The town claims that GateHouse Media, which publishes more than 100 newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts, owes property taxes and penalties on equipment at its regional headquarters in Needham. Jack Newsham of The Boston Globe reports.
Mark Henderson is certainly not the first person to launch a hyperlocal website in the shadow of the daily newspaper that used to employ him. Nevertheless, his ideas about how to build the site into a sustainable business are unorthodox enough to merit attention.
Henderson, a former executive with the 150-year-old Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, Mass., unveiled the Worcester Sun in August. From the start, the Sun’s content has been protected behind a hard paywall of $2 a week. There are no discounts; if you want to subscribe for a year, it will cost you $104.
Once the Sun has attracted a critical mass of paid digital subscribers (Henderson won’t reveal the magic number except to say that it’s well short of 1,000), he’ll add a Sunday paper for $1 a week, perhaps as soon as next spring. Print matters, Henderson says, because that’s still where most of the advertising is.
“If you’re going to start something new, monetizing digital is tough,” says Henderson. “And you can’t look at print as a medium without understanding that there is a ton of money still to be made there. Especially in Sunday print. We could use Sunday print to boost us into the stratosphere, to get us into a stable orbit where we can launch other things.”
Bootstrapping paid digital to break into paid print? Matt DeRienzo, interim executive director of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, says he’s skeptical but intrigued. “Sunday print is going against the grain. There’s a lot of reasons the cards are stacked against them,” says DeRienzo, the former editor of Digital First Media’s Connecticut publications, which include the New Haven Register. But he adds: “The best ideas are going to come from people who live in and care about their community and who are closest to the problem. Who’s to say it’s not going to work?”
With a population of 183,000 — the second-largest city in New England after Boston — and a median household income of about $46,000, more than $20,000 below the state average, Worcester is a city facing economic challenges. It’s precisely the sort of community that could benefit most from independent media projects such as the Sun, says Catherine Tumber, a scholar with the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University.
“No one else is coming to their rescue,” says Tumber, the author of the 2011 book “Small, Gritty and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World.” “They have to rely on their own resources and civic ecosystems in order to reconstruct their cities and maintain quality of life there.”
Last week, I met Henderson and his business partner (and cousin) Fred Hurlbrink Jr. in a brightly lit coworking space on the first floor of the Innovation Center of Worcester — formerly the Franklin Street headquarters of the Telegram & Gazette, the daily newspaper where Henderson worked for nearly 25 years. Across the street is City Hall and the Worcester Common. On the other side of the common looms the mid-sized tower that is the current home of the T&G.
Henderson, 49, rose from the paper’s sports department to deputy managing editor for technology and, starting in 2009, online director. He left on June 2, 2014, the day that John Henry, who had purchased The Boston Globe and the T&G from the New York Times Company, sold the T&G to Halifax Media Group of Daytona Beach, Florida, after previously saying he intended to sell to a local group. Halifax cut about 20 journalistsfrom the full-time newsroom staff of about 80. Further cuts came a few months later when Halifax turned around and sold the paper to New Media Investment Group, an affiliate of GateHouse Media, based in the suburbs of Rochester, New York.
Hurlbrink, 38, had two stints with GateHouse — first as a copy editor at The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham and later at the Design House, run out of the Framingham plant, which handled design and some copyediting tasks for multiple GateHouse papers. In August 2014, GateHouse announced that the operation would be closed and moved to Austin, Texas.
Even with a shrunken Telegram & Gazette, Henderson and Hurlbrink find themselves in the midst of a highly competitive media environment. In addition to the T&G, Worcester is covered by MassLive.com, part of Advance Digital; GoLocalWorcester, which has sister sites in Providence, Rhode Island, and Portland, Oregon; and Worcester Magazine, whose parent company, Holden Landmark Corporation, is controlled by GateHouse Media chief executive Kirk Davis but is not part of GateHouse.
In the face of such competition, Henderson and Hurlbrink say their plan is to steer clear of breaking news and offer depth and analysis instead. “We’re never going to cover breaking news,” Henderson says. “Will we cover the opiate epidemic rather than three people who OD’d in the last 24 hours? Yeah, we’ll take a look at that. But we’ll devote the resources to do it and give people an insight that they didn’t have before.”
The Sun’s content so far reflects that philosophy, starting with the August 9 debut, which featured an essay on the city’s bygone newspaper scene by Worcester native Charles P. Pierce, the high-profile journalist and author who these days spends most of his time blogging about politics for Esquire. The Sun has also published stories on the privacy concerns posed by surveillance cameras, the city’s sagging downtown business district, and a mother’s quest to find the educational resources she needs to help her daughter with ADHD. The site also offers such quotidian fare as profiles of local businesses, editorials and, yes, obituaries.
