On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Brant Houston, who is hard to describe in one sentence: he’s an author, an educator, an investigative journalist, an expert in data-based reporting, and a co-founder of the Global Investigative Journalism Network and the Institute for Nonprofit News.
His new book, “Changing Models for Journalism,” chronicles the history of change, disruption and reinvention in our industry over the past two decades. These are themes we explore on this podcast, and in our own forthcoming book, “What Works in Community News.” Brant takes us back to the early days of digital and recounts the early optimism, and the early misconceptions, about the promise and the peril of the internet.
I’ve got a Quick Take on Pink Slime Journalism 3.0. We’ve seen an explosion of websites that might be called Pink Slime 2.0 as political operatives have sought to take advantage of the decline in real local news. That followed Pink Slime 1.0 — an outbreak about a decade ago of local news being produced by low-paid workers in distant locales, including the Philippines. Now, NewsGuard reports that dubious online content powered by artificial intelligence is spreading.
Ellen looks at the numbers in the 2023 impact report on local news by the INN. And there’s some good news: As the nonprofit journalism field expands, the resources to sustain these newsrooms are expanding, too.
Residents looking to start news organizations in their communities usually look to digital first. Even at the local level, advertising revenues are not what they used to be, and the cost of offering a print newspaper — both in terms of money and complexity — often isn’t worth it.
Yet the traditional notion of publishing a weekly newspaper remains attractive on several levels. Readers like it. Advertisers prefer it. And in many states, public notices placed by governmental agencies, a lucrative source of revenue, are restricted to print papers.
So I was interested to learn that print is part of the discussion at three nonprofit local news startups that were featured at a panel discussion, “The Re-Emergence of the Community Newspaper,” held during the recent conference of the NorthEast Association of Communications Executives, held in Meredith, New Hampshire.
The Harpswell Anchor in Maine and The Concord Bridge in Massachusetts have offered print right from the beginning. Brookline.News in Massachusetts is digital-only but may offer a print edition in the future. (Disclosure: Ellen Clegg, my research, podcast and writing partner, is also a founder and co-chair of Brookline.News.)
Greg Bestwick, president of the nonprofit board that publishes the Anchor, said print was not something he and his fellow founders especially wanted to offer. What changed their mind, he explained, was that a survey of the community revealed that 95% wanted something they could hold in their hands.
“We weren’t thrilled about that,” Bestwick said, “but we did say we’d be much more robust online than the previous owner.”
Unlike The Concord Bridge and Brookline.News, which were both launched in response to massive budget cuts by the newspaper chain Gannett, The Harpswell Anchor had been a locally owned for-profit newspaper until several years ago. The paper ceased publication during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bestwick said. The new iteration of the Anchor has had an operating surplus from the start, he added, and won 11 awards from the Maine Press Association during its first year.
Virginia McIntyre, a member of The Concord Bridge’s board, said the founders of that site were enthusiastic about print right from the start. “We wanted something people could have on the kitchen table,” she said, adding: “It’s nice to have something that the family can see as a whole. Our advertisers also like having an ad that hits every household.” The print edition of the Bridge, she explained, is mailed for free to each of Concord’s 8,700 households.
Discussions about starting a community news outlet began after Gannett decided in early 2022 to eliminate nearly all local journalism from its Massachusetts weeklies. The Concord Journal is still published, but it’s filled with regional stories from throughout Gannett’s network. Because of that, McIntyre said, many residents had no idea about important developments such as the hiring of a town manager and a $110 million middle school project. Although the Bridge includes feature stories and coverage of school sports, she said that the goal is to inform the public about day-to-day goings-on.
“It’s not entertainment,” she said. “I always thought Concord was a boring place, and now I know it is.”
In contrast to Concord, Gannett shut down the Brookline Tab altogether, leaving a community of nearly 60,000 people just minutes from Boston without any local source of news. “The Tab was not good. But it was something,” said Fred Perry, a member of the Brookline.News board.
Brookline.News’ website didn’t go live until last week; a newsletter began covering the town just before the annual town meeting in April. Perry said he’s hoping that the project can start offering a print edition sometime this fall, praising “the wonderful examples on both sides of me,” a reference to Bestwick and McIntyre. Several other board members, he added, are skeptical of print because of the cost, but he said he’s optimistic that print “can generate a significant surplus.”
The panel discussion was moderated by John Harrison, an executive with Wallit, a company that helps publishers manage digital subscriptions.
