Tag Archives: The Wired City

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.

On the road again

"The Wired City," spotted in the gift shop of the Newseum in Washington and tweeted by Kevin Koczwara (http://bit.ly/1iUAYhS).

“The Wired City,” spotted in the gift shop of the Newseum in Washington and tweeted by Kevin Koczwara (http://bit.ly/1iUAYhS).

The Wired City World Tour heats up again with two stops this coming week.

Next Saturday, April 5, I’ll be speaking at the New York Press Association‘s spring convention in Saratoga Springs. It’s not strictly a book event, but I’ll be talking about the future of local news and other themes related to “The Wired City.”

The following day I’ll be at the Morse Institute Library in Natick for a book event sponsored by the Natick Historical Society. It starts at 2:30 p.m. and is open to the public. I’ll have copies of “The Wired City” and “Little People.” If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll consider dropping by.

Six takeaways from BoMag’s big John Henry profile

John Henry

John Henry

This article was posted earlier at WGBH News.

The local media community has been buzzing since Tuesday, when Jason Schwartz’s 5,000-word Boston magazine article on the state of The Boston Globe under John Henry went live. The piece is chock-full of goodies, and you should read the whole thing. As you do, here are six takeaways for you to ponder.

1. It could have been a lot worse. Although we knew that Douglas Manchester, the right-wing hotel magnate who bought the San Diego Union-Tribune and unforgivably renamed it U-T San Diego, was interested in buying the Globe (he even threatened legal action after it was sold to Henry instead of him), it is nevertheless chilling to read Schwartz’s account of Manchester’s coming in and kicking the tires after the New York Times Co. put the Globe up for sale.

As I wrote in my book about online community journalism, “The Wired City,” Manchester has been described as “a minor-league Donald Trump” who uses his newspaper to promote his business interests as well as conservative causes such as his opposition to same-sex marriage.

In the Boston magazine article, Globe editor Brian McGrory tells Schwartz that “some potential bidders” — and by “some,” it’s clear that he’s including Manchester — would have “cut the living bejesus out of the place.” And Schwartz includes this delicious anecdote: “During the U-T San Diego presentation, people who were in the room attest, Manchester at one point instructed McGrory to call him ‘Papa Doug.’ McGrory did not call him Papa Doug.”

2. It’s official: The Globe is moving. Even before Henry won the Globe sweepstakes, it was clear that the next owner was likely to sell the paper’s 1950s-era Dorchester headquarters for redevelopment — a move that would presumably recoup virtually all of the $70 million Henry paid to purchase the Globe, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester and related properties.

Henry has now made it official, telling Schwartz his goal is to move the paper to a smaller space with better access “in the heart of the city.”

Of course, the Globe still needs a printing press, not only for its own use but for other publications it prints under contract — including its tabloid rival, the Boston Herald. One likely possibility: the Telegram & Gazette’s printing facility in Millbury, which Henry said he was keeping when he announced recently that he was putting the T&G up for sale.

3. The two-website strategy needs an overhaul. Since the fall of 2011, the Globe has offered two websites: BostonGlobe.com, a paid-subscription site offering Globe content and a few extras; and Boston.com, a free site that’s been around since the mid-1990s.

The problem, Schwartz tells us, is that Boston.com, stripped of most Globe content, has been struggling, while BostonGlobe.com hasn’t produced as much revenue as Globe executives would like. The next step: a looser paywall for BostonGlobe.com to encourage more social sharing and a mobile-first Boston.com that’s still in development. (Joshua Benton has more at the Nieman Journalism Lab.)

4. Henry wants to reinvent the newspaper business. This week’s New Yorker includes a rather dispiriting account by George Packer of how Jeff Bezos and Amazon.com took over the book business. Anyone looking for signs that Bezos has a clear idea of what to do with The Washington Post, which he agreed to buy just days after Henry’s purchase of the Globe was announced, will come away disappointed — although he is, to his credit, spending money on the Post.

By contrast, Henry comes across as energized, bristling with ideas — peppering Brian McGrory with emails at all hours of the night — and getting ready to unveil new products, such as standalone websites that cover religion, innovation and other topics.

“I wanted to be a part of finding the solution for the Globe and newspapers in general,” Henry tells Schwartz. “I feel my mortality. I don’t want to waste any of the time I have left, and I felt this was a cause worth fighting for.”

5. Mike Barnicle is lurking off stage. If you were worried when you spotted Barnicle with Henry during the World Series, well, you were right to be. Barnicle, who left the Globe in 1998 after a career full of ethical missteps finally caught up with him, really does have Henry’s ear — and even supplied him with the email address of John Allen, the National Catholic Reporter journalist whom Henry successfully talked into coming to the Globe.

The old reprobate hasn’t changed, either, supplying Schwartz with a great quote that artfully combines religion with an F-bomb.

6. The executive team is now in place. By accepting publisher Christopher Mayer’s resignation, naming himself publisher and bringing in former Hill Holliday president Mike Sheehan as his chief executive officer, Henry has completed a series of moves that have remade the top layer of Globe leadership. McGrory is staying. Andrew Perlmutter, who made his bones at Atlantic Media and The Daily Beast, has replaced Jeff Moriarty, who left for a job in Britain, as the Globe’s chief digital strategist.

That’s not to rule out further change, especially if Henry’s goals aren’t met. But the sense you get is that Henry — to use a Red Sox analogy — now has his Larry Lucchino/Ben Cherington/John Farrell triumvirate in place. No doubt they all realize that winning a world championship is a lot easier than finding a profitable way forward for the beleaguered newspaper business.

