time volunteers have and their lack of training in newsgathering. If she were to head down that road again, she said she’d need money to hire someone to offer instruction in the basics of journalism.

Beal added that, in her view, the Haverhill edition of the local daily newspaper, The Eagle-Tribune, and The Haverhill Gazette, a weekly, fail to cover the city in the depth that it deserves, creating a “void.” (I wrote about the two papers in the first part of this series. The papers are owned by a chain, CNHI, based in Montgomery, Ala. Al White, the editor of The Eagle-Tribune and the Gazette, recently declined my request for an interview.)

“I do think they’re missing out on a lot, for whatever reason,” Beal said. “Maybe they don’t have the capacity because of the cutbacks. I don’t want to criticize the local papers, but there’s more news out there than they’re able to get into the paper.”

HCTV and Haverhill Matters

Like Tim Coco, the founder of the city’s online-mostly radio station, WHAV, whom I profiled in the second part of this series, Beal is a member of the planning committee for Haverhill Matters, a cooperatively owned news site that is scheduled to be launched by the end of 2013 under the auspices of the Banyan Project.

Haverhill Matters, envisioned as an online news organization combining paid and volunteer journalism, would be an additional outlet for the video journalism produced by HCTV members, Beal said — and is ideal for, say, a four- to six-minute story that doesn’t fit into any of the station’s regular programming, which tends to run in half-hour increments.

Beal would like to see the HCTV and Haverhill Matters websites tied together in some way. She also sees Haverhill Matters as an additional outlet for news about HCTV, such as awards it has won from the Alliance for Community Media for public service announcements about violence prevention.

Her overarching theme, though, was what might be described as the need for more well-rounded coverage of the community — something beyond the breaking-news coverage of police activity and fires that she sees as being typical of what the local papers offer.

“I would like to see Haverhill Matters covering more of the schools,” she said. “The ins and outs of the community. The vibrancy of the community. It’s not so much what I want to see covered — it’s probably the tone of which I’d like to see it covered.”

We also talked about the length of time it’s taken for Haverhill Matters to get off the ground. When I first started writing about the project, it was scheduled to launch in 2012, but that date got delayed for a variety of reasons. Recently Mike LaBonte, co-chair of the planning committee, told me by email that he was reasonably confident that the launch would take place before the end of 2013 — but maybe not much before. For Beal, that moment can’t come too soon.

“For Haverhill Matters to succeed,” Beal said, “I think we’re at the point that we have to splash into the community. We have to get people talking about what they’re missing, or else they don’t know what they’re missing. It’s time to either do it or don’t do it.”

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy.

Assessing Haverhill’s media (II): Radio

Tim Coco at the John Greenleaf Whittier Birthplace

Tim Coco at the John Greenleaf Whittier Birthplace

Later this year the Banyan Project is scheduled to roll out its first cooperatively owned news site in the city of Haverhill, to be called Haverhill Matters. Banyan founder Tom Stites’ vision is to serve what he calls “news deserts” — low- and moderate-income communities, mainly urban, that are underserved by traditional media. What follows is the second of several blog posts in which I will attempt to assess the media landscape in Haverhill as it exists today.

Brian is on the line, and he’s got an idea. City officials in Haverhill have announced that they plan to reopen a former rest stop along Route 110, closed 15 years ago when it became overrun with drug dealing and illicit sex. Brian’s suggestion: a webcam.

Tim Coco, host of “The Open Mike Show” on WHAV Radio (as well as the station’s founder and chief executive), wonders out loud what Mayor James Fiorentini would make of Brian’s idea. He cracks a joke about the National Security Agency watching the webcam.

“That doesn’t offend your sense of security then?” Coco asks.

“No, I wouldn’t even think about it,” Brian responds.

And so it goes for two hours, as Coco talks about Haverhill news, history and trivia with a handful of callers.

Since 2004, Coco has been running WHAV out of his advertising agency, Coco & Co., located in an office park off Route 495 in the Ward Hill section of Haverhill. The station is mostly online (at www.whav.net) and mostly automated.

But Coco’s got big ideas. By mid-2014, he hopes to have obtained a lower-power FM license from the FCC so that he can reach all of Haverhill — something that is only barely possible now with the station’s weak AM signal, at 1640. He also hopes to pump up the station’s live, local public-affairs programming, replacing all or most of the oldies music that now fills most of the day.

“The Merrimack Valley requires an independent voice,” Coco wrote in a fundraising pitch titled “WHAV’s Democracy, Independence & Sustainability Project.” “With support, the reborn and not-for-profit WHAV is not only well-positioned to become that institution, but serve as a model for other community media efforts.”

I spent the better part of a day with Coco last week. A 52-year-old Haverhill native, he is a former journalist, having worked at the original WHAV (founded in 1947 and affiliated with The Haverhill Gazette, then an independent daily newspaper) and, later, at The Daily News of Newburyport and as the editor of an environmental trade magazine based in Manchester, N.H.

