Tag Archives: Huffington Post

Four takeaways from new owner John Henry’s message to readers of The Boston Globe

John Henry at celebration of the Red Sox' 2007 World Series victory.

John Henry in October 2007

This article was published earlier in the Nieman Journalism Lab and The Huffington Post.

John Henry’s nearly 2,900-word message to readers of The Boston Globe could have been little more than an exercise in public relations, standing up for what is good and deploring what is bad.

There’s a lot of that, of course. We’re only into the second paragraph before he dutifully informs us that the Globe “is the eyes and ears of the region in some ways, the heartbeat in many others.” But Henry, a billionaire financier who is the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, is also unexpectedly revealing about himself and how he intends to run the Globe. (Henry purchased the Globe, its BostonGlobe.com and Boston.com websites, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester and several smaller properties from the New York Times Co. for $70 million. The sale, announced in August, closed last week following a brief delay over a labor dispute at the T&G. Henry also made a bit of news when folks at the T&G noticed that his message omitted Worcester entirely.)

Henry’s piece, headlined “Why I bought the Globe,” takes up a full page in the Opinion section of Sunday’s paper. It’s teased on the front page as well. He writes about his life, the Red Sox, the financially struggling news business and what he thinks needs to be done to set it on a sustainable path. Here are what I think are the most important takeaways.

1. He plans to be an activist owner. Just the atmospherics of the essay itself are a pretty strong indication that Henry does not see this as a passive investment. He wants to be the face of the Globe.

To counter his image as a reserved, slightly eccentric rich guy who dabbles in sports, Henry goes into some detail about his involvement in the civil-rights movement and his subsequent retreat “into what most of my friends thought was my primary talent at the time — writing and performing rock music.”

Somewhere along the way he made a lot of money, but he writes about that only briefly. Instead, he describes his stewardship of the Red Sox as a possible model for what he intends to do with the Globe:

When we acquired the Red Sox, profit was literally at the bottom of our list of goals. We were determined to do whatever it took to win.

Now I see The Boston Globe and all that it represents as another great Boston institution that is worth fighting for.

Here’s another intriguing example of what sort of profile Henry intends for himself as the Globe’s owner: Recently the Boston Business Journal reported that toxic waste at the Globe’s Dorchester property could complicate any plans Henry might have to develop the site and move the paper to a cheaper location. Henry used his Twitter feed to dispute the BBJ’s story and slam an earlier piece about the Globe’s break-up with a classified-ad site called Cars.com:

A feisty newspaper owner who fights back in public? Bring it on. That’s certainly an improvement over the gray management style of the Times Co.

2. He’s looking for advice in all the right places. If the Globe and other large regional dailies are going to survive and prosper, they need to develop new ways of doing business. So it’s encouraging that Henry mentions alliances the paper already has with Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, the MIT Media Lab and the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Henry also gives a shout-out to Clay Shirky, which I take as a signal that Henry is reading and talking to the right people. It doesn’t sound like he intends to take the approach adopted by Aaron Kushner, a one-time Globe suitor who’s winning plaudits for trying to revive the Orange County Register by focusing on the print edition. The Globe has been a leader in digital journalism. So it’s good news that Henry sounds like he’s going to double down on innovation.

3. He has some retro ideas about paid content. Near the top of his commentary, Henry repeats an old trope, writing that newspapers have been losing money because “Readers were flocking from the papers to the Internet, consuming expensive journalism for free.”

Now, I’ve got nothing against charging for digital subscriptions, and the Globe has had some success with that — 39,000 at last count. But it’s important to keep in mind what newspaper owners are up against in asking readers to pay for online access.

As has often been said, newspaper readers never paid for the news — they paid for the expense of printing and delivering the paper, with advertisers picking up the rest. These days, readers are paying — a lot — for their own printing presses (computers, tablets and smartphones) and their own delivery (broadband and cellular access). It’s perfectly understandable that they don’t want to pay more.

What went wrong was not that newspapers started giving away their content but, rather, that the advertising model collapsed, especially from classifieds. Henry understands this, writing, “I feel strongly that newspapers and their news sites are going to rely upon the support of subscribers to a large extent in order to provide what readers want.”

