Tag Archives: Haverhill

Return of hometown news: Indy, local and online

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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 (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.

The Knight Foundation’s curious funding decisions

Howard Kurtz

Howard Kurtz

Among the odder aspects of Howard Kurtz’s very bad week (as reported by Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post) is the revelation that Daily Download, the thoroughly mediocre (at best) website with which Kurtz is more or less associated, received a $230,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, which funds innovative journalism projects. Here’s a Knight press release from March 2012.

Now, it’s certainly true that not all of Knight’s investments are going to work out, and that some of them will prove embarrassing. But it’s notable that Tom Stites, founder of the Banyan Project, a well-publicized effort to create a replicable new business model for community journalism based on co-op ownership, reports that Banyan’s Knight News Challenge applications have been turned down twice. (Banyan’s pilot site, Haverhill Matters, is due to be unveiled later this year.)

In February, Knight apologized for paying a $20,000 speaking fee to Jonah Lehrer, a so-called journalist who was hoping to revive his once-celebrated career after he’d been exposed as a plagiarist and a fabricator.

Knight does a lot of great work, so I hope Knight officials will step forward and explain their decision to fund Daily Download.

As for Kurtz, he enjoyed a long and impressive career before running into some serious bouts of carelessness during the past few years. I hope he’s able to bounce back. Earlier this evening he tweeted: “I just want to thank those who have posted or sent kind words and supportive comments in recent days. It means a lot when times are tough.”

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

Haverhill Matters moves closer to reality

The Bradford Bridge, looking north toward downtown Haverhill

The Bradford Bridge, looking north toward downtown Haverhill

This article appeared earlier at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

It was as incongruous a situation as I could imagine. Friday, April 19, was one of the most gripping news days we have ever experienced in Massachusetts. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the suspected marathon bombers, was in hiding. Boston and several other cities were under voluntary lockdown. And that morning I was driving north, toward Haverhill, on my way to a meeting where earnest community activists were making plans to revive local journalism.

While all hell was breaking loose elsewhere, the Haverhill Matters Organizing Committee met in a sunny conference room at Haverhill Community Television. The committee’s goal is to launch a cooperatively owned news site to be called Haverhill Matters sometime this year.

It’s been a long time coming. Tom Stites, a veteran journalist who’s worked at the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, came up with the idea of local news co-ops a few years ago. He founded the Banyan Project to serve as an umbrella; Haverhill Matters will be the pilot. I wrote about his plans for the Nieman Journalism Lab last year, as well as in the epilogue to my forthcoming book about online community journalism, “The Wired City.” The launch date for Haverhill Matters has slipped a few times, but at this point it looks like 2013 will be the year.

The hour-long meeting was taken up with fairly mundane planning issues, but I could see that the site is moving toward reality. Currently the committee is at the first of a four-stage process, outlined in considerable detail on the Banyan website. The organizers envision everything from crowdsourced reporting projects to quotidian coverage of local news. A board of directors will hire two full-time employees: an executive director and an editor. The site will also make ample use of freelancers, neighborhood bloggers, and college and high school interns.

After some back-and-forth about liability issues, the committee members agreed to sign on with the Cooperative Development Institute to handle Haverhill Matters’ finances. There were charts about finances and timetables, and about how the yet-to-be-hired editor should spend the 520 hours he or she will be working each quarter.

“We’re really at a go/no-go moment, and I think we’ve decided to go,” said Tim Coco, president and general manager of WHAV, an online radio station based in Haverhill.

“Well, we want to,” replied local activist Mike LaBonte, co-chair of the organizing committee.

Coco professed some skepticism about what he was hearing but supported the idea of moving ahead. “It’s not feasible,” he said, “but that’s never stopped me before.”

The Banyan Project is aimed at serving what Stites calls “news deserts” — less-than-affluent communities that tend to be shunned by high-end advertisers and, thus, by the news organizations that rely on those advertisers. Haverhill, a city of 61,000 on the Merrimack River at the New Hampshire line, meets that definition. The Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, or MassINC, lists Haverhill as one of 11 “Gateway Cities” — former manufacturing centers that are struggling with a lack of resources and economic investment.

Yet in other respects, Haverhill is an unlikely news desert. Though the days when two daily newspapers battled it out are long gone, the Eagle-Tribune, based in nearby North Andover, continues to publish a daily Haverhill edition. The Eagle-Tribune also publishes a weekly paper, the Haverhill Gazette, that offers local staples such as school news, feel-good features and announcements. Add in Haverhill Community Television, with its robust lineup of local programming, and WHAV, and it would appear that more than a few flowers are sprouting in this particular desert.

The real target, then, is the unaccountability of local journalism controlled by out-of-state corporations. For years now, the Eagle-Tribune’s owner, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (CNHI) of Montgomery, Ala., has been decimating its properties. Neither the Eagle-Tribune nor the Gazette has an office in Haverhill anymore. Thus Haverhill Matters represents an attempt by local residents to tell their own story.