Although the current version of WHAV is only nine years old, Coco clearly sees the station as an extension of the original, which, like so many stations, fell victim to corporate buyouts. The small studio from which he broadcasts “Open Mike” every Monday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. has been rather grandly dubbed the Edwin V. Johnson Newsroom, after a beloved WHAV news director and Haverhill High School teacher. Among the past employees of WHAV are retired WBZ news anchor Gary LaPierre and Tom Bergeron, the host of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

“I read the news, Tom Bergeron read the jokes and look where he is today,” said Coco with a laugh. “That is the lot of news people, isn’t it?”

Coco is a well-known public figure in Haverhill. He is a member of the Haverhill Licence Commission, serves on various civic boards and in 2012 was a candidate for the Massachusetts Senate. (He stepped away from “Open Mike” during the campaign.) Although he lost the Democratic primary to the eventual winner, Kathleen O’Connor Ives, he is quick to point out that he won Haverhill. Coco and his husband, Genesio “Junior” Oliveira, have fought a high-profile battle to prevent Oliveira from being deported to his native Brazil — a battle that Coco hopes is over now that the Defense of Marriage Act has been ruled unconstitutional.

At one time, many communities had their own independent radio station. But cultural and regulatory changes — the Telecommunications Act of 1996 being an especially harmful example of the latter — led to the consolidation of the radio business and the rise of chain ownership. Coco is passionate about these changes, and in June hosted a fundraising event for the station with a showing of “Corporate FM: The Killing of Local Commercial Radio.” (I took part in a panel discussion that followed the screening.)

Reviving old-time radio

What Coco is attempting with WHAV is the revival of the old-fashioned local radio station. Right now, he admits, he does it essentially with smoke and mirrors. “I’m embarrassed to say, actually, that we’re doing it the way corporate radio does it, which is a lot of automation,” he said. “Believe me, it’s less than ideal, and I want to get to a point where we’re staffed at least 18 hours a day.”

Nevertheless, there is some local programming, such as “Open Mike,” as well as syndicated programming from left-leaning services such as Pacifica and Free Speech Radio News that are not often heard on the airwaves. Thom Hartmann, a syndicated liberal talk-show host, is on from 3 to 6 p.m. every weekday. Old-time radio dramas, including “Our Miss Brooks” and “Gunsmoke,” are heard at 10 p.m.

A jaunty jingle (“Catch the Wave!”) is interjected at regular intervals. Among the funders: Northern Essex Community College, of which Coco is an alumnus (he is a graduate of Lesley University), and the Merrimack Valley Economic Development Council (Coco is a board member).

Most important, there is local news, some of it reported by Coco. He also has a part-time public affairs manager, Nathan Webster, as well as two summer interns. Local weather is provided by Hometown Forecast Services in Nashua, N.H., which Coco says is more Merrimack Valley-specific than what the Boston stations are able to offer. “Community Spotlight” consists of brief announcements about local events and community organizations.

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 10.05.50 AMWHAV’s microscopic news operation can’t compete with what’s offered by the daily Eagle-Tribune and its affiliated weekly, The Haverhill Gazette. But Coco said his station sometimes breaks stories, and as example he cited one that he reported himself — a downtown development proposal being led by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. (Here is The Eagle-Tribune’s story on the proposal.)

“They do feel us a little bit now,” Coco said. “We have been beating them on stories, and they’re starting to pay attention.” (As I wrote last week, Eagle-Tribune editor Al White declined my  request for an interview.)

How many people does WHAV reach? It’s a difficult question to answer. One month last fall, Coco said, some 62,000 unique users tuned in to the Internet station, though he added that drops off considerably during the summer. He said he has no way of knowing how many listeners tune in to the AM signal, or to the simulcast that runs during parts of the day on local-access cable stations in Haverhill, Andover, Methuen and the New Hampshire communities of Plaistow and Sandown. (The station was thrown off the Groveland cable system in 2007. Coco claims the action was taken because the then-host of “Open Mike” was criticizing local politicians.)

But there’s no question the station’s listenership should increase if Coco succeeds in obtaining a low-power FM (LPFM) license from the FCC. Coco will apply this October, and could receive approval within about nine months if there are no competing applications or other complications. The proposal — for a 23-watt signal — “should well cover Haverhill,” Coco said. The broadcast frequency is likely to be 98.1 FM.

The LPFM program was created in 2000 to offset the decline of local commercial radio. LPFM licenses are available only to nonprofit organizations, and in 2011 Coco formed Public Media of New England as a 501(c)(3) entity to act as WHAV’s umbrella operation.

