Tag Archives: Tom Stites

Banyan Project targets 2014 for its Haverhill launch

This article was previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Having overcome a series of logistical obstacles, Haverhill Matters, the Banyan Project’s long-delayed demonstration site, appears to be on track to launch sometime in 2014. Banyan’s founder, veteran journalist Tom Stites, hopes the pilot will foster the rise of local news organizations that would be cooperatively owned and managed, similar to food co-ops and credit unions.

Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 11.15.37 AM“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 at an organizational meeting on Tuesday evening. “This is the kickoff, right now here tonight, of the pivotal year. If we don’t do it this year, chances are it won’t get done.”

For some years now, Stites, who’s worked as an editor at The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune among other places, has talked about fostering news co-ops in so-called news deserts: communities underserved by traditional media. (Here’s a story I wrote for the Nieman Lab about Banyan’s Haverhill plans in 2012, and here’s a followup I wrote last May.)

Haverhill, a city of about 60,000 in the Merrimack Valley north of Boston, is covered by a corporate daily and an affiliated weekly, both of which are headquartered in nearby North Andover. The city is also home to an online radio station currently seeking a low-power FM license and a robust community television operation, both of which will partner with Haverhill Matters.

Since last spring, a committee of local volunteers has been working to get Haverhill Matters off the ground. At Tuesday’s meeting, held on the Haverhill campus of Northern Essex Community College, Stites and seven committee members agreed on a rough timetable:

  • By next month, the Haverhill Matters website will go live with a message to the community in an attempt to generate interest and paying members.
  • By late March, committee members will have recruited 30 people to become founding members (at $250 a piece).
  • Those 30 founding members will, in turn, recruit another 170 founding members (for a total of 200) to provide Haverhill Matters with an initial budget of $50,000.
  • Once the money is in place, an organizer will be hired to get the site up and running.

Reaching the $50,000 threshold will trigger something else as well — the site’s first journalism project. Stites proposes asking the co-op’s members for ideas about a significant piece of enterprise reporting. Those ideas will be put up for a vote, and a freelance journalist will undertake the winning assignment, all the while soliciting the community for suggestions, documents, and the like.

The goal, Stites said, is to use the crowdsourced reporting project to generate more interest in the project. Anyone will be able to read Haverhill Matters for free. But in order to post comments and take part in the site’s online community, people will have to become members — either by paying $36 a year for an individual membership or, as with a food co-op, contributing labor. But rather than bagging groceries, a Haverhill Matters member might write a neighborhood blog.

Fully staffed, the site would have a full-time editor, a full-time general manager who would also be engaged in the journalistic side and a part-time office manager who could also offer technical support.

The process laid out Tuesday was a somewhat convoluted one, which brought some sharp observations from Amy Callahan, an English professor who runs the journalism/communications program at Northern Essex. Her basic question: Why not start a small, minimally funded news site as soon as possible and give it a chance to grow over time? Why wait until $50,000 is in the bank?

Callahan’s questions were good ones. But having watched the process unfold since last April, I’ve come to see that launching a co-op is not a simple matter. There are numerous rules and regulations that must be followed in order to make sure that it’s viable and run by the members. Starting a nonprofit or for-profit news site is simple by comparison.

I can also understand the need to hire and pay a full-time organizer. “I’d love to believe it could be done more incrementally,” said committee co-chair Mike LaBonte. But the site needs a paid organizer, he added, “because we’ve been doing this with the spare time we don’t have.”

If Haverhill Matters succeeds, Stites hopes it will lead to news co-ops around the country. The Banyan Project, a nonprofit, would sell these nascent co-ops software and advice, which Stites believes would make it easier for local organizers. Haverhill Matters would not be the first news co-op (that distinction belongs to a site in Hawaii), though its status as the pilot for a more ambitious project makes it notable.

There’s no question that innovative approaches to providing local news are needed. Newspapers continue to struggle. AOL wiped Patch off its books Wednesday, spinning it off and handing majority control to an outside investment firm. And though there are a number of independent local news sites, there’s a ceiling on how many are feasible: Few people possess the necessary combination of journalistic skills, technological acumen, and entrepreneurial ambition to run one successfully.

Banyan promises something different — community news produced by a community-owned news organization. That’s why it’s worth keeping an eye on Haverhill in 2014.

Assessing Haverhill’s media (III): Public access

Darlene Beal, executive director of Haverhill Community Television

Darlene Beal, executive director of Haverhill Community Television

Later this year the Banyan Project is scheduled to roll out its first cooperatively owned news site in the city of Haverhill, to be called Haverhill Matters. Banyan founder Tom Stites’ vision is to serve what he calls “news deserts” — low- and moderate-income communities, mainly urban, that are underserved by traditional media. What follows is the third of several blog posts in which I will attempt to assess the media landscape in Haverhill as it exists today.

“Eyes Wide Open” may be a travelogue, but it’s not the sort of spritely fare you’re likely to see on the Travel Channel. There are no sun-dappled beaches or cocktail-fueled soirées. Rather, it’s a film with a civic purpose — to get Haverhill residents to take a close look at their downtown and the waterfront along the Merrimack River.

“As we look at each one of these slides, we want you to think about three very simple concepts,” says Haverhill architect Celeste Hynick at the beginning of the film. “What are the positive features? What needs to be improved? And what opportunities exist?” For the next 20 minutes, she and designer Mike Valvo consider the good, the bad and the ugly as picture after picture scrolls by.

The film recapitulates a presentation made last year to a city planning committee appointed by Mayor James Fiorentini. And it is the type of program that helps define Haverhill Community Television (HCTV), which cablecast the film earlier this summer and now hosts it on its YouTube channel.

“Our mission is to empower the community to make television programs,” said HCTV executive director Darlene Beal when I interviewed her last week. “To tell their story to the community. In that sense, we feel like we mirror the community.”

