Tag Archives: Paul Bass

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.

The New Haven Independent prepares to reboot

NHI goodbye party

Previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Not too many months ago, Paul Bass gave serious thought to shutting down the New Haven Independent, the online-only nonprofit news site he founded in 2005.

“A while back, I considered whether I still had the energy to keep going,” Bass said. “I was burnt.”

He decided to keep it alive. And now he’s getting ready to relaunch with two new full-time staff reporters — one who will start the day after Labor Day, the other who has yet to be hired.

For a small community news organization, the Independent has been remarkably stable. Last week, Bass threw a going-away party for managing editor Melissa Bailey, who will be a Nieman Fellow starting this fall, and staff writer Thomas MacMillan, who is moving to New York to seek his fame and fortune. Both began working at the site as it was ramping up, Bailey in 2006 and MacMillan the following year. (The fourth staff member, Allan Appel, recently cut back to a part-time position.)

Several hundred people gathered in and outside the Woodland Café, near the New Haven Green, to say goodbye to Bailey and MacMillan. Their photography was on display, accompanied by QR codes that smartphone users could access to take them to the stories where those photos first appeared. Copies of Bailey’s just-published book on education reform in New Haven, “School Reform City: Voices from an American Experiment,” were on sale, along with Appel’s novel “The Midland Kid: Tales of the Presidential Ghostwriter.” Mayors past (John DeStefano) and present (Toni Harp) were on hand, as were a number of other community leaders.

“It’s really hard for me to imagine leaving New Haven for more than a few days, let alone a whole year,” Bailey told the crowd. MacMillan defined the privilege of being a journalist: “You ask questions and people just open up to you and give you these amazing stories.”

When I met with Bass afterwards, he talked about how difficult it would be to replace the two. “They’re community journalists. They love the work. They grew so much,” he said. “They both learned so many things, and they really ran the operation with me.”

Yet their departure will allow him to solve a longstanding problem: having an all-white staff cover a city where African-Americans and Latinos are in the majority. “The people I’m hiring will diversify the staff racially,” Bass told me. The Independent has used minority freelancers and interns, but all of its full-time staff journalists have been white.

The reboot of the Independent comes at a crucial time. The regional daily paper, the New Haven Register, has gone through several rounds of cuts in recent months — including one announced just last week — as its owner, Digital First Media, prepares for a widely predicted sell-off. In a few years, Digital First has gone from a closely watched experiment in reinvention to just another sad tale of chain journalism gone wrong.

Thus the Independent’s mix of political and neighborhood news, education reporting, and, increasingly, a focus on the arts fills a real need.

Despite the challenges of keeping a nonprofit going, Bass has had quite a bit of success with fundraising. Currently, he said, he has pledges through 2015 to cover the $420,000 budget for the Independent and a satellite two-person site in the northwest suburbs called the Valley Independent Sentinel. In recent years, he added, his fundraising base has shifted from about 75 percent foundation grants to about 25 percent. Most of the money comes from high-net-worth donors in the New Haven area. About $15,000 to $20,000 comes from small donors.

Late in 2013, Bass applied for a low-power FM license to operate a nonprofit community radio station in New Haven. He has yet to hear from the FCC, but he continues to hope it will come through. “I think we’d engage the readership in a new way,” he said.

For now, though, he’s planning to do something he’s never done before: ramp down the Independent for a few weeks. Posting will be minimal this week and next. And he’s going to stop posting completely during the last two weeks of August — a first since the Independent began publication in late August of 2005. Then comes the new Independent.

“I’m not going to have the same experience level I have now, so it’s going to be different,” Bass said. “I don’t think I can replace Thomas and Melissa.”

Cuts are imminent at the ProJo and the New Haven Register

The redoubtable Ian Donnis of Rhode Island Public Radio reports that The Providence Journal may shed up to 40 jobs once an affiliate of GateHouse Media has completed its purchase of the paper. Donnis’ source is impeccable: the number is included in paperwork GateHouse filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Donnis does not say how many employees the Journal now has, and I was unable to find that number in recent coverage of the sale. I’ll add it if someone passes it along. Also, I assume that all 40 cuts will not be in the newsroom.

Also, Philip Eil of The Providence Phoenix takes a look (link now added) at what the sale means for the venerable paper. (Founded in 1829, the Journal bills itself as the oldest continuously published daily paper in the United States.)

In other dispiriting news, Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent reports that another round of deep cuts is imminent at the New Haven Register. Once part of the Journal Register Co., perhaps the worst newspaper chain in the country, and in more recent years a beacon of hope under Digital First impresario John Paton, the entire chain — which includes Massachusetts titles such as The Sun of Lowell, the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg and The Berkshire Eagle — is now believed to be for sale.

A nuanced, layered story that is almost about race

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Vincent (left) and Herbert Campbell in 2009.

The New York Times on Saturday published a feature story about an obscure but layered issue — a fence separating a public housing project in New Haven from the adjoining suburb of Hamden. After some 50 years, the fence is finally coming down.

It’s a story that caught my attention in late 2009, when Thomas MacMillan of the New Haven Independent first reported on efforts to remove the fence, also known as “the Berlin Wall.” It struck me as an example of the kind of nuanced journalism that characterized the Independent, an online-only nonprofit news site that I was tracking for my book “The Wired City.”

On the surface, you might think the issue was about white suburbanites who objected to black public housing residents gaining easy access to their town. But that would be too simple. Hamden has a significant African-American population. MacMillan interviewed two brothers who lived in Hamden and who opposed efforts by New Haven officials to remove the fence. MacMillan quoted Herbert Campbell as saying the fence prevented “all the riff-raff from coming around,” including drug dealers. Vincent Campbell added: “We had a lot of problems in the past. You never know who’s going to break into your house.”

This past May 4, Independent editor Paul Bass — who tells me he first wrote about the fence in 1999, while he was at the now-defunct alt-weekly New Haven Advocate — reported that the fence would be removed after it was discovered that it is actually on the New Haven side of the border. A federal civil-rights investigation helped speed matters along. Here is Bass’ follow-up on the actual tear-down. The daily New Haven Register covered the story as well, and published an editorial hailing the removal.

The New York Times story, by Benjamin Mueller, acknowledges the complexities of the saga, noting that both New Haven and Hamden now have black mayors, and that Hamden residents both black and white appear to be united in their opposition to the fence’s being demolished.

Photo by Thomas MacMillan, courtesy of the New Haven Independent.

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

70-Cover-LARGE

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.

New Haven Independent’s Bailey headed for Harvard

Melissa Bailey

Melissa Bailey

Congratulations to Melissa Bailey, managing editor of the New Haven Independent, who’s been selected as a Nieman Fellow for 2014-’15. I accompanied Bailey on several reporting assignments in researching my book “The Wired City.” The photo above is a still from a June 2009 video interview I conducted with her, Independent founder and editor Paul Bass and New Haven Register managing editor Mark Brackenbury.

Here is the full announcement from Harvard’s Nieman Foundation. As always, it looks like a distinguished class of fellows.