I wish any newspaper owner well in persuading readers to pay for journalism. But we have to understand that we are asking them to do something they’ve never done before: pay for news in addition to paying for printing and delivery. We need to be humble about how much we’re asking of our audience.

4. He wants the Globe to act as a guide to the larger conversation. One of the most important roles professional journalism can play is to aggregate and curate the torrent of information — not just when big news breaks, but on a daily basis.

The New York Times does this with The Lede; the Globe does it from time to time, as it did following the Boston Marathon bombing. The idea is to become the go-to place for trustworthy links to other news sources, blogs and citizen media. Henry clearly gets that, writing:

We will provide what we will call the Globe Standard when it comes to curated links that will ensure our readers do not waste their time when they click on news, reviews, writers, columnists, ecommerce, events, opportunities, and social engagement from any of our platforms.

One thing Henry gets absolutely right is that the newspaper business is not now and never was compatible with ownership by publicly traded corporations and the quarterly demands of Wall Street. For more than a generation, corporate chains slashed newsrooms, first to drive up profit margins, later to stave off mounting losses. The debt they took on to build their chains is one of the prime reasons for their inability to set themselves on a new path. Henry understands that.

“I soon realized that one of the key things the paper needed in order to prosper was private, local ownership, passionate about its mission,” Henry writes. Farther down, he adds: “But this investment isn’t about profit at all. It’s about sustainability. Any great paper, the Globe included, must generate enough revenue to support its vital mission.”

Leaving aside the obvious fact that profit is a key to sustainability, Henry articulates a vision in which journalism comes first — which is another way of saying the customer comes first. Too many newspaper owners have forgotten that.

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

Bezos voices skepticism on paywalls, advertising

Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos

Two quick takeaways from Jeff Bezos’ interview with The Washington Post, his first since announcing last month that he would purchase the paper for $250 million:

1. He sounds like an ink-stained wretch whining about The Huffington Post in denouncing the evils of aggregation, telling the Post’s Paul Fahri:

Even behind a paywall, Web sites can summarize your work and make it available for free. From a reader point of view, the reader has to ask, “Why should I pay you for all that journalistic effort when I can get it for free” from another site?

2. Despite his  skepticism about paywalls in the age of aggregation, Bezos is not ready to embrace the idea of free content supported by advertising. “I’m skeptical of any mission that has advertisers at its centerpiece,” he said. Good thing: newspaper ad revenues are in the midst of a stunning decline, as this chart demonstrates.

So, if paywalls aren’t the answer and neither is advertising, what will work? Relentless experimentation, combined with time, resources and patience. That’s what the Amazon.com founder brings to the table.

Photo (cc) via Wikimedia Commons.

What happened at The Guardian could happen here

Chief_Justice_Charles_Evans_Hughes

Charles Evans Hughes

This commentary was first published at The Huffington Post.

As you have no doubt already heard, Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, wrote on Monday that British security agents recently visited the newspaper’s headquarters and insisted that hard drives containing leaked documents from Edward Snowden be smashed and destroyed in their presence. The incident, Rusbridger said, took place after a “very senior government official” demanded that the materials either be returned or disposed of.

Rusbridger’s report followed the nearly nine-hour detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at London’s Heathrow Airport. Greenwald has written the bulk of The Guardian’s articles about the Snowden documents, and Miranda had been visiting filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has worked extensively with Snowden and Greenwald, in Berlin.

We are already being told that such thuggery couldn’t happen in the United States because of our constitutional protections for freedom of the press. For instance, Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review writes, “Prior restraint is the nuclear option in government relations with the press and unfortunately, the British don’t have a First Amendment.”

But in fact, there is nothing to stop the U.S. government from censoring the media with regard to revelations such as those contained in the Snowden files — nothing, that is, except longstanding tradition. And respect for that tradition is melting away, as I argued recently in this space.