Beal and I met in a conference room at her station’s headquarters, a large converted auto-repair shop in a residential neighborhood just north of the downtown. A 51-year-old Haverhill native and Boston University graduate, Beal has worked as HCTV’s executive director for most of her career. The operation is currently marking its 25th year as an independent nonprofit organization following several years as an appendage of the local cable company.

Haverhill, of course, is not unusual in having a community television station. Virtually every city or town has one, funded by law with a share of the license fees paid by the local cable franchise-holder. Here, for instance, is a list of such operations in Massachusetts.

Why bigger is better

But because franchise-holders generally pay fees on a per-household basis, larger cities and towns tend to have superior community stations. Boston, Cambridge and Somerville, for instance, all offer quite a bit in terms of both quality and quantity. Likewise Haverhill, with a population of about 60,000, including 24,000 households that subscribe to cable, is able to do more than many smaller communities.

HCTV has an annual budget of $750,000 to $800,000, Beal told me, and employs seven people, four of them full-time. There are about 600 members, she said, with about 20 percent to 25 percent involved in some aspect of production. Its Facebook page has attracted 468 “likes” as of this writing.

HCTV operates three channels — an educational channel, with a studio at Haverhill High School; a governmental channel, with equipment at City Hall to carry city council meetings and the like; and a public access channel, with two studios and a classroom based at HCTV’s headquarters. The educational and public access channels are live-streamed on HCTV’s website, which also archives many but not all past programs.

Beal has no way of knowing how many people watch HCTV on television. But according to Google Analytics data Beal shared with me, the website received 127 visits during the last week of July, with 104 coming from Massachusetts — presumably most from Haverhill. The public access channel carries programming from about 6 to 10 p.m. each weekday, and is repeated so that it’s on for 16 to 20 hours a day. Weekends are devoted to programming provided by local religious institutions.

As is the case with public access operations in general, HCTV does not produce its own programming. Rather, it helps volunteers by offering training and loaning them equipment, then cablecasting the finished product. Public access programs in Haverhill include politically oriented talk shows; “Keeping the Peace,” produced by the Haverhill Community Violence Prevention Coalition; “I Get Around,” which highlights community events and organizations; “Law to Talk About,” a legal show; health, and the arts. During election season, the channel runs lengthy sit-down interviews with local candidates.

What you won’t see on HCTV is a newscast. That’s fairly typical. Although Boston viewers can watch “Neighborhood Network News” every evening, most public access systems, oriented as they are toward DIY media, simply don’t have the capacity for such an undertaking. (In 2007 I wrote about “Neighborhood Network News” for CommonWealth Magazine.)

Beal said she would like to see HCTV offer a newscast, but added that past efforts have been spotty because of the limited time volunteers have and their lack of training in newsgathering. If she were to head down that road again, she said she’d need money to hire someone to offer instruction in the basics of journalism.

Beal added that, in her view, the Haverhill edition of the local daily newspaper, The Eagle-Tribune, and The Haverhill Gazette, a weekly, fail to cover the city in the depth that it deserves, creating a “void.” (I wrote about the two papers in the first part of this series. The papers are owned by a chain, CNHI, based in Montgomery, Ala. Al White, the editor of The Eagle-Tribune and the Gazette, recently declined my request for an interview.)

“I do think they’re missing out on a lot, for whatever reason,” Beal said. “Maybe they don’t have the capacity because of the cutbacks. I don’t want to criticize the local papers, but there’s more news out there than they’re able to get into the paper.”

HCTV and Haverhill Matters

Like Tim Coco, the founder of the city’s online-mostly radio station, WHAV, whom I profiled in the second part of this series, Beal is a member of the planning committee for Haverhill Matters, a cooperatively owned news site that is scheduled to be launched by the end of 2013 under the auspices of the Banyan Project.

Haverhill Matters, envisioned as an online news organization combining paid and volunteer journalism, would be an additional outlet for the video journalism produced by HCTV members, Beal said — and is ideal for, say, a four- to six-minute story that doesn’t fit into any of the station’s regular programming, which tends to run in half-hour increments.

Beal would like to see the HCTV and Haverhill Matters websites tied together in some way. She also sees Haverhill Matters as an additional outlet for news about HCTV, such as awards it has won from the Alliance for Community Media for public service announcements about violence prevention.

Her overarching theme, though, was what might be described as the need for more well-rounded coverage of the community — something beyond the breaking-news coverage of police activity and fires that she sees as being typical of what the local papers offer.

“I would like to see Haverhill Matters covering more of the schools,” she said. “The ins and outs of the community. The vibrancy of the community. It’s not so much what I want to see covered — it’s probably the tone of which I’d like to see it covered.”

We also talked about the length of time it’s taken for Haverhill Matters to get off the ground. When I first started writing about the project, it was scheduled to launch in 2012, but that date got delayed for a variety of reasons. Recently Mike LaBonte, co-chair of the planning committee, told me by email that he was reasonably confident that the launch would take place before the end of 2013 — but maybe not much before. For Beal, that moment can’t come too soon.

“For Haverhill Matters to succeed,” Beal said, “I think we’re at the point that we have to splash into the community. We have to get people talking about what they’re missing, or else they don’t know what they’re missing. It’s time to either do it or don’t do it.”

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy.

Assessing Haverhill’s media (II): Radio

Tim Coco at the John Greenleaf Whittier Birthplace

Tim Coco at the John Greenleaf Whittier Birthplace

Later this year the Banyan Project is scheduled to roll out its first cooperatively owned news site in the city of Haverhill, to be called Haverhill Matters. Banyan founder Tom Stites’ vision is to serve what he calls “news deserts” — low- and moderate-income communities, mainly urban, that are underserved by traditional media. What follows is the second of several blog posts in which I will attempt to assess the media landscape in Haverhill as it exists today.

