Tag Archives: New Haven Independent

An ebook about school reform in New Haven

CoverschoolreformcitySMALL1_363_580autoIf you care about public education, I have some good summer reading for you.

Melissa Bailey, who covers New Haven’s nationally recognized school-reform effort for the New Haven Independent, has published some of her best stories — along with supplemental material — in an ebook titled “School Reform City: Voices from an American Experiment.”

I got to know Melissa while I was researching my book “The Wired City.” She is a resourceful, dedicated reporter, and “School Reform City” should be a real contribution to the growing literature on school reform. She’ll split the proceeds with the Independent, so it’s a fundraiser (and a visibility-raiser) for the nonprofit news site as well.

Melissa will be taking a leave from the Independent this fall, as she’ll be a Nieman Fellow at Harvard during the 2014-’15 academic year.

Disruptive innovation and the future of news

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Photo via ElationPress.com.

Previously published at Medium.

Toward the end of The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen’s influential 1997 book about why good companies sometimes fail, he writes, “I have found that many of life’s most useful insights are often quite simple.”

Indeed, the fundamental ideas at the heart of his book are so blindingly self-evident that, in retrospect, it is hard to imagine it took a Harvard Business School professor to describe them for the first time. And that poses a problem for Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian who recently wrote a scathingly critical essay about Christensen’s theories for the New Yorker titled “The Disruption Machine.” Call it the Skeptic’s Dilemma.

Christensen offers reams of data and graphs to support his claims, but his argument is easy to understand. Companies generally succeed by improving their products, upgrading their technology, and listening to their customers — processes that are at the heart of what Christensen calls “sustaining innovations.” What destroys some of those companies are “disruptive innovations” — crude, cheap at first, attacking from below, and gradually (or not) moving up the food chain. The “innovator’s dilemma” is that companies sometimes fail not in spite of doing everything right, but because they did everything right.

Some examples of this phenomenon make it easy to understand. Kodak, focusing its efforts on improving photographic film and paper, paid no attention to digital technology (invented by one of its own engineers), which at first could not compete on quality but which later swallowed the entire industry. Manufacturers of mainframe computers like IBM could not be bothered with the minicomputer market developed by companies like Digital Equipment Corporation; and DEC, in turn, failed to adapt to the personal computer revolution led by the likes of Apple and, yes, IBM. (Christensen shows how the success of the IBM PC actually validates his ideas: the company set up a separate, autonomous division, far from the mothership, to develop its once-ubiquitous personal computer.)

Clay Christensen in 2011. Photo (cc) by Betsy Weber. Some rights reserved.

Clay Christensen in 2011. Photo (cc) by Betsy Weber. Some rights reserved.

Christensen has applied his theories to journalism as well. In 2012 he wrote a long essay for Nieman Reports in collaboration with David Skok, a Canadian journalist who was then a Nieman Fellow and is now the digital adviser to Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory, and James Allworth, a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review. In the essay, titled “Breaking News,” they describe how Time magazine began in the 1920s as a cheaply produced aggregator, full of “rip-and-read copy from the day’s major publications,” and gradually moved up the journalistic chain by hiring reporters and producing original reportage. Today, they note, websites like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, which began as little more than aggregators, have begun “their march up the value network” in much the same way as Time some 90 years ago.

And though Christensen, Skok, and Allworth don’t say it explicitly, Time magazine, once a disruptive innovator and long since ensconced as a crown jewel of the quality press, is now on the ropes — cast out of the Time Warner empire, as David Carr describes it in the New York Times, with little hope of long-term survival.

***

INTO THIS SEA of obviousness sails Lepore, an award-winning historian and an accomplished journalist. I am an admirer of her 1998 book The Name of War: King Philip’s War and American Identity. Her 2010 New Yorker article on the Tea Party stands as a particularly astute, historically aware examination of a movement that waxes and wanes but that will not (as Eric Cantor recently learned) go away.

Lepore pursues two approaches in her attempted takedown of Christensen. The first is to look at The Innovator’s Dilemma as a cultural critic would, arguing that Christensen popularized a concept — “disruption” — that resonates in an era when we are all fearful of our place in an uncertain, rapidly changing economy. In the face of that uncertainty, notions such as disruption offer a possible way out, provided you can find a way to be the disruptor. She writes:

The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the twentieth century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt, and you will be saved.

The second approach Lepore pursues is more daring, as she takes the fight from her turf — history and culture — to Christensen’s. According to Lepore, Christensen made some key mistakes. The disk-drive companies that were supposedly done in by disruptive innovators eating away at their businesses from below actually did quite well, she writes. And she claims that his analysis of the steel industry is flawed by his failure to take into account the effects of labor strife. “Christensen’s sources are often dubious and his logic questionable,” Lepore argues.

Jill Lepore. Publicity photo from her Harvard bio.

Jill Lepore. Publicity photo from her Harvard bio.

But Lepore saves her real venom for the dubious effects she says the cult of disruption has had on society, from financial services (“it led to a global financial crisis”) to higher education (she partly blames a book Christensen co-authored, The Innovative University, for the rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, of which she takes a dim view) to journalism (one of several fields, she writes, with “obligations that lie outside the realm of earnings”).