Speaking about ‘The Wired City’ this Sunday

The world tour for “The Wired City” resumes this Sunday, Jan. 12, at 2 p.m., as I’ll be speaking at the Needham Free Public Library, 1139 Highland Ave. My topic will be “The Future of the Fourth Estate: The Current State of News Reporting,” which is part of the McIver Lecture Series. If you’re in MetroWest, I hope you’ll consider dropping by.

Howard Owens on the success of The Batavian

Corporate hyperlocal is fading, with Patch being the prime example. Independent hyperlocal is working. Howard Owens, one of my main subjects in “The Wired City,” discusses the success of The Batavian this week with NPR’s “On the Media.”

Here is a blog post I wrote in July about The Batavian’s growth.

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.

Measuring the effectiveness of nonprofit news

New Haven Green

New Haven Green

Among the more difficult challenges I faced when I was researching “The Wired City” was trying to figure out the influence — and thus the effectiveness — of the New Haven Independent, the nonprofit online-only news site that is the major focus of the book. So I was intrigued when NPR reported last week that the folks who run Charity Navigator hope to unveil effectiveness ratings for nonprofits in 2016. I suspect it won’t be easy.

Nonprofit news presents special challenges. You can measure a food pantry’s effectiveness by how many families get fed, or an orchestra’s reach in terms of attendance, educational programs and the like. But how do you measure the effectiveness of a news organization?

The way I tried to answer that question was to look at numbers, but to look beyond the numbers as well. Certainly the numbers couldn’t come close to telling the whole story. The Independent’s main competitor is the regional daily newspaper, the New Haven Register, whose website receives considerably more traffic than the Independent’s (two to three times as much, according to Compete.com‘s very rough numbers) — and which, unlike the Independent, has a daily print edition. How can the Independent possibly exercise the same amount of influence?

It can’t. But that doesn’t mean that it’s ineffective. Since it’s not a mass-circulation outlet, the Independent relies on reaching civically engaged people — city leaders, neighborhood activists and anyone who takes an interest in what’s going on in New Haven on a daily basis.

In a 2009 interview, Michael Morand, an associate vice president at Yale, described the Independent’s readers as “active voters, elected and appointed officials, opinion makers, civic activists as measured by people who are on boards, leaders of block watches and other neighborhood organizations.” Mayor John DeStefano told me in 2011 that he considered the Register to be “the dominant media,” but added that the Independent serves “those that follow city government and community-based activities.”

One issue stood out for me as an example of how the Independent could be effective while reaching a niche audience. In the fall of 2010 the Independent — following the lead of the Yale Daily News — began reporting on incidents in which police officers ordered people not to video-record them while they were making arrests and engaging in other activities. The Independent reported on the story for months, and revealed that one man on a public sidewalk had his cellphone confiscated and the video erased; the man was charged with interfering with police.

The Independent’s reporting led to real reform. An investigation was conducted. Mayor DeStefano and the police chief at that time, Frank Limon, ordered that officers stop harassing people trying to video-record their actions as long as they weren’t interfering in police business. Mandatory training in how to respond to video-camera-wielding members of the public was added to offerings at the police academy — training that Independent founder Paul Bass and I observed during a visit to the academy. And state Sen. Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat, introduced legislation to make it clear that such recording was legal.

The Independent also builds influence through public events — community forums such as political debates and other events that are webcast and covered by other media as well. A particularly prominent example was a school forum in late 2010 starring education-reform critic Diane Ravitch.

I don’t think numbers tell the story, but here are a few:

  • According to the Independent’s internal counts from Google Analytics and Mint, the site receives between 120,000 and 140,000 unique visitors a month.
  • The Independent’s Facebook page has been “liked” 3,443 times as of this morning.
  • The Independent’s Twitter feed, @NewHavenIndy, has 4,486 followers.
  • The site’s weekly news email has about 4,000 subscribers, according to Bass — up about 1,000 over the past year.
  • A separate arts email has about 5,000 subscribers.

And here’s a cautionary tale for publishers who rely on outside services like Facebook, which have their own agendas: Bass told me that a change in policy may be responsible for less traffic coming to the Independent from Facebook. “Now they don’t automatically show your posts to all your followers. They show them to a sample, hoping you’ll pay to reach more of your people,” Bass said in an email last week. “So we’ve seen a drop in Facebook traffic as a result. (Which maybe quite fair. We use them free as paperboys.)”

When I asked Bass how he thought funders and prospective funders could measure the effectiveness of nonprofit news, his response was that he wasn’t sure. So what attempts have his funders made? “They look at what we publish, how people interact with it, how they experience the site’s impact living and working in the area,” Bass said. “No one has asked us for numbers.”

According to the NPR story, reported by Elizabeth Blair, some nonprofits are resisting Charity Navigator’s attempt to measure how well they’re doing. And there’s no question it will be difficult — maybe impossible — to come up with a fair system that everyone will agree on.

But it seems worth trying, especially in journalism. With traditional for-profit news, the relationship between revenue and quality is only tangential. News organizations are judged by how well their advertising moves products and services. You’d like to think that advertisers would rather be associated with quality news than the alternative, but that’s not necessarily the case.

With nonprofit news, the better the journalism, the more influence it will have — and the more attractive it should be to funders.

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

Hitting the road for “The Wired City”

I’ll be doing three events for “The Wired City” during the next week.

All three are free and open to the public.