Tag Archives: Batavian

The good, the bad and the ugly of the new news ecosystem

Is this a new golden age of journalism? It all depends on who’s getting the gold.

For consumers of news, these are the best of times. Thanks to the Internet, we are awash in quality journalism, from longstanding bastions of excellence such as The New York Times and The Guardian to start-ups that are rising above their disreputable roots such as BuzzFeed and Vice News.

For producers of news, though, the challenge is to find new ways of paying for journalism at a time when advertising appears to be in terminal decline.

The optimistic and pessimistic views got an airing recently in a pair of point/counterpoint posts. Writing in Wired, Frank Rose gave the new smartphone-driven media ecosystem a thumbs up, arguing that mobile — rather than leading to shorter attention spans — has actually helped foster long-form journalism and more minutes spent reading in-depth articles. Rose continued:

Little wonder that for every fledgling enterprise like Circa, which generates slick digests of other people’s journalism on the theory that that’s what mobile readers want, you have formerly short-attention-span sites like BuzzFeed and Politico retooling themselves to offer serious, in-depth reporting.

That Rose-colored assessment brought a withering retort from Andrew Leonard of Salon, who complained that Rose never even mentioned the difficulties of paying for all that wonderful journalism.

“The strangest thing about Rose’s piece is that there isn’t a single sentence that discusses the economics of the journalism business,” Leonard wrote, adding: “If you are lucky, you might be able to command a freelance pay rate that hasn’t budged in 30 years. But more people than ever work for nothing.”

To support his argument, Leonard linked to a recent essay on the self-publishing platform Medium by Clay Shirky, a New York University professor who writes about Internet culture. Shirky, author of the influential 2009 blog post “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” as well as books such as “Here Comes Everybody” and “Cognitive Surplus,” predicted that advertising in print newspapers is about to enter its final death spiral. That’s because Sunday inserts are about to follow classified ads and many types of display ads into the digital-only world, where retailers will be able to reach their customers in a cheaper, more targeted way. Here’s how Shirky put it:

It’s tempting to try to find a moral dimension to newspapers’ collapse, but there isn’t one. All that’s happened is advertisers are leaving, classifieds first, inserts last. Business is business; the advertisers never had a stake in keeping the newsroom open in the first place.

There’s no question that print will eventually go away, though it may survive for a few more years as a high-priced specialty product for people who are willing to pay for it. The dilemma of how to pay for journalism, though, is not going away.

Free online news supported solely by advertising has not proven to be a reliable business model, although there are exceptions, including a few well-managed hyperlocals, like The Batavian in western New York, and sites that draw enormous audiences while employing very few people, like The Huffington Post.

Digital paywalls that require users to pay up after reading a certain number of articles have helped bolster the bottom lines of many newspapers, including The Boston Globe. But very few have been able to generate a significant amount of revenue from paywalls, with The New York Times being a notable exception.

It may turn out that the most reliable path for journalism in the digital age is the nonprofit model, with foundations, wealthy individuals and small donors picking up the tab. It’s a model that has worked well for public television and radio, and that is currently supporting online news organizations both large (ProPublica) and small (the New Haven Independent). But nonprofits are hardly a panacea. The pool of nonprofit money available for journalism is finite, and in any case the IRS has made it difficult for news organizations to take advantage of nonprofit status, as I wrote for The Huffington Post in 2013.

Journalism has never been free. Someone has always paid for it, whether it was department stores taking out ads in the Sunday paper or employers buying up pages and pages of help-wanted ads in the classifieds. Today, the most pressing question for journalists isn’t whether we are living in another golden age. Rather it’s something much blunter: Who will pay?

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.

Local journalism and the perils of retail chains

IMG_1095One of the arguments I make in “The Wired City” is that the viability of local journalism depends on the vibrancy of the local communities it serves. Among the projects I look at is The Batavian, a for-profit online-only news site that serves Genesee County in western New York, about halfway between Buffalo and Rochester.

The Batavian is a free site, though publisher Howard Owens is experimenting with a membership model to provide extra benefits to readers who choose to pay. But what really makes The Batavian work, and has allowed it to prosper despite co-existing with a local daily newspaper, is the persistence of locally owned businesses. The site is packed with ads from car dealers, florists, pizza shops, hair salons, doctors’ offices, funeral homes and much more.