In many cases, digital-only makes sense. LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, an organization for digital news entrepreneurs, has more than 300 members. Many of the projects that Ellen and I are profiling in our forthcoming book, “What Works in Community News,” are digital-only, and they have no plans to add a print edition.
Yet print has persisted long past its anticipated expiration date. Perhaps the best way to think about it is that print is still worth doing — but only if it makes sense in terms of revenue, reader preferences and advertiser reach.
On Tuesday came the bizarre news that Tara Reade, who accused Joe Biden of past instances of sexual assault during the 2020 presidential campaign, had popped up in Russia, claiming she feared being imprisoned or killed. The Guardian reported that she had “defected”; The New York Times went with the less charged “moved.”
Women rarely lie about sexual assault, but there were reasons right from the start not to believe Reade’s claims. Among other things, the PBS NewsHour reported that the details Reade offered were almost certainly false, and Politico found that she had spent much of her adult life as a grifter. Below is a blog post that links to those stories.
Follow the money
Media Nation | May 16, 2020
Two in-depth reports Friday rendered what was left of Tara Reade’s credibility in tatters.
The more important was a story by the PBS NewsHour. Lisa Desjardins and Daniel Bush interviewed 74 former Joe Biden staff members, 62 of them women. And though they said Biden sometimes had trouble keeping his hands to himself (something Biden acknowledged and apologized for last year), they emphatically denied that they’d ever heard of him engaging in sexual assault.
“The people who spoke to the NewsHour,” they wrote, “described largely positive and gratifying experiences working for Biden, painting a portrait of someone who was ahead of his time in empowering women in the workplace.”
Crucially, an on-the-record source told them that there were problems with Reade’s job performance that may have led to her termination. And the place where the alleged assault took place was entirely out in the open, making it nearly impossible for Biden to have done what she claims without being seen.
Also Friday, Natasha Korecki reported for Politico that Reade has spent much of her adult life as a grifter, lying and cheating people out of money — but never, in the recollection of the people she interviewed, saying anything negative about Biden.
“Over the past decade,” Korecki wrote, “Reade has left a trail of aggrieved acquaintances in California’s Central Coast region whosay they remember two things about her — she spoke favorably about her time working for Biden, and she left them feeling duped.”
In the weeks after I wrote about the Reade case for WGBH News, I’ve gone from thinking there was a reasonable chance that she was telling the truth to now believing it’s highly likely that she made the whole thing up.
But why? Could it have something to do with her weird praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin? What should we make of the fact that her lawyer, who’s representing her for free, is a Trump donor? Or the fact that another lawyer who’s acted on her behalf has ties to Russian propaganda operations?
Ultimately Reade’s story can’t be definitively proven or disproven, but the media have done a good job of laying out the facts and showing how far-fetched it is. Now we need to know who, if anyone, was behind what appears to be a classic political dirty trick. Keep digging.
You don’t care what I think about the Celtics’ just-concluded season, but I’m going to tell you anyway.
The team made a great comeback from 0-3. Derrick White made a play for the ages to pull out Game 6. In the end, though, they lost to a less talented but tougher and better coached team — although I have to say that the Heat certainly didn’t look less talented in this series.
What’s next? Joe Mazzulla has to go. Beyond that, this is still a very good team. I think Al Horford can continue to be valuable (assuming he doesn’t retire) as long as they cut down on his minutes. I’d love to see Rob Williams play more, but I’m afraid that his knee won’t allow for that. I still love Marcus Smart.
The big question is whether to break up the two J’s. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were both awful with everything on the line, and I don’t want to hear any injury excuses about Tatum. They might have to deal Brown because of contract considerations, and if they do, I hope they replace him with a veteran who Tatum respects, even fears. He needs guidance. That said, he took over during the final five quarters against Philadelphia, and that was just as much of a pressure situation as Monday night was.
Many, many people have said the Celtics should have stopped shooting threes since they weren’t falling. Unfortunately, the modern NBA is built around the three, and the Heat were scoring from outside at will. You score two, they score three, and you’re another point behind. I’d love to see the NBA get rid of the three and return to ’80s-style inside basketball. But we know that isn’t going to happen.
And let’s not hear anything about lack of effort. They were playing absolutely as hard as they could until maybe the final eight minutes, by which time the writing was on the wall. They just played a terrible game.