Brian is on the line, and he’s got an idea. City officials in Haverhill have announced that they plan to reopen a former rest stop along Route 110, closed 15 years ago when it became overrun with drug dealing and illicit sex. Brian’s suggestion: a webcam.

Tim Coco, host of “The Open Mike Show” on WHAV Radio (as well as the station’s founder and chief executive), wonders out loud what Mayor James Fiorentini would make of Brian’s idea. He cracks a joke about the National Security Agency watching the webcam.

“That doesn’t offend your sense of security then?” Coco asks.

“No, I wouldn’t even think about it,” Brian responds.

And so it goes for two hours, as Coco talks about Haverhill news, history and trivia with a handful of callers.

Since 2004, Coco has been running WHAV out of his advertising agency, Coco & Co., located in an office park off Route 495 in the Ward Hill section of Haverhill. The station is mostly online (at www.whav.net) and mostly automated.

But Coco’s got big ideas. By mid-2014, he hopes to have obtained a lower-power FM license from the FCC so that he can reach all of Haverhill — something that is only barely possible now with the station’s weak AM signal, at 1640. He also hopes to pump up the station’s live, local public-affairs programming, replacing all or most of the oldies music that now fills most of the day.

“The Merrimack Valley requires an independent voice,” Coco wrote in a fundraising pitch titled “WHAV’s Democracy, Independence & Sustainability Project.” “With support, the reborn and not-for-profit WHAV is not only well-positioned to become that institution, but serve as a model for other community media efforts.”

I spent the better part of a day with Coco last week. A 52-year-old Haverhill native, he is a former journalist, having worked at the original WHAV (founded in 1947 and affiliated with The Haverhill Gazette, then an independent daily newspaper) and, later, at The Daily News of Newburyport and as the editor of an environmental trade magazine based in Manchester, N.H.

Although the current version of WHAV is only nine years old, Coco clearly sees the station as an extension of the original, which, like so many stations, fell victim to corporate buyouts. The small studio from which he broadcasts “Open Mike” every Monday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. has been rather grandly dubbed the Edwin V. Johnson Newsroom, after a beloved WHAV news director and Haverhill High School teacher. Among the past employees of WHAV are retired WBZ news anchor Gary LaPierre and Tom Bergeron, the host of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

“I read the news, Tom Bergeron read the jokes and look where he is today,” said Coco with a laugh. “That is the lot of news people, isn’t it?”

Coco is a well-known public figure in Haverhill. He is a member of the Haverhill Licence Commission, serves on various civic boards and in 2012 was a candidate for the Massachusetts Senate. (He stepped away from “Open Mike” during the campaign.) Although he lost the Democratic primary to the eventual winner, Kathleen O’Connor Ives, he is quick to point out that he won Haverhill. Coco and his husband, Genesio “Junior” Oliveira, have fought a high-profile battle to prevent Oliveira from being deported to his native Brazil — a battle that Coco hopes is over now that the Defense of Marriage Act has been ruled unconstitutional.

At one time, many communities had their own independent radio station. But cultural and regulatory changes — the Telecommunications Act of 1996 being an especially harmful example of the latter — led to the consolidation of the radio business and the rise of chain ownership. Coco is passionate about these changes, and in June hosted a fundraising event for the station with a showing of “Corporate FM: The Killing of Local Commercial Radio.” (I took part in a panel discussion that followed the screening.)

Reviving old-time radio

What Coco is attempting with WHAV is the revival of the old-fashioned local radio station. Right now, he admits, he does it essentially with smoke and mirrors. “I’m embarrassed to say, actually, that we’re doing it the way corporate radio does it, which is a lot of automation,” he said. “Believe me, it’s less than ideal, and I want to get to a point where we’re staffed at least 18 hours a day.”

Nevertheless, there is some local programming, such as “Open Mike,” as well as syndicated programming from left-leaning services such as Pacifica and Free Speech Radio News that are not often heard on the airwaves. Thom Hartmann, a syndicated liberal talk-show host, is on from 3 to 6 p.m. every weekday. Old-time radio dramas, including “Our Miss Brooks” and “Gunsmoke,” are heard at 10 p.m.

A jaunty jingle (“Catch the Wave!”) is interjected at regular intervals. Among the funders: Northern Essex Community College, of which Coco is an alumnus (he is a graduate of Lesley University), and the Merrimack Valley Economic Development Council (Coco is a board member).

Most important, there is local news, some of it reported by Coco. He also has a part-time public affairs manager, Nathan Webster, as well as two summer interns. Local weather is provided by Hometown Forecast Services in Nashua, N.H., which Coco says is more Merrimack Valley-specific than what the Boston stations are able to offer. “Community Spotlight” consists of brief announcements about local events and community organizations.

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 10.05.50 AMWHAV’s microscopic news operation can’t compete with what’s offered by the daily Eagle-Tribune and its affiliated weekly, The Haverhill Gazette. But Coco said his station sometimes breaks stories, and as example he cited one that he reported himself — a downtown development proposal being led by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. (Here is The Eagle-Tribune’s story on the proposal.)

“They do feel us a little bit now,” Coco said. “We have been beating them on stories, and they’re starting to pay attention.” (As I wrote last week, Eagle-Tribune editor Al White declined my  request for an interview.)

How many people does WHAV reach? It’s a difficult question to answer. One month last fall, Coco said, some 62,000 unique users tuned in to the Internet station, though he added that drops off considerably during the summer. He said he has no way of knowing how many listeners tune in to the AM signal, or to the simulcast that runs during parts of the day on local-access cable stations in Haverhill, Andover, Methuen and the New Hampshire communities of Plaistow and Sandown. (The station was thrown off the Groveland cable system in 2007. Coco claims the action was taken because the then-host of “Open Mike” was criticizing local politicians.)