“I think there’s a niche,” says Timothy McGourthy, executive director of the Worcester Regional Research Bureau. “I think it provides kind of a thoughtful human-interest approach to Worcester. It’s a generally positive approach to the city. I think the challenge is going to be getting the word out in the marketplace.”
The Sun’s paywall — as well as that of the T&G — is based on technology provided by Clickshare, whose website touts the software as a “flexible system” that allows for different types of paid access, billing and payment processing, and various options for e-commerce. Bill Densmore, who founded Clickshare in the mid-1990s, believes that print and digital serve two different types of audiences — and that Henderson and Hurlbrink are smart to try to serve both.
“A lean-back experience once a week makes a lot of sense to me,” says Densmore, a research fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. “It’s an experiment, really, and an important one, both for the existing industry and for people starting on the digital side and wondering where that leads. I think the marriage of print and digital makes a lot of sense, particularly if you’re not trying to put out a daily paper, which increasingly seems anachronistic to me and to people in the digital world.”
Starting and maintaining a community news site is a hard way to make a living, but the allure is undeniable. LION counts about 130 member sites, and of course there many more that are not LION members. New ones pop up regularly. Just this week, The Boston Globe reported on a project called The Spark, cofounded by a former photographer for the GateHouse-owned Enterprise of Brockton.
It’s the same allure that has kept Henderson and Hurlbrink going despite setbacks — including a $150,000 Kickstarter campaign that fell well short of the mark. So far, they say, they’ve invested $200,000 in money and time. Soon they hope to unveil the first in a line of ebooks. And they’ve got plans to launch online verticals in areas such as education and local sports. “I think there are places we can go where we can be effective,” says Hurlbrink.
If all goes according to plan, they foresee a staff of 20 full- and part-time journalists. The key, adds Henderson, is to fill a niche — and not worry about what the competition is doing.
“We’ve never said we’re here to take the T&G out,” says Henderson. “Other people have. We don’t agree with that. Our stated goal is to serve our audience, the city of Worcester, the best we can. And if we have an opportunity to grow our audience, all the better.”
GateHouse Media keeps slashing at the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester — and editorial-page editor Chris Sinacola has quit. Noah Lombard of MassLive has the details.
Thanks to The Boston Globe’s Todd Wallack, we learned last week that the supervisor of records, charged with enforcing the Massachusetts public records law, has permitted police departments withhold arrest reports and mug shots from the public in their “discretion.” Unsurprisingly, police departments have exercised that “discretion” to shield the identities of police officers arrested for drunken driving while publicizing the arrests of other Massachusetts residents for the same crime.
Yesterday, Secretary of State William Galvin took to Jim Braude’s “Greater Boston” show on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) to defend the rulings. He pointed out that he had previously ruled that arrest reports to be public, but said he had to back down because another agency, the Department of Criminal Justice Information Systems (DCJIS), told him the records are secret under the “criminal offender record information” (CORI) statute. Former attorney general Martha Coakley shared that view, Galvin said, and the new attorney general, Maura Healey, has tentatively agreed.
But are they correct? Does the law allow the police officers to decide which arrest reports do and do not get released? The answer, thankfully, is no.
First some quick background. The public records law creates a presumption that all government records are public. Only if a specific, listed exemption applies can the government withhold documents, and those exemptions are supposed to be construed narrowly. Galvin relies on the exemption for records “specifically or by necessary implication exempted from disclosure by statute,” here, the CORI law. The CORI law does impose certain limits on the disclosure of “criminal offender record information,” but it limits that term to information “recorded as the result of the initiation of criminal proceedings and any consequent proceedings related thereto.”
The word “initiation” is important. As late as 2010, Galvin’s office held the commonsense view that a “criminal proceeding” is initiated with the filing of a criminal complaint. Arrest reports and mug shots are generated before criminal complaints are filed, so they’re presumptively public. But in 2011, the DCJIS (which administers the state’s CORI database) told Galvin it believed “initiation of criminal proceedings” means “the point when a criminal investigation is sufficiently complete that the investigating officers take actions toward bringing a specific suspect to court.” That necessarily precedes arrest and booking, so all arrest reports and mug shots are covered by CORI. This “interpretation” is now contained in a DCJIS regulation. Another regulation says that police can release CORI information surrounding an investigation if they think it’s appropriate to do so.
In the common parlance, however, “criminal proceedings” occur in court, and they begin with the filing of a criminal charge. We don’t typically think of an arrest without charges as involving a “proceeding.” Galvin seems to agree — his office’s rulings have said only that DCJIS believes “initiation” occurs earlier — but he has thrown up his hands and deferred to this odd “interpretation” of the CORI statute.