A few years ago I noticed a “Not Art” stencil for the first time, on a concrete barrier alongside the Mystic Path, which runs along the eastern shore of the Mystic Lakes. Over the winter I took pictures of every one I saw in Medford, Arlington and the Middlesex Fells. I didn’t go looking for them; I just documented what I encountered. And no, I didn’t know they were a thing until I Googled them. Here’s a Boston magazine story about them from 2014.
I imagine most readers of this blog understand the ins and outs of the debt ceiling fiasco, but in case you don’t, a brief explanation.
The debt ceiling is an extra, and entirely unnecessary, appendage to the work of passing budgets and appropriating money. Congress gets to debate what should go into the budget, and that’s an opportunity for those who want hold down spending to make their case and put it to a vote. But once the budget is passed, that’s the end (or at least it should be), and if the executive needs to borrow money to fulfill that budget, then so be it.
For the past century, though, congressional action has been needed to approve more borrowing, even though that borrowing is to cover spending that has already been approved, and in many cases has already taken place. No one thought much about it until recently, but in 2011 congressional Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling unless President Obama made concessions, and now House Republicans are attempting to do the same with President Biden.
The only other Western democracy that countenances this foolishness is Denmark. Try buying a car with a loan and then telling the finance company that your family has voted not to approve the monthly payments. Bye bye car.
You’ll note that this only happens when there’s a Democratic president and one or both branches of Congress is controlled by Republicans. President Trump ran up enormous deficits, and the debt ceiling was routinely increased on a bipartisan basis to accommodate those deficits. Other than a few rogue individual votes here and there, Democrats have never sought to exploit the debt ceiling, because — whatever their faults — they belong to a party that believes in basic governance.
Sadly, though, the debt ceiling negotiations have occasioned an outpouring of terrible both-sides media coverage. Gosh, why can’t Democrats and Republicans come together for the good of the country?
The hypocrisy and phoniness surrounding this issue are why a lot of observers are calling on Biden to invoke the 14th Amendment, which states in part, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” Or to mint the coin.
In any case, if and when Democrats are fully in power again, they ought to repeal the debt ceiling so we can go about our business like a normal country.
John Widdison, a former executive managing editor of the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, died Tuesday at the age of 84. Mr. Widdison oversaw the merger of the morning Worcester Telegram and the Evening Gazette, later serving as director of public affairs for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, where he worked until retiring in 2001.
In 2019, Mr. Widdison was inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame, administered by the New England Newspaper and Press Association. According to the citation he received, “He led with compassion and intelligence thereby engendering a teamwork, we’re-all-in-this-together work atmosphere. John’s impact was felt not only in the newsroom but also in the community where he welcomed feedback from readers on everything from missed deliveries to spelling errors.”
Boston Globe metro columnist Tom Farragher is retiring after more than 25 years at the paper, according to an email to the staff sent by managing editor Jennifer Peter. Farragher, who was part of the Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting of the pedophile-priest scandal, later went on to serve as editor of the investigative Spotlight Team.
“I have loved my work here alongside dedicated professionals who come to work each day to produce the best newspaper in New England,” Farragher told his colleagues.
One of the more interesting business models for local news that Ellen Clegg and I have encountered in our work is what you might call the hybrid for-profit/nonprofit. For-profit organizations such as The Mendocino Voice in Northern California, The Colorado Sun, the Storm Lake Times Pilot in Iowa and The Provincetown Independent have either set up nonprofit arms or are working with existing nonprofits to raise tax-exempt money that can be used to support certain types of public interest journalism.
This past Monday, Fredric Rutberg explained how that model is working at The Berkshire Eagle, the Pittsfield, Massachusetts-based paper that he and several other business leaders rescued from the hedge fund Alden Global Capital back in 2016. A retired judge, Rutberg is now publisher and president of the Eagle. He spoke at the spring conference of the NorthEast Association of Communication Executives, held in Meredith, New Hampshire.
After Rutberg and his partners acquired the Eagle, he said, they considered — and rejected — the nonprofit model. Among other things, they wanted to maintain the paper’s editorial voice, and nonprofits aren’t allowed to endorse political candidates or specific pieces of legislation.
“Our editorial page is very important to us,” he said. “We were very proud to be among the first five or six papers in the country nationally to endorse Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.” And though he conceded the impact of that endorsement was “marginal,” the paper’s editorial voice really matters when it comes to candidates for local office. “We think we have something to say,” he said. “We don’t want to give that up.”
