Tag Archives: Matt DeRienzo

The Worcester Sun charts a path from digital to paid print

Worcester Sun co-founders Fred Hurlbrink Jr., left, and Mark Henderson.

Worcester Sun co-founders Fred Hurlbrink Jr., left, and Mark Henderson.

Previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

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.”

Matt DeRienzo has left the building

Matt DeRienzo

Matt DeRienzo

Matt DeRienzo, the top editor at Digital First Media’s Connecticut properties, including the New Haven Register, has taken a buyout offer and left the company, according to Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent.

DeRienzo, 38, had worked at various permutations of DFM for the past 11 years. In his early days, he once told me in an interview for my book “The Wired City,” his tasks included making sure the chain’s newspapers didn’t post too much content on their websites so that customers wouldn’t have less incentive to buy a paper. Toward the end, under DFM chief executive John Paton, DeRienzo was a leader in nudging his journalists away from print into the digital age. He writes:

I’ve come to know hundreds of people who have dedicated their lives to journalism, who work long hours for low pay, and put up with all kinds of crap (including plenty from me!) year after year. Cynical exteriors aside, at the heart of it, they care about strangers and are in journalism to improve people’s lives.

For the time being DeRienzo is doing some writing for CT News Junkie, a for-profit website that covers Connecticut politics and public policy.

DeRienzo will be succeeded at DFM’s Connecticut publications by Mark Brackenbury, someone who — in my one brief encounter — impressed me as an editor who cares about journalism and communities.

As I wrote for The Huffington Post earlier this year, DFM seems to be on the verge of breaking up and disappearing; the company’s financial problems had a serious effect on DeRienzo’s ability to carry out his vision. Yet in Bass’ Independent story, Paton sounds as charged up as ever, saying the company will move forward once a buyer for the chain is found.

I hope Paton is right. And best wishes to Matt, one of the good guys in our field.

A New Haven-centric view of Digital First’s latest woes

The Register in June 2013, shortly after a redesign.

The Register in June 2013, shortly after a redesign.

This article was published earlier at The Huffington Post.

The end may be near for one of the most widely watched experiments in local journalism.

Early today, Ken Doctor reported at the Nieman Journalism Lab that Digital First Media was pulling the plug on Project Thunderdome, an initiative to provide national and international content to the company’s 75 daily newspapers and other publications and websites. Soon, Doctor added, Digital First’s papers are likely to be sold.

Judging from the reaction on Twitter, the news came as a shock, with many offering their condolences and best wishes to the top-notch digital news innovators who are leaving — including Jim Brady, Robyn Tomlin and Steve Buttry. But for someone who has been watching the Digital First story play out in New Haven for the past five years, what happened today was more a disappointment than a surprise.

I first visited the New Haven Register, a regional daily, in 2009. I was interviewing people for what would become “The Wired City,” a book centered on the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news site that represents an alternative to the broken advertising-based model that has traditionally supported local journalism. The Register’s corporate chain owner, the Journal Register Co., was in bankruptcy. The paper itself seemed listless and without direction.

Two years later, everything had changed. Journal Register had emerged from bankruptcy and hired a colorful, hard-driving chief executive, John Paton, whose oft-stated philosophy for turning around the newspaper business — “digital first” — became the name of his blog and, eventually, of his expanded empire, formed by the union of Journal Register and MediaNews, the latter best known for its ownership of the Denver Post.

Just before Labor Day in 2011, Matt DeRienzo — then a 35-year-old rising star who had just been put in charge of all of Journal Register’s Connecticut publications, including the New Haven Register — sat down with me and outlined his plans. His predecessor had refused my requests for an interview; DeRienzo, by contrast, had tracked me down because he’d heard I was writing a book. It seemed that a new era of openness and progress had begun.