The case for censorship, ironically, was made in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that severely limited the circumstances under which the government could censor. The decision, Near v. Minnesota (1931), was a great victory for the press, as the ruling held that Jay Near could not be prohibited from resuming publication of his scandal sheet, which had been shut down by state authorities (of course, he could be sued for libel after the fact).

What’s relevant here is how Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes described the limited circumstances under which the government could engage in prior restraint:

No one would question but that a government might prevent actual obstruction to its recruiting service or the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops. On similar grounds, the primary requirements of decency may be enforced against obscene publications. The security of the community life may be protected against incitements to acts of violence and the overthrow by force of orderly government.

The text I’ve bolded means that the government may, in fact, engage in censorship if by so doing it would prevent a breach of national security so grave that it could be likened to the examples cited by Hughes. That’s what the Nixon administration relied on in seeking to stop The New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

The Supreme Court, in allowing publication of the Pentagon Papers to resume (New York Times Co. v. United States), wrestled extensively with Near v. Minnesota, and ultimately decided that revealing the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War did not amount to the sort of immediate, serious breach of national security that Hughes envisioned.

But who knows what the court would say if the Obama administration took similar action against The Washington Post, which has published several important reports based on the Snowden documents — including last week’s Barton Gellman bombshell that the National Security Agency had violated privacy protections thousands of times?

Unlike the Pentagon Papers, the Snowden documents pertain to ongoing operations, which cuts in favor of censorship. Cutting against it, of course, is that there’s a strong public-interest case to be made in favor of publication, given the long-overdue national debate that Snowden’s revelations have ignited.

The bottom line, though, is that there is no constitutional ban that would prevent the White House from seeking to stop publication of the Snowden documents — even if U.S. officials are unlike to engage in the sort of theatrics that reportedly took place in The Guardian’s basement.

(Disclosure: I wrote a weekly online column for The Guardian from 2007 to 2011.)

Some pressing questions for John Henry

Boston Globe InstagramThis commentary was published earlier at The Huffington Post and at WGBH News .

The speculation had been building since Wednesday, when The Boston Globe reported that Red Sox principal owner John Henry had restructured his bid to buy the paper.

It reached a peak on Friday afternoon, when legendary baseball reporter Peter Gammons — himself a Globe alumnus — posted a one-line item on his new website, Gammons Daily: “A source says the New York Times Corporation has chosen John Henry as the new owner of the Boston Globe.”

Confirmation came early today, as the Globe and The New York Times each reported that Henry had purchased the Globe and its associated properties — most prominently Boston.com and the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester — for $70 million. The Globe’s story led page one, whereas the Times’ version apparently didn’t even make it into today’s print edition.

The sale price represents a huge comedown from 1993, when the Times Co. purchased the Globe for $1.1 billion, half the company’s stock-market valuation at that time. As if by way of justification, the Times’ report on the Henry deal runs through several other pennies-on-the-dollar sales of major metropolitan newspapers in recent years, including those of Philadelphia’s daily papers, the Inquirer and the Daily News, as well as The Tampa Tribune.

Henry’s winning bid also thwarts an attempted comeback by members of the Taylor family, who owned the Globe almost from its founding in 1872 until the 1993 sale.

Among the would-be buyers was a group that included Stephen Taylor, a former executive vice president of the Globe, and Benjamin Taylor, a former publisher. A lot of people in Boston were rooting for the Taylors. But the money they got for selling the paper 20 years ago was split among dozens of family members, and their bid to repurchase the Globe was widely viewed as undercapitalized. You have to assume that if they had the money, the Times Co. would have sold it to them already — or in 2009, when the Globe was first put up for sale.

The ascension of a wealthy local owner may represent the best possible outcome for the Globe. Nevertheless there are questions Henry will have to answer soon — starting with the fate of publisher Christopher Mayer and editor Brian McGrory, well-liked Globe veterans who generally get high marks for the way they’re running the paper. Will they stay? Or will Henry bring in his own people?

Here are a few other questions for Henry.

1. Will he seek to improve the Globe’s bottom line by investing — or by cutting? Unlike newspaper owners who’ve financed their acquisition by taking on debt that they then have to pay off by slashing the newsroom, Henry has the luxury of being able to do anything he wants.