But with advertising on the wane, the paper faced a dilemma — especially when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, wiping out the Eagle’s nascent events business. Just before COVID, the paper raised four times the $10,000 it asked for in order to hire a Report for America corps member to cover the Statehouse. With that in mind as “proof of concept,” the Eagle set about looking for a more comprehensive way of seeking donations to bolster its news coverage.
What it hit upon was the Berkshire Eagle Local Journalism Fund, in partnership with the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation. The nonprofit foundation, Rutberg explained, accepts donations to help the Eagle pay for coverage of education, health, economic development, and arts and culture. The Eagle held back from a public campaign during COVID, with Rutberg saying he thought that would be “impolitic” given that the pandemic had forced the paper to cut back the number of days it appears in print (from seven to five).
Last November, though, the Eagle launched its first public drive, raising nearly $80,000 from the community as well as a major gift of $150,000. The Eagle is planning a second public drive this October and has established an endowment fund, as well, although Rutberg said that’s gotten off to a slow start.
Following several cutbacks during COVID, the Eagle is expanding, Rutberg said. Though print circulation continues to shrink, paid digital circulation has risen from 2,700 pre-COVID to about 7,200 today. An arts reporter was hired recently, and the Eagle has started a quarterly magazine — The B.
Some of the largest for-profit papers in the country, including The New York Times and The Boston Globe, accept grant money to cover certain beats or publish journalism produced by nonprofits like ProPublica. The Philadelphia Inquirer, a for-profit, is owned by a nonprofit, the Lenfest Institute, which helps pay for coverage at the Inquirer and other news outlets.
What makes smaller for-profits like the Eagle unique is that they’re making use of nonprofit money to help pay for their journalism on an ongoing basis and not just for a few narrowly defined beats. After all, the four areas Rutberg identified comprise a substantial part of his paper’s coverage.
Nonprofit journalism has emerged as a leading solution to the local news crisis. But it’s important for there to be a viable for-profit alternative as well — even if they are bolstered in part by nonprofit funding.
A recent report by NewsGuard, a project that evaluates news organizations for reliability and transparency, found that clickbait generated by artificial intelligence is on the rise. McKenzie Sadeghi and Lorenzo Arvanitis write:
NewsGuard has identified 49 news and information sites that appear to be almost entirely written by artificial intelligence software. A new generation of content farms is on the way.
The report didn’t specifically identify any local news websites that are using AI to write low-quality stories aimed at getting clicks and programmatic advertising. Perhaps non-local stories about health, entertainment and tech, to name three of the topics for which content farms are using AI, more readily fly under the radar. If you’re going to use AI to produce articles about the local tax rate or the women’s track team, you’re going to get caught pretty quickly when the results prove to be wrong. Still, the use of AI to produce some forms of local news, such as routine articles about real-estate transactions, is not new.
According to the NewsGuard report, there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort yet to use AI in order to produce deliberately false stories, although there have been a few examples, including a celebrity death site that claimed President Biden had “passed away peacefully in his sleep.”
Call this Pink Slime 3.0. Version 1.0 was low-tech compared to what’s available today. Back in 2012, the public radio program “This American Life” found that a company called Journatic (pronounced “joor-NAT-ik,” though I always thought it should be “JOOR-nuh-tik”) was producing local content for newspapers using grossly underpaid, out-of-town reporters — including cheap Filipino workers who wrote articles under fake bylines.
Pink Slime 2.0, of more recent vintage, consists of hundreds of websites launched to exploit the decline of local news. Under such banners as “North Boston News” (!), these sites purport to offer community journalism but are actually a cover for political propaganda. Nearly all of them serve right-wing interests, thought there were a few on the left as well.
Pink Slime 3.0 threatens to become more insidious as AI continues to improve. As Seth Smalley wrote for Poynter Online, this is “pink slime on steroids.”
Of course, AI could prove to be a boon for local news, as Sebastian Grace wrote last week for What Works, our Northeastern journalism project tracking developments in community journalism. By eliminating repetitive drudge work, AI can free journalists to produce high-value stories that really matter.
Still, bottom-feeders like CNET — not exactly a content farm, but not much better than that, either — have already been caught publishing error-laden stories with AI. You can only imagine what sort of advice these content farms are going to give people about dealing with their medical problems.
OpenAI, which likes to portray itself as a responsible player in discussions about the future of AI, would not respond to NewsGuard’s inquiries. Neither would Facebook, which is amplifying AI-generated content.
The only thing we can be sure of is that a new, more insidious version of pink slime is coming to a website near you — if it hasn’t already.