But there’s no question the station’s listenership should increase if Coco succeeds in obtaining a low-power FM (LPFM) license from the FCC. Coco will apply this October, and could receive approval within about nine months if there are no competing applications or other complications. The proposal — for a 23-watt signal — “should well cover Haverhill,” Coco said. The broadcast frequency is likely to be 98.1 FM.

The LPFM program was created in 2000 to offset the decline of local commercial radio. LPFM licenses are available only to nonprofit organizations, and in 2011 Coco formed Public Media of New England as a 501(c)(3) entity to act as WHAV’s umbrella operation.

The Banyan connection

As WHAV expands, it’s going to need more programming in general and more local programming in particular. Coco is a member of the organizing committee for Haverhill Matters, the cooperatively owned news site that the Banyan Project is scheduled to launch before the end of 2013.

Coco expects to broadcast repurposed content from Haverhill Matters on WHAV, and added that he can also play a role in providing some of the “institutional memory” for Haverhill Matters that may be lacking with “newbie reporters.” Although Haverhill Matters will hire a full-time professional editor, Banyan Project founder Tom Stites and the organizing committee also talk about using interns from Northern Essex Community College, neighborhood bloggers and the like.

Haverhill Matters and an expanded WHAV both represent ambitious visions for local, independent media organizations, and it will take a certain amount of blind faith — my phrase, not Coco’s — for those visions to become a reality.

For instance, when I asked Coco about his plan to increase spending at WHAV from $38,000 in 2013 to $93,000 in 2015, he replied matter-of-factly, “It is a projection, but it has to.” And he expessed skepticism about Stites’ plan to raise $54,000 for Haverhill Matters by persuading 1,500 people to pay $36 each.

“It isn’t feasible, and this isn’t feasible,” Coco said, referring to Haverhill Matters and to his own efforts at WHAV. “And I do have some long-term worries in both cases.”

Later in the day, Coco played tour guide, driving me around Haverhill, from a downtown damaged by an urban renewal project that never quite came to pass to more rural sections such as Winnekenni Castle and the John Greenleaf Whittier Birthplace, for which Coco serves as president of the board of trustees.

“I feel like George Bailey from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” Coco said “I really didn’t get to leave Bedford Falls. Whether we remain Bedford Falls or become Pottersville remains to be seen.”

Coco believes that strong, independent local media are a key to keeping his Bedford Falls vision of Haverhill intact. The next few years will be crucial to determining whether he and the folks at Haverhill Matters can succeed.

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy.

Assessing Haverhill’s media (I): Newspapers

Haverhill Gazette building in 1919

Haverhill Gazette building in 1919

Later this year the Banyan Project is scheduled to roll out its first cooperatively owned news site in the city of Haverhill, to be called Haverhill Matters. Banyan founder Tom Stites’ vision is to serve what he calls “news deserts” — low- and moderate-income communities, mainly urban, that are underserved by traditional media. What follows is the first of several blog posts in which I will attempt to assess the media landscape in Haverhill as it exists today.

Haverhill, a city of about 60,000 residents, is served by a daily newspaper, The Eagle-Tribune, and a weekly, The Haverhill Gazette. Since 2005 both papers have been owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (CNHI), a national chain of more than 130 newspapers and other publications based in Montgomery, Ala. CNHI’s major financial benefactor, oddly enough, is the Retirement Systems of Alabama, which launched the company with a $1.1 billion loan. In 1999, Mary Walton profiled CNHI in the American Journalism Review.

The Eagle-Tribune, whose headquarters are in North Andover but which is historically associated with Lawrence, publishes seven days a week, including a separate Haverhill edition every day except Monday and Saturday. The Gazette, founded in 1821, was an independent daily for much of its history. A newspaper strike in 1957 led to a debilitating battle with the notoriously right-wing publisher William Loeb, who launched a rival daily, the Haverhill Journal. As described in a recent essay by Tim Coco, president and general manager of the nonprofit radio station WHAV, by the mid-’60s the Journal had ceased to publish and the Gazette was left in a diminished state. The Eagle-Tribune acquired the Gazette in 1998 and converted it to a weekly.

According to the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), The Eagle-Tribune’s average paid circulation for the six-month period ending March 31 of this year was 33,296 on Sundays and 32,101 on weekdays. As with many papers, circulation has been dropping in recent years; for the same six-month period ending on March 31, 2010, circulation was 40,800 on Sundays and 39,947 on weekdays. It is worth noting that all or most of The Eagle-Tribune’s content is available for free at its website, www.eagletribune.com.

No paid circulation figures are available from the AAM for either the Haverhill edition of The Eagle-Tribune or for The Haverhill Gazette. Currently, though the Eagle-Tribune Publishing Co. is telling prospective advertisers that the Gazette has a circulation of 3,900 (pdf) — down from 6,350 in 2007 (pdf). Eagle-Tribune editor Al White declined my request for an interview. But according to a knowledgeable source, The Eagle-Tribune’s circulation in Haverhill is somewhere around 5,000, perhaps a bit less.

Despite its relatively modest size, The Eagle-Tribune has a distinguished history, having won Pulitzer Prizes in 1988 and 2003. Both of those awards predated CNHI’s 2005 acquisition of the paper and its affiliated newspapers, which include three other dailies — The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times. In recent years, those papers — like many newspapers nationally — have undergone several rounds of layoffs and budget cuts. Since 2009, editorial staff members have been required to take unpaid furloughs for one week each quarter, according to several sources inside the company.

In Haverhill, CNHI’s cuts hit home in March 2012 when the downtown office was closed. “It has always been my goal to put as many people under as few roofs as possible while maintaining the quality of our newspapers,” then-publisher Al Getler wrote in a message to readers, adding: “With today’s technology, our reporters no longer need to sit behind a desk in an office to get their job accomplished.”

