There are no good guys in the battle between Gannett and Digital First Media

Ben Bagdikian had Gannett’s number (1976 photo via Wikipedia)

The Gannett newspaper chain, as bad as it has been for the communities it serves, is now being held up as an exemplar of local journalism that must be saved from the ravages of Digital First Media, which, admittedly, is much worse. Talk about defining deviancy down. What I observed in Burlington, Vermont, in late 2015 should give anyone pause before they praise Gannett — once labeled by the late media critic Ben Bagdikian as “the largest and most aggressive newspaper chain in the United States.”

The newspaper analyst Ken Doctor, writing at the Nieman Journalism Lab, reports that Gannett executives may seek to wriggle out of Digital First’s hostile takeover attempt by delivering themselves into the arms of Tribune Publishing, the company formerly known as tronc. Tribune, like Gannett, is known more for its cost-cutting than for its journalism. But anything is better than Digital First.

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Digital First wants to buy Gannett, endangering local newspapers across the U.S.

It’s hard to imagine worse news for the beleaguered business of local journalism. The Wall Street Journal reported (sub. req.) on Sunday that Digital First Media, the hedge-fund-owned chain notorious for squeezing out the last drop of blood from its newspapers, is trying to buy Gannett. Brian Stelter has posted an update at CNN.com.

Gannett is best known for publishing USA Today — which, though it’s a perfectly fine paper, it’s mainly something to look at when you’re in a hotel. The real story is its vast chain of local newspapers, which are listed here. New England is a nearly Gannett-free zone, with the Burlington Free Press of Vermont being its only holding. By contrast, New Jersey, with eight Gannett local news properties, would be devastated. Digital First owns three papers in Massachusetts: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

According to USA Today, Gannett had not received an offer from Digital First as of Sunday night. But it’s for real, as Jeff Sonderman of the American Press Institute tweeted:

Not to praise Gannett too much. Back when the newspaper business was considerably healthier than it is today, media critics like the late Ben Badgikian reported that Gannett insisted on profit margins of 30 percent, 40 percent or more, cutting considerably into their public service mission. In recent years, Gannett has cut the Burlington Free Press to the bone. In “The Return of the Moguls,” I wrote about an alternative media ecosystem in Burlington that had grown in response to the decline of the Free Press. It’s only gotten worse at the Free Press since I did my reporting in late 2015.

But Gannett, a publicly traded company, and GateHouse Media, another hedge-fund-owned chain, at least seem to be in the business of trying to chart a path to the future. Digital First and its owner, Alden Global Capital, by contrast, appear to be in what economists refer to as “harvesting” mode, taking the last few dollars out of their shrinking newspapers before shutting them down or selling them off.

I’ve written about Digital First several times. Most recently, I wrote for WGBHNews.org about a report from the University of North Carolina called “The Expanding News Desert,” which was highly critical of Digital First and GateHouse. In 2014, I tracked the history of Digital First in New Haven for The Huffington Post — from bankruptcy to a fascinating experiment under the visionary leadership of John Paton and then back to bottom-line-oriented cost-cutting.

Let’s just hope the Gannett board decides to fight rather than give in.

Update: Ken Doctor writes at the Nieman Journalism Lab that Gannett may try to escape Digital First’s clutches by running into the arms of Tribune Publishing, known until recently as tronc.

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Stephen King’s tweet saves local book reviews at the Maine Sunday Telegram

Stephen King is no longer singing the local-book-review blues. Photo (cc) 2013 by the USO.

This is a hoot. After the Portland Press Herald made it known that it would drop freelance-written reviews of local books as a cost-saving measure, Maine’s favorite author, Stephen King, lodged a protest on Twitter and urged his followers to do the same.

The Press Herald responded that if King could persuade at least 100 people to buy digital subscriptions, they would restore the reviews to the Sunday edition, known as the Maine Sunday Telegram:

It worked, and the book reviews will return next Sunday. “It’s a Stephen King story with a happy ending,” publisher Lisa DeSisto told The New York Times. (I worked with DeSisto at The Boston Phoenix many years ago, and she makes a cameo in “The Return of the Moguls.”)

Let me pour just a small amount of lukewarm water on all this. First, cutting local book reviews without consulting readers makes as little sense as, oh, slashing the Sunday funnies. Second, I hope this doesn’t become a habit. Hey, let’s tell everyone we’re going to stop covering restaurants unless we can sell 1,000 more subscriptions.

Still, this is a great story. I’m glad King’s influence did the trick.

Clarification: There was no public announcement that the Press Herald was planning to drop local reviews, but freelance contributors were made aware of it. I’ve rewritten the top to reflect that.

Monday update: Publishers Weekly has an especially detailed account of what went down. Also, King’s gambit did not save jobs elsewhere at the Press Herald:

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Globe ad executive leaves over unspecified workplace issues

Big if vague news: The Boston Globe has cut ties with one of its top advertising executives, Michael Bentley, over issues related to “a safe, welcoming, and comfortable working environment for all employees.”