In reporting “The Wired City,” I learned that there are problems with both the for-profit and nonprofit models of independent online local journalism. The owners of the for-profits — including sites like The BatavianCT News Junkie, and Baristanet — have to spend so much time selling advertising that it limits the amount of journalism they can afford to do.

Nonprofits such as the New Haven Independent, the main focus of my book, are more robust. But not every community is willing to support such a venture, and the Internet Revenue Service has made it increasingly difficult for such sites to attain nonprofit 501(c)(3) status. Moreover, nonprofits are prohibited from endorsing political candidates, traditionally an important activity for local news organizations.

A cooperatively owned news site — analogies include credit unions and food co-ops — would occupy a space somewhere between the two models, and would not be banned from publishing endorsements. Tom Stites is currently soliciting contributions for Haverhill Matters’ launch. Once the site is up and running, he hopes to attract 1,500 members at $36 a year, bringing in $54,000, as well as advertising and grant money. A chart Mike LaBonte displayed showed an initial $45,000 expenditure, with the site reaching break-even in two and a half years.

Unlike one-off projects such as the New Haven Independent or The Batavian, the intention behind Haverhill Matters is that it be replicable. Stites hopes the Banyan Project will be able to offer a “co-op in a box” to communities looking to start their own cooperatively owned news sites. But first he has to prove the model can work. Which is why Haverhill Matters matters.

Photo (cc) 2013 by Dan Kennedy. Some rights reserved.

In Haverhill, from a newspaper war to a “news desert”

Haverhill’s historic shoe district

Banyan Project founder Tom Stites refers to Haverhill and cities like it as “news deserts” — that is, as communities so underserved by local journalism that government accountability and civic life are harmed. He and local activists hope to launch Banyan’s first online news co-op, Haverhill Matters, later this year. (I touch on Banyan in the Epilogue to “The Wired City.”)

Two generations ago, though, the mid-size industrial city, located in the Merrimack Valley near the New Hampshire border, was the scene of a daily newspaper war. According to an account recently published by the city’s online nonprofit radio station, WHAV, a newspaper strike led to years of debilitating rivalry between the established Haverhill Gazette and the upstart Haverhill Journal.

The Journal was started by the notorious William Loeb, owner of the Manchester Union Leader (now the New Hampshire Union Leader), in December 1957. The Gazette had temporarily ceased publishing after it was struck by members of the typographical union. And Haverhill merchants, worried that they had no place to advertise their Christmas wares, went to Loeb and asked him to do something. He published a couple of free shoppers, and then decided to start a full-fledged newspaper.

The WHAV article, by Tim Coco, is full of colorful details, especially concerning the federal antitrust case that grew out of the rivalry. In a nutshell, Loeb secretly paid businessmen to buy ads only in the Journal and to badmouth the Gazette at every opportunity. And the Gazette sold ads below cost, which can in some circumstances be illegal. But it was great for readers while it lasted. As Coco puts it at the beginning of his essay:

News media competition helps ensure the inner workings of every government department are exposed to the light of day and held accountable, every service club talk is covered and every military personnel homecoming is treated with reverence.

On the other hand, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Wyzanski, who presided over the antitrust hearings, concluded it was impossible for two daily papers in a city the size of Haverhill to operate profitably unless they offered “limited news coverage” and “inferior general quality.” The Gazette quickly ran into trouble, and in 1958 it was acquired by a consortium of newspaper publishers. The unstable rivalry persisted until Loeb shuttered the Journal in 1965.

Eventually the Gazette was acquired outright by The Eagle-Tribune, headquartered in North Andover but traditionally associated with Lawrence. The Eagle-Tribune started a daily Haverhill edition and converted the Gazette to a weekly. In 2005, The Eagle-Tribune and its affiliated papers on the North Shore were bought by CNHI, a Birmingham, Ala.-based chain. And as Coco notes, in March 2012, The Eagle-Tribune closed the Gazette’s Haverhill offices.

“After 191 years,” Coco writes, “The Haverhill Gazette no longer had a physical presence in Haverhill.”

Now, nearly a half-century after daily newspaper competition came to an end in Haverhill, the city is on the verge of becoming a hotbed of experimentation in community journalism. In addition to the Banyan Project, WHAV has launched something called the “Democracy, Independence and Sustainability Project.”

I’m hoping there’s going to be a lot more to come as 2013 unfolds.

Update: After I posted a link to this on Twitter, John Dodge let me know that another, lesser-known daily paper called the Independent published in Haverhill in the late 1970s. Begun by longtime Gazette staffers, Dodge says the Independent couldn’t survive because the DeMoulas supermarket chain wouldn’t buy any ads.

Earlier:

Photo by Marc N. Belanger via Wikimedia Commons.