The loss of a downtown presence, though, meant that residents could not drop by with news items or story tips. Some newspaper owners hold a different view regarding the desirability of a downtown presence. For instance, the New Haven Register, which no longer needs its office-park location after outsourcing its printing to the Hartford Courant in 2012, is looking to relocate to a downtown office so that it would be more accessible to the public, according to an article by Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent.

1823_Haverhill_Gazette,_and_Essex_Patriot_Feb15With very few exceptions, virtually all Haverhill articles in both The Eagle-Tribune and the Gazette are produced by two staff reporters, itself a diminution from years past. An editor at The Eagle-Tribune spends most of his time overseeing Haverhill coverage.

In most communities served by a daily and a weekly, the papers compete for stories. But in Haverhill, common ownership has led to a different approach — mostly hard news in The Eagle-Tribune and soft features in the Gazette. Thus Haverhill readers must buy both papers if they wish to be fully informed.

In my experience, content analyses are of limited value since qualities such as accuracy, context and thoroughness are difficult to assess without deep knowledge of a community. Nevertheless, I examined the two papers’ Haverhill coverage for April of this year. What follows are a few observations about each.

The Eagle-Tribune

Daily coverage focused heavily on governmental sources of news. I counted 55 bylined stories that were entirely about or mostly about Haverhill. Of these, 20 emanated from city hall; 10 involved public safety or the courts; and six involved the school committee or other school authorities. Enterprise stories — that is, stories generated solely by journalists and not tied to any particular event — were virtually non-existent.

April, of course, was the month when the Boston Marathon bombings took place. The Haverhill edition ran several related articles, including one on a vigil and another on six Haverhill police officers who assisted with operations in Watertown, where bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was ultimately taken into custody.

Routine police news and press releases are published inside the Haverhill edition. “Haverhill in a Minute,” a round-up of such items, lets people know what’s going on in the community, with announcements from organizations such as Northern Essex Community College, churches and various civic organizations.

Also during April there were three unsigned editorials that touched on Haverhill topics and several letters to the editor from Haverhill residents.

The Haverhill Gazette

The Gazette each week comprises 14 pages that are geared toward light features and photo essays. Characteristic features during April included a story on how reduced fees were leading more Haverhill High School students to play sports; the rise of outdoor dining at downtown restaurants, attributed to an initiative by Mayor James Fiorentini; and a volunteer effort to repair 15 homes owned by low-income or disabled residents.

Every week the front page includes an anonymously written column called The Lamp Post, a breezy compilation of observations, shoutouts and mild gossip. An example: “Drivers waiting at red lights at the intersection of Ginty and Bailey boulevards are getting frustrated, and who can blame them?” Another example: “Sacred Hearts School had a celebration to kick off the Red Sox home opener on Monday. The school’s kindergarten classes had a special lunch and activities, including a parade.”

The Gazette also includes a much longer, more complete version of the police log, parts of which also appear in the daily Haverhill edition; editorials; historical photos; a column by a retired local journalist; listings from the local council on aging and Haverhill Community Television; and large photo essays on youth sports and other activities.

***

In terms of quantity, types of stories covered and general approach, the two papers offer local journalism that — based on my experience as a longtime observer of local journalism — is no better and no worse than what is available in many communities.

What comes across is a certain comprehensiveness to the coverage, especially involving city government, but a lack of voices from the community and from the city’s neighborhoods. The bifurcated nature of the coverage is a problem, as it essentially requires residents to read both papers. The Gazette, by highlighting positive news in the community, fulfills some of the civic engagement functions of journalism better than The Eagle-Tribune. But that advantage is undermined by the absence of hard news.

Because Haverhill Matters is likely to take a different, more hyperlocal approach to coverage than either The Eagle-Tribune or the Gazette, there’s an opportunity for cooperation. For instance, it would not be hard to imagine the two papers’ repurposing some of Haverhill Matters’ neighborhood news on their websites.

For the moment, though, there do not appear to be any plans to form such a relationship. Eagle-Tribune editor White, as I mentioned earlier, declined to be interviewed. But Mike LaBonte, co-chair of the organizing committee for Haverhill Matters, told me in an email that the fledgling site’s expected reliance on paid advertising might preclude a partnership.

“Even though we plan to focus on the news areas they don’t cover well, collaboration may be tough since we are competing for the same ad dollars,” LaBonte said. “Personally I think it will just have to wait until we see what our strengths and weakness are a year or two from now.”

Images via Wikipedia.

Haverhill Matters moves closer to reality

The Bradford Bridge, looking north toward downtown Haverhill

The Bradford Bridge, looking north toward downtown Haverhill

This article appeared earlier at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

It was as incongruous a situation as I could imagine. Friday, April 19, was one of the most gripping news days we have ever experienced in Massachusetts. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the suspected marathon bombers, was in hiding. Boston and several other cities were under voluntary lockdown. And that morning I was driving north, toward Haverhill, on my way to a meeting where earnest community activists were making plans to revive local journalism.

While all hell was breaking loose elsewhere, the Haverhill Matters Organizing Committee met in a sunny conference room at Haverhill Community Television. The committee’s goal is to launch a cooperatively owned news site to be called Haverhill Matters sometime this year.

It’s been a long time coming. Tom Stites, a veteran journalist who’s worked at the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, came up with the idea of local news co-ops a few years ago. He founded the Banyan Project to serve as an umbrella; Haverhill Matters will be the pilot. I wrote about his plans for the Nieman Journalism Lab last year, as well as in the epilogue to my forthcoming book about online community journalism, “The Wired City.” The launch date for Haverhill Matters has slipped a few times, but at this point it looks like 2013 will be the year.

The hour-long meeting was taken up with fairly mundane planning issues, but I could see that the site is moving toward reality. Currently the committee is at the first of a four-stage process, outlined in considerable detail on the Banyan website. The organizers envision everything from crowdsourced reporting projects to quotidian coverage of local news. A board of directors will hire two full-time employees: an executive director and an editor. The site will also make ample use of freelancers, neighborhood bloggers, and college and high school interns.