The openness was for real. The progress, though, proved elusive. For a while, John Paton was the most celebrated newspaper executive in the country, the subject of flattering profiles in the The New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review and elsewhere. Media reporters were charmed by his blunt profanity, as when he described a presentation he gave to Journal Register managerial employees. “They were like, ‘Who’s the fat guy in the front telling us that we’re broken? Who the fuck is he?'” Paton told the CJR.

In 2012, though, Journal Register declared bankruptcy again — a necessary step, Paton said, as it was the only way he could get costs such as long-term building leases and pension obligations under control. After Journal Register emerged from bankruptcy in 2013, Paton’s moment in the national spotlight seemed to have passed, as media observers turned their attention to a new breed of media moguls like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos (who bought The Washington Post), Red Sox principal owner John Henry (who bought The Boston Globe), greeting-card executive Aaron Kushner (who acquired the Orange County Register) and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar (who launched a new venture called First Look Media).

Although Digital First’s deepening woes may have escaped national attention, there were signs in New Haven that not all was well. Some positive steps were taken. The print edition was redesigned. The Register website was the beneficiary of a chain-wide refurbishing. Nasty, racist online comments were brought under control, and the newsroom embraced social media. But larger improvements were harder to accomplish.

Among the goals Matt DeRienzo had talked about was moving the paper out of its headquarters, a hulking former shirt factory near Interstate 95, and opening a smaller office in the downtown. In 2012, the Register shut down its printing presses and outsourced the work to the Hartford Courant. The second part of that process never came, though. Just last week, the New Haven Independent reported that the Register had backed away from moving to a former downtown mall facing New Haven Green. Two months earlier, according to the Independent, the Register and Digital First’s other Connecticut publications laid off 10 people.

Neither development should be described as a death knell. The downtown move is reportedly still in the works. And the 10 layoffs were at least partly offset by the creation of six new digitally focused positions. But rather than boldly moving forward, the paper appears to be spinning its wheels. And now — or soon — it may be for sale.

One of the biggest problems Digital First faces is its corporate structure. Can for-profit local journalism truly be reinvented by a national chain whose majority owner — Alden Global Capital — is a hedge fund? People who invest in hedge funds are not generally known for their deep and abiding affection for the idea that quality journalism is essential to democratic self-goverance. Rather, they want their money back — and then some. Preferably as quickly as possible.

No matter how smart, hard-working and well-intentioned John Paton, Jim Brady, Matt DeRienzo et al. may be, the Digital First experiment was probably destined to end this way, as chain ownership generally does. I wish for a good outcome, especially in New Haven. Maybe some civic-minded business leaders will buy the paper and keep DeRienzo as editor. And maybe we’ll all come to understand that the best way to reinvent local journalism is at the local level, by people who are rooted in and care about their community.

What’s at stake in the latest Journal Register bankruptcy

Matt DeRienzo

This article also appears at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

In the spring of 2009, when I began researching what would become a book about online community journalism, I couldn’t have found a better foil than the New Haven Register.

Owned by the bankrupt Journal Register Co. (JRC), the daily was moribund and mediocre, its disconnect from the community symbolized by its location: a gigantic converted shirt factory, partly surrounded by barbed wire, on the outskirts of the city next to Interstate 95. The contrast with the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit, online-only startup that is the focus of my book, couldn’t have been more stark.

Three years later, when I turned in my manuscript, things had changed considerably. JRC was out of bankruptcy. Its chief executive, John Paton, was winning industry plaudits for his “Digital First” strategy of accelerating the transformation from print to online. The New Haven Register had a new, young, progressive editor, Matt DeRienzo. And JRC had outsourced printing to the Hartford Courant as DeRienzo had begun preparing to move his staff to a yet-to-be-determined location in the downtown. New Haven, a poor, largely minority city of about 130,000 people, was suddenly home to two of the country’s most closely watched experiments in reinventing local journalism. (My book on all of this, “The Wired City,” will be published by the University of Massachusetts in 2013.)