So I was intrigued when Owens posted a story on Friday reporting that a Dick’s Sporting Goods may be moving in to a former Lowe’s location — and that more than $1 million in tax incentives may be used to make it happen. Dick’s, of course, is a large corporate-owned chain, and it would compete directly with locally owned sporting-goods dealers.

One of those local business people, Mike Barrett of Batavia Marine, compared such tax incentives to “using your own tax money to put yourself out of business.”

There are, of course, other considerations. WBTA Radio, which has a content-sharing arrangement with The Batavian, reports that Dick’s would bring 120 much-needed jobs to the area. The Batavian’s competition, the Daily News (which, citing an anonymous source, reports that it’s a done deal), quotes a local official named Gregory Post as saying, “Anytime we can convert empty space and bring in a retailer of that magnitude is good. This will be fantastic for our town.”

In the long run, though, the spread of corporate chains and big-box stores leads to the demise of locally owned businesses. That’s bad for communities and for the news organizations that serve them. Owens, a dedicated localist, gets it.

Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy. Some rights reserved.

In Chicago, too much hyperlocal competition?

A couple of friends today sent me a link to Mike Fourcher’s ruminations on what he learned running the Center Square Journal, a hyperlocal news site in Chicago that he started three years ago. He offers 21 lessons, and they’re not without value. But what stands out from my reading of them is that he simply faced too much competition for advertisers and readers. And that, in turn, was a consequence of his making an unfortunate choice of location.

Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 4.07.11 PMThe sites I profile in “The Wired City” — mainly the New Haven Independent, but also The Batavian, CT News Junkie, the Connecticut Mirror, Voice of San Diego and Baristanet — have very different business models, but they all have one thing in common: a niche that was being woefully underserved before they came along to serve it.

New Haven illustrates my point. Paul Bass launched the Independent in 2005 to provide city and neighborhood news that was largely being ignored by everyone else — including the region’s daily paper, the New Haven Register, which tended to focus on the suburbs around New Haven. Eight years later, the Independent and the Register still serve different audiences. They compete for certain types of city news, but mainly they stay out of each other’s way. And because the Independent is a nonprofit, they’re not competing for scarce advertising dollars.

The Batavian is very different from the Independent, but it has similar advantages. The for-profit site was launched in Batavia, N.Y., by the GateHouse chain in 2008 as a pilot project. In 2009 it was acquired by Howard Owens after he was let go as GateHouse’s director of digital media.

The Batavian was up against two established news organizations: The Daily News and WBTA Radio. Owens formed a partnership with the radio station and competed fiercely with The Daily, as the locals call it. Unlike Fourcher’s experience in Chicago, though, there really wasn’t anyone else.

Like Paul Bass in New Haven, Owens carved out a niche by going more local than his competition — one county for The Batavian versus three for The Daily. It turned out that the business community was vibrant enough to support a daily newspaper, a radio station and a community website. But if there were, say, a half-dozen websites all trying to turn a profit, it’s not likely any of them would be able to make money.

Fourcher, a refugee from the robo-news operation Journatic, is now trying something interesting. He’s called a community meeting for Jan. 31 to see if his readers like the Center Square Journal enough to help him continue it in some form, or possibly to take it over in its entirety.

What’s evident from his 21 lessons, though, is that he fell short of making the Journal a vital part of his readers’ lives — possibly because there were already too many other voices competing for people’s time, attention and dollars.

Rick Daniels to step down as head of GateHouse Media NE

Rick Daniels

Rick Daniels

Rick Daniels will step down as president of GateHouse Media New England at the end of the year. GateHouse publishes about 100 community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts — mostly weeklies, but also a few medium-size dailies, including the MetroWest Daily News of Framingham, the Patriot Ledger of Quincy and the Enterprise of Brockton. The company also runs about 150 Wicked Local websites.

In my rather minimal dealings with him, Daniels, a former Boston Globe executive, struck me as amiable and wanting to do right by local journalism. The same is true of Kirk Davis, president and CEO COO of all GateHouse properties, who will take over Daniels’ responsibilities on an interim basis.