Although paid print circulation and advertising revenue have been dropping, the Globe is believed to be marginally profitable — a considerable improvement over 2009, when the Times Co. actually threatened to close the paper over mounting losses. The Globe today also has about 360 full-time editorial employees. That’s quite a drop from the 550 or so the Globe employed a dozen years ago, as my WGBH colleague Adam Reilly recently reported in Boston magazine, but it’s still enough to make the paper by far the largest news organization in Eastern Massachusetts. The Globe may no longer be the 800-pound gorilla, but a 600-pound gorilla can still accomplish a lot.

My guess (and hope) is that Henry will pursue a growth strategy, and that he has a healthy enough ego to believe he can succeed where others have failed. Perhaps he’ll emulate Aaron Kushner, the young greeting-card executive (and onetime Globe bidder) who’s attracted attention with his attempts to turn around the Orange County Register by hiring journalists and expanding coverage.

One aspect of Kushner’s stewardship I hope Henry doesn’t emulate is Kushner’s emphasis on print. The Globe has taken an innovative approach to the Internet with its two-website strategy (Boston.com, which is free, exists alongside the paid BostonGlobe.com site), a streaming music station, RadioBDC, and online coverage of Boston’s suburbs, neighborhoods and colleges through its Your Town and Your Campus sites. (Disclosure: Our students at Northeastern University contribute to Your Town and Your Campus as well as to other parts of the Globe.)

Henry could be a hero to the newspaper business if he can figure out new digital strategies. A print-first orientation would be a major step backwards.

2. What happens to the Globe’s Boston headquarters? The Globe occupies prime Dorchester real estate near the University of Massachusetts and the JFK Library, leading to considerable speculation that the next owner might want to sell the property and move the paper. Indeed, the Globe’s land and physical assets might be worth the $70 million purchase price all by themselves.

The challenge is that the Globe’s massive printing presses would have to be moved. And the paper has been able to build a nice business for itself by printing a number of other papers, including the city’s second daily, the Boston Herald, as well as some suburban papers.

Still, it would make all kinds of sense to move the presses to a low-cost exurban location and transfer the newsroom and business operations to a smaller space closer to the downtown.

3. How will the Globe cover the Red Sox? The jokes have already started (yes, I’ve done my best to help) about Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy, a notoriously negative presence who wrote former Red Sox manager Terry Francona’s trash-and-burn memoir Francona: The Red Sox Years, which is highly critical of the Red Sox’ ownership.

In fact, the Globe and the Red Sox have been down this road before. Until a few years ago, the Times Co. was a part-owner of New England Sports Network (NESN), which broadcasts Red Sox and Bruins games and whose majority owner is the Red Sox. Henry’s sole ownership of the Globe, though, would represent full immersion in a way that the NESN deal did not.

The real issue is not how the Globe covers the Red Sox as a baseball team but rather how it manages the tricky task of reporting on a major business and civic organization that’s run by the paper’s new owner.

Earlier this year the Globe published a tough report on a sweetheart licensing deal the Red Sox have with the city to use the streets around Fenway Park before games — making “tens of millions of dollars” while “paying a tiny fraction in licensing fees.” (Further disclosure: Some of the Globe’s reporting was done in partnership with Northeastern’s Initiative for Investigative Reporting.)

I’d expect to see tough scrutiny of how the Globe covers the Red Sox in the months and years ahead. No doubt the Herald and other rival news organizations will pay close attention to the relationship. The problem isn’t so much that the Globe is likely to go into the tank for the Red Sox (it isn’t), but that it’s really in a no-win situation.

The answers to those and other questions will emerge in the weeks and months ahead. What matters today is that our largest and most important news organization has been purchased by a local businessman with deep pockets and a track record as a good corporate citizen. That’s good news not just for the Globe, but for all of us.

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy.

Edward Snowden and the peril facing journalism

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

This commentary was published earlier at The Huffington Post.