The Banyan connection

As WHAV expands, it’s going to need more programming in general and more local programming in particular. Coco is a member of the organizing committee for Haverhill Matters, the cooperatively owned news site that the Banyan Project is scheduled to launch before the end of 2013.

Coco expects to broadcast repurposed content from Haverhill Matters on WHAV, and added that he can also play a role in providing some of the “institutional memory” for Haverhill Matters that may be lacking with “newbie reporters.” Although Haverhill Matters will hire a full-time professional editor, Banyan Project founder Tom Stites and the organizing committee also talk about using interns from Northern Essex Community College, neighborhood bloggers and the like.

Haverhill Matters and an expanded WHAV both represent ambitious visions for local, independent media organizations, and it will take a certain amount of blind faith — my phrase, not Coco’s — for those visions to become a reality.

For instance, when I asked Coco about his plan to increase spending at WHAV from $38,000 in 2013 to $93,000 in 2015, he replied matter-of-factly, “It is a projection, but it has to.” And he expessed skepticism about Stites’ plan to raise $54,000 for Haverhill Matters by persuading 1,500 people to pay $36 each.

“It isn’t feasible, and this isn’t feasible,” Coco said, referring to Haverhill Matters and to his own efforts at WHAV. “And I do have some long-term worries in both cases.”

Later in the day, Coco played tour guide, driving me around Haverhill, from a downtown damaged by an urban renewal project that never quite came to pass to more rural sections such as Winnekenni Castle and the John Greenleaf Whittier Birthplace, for which Coco serves as president of the board of trustees.

“I feel like George Bailey from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” Coco said “I really didn’t get to leave Bedford Falls. Whether we remain Bedford Falls or become Pottersville remains to be seen.”

Coco believes that strong, independent local media are a key to keeping his Bedford Falls vision of Haverhill intact. The next few years will be crucial to determining whether he and the folks at Haverhill Matters can succeed.

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy.

Assessing Haverhill’s media (I): Newspapers

Haverhill Gazette building in 1919

Haverhill Gazette building in 1919

Later this year the Banyan Project is scheduled to roll out its first cooperatively owned news site in the city of Haverhill, to be called Haverhill Matters. Banyan founder Tom Stites’ vision is to serve what he calls “news deserts” — low- and moderate-income communities, mainly urban, that are underserved by traditional media. What follows is the first of several blog posts in which I will attempt to assess the media landscape in Haverhill as it exists today.

Haverhill, a city of about 60,000 residents, is served by a daily newspaper, The Eagle-Tribune, and a weekly, The Haverhill Gazette. Since 2005 both papers have been owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (CNHI), a national chain of more than 130 newspapers and other publications based in Montgomery, Ala. CNHI’s major financial benefactor, oddly enough, is the Retirement Systems of Alabama, which launched the company with a $1.1 billion loan. In 1999, Mary Walton profiled CNHI in the American Journalism Review.

The Eagle-Tribune, whose headquarters are in North Andover but which is historically associated with Lawrence, publishes seven days a week, including a separate Haverhill edition every day except Monday and Saturday. The Gazette, founded in 1821, was an independent daily for much of its history. A newspaper strike in 1957 led to a debilitating battle with the notoriously right-wing publisher William Loeb, who launched a rival daily, the Haverhill Journal. As described in a recent essay by Tim Coco, president and general manager of the nonprofit radio station WHAV, by the mid-’60s the Journal had ceased to publish and the Gazette was left in a diminished state. The Eagle-Tribune acquired the Gazette in 1998 and converted it to a weekly.

According to the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), The Eagle-Tribune’s average paid circulation for the six-month period ending March 31 of this year was 33,296 on Sundays and 32,101 on weekdays. As with many papers, circulation has been dropping in recent years; for the same six-month period ending on March 31, 2010, circulation was 40,800 on Sundays and 39,947 on weekdays. It is worth noting that all or most of The Eagle-Tribune’s content is available for free at its website, www.eagletribune.com.

No paid circulation figures are available from the AAM for either the Haverhill edition of The Eagle-Tribune or for The Haverhill Gazette. Currently, though the Eagle-Tribune Publishing Co. is telling prospective advertisers that the Gazette has a circulation of 3,900 (pdf) — down from 6,350 in 2007 (pdf). Eagle-Tribune editor Al White declined my request for an interview. But according to a knowledgeable source, The Eagle-Tribune’s circulation in Haverhill is somewhere around 5,000, perhaps a bit less.

Despite its relatively modest size, The Eagle-Tribune has a distinguished history, having won Pulitzer Prizes in 1988 and 2003. Both of those awards predated CNHI’s 2005 acquisition of the paper and its affiliated newspapers, which include three other dailies — The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times. In recent years, those papers — like many newspapers nationally — have undergone several rounds of layoffs and budget cuts. Since 2009, editorial staff members have been required to take unpaid furloughs for one week each quarter, according to several sources inside the company.