But for years now, GateHouse — which runs more than 400 publications and websites from its national headquarters in suburban Rochester, N.Y. — has been staggering under the burden of $1.2 billion in debt. In August 2011, the Rochester Business Journal reported that GateHouse was “the most highly leveraged of any publicly traded newspaper company,” with debt nearly 14 times cash flow.

And just a few months ago, Jack Sullivan of CommonWealth Magazine wrote that GateHouse itself had raised the possibility of bankruptcy in its annual report.

Thus in recent years we’ve seen a number of high-profile executives lopped off the payroll, including digital-publishing chief Howard Owens, now the publisher and editor of The Batavian, a widely admired local news site that he actually started for GateHouse, and Greg Reibman, former publisher of GateHouse’s Greater Boston papers, now president of the Newton Needham Chamber of Commerce. Also leaving was Kat Powers, managing editor of GateHouse Media New England, now director of communications for the American Red Cross of Eastern Massachusetts.*

Daniels is supposedly leaving GateHouse to pursue unspecified “investment and advisory roles for media companies.” At least no one is claiming that he wants to spend more time with his family.

“There’s a lot of pretty interesting deals that are out there and I’ve been approached by some folks who would like to do some of those deals,” Daniels told the Patriot Ledger. “They seem to have some interest in having operators with some experience.”

My guess is that if Daniels is quickly replaced, then his leave-taking was voluntary. And if Davis is still interim president six months from now, then Daniels’ departure should be seen as a cost-cutting move.

Five years ago I wrote about GateHouse’s debt woes for CommonWealth and talked pretty extensively with Davis. It’s been a long time, but the issues haven’t changed all that much.

Here is Davis’ email to the troops, a copy of which was forwarded to Media Nation by a trusted source earlier this afternoon:

I’m writing to explain some important news that is “public” today.

Rick Daniels, who has presided over our Massachusetts operations for the past 5 1/2 years, will be leaving his post at the end of the year. Rick plans to pursue investment and advisory roles to a variety of media companies.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Rick throughout his career at GateHouse Media. He’s proven himself to be a very capable and accomplished executive, one who has led an accelerated transformation of our newspapers and web sites through very difficult economic times. Rick departs with our deepest gratitude and admiration and has graciously agreed to continue to provide any assistance I may need in order to ensure a seamless transition.

I will assume responsibility for our Massachusetts group on an interim basis. I’ve been affiliated with our operations in Massachusetts for many years and have always appreciated the support I’ve received from employees. I’ll enjoy reconnecting with staff.

In light of Rick’s departure, I will appoint a few key executives to assist me and our strong management team in Massachusetts through this transitional period. Look for that announcement before January 1.

Again, it has been a pleasure working with Rick. We are extremely grateful for his leadership the past 5 1/2 years and wish him much continued success.

Thanks,
Kirk

*Correction: Kat Powers did not lose her job at GateHouse, as I originally wrote. Rather, she left the company to take a position with the Red Cross.

On gay marriage, real names and a real discussion

Howard Owens

I’ve long been an admirer of Howard Owens’ real-names policy for online commenters. It’s one of the reasons I adopted it for Media Nation a couple of years ago. So I was intrigued when he tweeted this morning, “When you manage your comment community correctly, you can run a poll on gay marriage and have the convo remain civil.”

I clicked through to his community-news site, The Batavian, in rural western New York. As I write this, 1,501 people had responded to his survey question: “Do you support gay marriage?” About 45 percent said “yes” and 55 percent said “no.” And Owens was right: I couldn’t find a non-civil comment among them.

What I found was an engaged and engaging discussion (with a bit too much esoterica on states’ rights for my taste), with Owens himself making occasional contributions — an important part of keeping the online conversation on track. Given the volatile nature of the topic, I asked him if he pre-screened the comments or had deleted any after they were posted. His answer: no, and no. Impressive.

I’m not entirely opposed to allowing anonymous comments. At the New Haven Independent, for instance, editor and founder Paul Bass argues that teachers, police officers and other stakeholders wouldn’t dare express their thoughts if they had to reveal their identities. The Independent is often held up as a model of community engagement.