The editors of The New York Times appear to have forgotten an important principle: the First Amendment is for all of us, and does not grant any special privileges to the institutional press. Thus if Edward Snowden is prosecuted for leaking classified documents about the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programs, the news organizations that published those documents could face criminal charges as well.

The possibility that journalists could be in legal jeopardy for doing their jobs seems not to have occurred to whoever wrote an editorial in today’s Times, which argues that Snowden should be prepared to pay the price for civil disobedience by way of his leaks to The Guardian and The Washington Post.

Though the editorial dismisses the absurd notion that Snowden has committed treason, it concludes with this observation, which comes across as semi-sympathetic but contains toxic implications: “Mr. Snowden may well be going to jail for exposing practices that should never have been secret in the first place.”

In fact, if Snowden, as seems likely, is charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, there is nothing to stop the government from going after The Washington Post as well — or The Guardian, if someone would like to seek extradition of Glenn Greenwald, who broke the story, and his editor, Alan Rusbridger.

American journalists in these situations operate on the premise that they are free to publish information even if the source or sources who gave it to them violated the law in obtaining it. That’s largely true — First Amendment protections against censorship are extraordinarily high. The corollary, though, is that there may be consequences to be paid post-publication.

The best-known example is the Pentagon Papers, a case that should be near and dear to the hearts of Times editors. In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Times and the Post could not be prevented from publishing the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War.

But as civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate pointed out in a 2006 article for The Boston Phoenix, five of the nine justices essentially invited the government to file charges against the Times and the Post after publication — and the Nixon administration was preparing to do just that before it got caught up in the burgeoning Watergate scandal.

Silverglate was concerned that the Times faced possible charges under the Espionage Act for revealing the existence of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. Even though the program illegally circumvented the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, then-president George W. Bush called the Times’ reporting “a shameful act” — and Gabriel Schoenfeld, writing in Commentary, was just one on the neocon right who argued that the Times should be prosecuted.

More recently, the Times published many of the WikiLeaks documents exposed by Bradley Manning, who is now on trial and who may face a life sentence. And in 2010 John Cook posted a short piece in Gawker making the commonsense observation that the Times potential liability was precisely the same as that of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who had been targeted by Attorney General Eric Holder. Cook wrote:

So if it was a crime when Assange obtained the database, why wasn’t it a crime when the Times did? The Espionage Act makes no distinctions when it comes to sources of defense information: It’s a crime to “obtain [it] from any person, or from any source whatever.” Assange got it from Manning, the Times got it from the Guardian; both transactions are equally criminal under the act.

More than a year ago, I argued that President Barack Obama was engaged in a “war on journalism” stemming from his administration’s obsession with rooting out leakers. Recently we learned that the Justice Department had spied on the Associated Press and on Fox News reporter James Rosen, and had even gotten a judge to sign a search warrant identifying Rosen as a criminal co-conspirator. Now U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., is calling for journalists to be prosecuted for publishing the NSA documents leaked by Snowden.

This is a moment of great peril for journalism. With 56 percent of Americans saying they don’t mind if the government monitors their phone records, public opinion is hardly on the side of whistleblowers and the news organizations that work with them.

Whether we approve of everything Edward Snowden did or not, The New York Times and others in our craft ought to show more solidarity. If he is in trouble, so are all of us.

Why the Boy Scouts’ half-measure won’t hold

Boy_Scouts_BSA_Stamp

This commentary appeared earlier at The Huffington Post.

The compromise announced by the Boy Scouts of America on Thursday is untenable. And that is precisely why it’s good news.

More than 60 percent of the organization’s national leadership voted to approve a policy ending discrimination against openly gay scouts while keeping in place the ban against gay adult leaders. With the BSA finally dragging itself into the late 20th century, can the 21st be far behind?

The answer, I hope, is that the time to end discrimination has arrived. But it isn’t going to be accomplished without a lot of strife. As this story from the Associated Press makes clear, the organization seems likely to rip itself apart. Members of the homophobic religious right are already threatening to leave.

John Stemberger, the founder of an anti-gay group called OnMyHonor.net, went so far as to claim the BSA had caved in to “bullies” from Washington and Hollywood — a perniciously offensive twist given the bullying that many gay youths endure.