The thing is, Galvin isn’t bound by what DCJIS says. The public records law says that the supervisor of records is entitled to determine “whether the record requested is public.” The DCJIS’s regulation adopting this view is irrelevant, too, because as noted above, the public records law only exempts documents “specifically or by necessary implication exempted from disclosure by statute.” The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 1999 that the “statutory” exemption doesn’t extend to mere regulatory enactments “promulgated under statutory authority,” even “in close cooperation with the Legislature.” Despite this ruling, just Wednesday, Galvin’s office again refused to order state police officer mug shots to Wallack on the ground that “[b]y regulation,” — not statute — they are exempt CORI documents.
Wallack’s reporting has led us to a momentous Sunshine Week in Massachusetts. We’ve seen unusual, coordinated editorials in major Massachusetts newspapers condemning the rulings, a letter published in the Globe, the Boston Herald and GateHouse Media newspapers (including The Patriot Ledger of Quincy and The Herald News of Fall River) signed by members of the Northeastern Journalism School faculty, and extensive coverage on the normally neglected subject of government transparency.
To his credit, Galvin is calling for reforms to the public records law, and Attorney General Healey has vowed to work with his office to strengthen transparency. Reforms are sorely needed, especially to require shifting of attorneys’ fees if a requester successfully sues. But in the meantime, Galvin can and should reconsider his misguided rulings on arrest records.
Jeffrey J. Pyle is a partner at the Boston law firm of Prince Lobel Tye and a trial lawyer specializing in First Amendment and media law.
The state’s weak public-records law has long needed to be reformed. A lack of meaningful penalties for government agencies that refuse to turn over public records, outrageous fees and other problems make Massachusetts a laggard when it comes to transparency. Several years ago the State Integrity Investigation awarded Massachusetts a richly deserved “F” on public access to information.
Last week brought mind-boggling news from Todd Wallack of The Boston Globe, who reported that Secretary of State William Galvin’s office has issued rulings allowing certain formerly public records to be suppressed, including arrest reports of police officers charged with drunken driving. (Galvin later turned around and called for an initiative petition to put some teeth in the public-records law. Make of that what you will.)
Now the Globe, the Boston Herald and GateHouse Media Massachusetts have editorialized in favor of significant reform. The Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance, a group comprising the New England First Amendment Coalition, the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and others, is calling for immediate action.
Seventeen of my colleagues and I at Northeastern’s School of Journalism lent our voices to the cause this week with a letter that has been published in the Globe, the Herald and (so far) two GateHouse papers: The Patriot Ledger of Quincy and The Herald News of Fall River. Because the Globe and the Herald were unable to run everyone’s names, I am posting them here. They include full-time as well as adjunct faculty:
- Dan Kennedy, interim director
- Chris Amico
- Mike Beaudet
- Nicholas Daniloff (emeritus)
- Charles Fountain
- Carlene Hempel
- Joy Horowitz
- Jeff Howe
- William Kirtz
- Dina Kraft
- Jean McMillan Lang
- Laurel Leff
- Gladys McKie
- Lincoln McKie
- Bill Mitchell
- Tinker Ready
- James Ross
- Alan Schroeder
This is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open government. In Massachusetts it’s time to let the sun shine in.
Looks like the GateHouse Media-owned Telegram & Gazette of Worcester is getting some competition. Mark Henderson, the T&G’s former online director, is starting a news organization called the Worcester Sun, an online-mostly project with a paid Sunday paper.
The Sun has a $150,000 Kickstarter campaign, a website, and a presence on Facebook and Twitter, all of which are linked in the press release below. Go Local Worcester posted a story about the Sun on Saturday.
Best of luck to Henderson and cofounder/managing editor/creative director Fred Hurlbrink Jr., like Henderson a former GateHouse journalist.
WORCESTER, Massachusetts — Worcester Media Partners is proud to announce the launch of the Worcester Sun, an impact community journalism enterprise comprising a unique combination of best-in-class digital offering with a paid Sunday print product.
These products will be supported by an intuitive business model that puts quality journalism, and more importantly the folks who produce and consume it, at the forefront by leveraging the modern media world’s best efficiencies in a sustainable package.
In order to build the type of journalism enterprise Worcester deserves, Worcester Media Partners recognizes the necessity of ambition. We have set our sights high, and we look forward to the continued support of our community. Please visit our Kickstarter page to learn more about the project and how folks can pledge their support to the future of local journalism in and around the Seven Hills.
Worcester Sun was conceived by Mark Henderson, a 30-year veteran of Worcester-area journalism, who most recently spent several years as the online director of the Telegram & Gazette. There, he marshalled a number of innovations that propelled telegram.com to rank in the top 10 nationally in 2013 in audience growth and subscriber volume.