So I was shocked on Wednesday when Jim Romenesko reported that JRC was once again entering bankruptcy. As Paton explained it on his blog, the idea is to get the company out from under the legacy costs that it took on when the newspaper business was a lot larger and more profitable than it is today: debt; long-term leases on buildings it no longer needs; and pension obligations. The strategy is to take advantage of Chapter 11 in order to reduce JRC’s cost structure and re-emerge from bankruptcy in a matter of months.

The pension piece has been the subject of considerable consternation on Twitter and elsewhere, as it raised the specter of out-of-state investors (JRC is headquartered in suburban Philadelphia) taking away from loyal employees what is rightfully theirs. DeRienzo countered by pointing out that pensions are guaranteed by the federal government. “No one’s retirement is at risk,” he wrote.

There’s no question that guaranteed pensions are largely a thing of the past in the private sector, with defined benefits having given way some years ago to the era of the 401(k). And JRC is not the only newspaper company with pension problems. In 2009, the New York Times Co. nearly reached a deal to sell the Boston Globe that would reportedly have brought in less cash ($35 million) than the Globe’s future pension obligations ($59 million), which prospective buyers were asked to assume.

In other words, if you were going to start any private enterprise from scratch, you would almost certainly not include pensions as one of the benefits that you would offer your employees. And I have little trouble believing that JRC’s pension system is weighing the company down.

On the other hand, it seems to me that JRC may soon face a “Where’s the beef?” moment. Paton’s tireless advocacy of Digital First has gotten a lot of attention and praise — deservedly so. At some point, though, Paton has to deliver real improvements both to the journalism of JRC’s news organizations and to the bottom line.

I think Paton and DeRienzo have the right values and the right motives. I’m rooting for them. Fundamentally, though, we are talking about trying to effect change from the top down. Corporate chain ownership has been a disaster for community journalism. I’d rather my paper be owned by a good chain than a bad one. But neither is an adequate substitute for local ownership — and yes, I realize that’s no panacea, either.

As the Nieman Journalism Lab’s Joshua Benton points out, this may be Paton’s last, best chance to remake JRC exactly along the lines that he envisions — truly a new start without the dead weight of his predecessors’ poor decisions dragging him down. I’m eager to see what he’ll do with that opportunity.

New Haven Independent suspends comments

The New Haven Independent, a nonprofit, online-only news site, has long stood as a model for how to handle comments the right way. Though editor and publisher Paul Bass allows anonymity, he makes sure that every comment is screened before it’s posted. His comments policy begins: “Yes we do censor reader comments. We’ll continue to.”

So I was pretty surprised to learn a little while ago that Bass has suspended comments in order to give him and his staff some time to “catch our breath” and think about how to handle a deluge of nastiness — a deluge that he says has been on the increase since last fall’s contentious mayoral campaign. He writes:

The resulting harsh debate made me wonder: Is this the long-awaited new dawn of democracy and accountability we thought we were helping to help spark in New Haven by launching the Independent in 2005? Or are we contributing to the reflexively cynical, hate-filled discourse that has polluted American civic life? Are we reviving the civic square? Or managing a sewer with toxic streams that demoralize anyone who dares to take part in government or citizen activism?

What precipitated the hiatus, Bass explains, was a particularly hateful comment that somehow got posted even though he thought he’d zapped it. (It’s gone now.)

The city’s daily newspaper, the New Haven Register, has had its own problems with hateful, racist online comments. The new editor, Matt DeRienzo, vowed shortly after his appointment last summer that the Register would begin screening all comments — a system that is now in effect.

The idea behind comments is to build a community around the news through a multi-directional conversation. Though community and conversation remain worthwhile goals, nearly 20 years into the online-news era it remains far from clear as to whether online comments are the best way to do that.

Wednesday follow-up: Matt DeRienzo has written a smart reaction piece, asking, among other things, “How can the community be part of your journalism if you don’t even allow them to comment on what you do?”