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Efforts to strengthen the state’s public-records law fall apart

Several years ago the Massachusetts Legislature strengthened the state’s public-records law — but it is still among the weakest in the country. Now a commission aimed at reforming the law still further has disbanded without producing any recommendations, according to Todd Wallack of The Boston Globe.

The law currently applies only to the state’s executive agencies as well as to records kept by cities and towns. The Legislature, the courts and the governor’s office are all exempt.

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Yes, the networks were right to give Trump airtime. No, it wasn’t worth watching.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Of course the networks made the right decision in giving President Trump airtime to deliver yet another pitch for his border wall. Yes, he lied, as we all knew he would. Yes, he engaged in fear-mongering, which is to say that he opened his mouth and spoke. But the notion that television executives should have said no to a president making his first request for a prime-time Oval Office address in the midst of the shutdown crisis (a crisis of his own making, but still) is hard to take seriously.

And yet that’s where we are.

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God help me, but I’m writing about Elizabeth Warren and the likability factor

Elizabeth Warren. Photo (cc) 2012 by Edward Kimmel.

A few very brief thoughts about Elizabeth Warren and whether she’s “likable enough” (to recycle an unfortunate old quote from Barack Obama) to be elected president — the subject of a front-page story in today’s Boston Globe as well as multiple other outlets.

First, yes, of course there’s an element of sexism to it, as there was when the same questions were raised over and over about Hillary Clinton. But let’s not get carried away — it’s not just sexism. Republicans used the likability factor like a sledgehammer against Al Gore and John Kerry, and it was effective. Their opponent, George W. Bush, was regularly described as someone you’d rather have a beer with, which always struck me as pretty odd given that Bush was an alcoholic who had given up drinking.

Second, in Warren’s case, “likability” is shorthand for something real — a lack of political adroitness despite her substantive strengths and despite being, as best as I can determine, genuinely likable. The whole Native American thing is ludicrous, and it seems as though she should have been able to put it behind her years ago when Scott Brown and the Boston Herald first tried to make an issue of it. Yet it’s still here, and it makes you think she should have handled it differently. Certainly the DNA test didn’t help.

Third, there’s something to the idea that she let her moment slip away. The news and political cycles are so accelerated now that 2016 may have represented her best chance. That has nothing to do with likability. The fact that Beto O’Rourke may be a serious candidate seems silly unless you view it in that context.

Finally, Warren’s likability is a phony issue because it’s about the pundits, not the voters. If she wins the nomination and is ultimately elected president, there’s the answer to your question: she’s likable enough.

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Four dailies north of Boston sold to Alabama retirement fund

The CNHI newspapers have been sold to Retirement Systems of Alabama. CNHI’s holdings in Massachusetts include four daily newspapers — The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times — as well as several non-daily publications.

This is good news, with reservations. CNHI’s ownership has long been complicated; the Alabama buyer has been involved for years, so this doesn’t seem like much of a change. CNHI has run the papers on the cheap, but the quality remains good. I know that staff members were concerned that the papers might be sold to Digital First Media or GateHouse Media, hedge-fund-owned chains that slash their properties to the bone. So it could have been worse.

Earlier: “Eagle-Tribune and affiliated papers north of Boston put up for sale” (June 25, 2018).

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Five ways to de-Trumpify your life in 2019

Photo (cc) 2011 by Gage Skidmore

Previously published at WGBH News.

The dawn of a new year is yet another opportunity for President Trump to make news in all the wrong ways — and another invitation for the media to obsess over every tweet, insult, lie, and outburst of unpresidential behavior.

Aside from denigrating journalists as purveyors of #fakenews and as the “Enemy of the American People,” Trump has actually been good for the media. Digital subscriptions at newspapers are up, audiences for NPR and political podcasts are growing, and donations are on the rise at ProPublica and other nonprofits. At the same time, though, the relentless coverage of our dysfunctional, falsehood-spewing president has resulted in an overwhelming sense of fatigue.

I’m here to help. No, we can’t ignore Trump — not when his policies result in the deaths of children at the border, or when he refuses to take seriously the apparent murder of a journalist at the hands of the Saudi regime, or when one of his former aides implicates him in crimes. But we can retake control of our news diet, slowing the torrent of Trump news, semi-news, and alleged news to a more manageable flow. Not only will it help us stay sane, but it will allow is to react appropriately when something genuinely terrible takes place.

Here, then, are five ideas for de-Trumpifying your life in 2019.