At the same time, you can be sure that those who have been fighting against discrimination will keep pushing. As Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson, a scout leader, noted several months ago, scout councils in liberal enclaves such as the Boston area have already endorsed nondiscrimination policies. Thursday’s national vote is an invitation to defy openly the ban on gay adult leaders.

I write from considerable experience. I am an Eagle scout. So is my 22-year-old son. I’m the former scoutmaster of his troop, and though I’m not as active these days, I continue to be a registered adult leader. I believe that scouting can be a life-altering experience, introducing boys to teamwork, fair play, love of the outdoors and respect for the environment.

As a scout leader who has participated in a number of training sessions, I can attest that the BSA’s discriminatory policies never came up in the context of actions we were expected to take. Even in conversations those policies were rarely mentioned. Here in the Northeast, I’ve found that most (though not all) adult leaders are opposed to discrimination.

We all make our peace with such things in our own way. Like Derrick Jackson, my personal policy was to hang in there as long as I was not put in a position of having to discriminate. I never was, though of course I also have no way of knowing how many gay kids and adults stayed away because they thought they wouldn’t be accepted. Still, I believed — and still do — that the good in scouting outweighs the bad, and that the organization is more likely to change if people of goodwill stay involved.

Though Thursday’s vote can be seen as a modest step forward, another possible compromise floated earlier this year would have been far more workable. You may remember that one: groups that charter troops, such as churches and civic organizations, would have been free to set their own policies.

Such a compromise would have accurately reflected how the BSA actually operates, as troops are considered part of their chartering organizations. To concoct a hypothetical, it would have opened the way for a Unitarian Universalist church to sponsor a troop that allowed gay scouts and adult leaders as well as atheists, another group banned under current BSA policy.

Following an uproar, though, the BSA’s national leadership retreated, leading to this week’s action — and to an opportunity to end scouting’s discriminatory policies once and for all. I welcome the moment. Far better to bring this embarrassment to an end than to muddle through for another five to 10 years.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

How the IRS is killing nonprofit media

This article appeared earlier at The Huffington Post.

Outrage over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of Tea Party and other right-wing groups continues to boil — yet a potentially more consequential IRS practice has scarcely gained any attention.

Over the past few years the IRS has virtually stopped approving 501(c)(3) status for nonprofit news organizations. Given the well-documented decline of traditional for-profit newspapers, nonprofit journalism can be a vital alternative, especially at the local and regional levels. But even when applications for 501(c)(3) status aren’t rejected outright, they are stacking up, unacted upon, for months and even years.

A recent Council on Foundations report titled “The IRS and Nonprofit Media: Toward Creating a More Informed Public” put it this way:

There is significant anecdotal evidence that the IRS has delayed the approval of nonprofit media, potentially slowed the development of those already created, and harmed communities by leaving them without essential coverage, due to the application of archaic standards.

Starting in the middle part of the last decade, a number of nonprofit entrepreneurs launched community websites that were built roughly on the public radio model, funded by grants, sponsorships and contributions from readers. Gaining 501(c)(3) status allowed donors to make make those contributions tax-exempt.

In researching “The Wired City,” my book on the New Haven Independent and other community news sites, I was struck that nearly all of the best-known nonprofits — the Independent, Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, the Texas Tribune, the Connecticut Mirror and others — had been started during the same time period, from 2004 to 2009.

“There was an initial bubble of nonprofit start-ups, but you haven’t seen that great wave spreading across the country,” Andrew Donohue, the then-editor of Voice of San Diego, told me in 2011. He saw that as potentially a good thing — a sign that journalists were trying a variety of models, for-profit as well as nonprofit. Since then, however, it has become increasingly apparent that the IRS is a principal agent in stifling that great wave.

Consider some of the consequences of the IRS’s actions and inaction:

• In February 2012, the Chicago News Cooperative went under, in part because of its inability to obtain 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, as Ryan Chittum reported in the Columbia Journalism Review.