New Haven Register to stop presses, cut 105 jobs

As a symbol of a newspaper that’s out of touch with its community, you couldn’t do much better (in other words, much worse) than the headquarters of the New Haven Register. The city’s daily newspaper is located in a former shirt factory alongside Interstate 95 amid an undistinguished strip of businesses. A barbed-wire fence surrounds part of the property.

So though you’ve got to be sad at today’s news that the Register will soon be printed by the Hartford Courant and that 105 people will lose their jobs, in the long run it should provide the Register with an opportunity to rebuild its community ties. The New Haven Independent covers the story, and it follows by days the announcement that the Boston Globe will soon begin printing most editions of the Boston Herald.

New Haven Register editor Matt DeRienzo has said he wants to move the staff — or at least part of it — to a downtown location where members of the public will be free to walk in, grab a cup of coffee and observe news meetings — as they already do at a smaller paper he also runs, the Torrington Register Citizen.

Recently, the Register began webcasting its news meetings as well.

Like many papers, the Register moved out of the downtown in the 1970s 1980s as a reflection of the large industrial enterprises they were in those days — manufacturing plants that took deliveries of paper and ink, and then sent fleets of vehicles across the region to distribute the finished product. It made a certain kind of sense, but it also represented the fraying of a relationship with the communities those papers served.

Now the Register’s owner, the Journal Register Co., has embarked on an extensive reinvention effort called “Digital First.” The Register’s decision to jettison its printing operation is a reflection of that effort, and it could be a sign of better days to come.

Beware the “Romenesko Effect”

Jim Romenesko

Time was when a young journalist could recover from a lapse in judgment, learn from his or her mistake and get back on the career ladder. As NPR’s Nina Totenberg once said about having been fired for plagiarism when she was a 28-year-old reporter for the National Observer, “I have a strong feeling that a young reporter is entitled to one mistake and to have the holy bejeezus scared out of her to never do it again.”

Those days are long gone. Whereas well-connected miscreants such as Mike Barnicle seem never to go away, young reporters caught stealing are briefly held up to national ridicule and then banished into some black hole. My friend Mark Jurkowitz calls it the “Romenesko Effect,” in tribute to Jim Romenesko’s compulsively read media-news site at Poynter.org.

The latest example is a reporter for Connecticut’s Middletown Press named Walt Gogolya, who left the paper after he was caught ripping off large sections of a story from the local Patch.com site. (I wouldn’t name Gogolya except that Romenesko writer Charles Apple — Romenesko himself is heading toward retirement — already has.)

The article falls into the news-of-the-weird category, as it involves the arrest of a man for field-dressing a deer in a parking lot. Those details may have made it harder for Gogolya to get away with his thievery. Worse for him is that the Press is owned by the Journal Register Co., which, under CEO John Paton and Connecticut regional editor Matt DeRienzo, has embarked on a public campaign of maximum transparency. Gogolya was not quietly asked to leave — he was thoroughly exposed in this editor’s note from DeRienzo. From there it was but a short hop to Romenesko and industry-wide humiliation.

I’m not entirely sure what to think about this. I think DeRienzo deserves credit for being open with his readers about what happened and how the company responded. I also did some poking around the tubes and discovered that Gogolya is not some kid fresh out of J-school. Nor do I have a problem with Romenesko airing such matters — quite the opposite, in fact. Yet these good decisions, defensible in themselves, may add up to something that’s disproportionate to the offense. Not that this is an excuse, but I’d be curious to know what Gogolya’s workload was like. Those are not easy jobs. But guess what? There’s no going back.

Essentially, young journalists need to know this: the world in which Nina Totenberg began her career no longer exists, and hasn’t for some time. When it comes to journalism’s two cardinal sins, plagiarism and fabrication, it’s now one strike and you’re out.

I think it also means that those of us who teach journalism need to be as diligent about these matters as we possibly can. Far better to suffer an “F” and a trip to the student disciplinary board at 20 than to have your career ended just as you’re getting started.