After some back-and-forth about liability issues, the committee members agreed to sign on with the Cooperative Development Institute to handle Haverhill Matters’ finances. There were charts about finances and timetables, and about how the yet-to-be-hired editor should spend the 520 hours he or she will be working each quarter.

“We’re really at a go/no-go moment, and I think we’ve decided to go,” said Tim Coco, president and general manager of WHAV, an online radio station based in Haverhill.

“Well, we want to,” replied local activist Mike LaBonte, co-chair of the organizing committee.

Coco professed some skepticism about what he was hearing but supported the idea of moving ahead. “It’s not feasible,” he said, “but that’s never stopped me before.”

The Banyan Project is aimed at serving what Stites calls “news deserts” — less-than-affluent communities that tend to be shunned by high-end advertisers and, thus, by the news organizations that rely on those advertisers. Haverhill, a city of 61,000 on the Merrimack River at the New Hampshire line, meets that definition. The Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, or MassINC, lists Haverhill as one of 11 “Gateway Cities” — former manufacturing centers that are struggling with a lack of resources and economic investment.

Yet in other respects, Haverhill is an unlikely news desert. Though the days when two daily newspapers battled it out are long gone, the Eagle-Tribune, based in nearby North Andover, continues to publish a daily Haverhill edition. The Eagle-Tribune also publishes a weekly paper, the Haverhill Gazette, that offers local staples such as school news, feel-good features and announcements. Add in Haverhill Community Television, with its robust lineup of local programming, and WHAV, and it would appear that more than a few flowers are sprouting in this particular desert.

The real target, then, is the unaccountability of local journalism controlled by out-of-state corporations. For years now, the Eagle-Tribune’s owner, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (CNHI) of Montgomery, Ala., has been decimating its properties. Neither the Eagle-Tribune nor the Gazette has an office in Haverhill anymore. Thus Haverhill Matters represents an attempt by local residents to tell their own story.

In reporting “The Wired City,” I learned that there are problems with both the for-profit and nonprofit models of independent online local journalism. The owners of the for-profits — including sites like The BatavianCT News Junkie, and Baristanet — have to spend so much time selling advertising that it limits the amount of journalism they can afford to do.

Nonprofits such as the New Haven Independent, the main focus of my book, are more robust. But not every community is willing to support such a venture, and the Internet Revenue Service has made it increasingly difficult for such sites to attain nonprofit 501(c)(3) status. Moreover, nonprofits are prohibited from endorsing political candidates, traditionally an important activity for local news organizations.

A cooperatively owned news site — analogies include credit unions and food co-ops — would occupy a space somewhere between the two models, and would not be banned from publishing endorsements. Tom Stites is currently soliciting contributions for Haverhill Matters’ launch. Once the site is up and running, he hopes to attract 1,500 members at $36 a year, bringing in $54,000, as well as advertising and grant money. A chart Mike LaBonte displayed showed an initial $45,000 expenditure, with the site reaching break-even in two and a half years.

Unlike one-off projects such as the New Haven Independent or The Batavian, the intention behind Haverhill Matters is that it be replicable. Stites hopes the Banyan Project will be able to offer a “co-op in a box” to communities looking to start their own cooperatively owned news sites. But first he has to prove the model can work. Which is why Haverhill Matters matters.

Photo (cc) 2013 by Dan Kennedy. Some rights reserved.

In Haverhill, from a newspaper war to a “news desert”

Haverhill’s historic shoe district

Banyan Project founder Tom Stites refers to Haverhill and cities like it as “news deserts” — that is, as communities so underserved by local journalism that government accountability and civic life are harmed. He and local activists hope to launch Banyan’s first online news co-op, Haverhill Matters, later this year. (I touch on Banyan in the Epilogue to “The Wired City.”)

Two generations ago, though, the mid-size industrial city, located in the Merrimack Valley near the New Hampshire border, was the scene of a daily newspaper war. According to an account recently published by the city’s online nonprofit radio station, WHAV, a newspaper strike led to years of debilitating rivalry between the established Haverhill Gazette and the upstart Haverhill Journal.

The Journal was started by the notorious William Loeb, owner of the Manchester Union Leader (now the New Hampshire Union Leader), in December 1957. The Gazette had temporarily ceased publishing after it was struck by members of the typographical union. And Haverhill merchants, worried that they had no place to advertise their Christmas wares, went to Loeb and asked him to do something. He published a couple of free shoppers, and then decided to start a full-fledged newspaper.

The WHAV article, by Tim Coco, is full of colorful details, especially concerning the federal antitrust case that grew out of the rivalry. In a nutshell, Loeb secretly paid businessmen to buy ads only in the Journal and to badmouth the Gazette at every opportunity. And the Gazette sold ads below cost, which can in some circumstances be illegal. But it was great for readers while it lasted. As Coco puts it at the beginning of his essay:

News media competition helps ensure the inner workings of every government department are exposed to the light of day and held accountable, every service club talk is covered and every military personnel homecoming is treated with reverence.

On the other hand, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Wyzanski, who presided over the antitrust hearings, concluded it was impossible for two daily papers in a city the size of Haverhill to operate profitably unless they offered “limited news coverage” and “inferior general quality.” The Gazette quickly ran into trouble, and in 1958 it was acquired by a consortium of newspaper publishers. The unstable rivalry persisted until Loeb shuttered the Journal in 1965.

Eventually the Gazette was acquired outright by The Eagle-Tribune, headquartered in North Andover but traditionally associated with Lawrence. The Eagle-Tribune started a daily Haverhill edition and converted the Gazette to a weekly. In 2005, The Eagle-Tribune and its affiliated papers on the North Shore were bought by CNHI, a Birmingham, Ala.-based chain. And as Coco notes, in March 2012, The Eagle-Tribune closed the Gazette’s Haverhill offices.