• Because the IRS does not consider journalism to be among the educational activities covered by the 501(c)(3) rules, the agency told the Investigative News Network to remove the word “journalism” from its articles of incorporation. The INN complied and won approval, according to an article about the Council on Foundations report by Justin Ellis of the Nieman Journalism Lab.

• In a similar vein, according to the report, the Johnston Insider of Rhode Island received a message from the IRS telling it: “While most of your articles may be of interest to individuals residing in your community, they are not educational.” Because of that and other reasons, editor Elizabeth Wayland-Seal announced that she was suspending publication.

What adds to the absurdity of the IRS’s stance, as the report notes, is that we are already accustomed to relying on nonprofit, tax-exempt media for much of our news and information — not just from community news sites but from long-established outlets such as NPR and local public radio stations, “The PBS NewsHour” and magazines such as Mother Jones, Consumer Reports and National Geographic.

Here is how the media-reform organization Free Press, which has assembled a useful repository of information about the IRS and nonprofit news, describes the problem:

Nonprofit journalism is not a silver bullet for the future of journalism. But fostering a more diverse media system is. If the IRS decides against allowing nonprofit status for newsrooms, it will essentially be arguing that all journalism should be done for profit. The problem is, the market has shown it will not support the full extent and diversity of news and perspectives we need.

Four years ago, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, proposed a bill that would have allowed newspapers to become nonprofit organizations. At the time it struck me as superfluous. Now it appears that it warrants another look — not just for newspapers, but for other forms of media as well.

Absent legislation, President Obama should appoint a new IRS commissioner who understands that providing quality local journalism is indeed the sort of educational activity that should be covered by the provisions of 501(c)(3).

At a historical moment when it has become increasingly difficult for the traditional media to provide the information we need to govern ourselves in a democracy, the IRS shouldn’t stand in the way of promising alternatives.

A new scandal worthy of our outrage

The problem with getting all worked up over the IRS scandal is that we don’t have any outrage left over for the stories that really matter.

Tonight we learn that President Obama’s Justice Department “secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative’s top executive called a ‘massive and unprecedented intrusion’ into how news organizations gather the news.”

And here’s some context: a piece I wrote for the Huffington Post in February 2012 headlined “Obama’s War on Journalism.”

This is the one to watch.

Rory O’Connor reviews “The Wired City”

Veteran progressive journalist Rory O’Connor has written a favorable review of “The Wired City” for the Huffington Post. He writes:

When we as a democratic society are at what Kennedy accurately calls “a historical moment when nonprofit media — supported by foundations, donations, and, indirectly, taxpayers, since contributions are tax-deductible — are in many cases more stable than for-profit media,” his book offers a valuable window into one possible future….

Researching his book, Kennedy concludes, “left me profoundly optimistic about the future of journalism.” Reading it will do the same for you.

O’Connor, an old friend, is, among many other things, the author of “Friends, Followers, and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands, and Killing Traditional Media.” I interviewed him about  his book for (sniff) the Boston Phoenix last May.

WTKK and the ongoing collapse of corporate radio

Screen Shot 2013-01-03 at 3.02.51 PM

This commentary was previously published by the Huffington Post.

Update: I’ll be on New England Cable News on Friday at 7:15 a.m. to talk about WTKK and the future of radio.

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan signed off for the last time from the morning talk show they had hosted on Boston’s WTKK Radio (96.9 FM). A few minutes later, the station reemerged as Power 96.9, a faceless entity blasting out robo-music of some sort. And Boston found itself with just one full-time talk radio station. (The station was quickly redubbed Nova 96.9, apparently because of this.)

The demise of WTKK has been portrayed as another nail in the coffin of right-wing talk radio. The estimable D.R. Tucker calls it part of “a downward spiral for a key element of the conservative entertainment complex.” And, yes, that’s surely part of it.

But what we are really seeing is the demise of commercial radio in general, as corporate owners (Greater Media in WTKK’s case) attempt to squeeze the last few nickels of profit out of a medium that may be in its final stage of collapse.