Yet the Independent runs off the rails from time to time, and earlier this year Bass had to tighten up his guidelines — including requiring real-name registration, though anonymous commenting is still allowed.

I can’t say it enough: News organizations have to find effective ways to engage with their users. Just because it isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. (You may thank me later for the triple negative.)

Howard Ziff on the varieties of local journalism

Howard Ziff

Last summer I was interviewing New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen for my book about the New Haven Independent and other community news sites. He told me I had to read an essay by Howard Ziff on the difference between the “provincial” and “cosmopolitan” styles of journalism. So I did. It was brilliant, and I ended up quoting from it in my book.

More on that in a moment. Ziff, who founded the UMass Amherst journalism department, died on Tuesday at the age of 81. This obituary, by Nick Grabbe of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, is particularly good, and is well worth your time. Also recommended: the obit in the school paper, the Massachusetts Daily Collegian. I’m sad to say that though I know a number of people in the UMass journalism department, I never had the pleasure of meeting Ziff.

To get back to “provincial” and “cosmopolitan” journalism — in the 1980s, Ziff wrote an essay called “Practicing Responsible Journalism: Cosmopolitan Versus Provincial Models.” After talking with Jay, I managed to find Ziff’s essay in a hard-to-locate book called “Responsible Journalism,” edited by Deni Elliott.

Ziff helped me understand my own experience in journalism. I spent the first part of my career as a community journalist — as a Northeastern co-op student at the Woonsocket Call in the 1970s, and as a staff reporter and editor for the Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn in the 1980s.

In Ziff’s view, community journalism — provincial journalism — was more about being part of the community than it was standing apart as objective, disengaged observers. Some of the people I worked with, especially in Woonsocket, were folks who had grown up there, who didn’t go to college, but who had the wit to find a job that kept them out of the mills.

They were good reporters. But they were not plotting a career path that would take them, say, from the Call to the Providence Journal and then to the Washington Post. If they were going to leave the Call at all, it would be to work for the local chamber of commerce, or for a Rhode Island elected official.

Ziff’s idea was that this was “provincial” journalism, and that it was neither better nor worse than “cosmopolitan” journalism — it was just different. And the practices that cosmopolitans sneered at — accepting junkets, being slow and cautious in covering stories that embarrassed the community — actually made a great deal of sense for a provincial institution like the local newspaper. Ziff wrote:

When we turn, however, to principles and responsibilities that are more specific to the vocation of journalism, we find that those that apply to the cosmopolitan, professional model do not necessarily apply to the provincial model. In the first instance we are concerned with responsibilities and ethical considerations that can act as moral regulators of the autonomy upon which we insist for journalism as a profession, and not surprisingly we come up with principals such as objectivity and disinterestedness. In the latter, we set as our goal service to the community and province, and will often find that our moral obligation is to be subjective and compassionate.

Ziff lamented the transition of even smaller, community-based newspapers from the provincial to the cosmopolitan — a change he attributed to the rise of corporate chains that bought up locally owned dailies and staffed them with careerist young people with no ties to the community:

It is a great sadness of American journalism today that however diverse their geographic background and polished their skills, so many journalists are valued because they are interchangeable; they put themselves behind the word processor in whatever city to which they are called by corporate employers. The unique value of each person and each region is thus endangered by a system of replaceable parts, and we are in danger of losing sight of the simple truth that the fact that you cannot move a Mike Royko from Chicago or a Jimmy Breslin from New York is a sign of their towering strengths as journalists.

And, in fact, professionalism — that is, cosmopolitanism — may have something to do with why the newspaper business is struggling so much these days. I know that Howard Owens, the publisher and editor of The Batavian, a small, for-profit news site near Buffalo, holds that view. I don’t discount it either, though I think the business pressures that are harming the news business have more to do with corporate debt, technology and cultural change than they do with professionalization.

I brought up the essay on Twitter the other day after learning that Ziff had died. Jay asked me to send him a copy of it, and I realized I couldn’t find it. But I know where I can make another one, and I’m going to do it as soon as I’m able.

Howard Ziff’s work will live on in many ways. For me, it’s through an essay he wrote a quarter-century ago that observed how the news business was changing, and what was worth preserving about a time-honored model that was just then beginning to pass from the scene.