“After 191 years,” Coco writes, “The Haverhill Gazette no longer had a physical presence in Haverhill.”

Now, nearly a half-century after daily newspaper competition came to an end in Haverhill, the city is on the verge of becoming a hotbed of experimentation in community journalism. In addition to the Banyan Project, WHAV has launched something called the “Democracy, Independence and Sustainability Project.”

I’m hoping there’s going to be a lot more to come as 2013 unfolds.

Update: After I posted a link to this on Twitter, John Dodge let me know that another, lesser-known daily paper called the Independent published in Haverhill in the late 1970s. Begun by longtime Gazette staffers, Dodge says the Independent couldn’t survive because the DeMoulas supermarket chain wouldn’t buy any ads.

Earlier:

Photo by Marc N. Belanger via Wikimedia Commons.

Talking local news today on WGBH Radio

I’ll be on “Boston Public Radio” on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) today from 12:30 to 1 p.m. talking about local journalism in the post-newspaper age (hmmm … that could be the subtitle of a book) with host Kara Miller, Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab and Tom Stites of the Banyan Project. Hope you can tune in.

Banyan Project eyes Haverhill for its first news co-op

This article was previously posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Ownership matters.

It matters in New Orleans, where Advance Publications is cutting The Times-Picayune’s print edition from seven days a week to three — and gutting the staff —despite earning a profit and paying bonuses in 2010 and 2011.

It matters in Chicago, where Tribune Company — which may soon emerge from bankruptcy — got rid of its hyperlocal reporters at the Chicago Tribune and replaced them with Journatic, which outsources coverage, in some cases to the Philippines, and which until recently used fake bylines on some of its stories. (On Friday, the Tribune suspended its relationship with Journatic after a plagiarism complaint arose.)

And it matters in the Boston area, where GateHouse Media — the national chain that owns more than 100 community newspapers here — is preparing to unveil a centralized in-house content farm whose work could eventually find its way into eastern Massachusetts.

Newspapers, the source of most local journalism, are weighed down by chain ownership and corporate debt. Independent online news sites are a promising alternative. But for-profit sites like The Batavian and Baristanet are too small to provide the full range of community journalism that was typical a generation or two ago. And larger nonprofits like the New Haven Independent and Voice of San Diego are rare, in part because the IRS has put a hold on new ventures.

So what can be done? Later this year, a community news site based on an entirely different ownership model is scheduled to debut in Haverhill, a blue-collar city of 60,000 about 45 minutes north of Boston on the New Hampshire line. The site, to be called Haverhill Matters, will be cooperatively owned, similar to a credit union or a food co-op. Neither for-profit nor nonprofit, the site, if it is to succeed, will depend on the goodwill and support of its members. And it is designed to be easily replicated in other cities and regions.

Haverhill Matters will be the first visible manifestation of the Banyan Project, an idea that veteran journalist Tom Stites has been working on for several years. I recently met Stites, whose long résumé includes editing stints at The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, and Mike LaBonte, who chaired the site’s local organizing committee, at a restaurant in Haverhill to discuss their plans. (LaBonte stepped aside a short time later, citing health issues and the pressures of a new job.)

It was something of a reunion. I’d written for Stites several times when he was editor of the UU World, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s denominational magazine. I knew LaBonte through his volunteer work as an editor at NewsTrust, a social network that evaluates journalism for qualities such as fairness and sourcing; he’d led several workshops for my students.

What attracted Stites to the co-op model was his belief that newspaper executives, in their relentless pursuit of high-end advertising, had abandoned all but their most affluent readers. It’s a subject he has spoken and written about passionately, including at the 2006 Media Giraffe conference at UMass Amherst and in a series for the Lab last December.

Banyan sites such as Haverhill Matters are aimed at serving “news deserts,” a term Stites consciously adopted from “food deserts” — that is, lower-income urban neighborhoods where grocery stores are scarce and fast food restaurants proliferate. The idea is that a lack of fresh, relevant news can be as harmful to civic health as a lack of fresh, nutritious food can be to personal health.

That all sounds good, but where will the money come from? Stites said that Banyan sites would be supported through a combination of membership fees, grant money, and advertising. I told him that sounded exactly the same as the model used by nonprofit sites such as the New Haven Independent. Stites responded by emphasizing the benefits of membership in a co-op.

So let me draw a few comparisons between the Banyan model and the Independent. Stites hopes to sign up some 1,200 people who would pay $36 a year, bringing in a little more than $43,000 annually. The Independent asks for readers to pay $10 to $18 a month voluntarily; editor and founder Paul Bass told me he’s got about 100 voluntary subscribers paying a total of about $13,000 a year, which comes to less than 3 percent of his site’s $450,000 annual budget. Given that the Independent has been around for nearly seven years and serves a city twice the size of Haverhill, Stites’ goal is ambitious indeed. But there are differences in terms of the incentives.

Banyan sites such as Haverhill Matters would be free, as is the Independent. But in order to participate on the Haverhill site using community tools that Stites promises will be unusually sophisticated, readers will be asked to pay — a request that would become a requirement after several months. The Independent, by contrast, does not assess any mandatory charges. In keeping with the cooperative model, paid-up Banyan members will elect a board, which will in turn select the full-time editor. Readers will also be able to become members by contributing labor rather than time — perhaps by writing a neighborhood blog that appears on the site. If it works, in other words, a Banyan site would foster a sense of ownership and participation that other models lack.

“This is different from a hyperlocal news site,” Stites told me. “This is a community institution owned by a widely distributed, large number of community members. It has to be owned by members of the community, and they’ve got to support or it doesn’t happen.”