In Haverhill, CNHI’s cuts hit home in March 2012 when the downtown office was closed. “It has always been my goal to put as many people under as few roofs as possible while maintaining the quality of our newspapers,” then-publisher Al Getler wrote in a message to readers, adding: “With today’s technology, our reporters no longer need to sit behind a desk in an office to get their job accomplished.”

The loss of a downtown presence, though, meant that residents could not drop by with news items or story tips. Some newspaper owners hold a different view regarding the desirability of a downtown presence. For instance, the New Haven Register, which no longer needs its office-park location after outsourcing its printing to the Hartford Courant in 2012, is looking to relocate to a downtown office so that it would be more accessible to the public, according to an article by Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent.

1823_Haverhill_Gazette,_and_Essex_Patriot_Feb15With very few exceptions, virtually all Haverhill articles in both The Eagle-Tribune and the Gazette are produced by two staff reporters, itself a diminution from years past. An editor at The Eagle-Tribune spends most of his time overseeing Haverhill coverage.

In most communities served by a daily and a weekly, the papers compete for stories. But in Haverhill, common ownership has led to a different approach — mostly hard news in The Eagle-Tribune and soft features in the Gazette. Thus Haverhill readers must buy both papers if they wish to be fully informed.

In my experience, content analyses are of limited value since qualities such as accuracy, context and thoroughness are difficult to assess without deep knowledge of a community. Nevertheless, I examined the two papers’ Haverhill coverage for April of this year. What follows are a few observations about each.

The Eagle-Tribune

Daily coverage focused heavily on governmental sources of news. I counted 55 bylined stories that were entirely about or mostly about Haverhill. Of these, 20 emanated from city hall; 10 involved public safety or the courts; and six involved the school committee or other school authorities. Enterprise stories — that is, stories generated solely by journalists and not tied to any particular event — were virtually non-existent.

April, of course, was the month when the Boston Marathon bombings took place. The Haverhill edition ran several related articles, including one on a vigil and another on six Haverhill police officers who assisted with operations in Watertown, where bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was ultimately taken into custody.

Routine police news and press releases are published inside the Haverhill edition. “Haverhill in a Minute,” a round-up of such items, lets people know what’s going on in the community, with announcements from organizations such as Northern Essex Community College, churches and various civic organizations.

Also during April there were three unsigned editorials that touched on Haverhill topics and several letters to the editor from Haverhill residents.

The Haverhill Gazette

The Gazette each week comprises 14 pages that are geared toward light features and photo essays. Characteristic features during April included a story on how reduced fees were leading more Haverhill High School students to play sports; the rise of outdoor dining at downtown restaurants, attributed to an initiative by Mayor James Fiorentini; and a volunteer effort to repair 15 homes owned by low-income or disabled residents.

Every week the front page includes an anonymously written column called The Lamp Post, a breezy compilation of observations, shoutouts and mild gossip. An example: “Drivers waiting at red lights at the intersection of Ginty and Bailey boulevards are getting frustrated, and who can blame them?” Another example: “Sacred Hearts School had a celebration to kick off the Red Sox home opener on Monday. The school’s kindergarten classes had a special lunch and activities, including a parade.”

The Gazette also includes a much longer, more complete version of the police log, parts of which also appear in the daily Haverhill edition; editorials; historical photos; a column by a retired local journalist; listings from the local council on aging and Haverhill Community Television; and large photo essays on youth sports and other activities.

***

In terms of quantity, types of stories covered and general approach, the two papers offer local journalism that — based on my experience as a longtime observer of local journalism — is no better and no worse than what is available in many communities.

What comes across is a certain comprehensiveness to the coverage, especially involving city government, but a lack of voices from the community and from the city’s neighborhoods. The bifurcated nature of the coverage is a problem, as it essentially requires residents to read both papers. The Gazette, by highlighting positive news in the community, fulfills some of the civic engagement functions of journalism better than The Eagle-Tribune. But that advantage is undermined by the absence of hard news.

Because Haverhill Matters is likely to take a different, more hyperlocal approach to coverage than either The Eagle-Tribune or the Gazette, there’s an opportunity for cooperation. For instance, it would not be hard to imagine the two papers’ repurposing some of Haverhill Matters’ neighborhood news on their websites.

For the moment, though, there do not appear to be any plans to form such a relationship. Eagle-Tribune editor White, as I mentioned earlier, declined to be interviewed. But Mike LaBonte, co-chair of the organizing committee for Haverhill Matters, told me in an email that the fledgling site’s expected reliance on paid advertising might preclude a partnership.

“Even though we plan to focus on the news areas they don’t cover well, collaboration may be tough since we are competing for the same ad dollars,” LaBonte said. “Personally I think it will just have to wait until we see what our strengths and weakness are a year or two from now.”

Images via Wikipedia.