By the end, WTKK wasn’t even a right-wing talk station. Braude, a liberal, and Eagan, a moderate, hosted a civil show that was more about entertainment than politics. Moderate politics and humor were the rule during midday. The only right-winger was afternoon host Michael Graham, whose idea of a good time was to make fun of people with dwarfism.

It was a far cry from the days when WTKK’s signature host, Jay Severin, would call Al Gore “Al Whore” and refer to Hillary Clinton as “a socialist” and “a pig.” Then again, Severin himself was long gone, having made the mistake of joking about sex with interns at a moment when his ratings were falling.

During the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Boston was a terrific town for talk radio, the home of pioneers such as David Brudnoy, Jerry Williams and Gene Burns, among others. Yes, they leaned right, but their approach was intelligent and respectful (OK, Williams often wasn’t respectful), and they were immersed in the local scene in a way that few talk-show hosts are these days.

So now we are left with one full-time talk station, WRKO (AM 680), home to right-wingers Rush Limbaugh and Howie Carr, a local legend whose shtick descended into bitter self-parody years ago. (Limbaugh’s syndicated show recently moved back to WRKO from a weak AM station owned by Clear Channel.) It certainly hasn’t helped either WTKK or WRKO that their ratings pale in comparison to two full-time sports stations — a phenomenon that didn’t exist during the heyday of local talk.

The only bright light is Dan Rea, who helms a very conservative evening program on all-news station WBZ (AM 1030). Rea, a former television reporter, eschews the shouting and demeaning putdowns in favor of smart conversation.

What happened to talk radio in Boston? I would point to three factors. And I would suggest that none of these are unique to our part of the country. Boston may be on the leading edge, but these same trends could sweep away talk elsewhere, too.

Corporate consolidation. Since the passage of the lamentable Telecommunications Act of 1996, corporations have been buying up radio stations in market after market, transforming what was once a strictly local affair into a bottom-line-obsessed business.

As far back as 1997 I wrote in the Boston Phoenix that the rise of chain ownership would eventually kill local talk. We are now seeing that come to fruition. The automated music stations that are on the rise may not garner many listeners. But they are cheap, which means that their owners can bleed some profits out of them regardless.

“In our current media environment, corporate owners seem to have less tolerance for the station that is unusual, the station with the niche audience,” media scholar and radio consultant Donna Halper wrote for Media Nation earlier this year. “Part of what makes radio unique as a mass medium is its ability to befriend the listener. So losing a favorite station is much like losing a friend.”

The rise of public radio. Boston is home to an exceptionally vibrant public radio scene. Two stations with strong signals — WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM) — broadcast news, public-affairs programming and (yes) talk all day and night, and enjoy some of the largest audiences in the Boston area. (Disclosure #1: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH’s television station, Channel 2.) Other, smaller public stations broadcast far more eclectic musical offerings than anything on commercial radio.

This trend is related to corporate consolidation, as it was the slide in quality on the for-profit side that sent many listeners fleeing to nonprofit radio. If anything, that trend will accelerate.

Technological change. Earlier this year The Phoenix sold the FM signal for its independent rock station, WFNX, to Clear Channel — but kept streaming online. The Boston Globe, meanwhile, hired a few of the people who were laid off when WFNX left the air and now streams its own indie rock station, RadioBDC. All of a sudden, we’ve got a war between two local music stations, neither one of which can be heard over the air. (Disclosure #2: I’m an occasional contributor to The Phoenix.)

These days it’s not difficult to stream Internet radio in your car, which is where most radio listening takes place. Pandora, Spotify and out-of-town music stations (WWOZ of New Orleans is a favorite of mine) are powerful draws, which gives the local flavor of online stations like RadioBDC and WFNX a considerable edge over computer-programmed corporate radio — or, for that matter, subscription-based satellite radio.

It is this last development that gives me reason for optimism. Radio has always been held back by the physical limits of the broadcast spectrum. In a world in which those limits don’t exist, “radio” stations must compete on the strength of their programming rather than their stranglehold on the AM and FM dials.

Seen in that light, the end of WTKK is just another step on the road toward what may be a brighter, more diverse radio future.