“We believe that when the number of former journalists exceeds the number of working journalists there is an opportunity and a need for a new approach,” Henderson said.
“The Sun will be the first news startup in the nation to launch with a paid Sunday newspaper. We recognize that this is a huge undertaking, but we believe the community is ready for this approach. In addition, over the long run we believe this model could work in as many as 100 cities nationwide.”
Henderson is joined by co-founder Fred Hurlbrink Jr., managing editor/creative director. The group is working with no less than a dozen advisors, many among the leaders in their field in New England, who have logged more than 200 years of community journalism experience.
Under the leadership of this impressive cadre of innovative, experienced journalism pros, and with the support of the area’s brightest reporters, photographers, designers and new media professionals, Worcester Sun intends to provide the community with impactful, civic-minded journalism that promotes intelligent conversations and positive change.
Worcester Sun will shine a light into the deepest corners of the topics and events that matter most to the city and its residents. We will cover stories with candor and perspective. We will never pander or underestimate our readers. We will hold public officials accountable. We will hold ourselves accountable doubly so.
Worcester Sun will change journalism in Worcester. It is, indeed, a new day.
The nice thing about missing out on bad news from GateHouse Media* is that you only have to wait a few days for fresh material. Thus we learn today that The Standard-Times of New Bedford is getting rid of three newsroom jobs. Here’s the internal email from editor Beth Perdue:
Today we eliminated three editorial positions in an effort to align our staffing levels to expected revenues in 2015 and levels at similar sized media companies.
These are always tough decisions and my heart goes out to those who departed. Their loss will be felt by all of us.
Please know that these changes represent the full extent of planned reductions in the newsroom. While changes like this are very difficult, we can now focus fully on pursuing a variety of opportunities that will help us move forward.
I hear that among those departing is veteran reporter Steve DeCosta, a respected figure in the newsroom since the late 1970s. I also understand that Simón Rios is leaving the paper for WBUR Radio (90.9 FM). The cuts, I’m told, will shrink the reporting staff to five, compared to nine just two years ago. (I’m asking for details on the third job that’s been eliminated and will update if I hear anything.)
You may recall that Perdue’s predecessor as editor, Bob Unger, resigned in December rather than implement GateHouse-ordered cuts. Boston Globe reporter (and GateHouse alumnus) Jon Chesto wrote at the time that Unger was “hoping his sacrifice will save two or three lower-paying jobs.” If you scroll to the bottom of Chesto’s story, you’ll see what I told him: Don’t count on it.
• T&G reporter quits over shrinking pay. In a departure that has gotten national buzz, Thomas Caywood, an investigative reporter for the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, quit after management refused to give him a 3 percent raise — which, he said, would have offset only a fraction of the reduction in income he’s been subjected to over the years. Here is part of what Caywood wrote to T&G publisher James Normandin:
For your background, I have been a reporter at the Telegram & Gazette since September 2007, during which time I have had one small pay raise. The cumulative impact of inflation over the last seven years of my employment has been to reduce the value of my annual earnings by nearly 14 percent. My vacation allotment was reduced from three weeks a year to two weeks by Halifax Media Group. Meanwhile, our benefits cost more and cover less than before the Halifax acquisition….
All I require is a 3 percent raise and restoration of my previous three-weeks-a-year vacation allotment. The meager raise would barely be noticeable to my finances, but it’s vital to me that I see some tangible evidence of this commitment to quality journalism of which you and GateHouse speak.
Caywood told Jim Romenesko: “I didn’t leave the Telegram & Gazette with any hard feelings and my departure was not intended as some kind of provocative ‘fuck you’ gesture…. But I just couldn’t avoid any longer the unwelcome truth that I valued the job more highly than the company valued me.”
If you’re having a hard time following the bouncing chains, Globe owner John Henry sold the T&G to Halifax Media Group of Florida in 2014. Halifax turned around a few months later and sold out in its entirety to GateHouse, which is based in suburban Rochester, New York. Here is the analysis I wrote for WGBHNews.org in November.
• Cape Cod Times to close printing plant. The Cape Cod Times and its affiliated weeklies will shut down their printing press in Hyannis and move production to the Providence Journal.
This move, at least, makes sense, and has been anticipated from the time that GateHouse acquired the Journal last summer. But “an undisclosed number of jobs” will be eliminated, writes Times reporter Bryan Lantz. And here’s more from Jon Chesto.
*For the sake of simplicity, I am referring to the corporate owner of all these papers as GateHouse Media. The chain’s acquisition branch is known as New Media Investment Group.
Update. I’m now hearing that DeCosta and two other newsroom people were let go at The Standard-Times — not counting Rios, who’ll begin his new job at WBUR soon.