Christensen has not yet written a response; perhaps he will, perhaps he won’t. But in an interview with Drake Bennett of Bloomberg Businessweek, he asserts that it was hardly his fault if the term “disruption” has become overused and misunderstood:

I was delighted that somebody with her standing would join me in trying to bring discipline and understanding around a very useful theory. I’ve been trying to do it for 20 years. And then in a stunning reversal, she starts instead to try to discredit Clay Christensen, in a really mean way. And mean is fine, but in order to discredit me, Jill had to break all of the rules of scholarship that she accused me of breaking — in just egregious ways, truly egregious ways.

As for the “egregious” behavior of which he accuses Lepore, Christensen is especially worked up that she read The Innovator’s Dilemma, published 17 years ago, yet seems not to have read any of his subsequent books — books in which he says he continued to develop and refine his theories about disruptive innovation. He defends his data. And he explains his prediction that Apple’s iPhone would fail (a prediction mocked by Lepore) by saying that he initially thought it was a sustaining innovation that built on less expensive smartphones. Only later, he says, did he realize that it was a disruptive innovation aimed at laptops — less capable than laptops, but also cheaper and easier to carry.

“I just missed that,” he tells Bennett. “And it really helped me with the theory, because I had to figure out: Who are you disrupting?”

Christensen also refers to Lepore as “Jill” so many times that Bennett finally asks him if he knows her. His response: “I’ve never met her in my life.”

***

CHRISTENSEN’S DESCRIPTION of how his understanding of the iPhone evolved demonstrates a weakness of disruption theory: It’s far easier to explain the rise and fall of companies in terms of sustaining and disruptive innovations after the fact, when you can pick them apart and make them the subject of case studies.

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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.

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.

Kevin Convey to chair Quinnipiac’s journalism program

Kevin Convey

Kevin Convey

Good news for journalism students at Quinnipiac University: Kevin Convey, former editor of the Boston Herald and the New York Daily News, has been named chair of the university’s well-regarded journalism department.

Convey got his master’s degree at City University of New York after he lost his job at the Daily News. Last year Capital New York published a feature on Convey’s journey from editor to student. (Note: I covered Convey during his Herald days as The Boston Phoenix’s media columnist.)

At Quinnipiac, Convey will have ready access to two of the more interesting experiments in finding a sustainable model for local journalism: the nonprofit online-only New Haven Independent and the for-profit regional newspaper, the New Haven Register, part of the struggling but innovative Digital First Media chain.

Congratulations and best wishes to Kevin.

Pierre Omidyar’s dicey embrace of nonprofit status

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Pierre Omidyar

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who’s part of the high-profile news project being launched by the tech entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar, writes that the operation’s journalism will be incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

But will it really be that simple? As I wrote earlier this year, the IRS has cracked down on 501(c)(3) status for journalism, apparently (it’s not entirely clear) because the agency doesn’t consider journalism to be an approved “educational” activity.

Rosen calls the venture, to be named First Look Media, a “hybrid” that melds for-profit and nonprofit operations: there will also be a for-profit technology company that, if it becomes profitable, will subsidize the journalism.

But that’s not what we normally think of when discussing hybrid journalism models. The usual route is for a nonprofit of some kind to own a for-profit news organization. The example most often cited (including by Rosen) is the Tampa Bay Times, which is owned by the Poynter Institute, a journalism research and training organization.

The difference matters, because a nonprofit news organization is prohibited from endorsing political candidates and engaging in other activities that might be deemed partisan. By contrast, a for-profit enjoys the full protection of the First Amendment, even if it’s owned by a nonprofit.

Not that a nonprofit can’t do great journalism — nonprofits ranging from Mother Jones to the New Haven Independent have proved that. But it will be interesting to see how First Look and its high-profile contributors, including Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, negotiate the tricky nonprofit landscape.

Photo via Wikipedia.

Hartford Courant to absorb last vestiges of Advocate alt-weeklies

cover_image_3_330_410_88_sha-40Long before I decided to write a book about the New Haven Independent, I knew who Paul Bass was. The New Haven Advocate, like The Boston Phoenix, was one of the crown jewels in the world of alternative weeklies. Bass, who spent much of his long stint at the Advocate as its chief political columnist, was something of a legend in that world.

The first time we met, in 2009, he told me he had decided to launch the Independent, an online-only nonprofit news site, in part because he was unhappy with what had happened to the Advocate under the ownership of the Hartford Courant and its various corporate overlords. (I wrote about the sale of the Advocate papers for the Phoenix in 1999.)

This week, about eight months after The Boston Phoenix died (survived by its sister papers in Portland and Providence), the Advocate breathed its last. In this case, there isn’t even a body to mourn, as the Courant absorbed the Advocate into a weekly supplement called CTNow. The Hartford Advocate and the Fairfield County Weekly are being subsumed into CTNow as well, according to this account by blogger and former Advocate writer Brian LaRue.

Bass has written a heartfelt tribute to the Advocate and what it meant to New Haven — and to him. Among other things, he gets at something I’ve been thinking about: whether community news sites like the Independent are, in a sense, the new alt-weeklies — not as opinionated, not as profane, not nearly as far to the left, but nevertheless representing a type of journalism that is engaged with the community in a way that few daily newspapers are.