1. Ignore nearly all stories about Trump’s tweets. The media can’t disregard the president’s sociopathic Twitter stream entirely. Someone has to pay attention. All too often, though, some awful thing Trump said on Twitter winds up overshadowing some even more awful thing he’s doing IRL. You might say Trump does that deliberately. I don’t think so; rather, I think Twitter is where he expresses his truest self. But we need to keep it in perspective.Granted, it can be difficult when he posts a beauty like this:

But, really, was that any worse than what he tweets out on a daily basis? It’s time for all of us to move Trump’s tweets off center stage and to regard them as the sort of low hum that’s given off by fluorescent lights — always there, but usually not noticed.

2. Pay more attention to the world around you. I don’t mean you should take a walk in the woods, although of course you should. I mean you should immerse yourself more deeply in non-Trump news that’s unfolding both internationally and nationally — stories about climate change, war, rising fascism, space exploration, religion, sports, culture, and yes, stories about kindness and compassion and hope.

Politics is just one part of the human experience, which is something that political junkies like me have to remind ourselves of from time to time. And Trump is just one part of politics. Yes, Trump has been good for the business of journalism, but the downside is that news organizations load up their home pages and social media feeds with all things Trump in order to drive clicks and digital subscriptions and to drive us over the edge. We don’t have to take part.

3. Become a news locavore. If you’re not paying attention to what’s going on in your community, make changing that one of your New Year’s resolutions. It’s not just that it’s important. It’s that people who might have wildly divergent views about national politics usually have less trouble finding common ground at the local level.

There’s an old saying that there isn’t a liberal or conservative way to pick up the garbage, and there’s something to it. More important, though, is that when we get to know each other as individuals, what separates us tends to fade away and what we have in common moves to the forefront. As the journalist James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic shortly after the 2016 election, “at the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear, Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.” (Fallows and his wife, Deborah Fallows, expanded that idea into a book called “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.”)

Part of making a commitment to localism means supporting local media. National and regional news organizations need your support, of course, but so does the startup community website you might be lucky enough to have — or even the corporate-owned weekly newspaper that employs your town’s only watchdog journalist. What she reports on is at least as important to your life as anything you’ll find in The New York Times or The Washington Post.

4. Stop watching cable news talk shows. If there’s a big breaking news story, you’re going to tune in CNN, and so am I. But the social value of the talk shows that CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News broadcast during prime time every evening is close to zero.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I recently watched Rachel Maddow’s and Sean Hannity’s top-rated talk shows on MSNBC and Fox, respectively. And though Maddow’s liberal program was more fact-based than the right-wing conspiracy theories that Hannity offers these days, both shows earn their money by exploiting the political polarization that defines life in 21st-century America. CNN’s idea of an alternative is to have liberal and conservative guests argue with each other.

There is quality news on television. At the national level, the network nightly newscasts are still respectable, and the “PBS NewsHour” offers substance, even if it’s too heavy on eat-your-peas seriousness. Surveys show that local TV newscasts are more trusted than other forms of news, and Boston’s choices are many and varied.

5. Change your relationship with social media. This is a tough one, which is why I’ve saved it for last. For most of us over a certain age, when I talk about social media I’m talking mainly about Facebook, with its 2.2 billion active monthly users. We all know the existential crisis Facebook is dealing with over the exposure of its repeated privacy violations, its manipulation of users via a Russian disinformation campaign, and its mysterious but highly effective algorithm, which keeps users engaged by feeding them content that plays into their fears and anger.

And yet Facebook is just so damn useful, connecting us with family and friends in some pretty powerful ways. For those of us who communicate for a living, Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms allow us to expand our reach beyond what was previously possible.

What should we do? Some people are quitting Facebook, and I respect that. Most of us, though, aren’t going to go that far. I’m not, at least not yet. Instead, I think we all ought to resolve to try to use Facebook responsibly in 2019. I can’t define what that means. But I imagine it involves some combination of using it mainly to stay in touch with people who are important to us, interacting on local and special-interest groups, and ignoring politically charged content even when we agree with it. It’s just not healthy.

None of these steps is aimed at eliminating President Trump from your life. That wouldn’t make any more sense than running around with your hair on fire every time he lies. There is going to be plenty of Trump news in 2019. Special counsel Robert Mueller will presumably submit his report at some point. The Democratic House may take up impeachment. The president will continue to act unpredictably, rashly, and, in many instances, horribly. We can hardly ignore it all.

But we can pay attention to what really matters — while at the same time downgrading Trump from a constant crisis to more of a dull, aching pain that never quite goes away.

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Romney kicks off 2020 presidential campaign

Mitt Romney. Photo (cc) 2012 by Gage Skidmore.

In case you missed it, Mitt Romney kicked off his 2020 presidential campaign Tuesday by harshly criticizing President Trump in a Washington Post op-ed piece.

It seems transparently obvious that Romney believes Trump won’t survive the Mueller investigation and that he’ll be in the best position to pick up the pieces. Add to that the fact that Utah Republicans can’t stand Trump, and this is a no-risk move by the Mittster — which is to say the only kind of move he ever makes.

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