The next few months will be crucial ones. Currently, Stites is trying to raise money for the launch with a pitch at Spot.us. He and the organizing committee are planning a community meeting in Haverhill this September. And if all goes according to plan, Haverhill Matters will go live by the end of the year.

Stites is planning to launch Haverhill Matters with two paid staff members: a full-time, professional editor with roots in the city and a “general manager” whose job would be to build a community around the site and to write. Beyond that, his ideas for covering the news are evolving. Journalism students from nearby Northern Essex Community College would be involved. High school interns might be put to work assembling a community calendar. In our conversation, it came across as amorphous but potentially interesting — worth watching, but with compelling, useful journalism by no means assured.

Strictly speaking, Haverhill is not entirely a news desert, but it comes pretty close. The nearest daily, The Eagle-Tribune, is based in North Andover and owned by CNHI, a national chain based in Montgomery, Alabama. The paper publishes a daily Haverhill edition and a weekly, The Haverhill Gazette. But LaBonte told me that both were a far cry from the days when the Gazette was an independently owned daily paper.

“That was a thriving daily at one point,” LaBonte said. “What I’m hearing from an awful lot of new people is, how do I find out what is going on in Haverhill?”

By early 2013, one of the answers to that question might be a start-up website called Haverhill Matters.

Exposing the “‘pink slime’ journalism” of Journatic

If you care about local news, then you must listen to a report on “This American Life,” broadcast last weekend, that exposes a scandal whose importance can’t be overstated.

The story is about a company called Journatic, which produces local content for newspapers using grossly underpaid, out-of-town reporters — including cheap Filipino workers who write articles under fake bylines.

And how great is it that “This American Life,” damaged earlier this year when it was victimized by fake journalism, has now exposed fake journalism elsewhere? Here is the Chicago Tribune — a major Journatic client — lecturing “TAL” on journalism ethics earlier this year.

After you listen, be sure to read the detailed back story, written by Anna Tarkov for Poynter.org.

Unfortunately, the broadcast aired just a few days before the Fourth of July, at a time when few people were paying much attention to the news. I hope it has the impact that it should.

The star of the “TAL” segment is a journalist named Ryan Smith, who kicks things off with a  killer anecdote. Smith tells producer Sarah Koenig that he drew an assignment to write a story about a “student of the week” for the Houston Chronicle. He called the principal, who suggested he swing by the school the next day.

Smith told him he’d rather do it by phone, but he didn’t tell him the reason: he was actually some 1,000 miles away.

Both Koenig and Tarkov interviewed Journatic chief executive Brian Timpone, who apologized for nothing and spewed forth a torrent of rationalizations and excuses: the fake bylines were to protect employees from lawyers; the Filipinos don’t actually write stories (they do); there’s no value to having reporters live in the community for routine local coverage such as police-blotter news and budget updates; and Journatic is providing coverage to communities that would otherwise have none.

Well, none might be preferable to the “‘pink slime’ journalism” (Smith’s felicitous description) that Journatic produces. Moreover, if the Chicago Tribune uses Journatic stories in its hyperlocal coverage in order to suck advertising money out of pizza shops, funeral homes and other businesses, it becomes that much harder for would-be entrepreneurs to start their own local news sites.

Since the “TAL” story broke, we’ve been learning more about who’s using Journatic material. The Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Sun-Times have all made use of Journatic, and are now in various degrees of renouncing it.

Of more local interest: so has GateHouse Media, a national chain that owns more than 100 papers in Eastern Massachusetts — mostly weeklies, but also some dailies, including the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, the Enterprise of Brockton and the MetroWest Daily News.

According to a follow-up story by Tarkov, Journatic copy never made it into GateHouse’s Massachusetts properties. But the debt-ridden corporation is now setting up its own Journatic-like operations in Boston and in Rockford, Ill. Who knows where those honor rolls, obituaries and police logs will be coming from? (The blog post I’ve linked to suggests the centralized operations will be limited to design and layout. Tarkov’s story, though, references 10 “content providers” who will be based in Rockford.)

The media-reform group Free Press has mobilized over the Journatic revelations, with Libby Reinish summarizing the findings and Josh Stearns offering some advice on how to tell if what you’re reading is the real thing. Inevitably, Free Press has started a petition drive as well.

Unfortunately, the forces that make something like Journatic possible are very real. It’s expensive and labor-intensive to do local journalism right, and the crisis that has befallen the newspaper industry in recent years has made it that much harder. But this is truly beyond the pale. Even Patch, with its top-down, cookie-cutter approach, has journalists in each of its communities.

Ultimately, though, the solution will come from the bottom up, community by community, as is already the case with enterprises such as the New Haven Independent, the Batavian and dozens of others. Have a look at Authentically Local, an umbrella group of independent local sites organized by Debbie Galant, the co-founder of Baristanet in northern New Jersey.

Another potentially interesting experiment in local journalism will get under way later this year. The Banyan Project, begun by veteran journalist Tom Stites, will launch a test site in Haverhill to be called Haverhill Matters. The secret sauce is cooperative ownership, similar to a credit union or a food co-op. You’ll be reading more about Banyan at Media Nation in the weeks and months to come.

At one point in the “TAL” broadcast, Koenig says to Smith, “You are so fired.” It is perhaps a sign of how little the Journatic folks care about their reputation that, in fact, he hasn’t been. In an email to Jim Romenesko, Smith says it’s been business as usual, and that he’s received new assignments from his editor, who recently relocated from St. Louis to Brazil.

“I’m going to work the rest of the week,” Smith wrote, “and then resign.”

Why journalism matters

Tom Stites, whose speech at last July’s Media Giraffe conference I linked to here, is back with an essay called “Needed: More Excellence in Journalism.” It’s an extension of his speech — a meditation on the fate of public-service journalism, especially for audiences not served by elite news organizations such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Well worth reading.