Media Nation

By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Margaret Sullivan’s advice for The Washington Post

Former Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan has written a sensible though surprisingly restrained column for The Guardian on how the Post can recover from its self-inflicted wounds: publisher Will Lewis promises to behave; owner Jeff Bezos makes it clear that he’s still committed to the Post and its mission of holding the powerful accountable; and a public editor is brought in “to provide transparency and accountability to readers.” Sullivan, who’s also a former public editor for The New York Times, says she’s not interested in the job herself.

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Mississippi Today fights a judge’s order to turn over internal documents

Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant. Photo (cc) 2016 by Tammy Anthony Baker.

The nonprofit news organization Mississippi Today has filed an appeal with that state’s Supreme Court rather than turn over internal documents sought by former Gov. Phil Bryant, who’s suing Today over its Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into a state welfare scandal.

It’s a high-stakes gamble: Mississippi recognizes only a very limited reporter’s privilege protecting journalists and news organizations from being ordered to identify anonymous sources and from producing documents. A lower court went along with Bryant, who argues that he is seeking evidence he needs in his attempt to prove that he was libeled by Today and its publisher, Mary Margaret White, a past guest on our “What Works” podcast. Today’s editor-in-chief, Adam Ganucheau, writes:

The Supreme Court could guarantee these critical rights for the first time in our state’s history, or it could establish a dangerous precedent for Mississippi journalists and the public at large by tossing aside an essential First Amendment protection.

As readers of Media Nation know, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes decision, ruled that the First Amendment does not provide for a reporter’s privilege. Nevertheless, 49 states offer some form of privilege either through a law or a ruling by state courts. The sole exceptions are Wyoming and the federal government itself. (The latest efforts to create a federal shield law are currently stalled in the Senate.)

The reporter’s privilege in Mississippi, though, is extremely limited — so much so that Ganucheau doesn’t regard his state as having any privilege at all. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press lumps Mississippi in with a group of states that have the lowest level of protection for journalism, including Idaho, Utah, Iowa, Missouri, Virginia and, sadly for us New Englanders, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

In RCFP’s guide to the reporter’s privilege, Mississippi lawyer Hale Gregory writes that “there are no reported decisions from Mississippi’s appellate courts regarding the reporters’ privilege, qualified or otherwise,” but that several court orders by the state’s trial courts have recognized “a qualified privilege.”

Mississippi Today has emerged as a vital source of accountability journalism in our poorest state. Currently it’s partnering with The New York Times on an investigation into a county sheriff’s department that has already led to prison sentences for six deputies who tortured two Black men in their custody, and that could lead to a federal civil-rights lawsuit.

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Appeals court rules that school officials had a right to ban anti-trans T-shirts

Liam Morrison. Handout photo via Nemasket Week.

Not surprisingly, a federal appeals court has ruled against a Middleborough student who sued the school system after he was banned from wearing two T-shirts with anti-transgender messages.

According to an article by Sawyer Smoot-Pollitt in Nemasket Week, Chief Judge David Barron, writing for the First Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled that school officials did not act “unreasonably in concluding that the shirt would be understood … in this middle school setting … to demean the identity of transgender and gender nonconforming students.” John R. Ellement covered the story for The Boston Globe as well.

Earlier, Morrison lost in U.S. District Court. At this point, his only recourse would be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Given the high court’s lurch to the right, maybe his high-profile backers at the Massachusetts Family Institute, a religious-right organization, will give it a try.

As I’ve written previously, Liam Morrison, then a seventh-grader, was sent home from the Nichols Middle School twice in the spring of 2023 — the first time for wearing a T-shirt that read “There Are Only Two Genders” and, the second time, for amending that to “There Are (Censored) Genders.”

This was not an easy call. At root, the First Amendment exists to protect unpopular speech, and Morrison’s T-shirts were surely unpopular among his LGBTQ classmates and their allies. On balance, though, I think school officials and the courts have gotten it right.

As Judge Barron observes, the T-shirts’ message was demeaning to trans students and dismissive of their very identity. By contrast, if a student wore a pro-transgender T-shirt, that would not represent any sort of threat or insult to non-trans students. In addition, the courts have ruled repeatedly that public school students’ First Amendment rights are limited when they are on school property. The school handbook in Middleborough bans clothing that targets “groups based on race, ethnicity, gender identity, religious affiliation or any other classification.”

For all these reasons, I’ve refrained from giving a New England Muzzle Award to Middleborough school officials, even though Morrison and his family no doubt believe they’ve been muzzled.

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Want to succeed in for-profit local news? Go local — and take charge of your own data.

Gordon Borrell may not be a name who’s familiar to you, but he’s a big deal in the world of local news: he’s the CEO of Borrell Associates, based in Williamsburg, Virginia, whose business is “tracking, analyzing, and forecasting 100% of what local businesses in the U.S. spend on all forms of advertising and marketing, right down to the county level for all markets.”

Over the weekend, he appeared on “E&P Reports,” the vodcast hosted by Mike Blinder, publisher of the trade magazine and website Editor & Publisher. Blinder was excited enough to contact me and make sure I gave it a listen. I did, and if you’re interested in the future of advertising for local news outlets, you’ll want to check it out.

Essentially, Borrell offered some basic wisdom about what community journalism organizations need to do if they want to compete successfully for advertising. They need to offer quality local content. And they need to be able to provide prospective advertisers with “first-party data.” That means information about their audience that they collect themselves rather than relying on distribution via third-party platforms. In other words: newsletters, yes; Facebook, no, at least not as a primary means of distribution.

Because Borrell is placing renewed emphasis on local content, he’s moving his annual conference from Miami to the Walter Cronkite journalism school at Arizona State University.

Pretty wonky stuff, but it validates a lot of what Ellen Clegg and I have written about successful local news outlets in our book, “What Works in Community News.” They have to make themselves essential to their communities, and the way to do that is to be present in people’s lives. Irrelevant content from distant locales, the strategy that corporate-owned newspaper chains are pursuing, appeals neither to readers nor to advertisers.

Moreover, at a time when nonprofit has proven to be the path forward for many local media organizations, Borrell holds out the hope that for-profit news can succeed as well. That said, Borrell is pessimistic enough that he told Blinder he thinks we’ve entered the “final phase” of local news. The goal is to be one of the survivors.

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Johanna Dunaway tells us about her plans to create a local news database

Johanna Dunaway

On the new “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Johanna Dunaway, a professor of political science at Syracuse University. She is also research director of the university’s Institute for Democracy, Journalism and Citizenship in Washington D.C.

I got to know Johanna when we were both Joan Shorenstein Fellows at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2016. I wrote part of my book about a new breed of wealthy newspaper owners, “The Return of the Moguls.” Johanna wrote a paper that examined how mobile technology was actually contributing to the digital divide between rich and poor.

Dunaway recently received a $200,000 grant from the Carnegie Fellows Program to further her work on local news. Among other things, she plans on building out an expansive database that lists local news outlets throughout the United States. She also plans to examine whether the nationalizing of news contributes to the toxic quality of public discourse.

I’ve got a Quick Take on what has been a bad year so far for public broadcasting operations, with cuts being imposed from Washington, D.C., to Denver and elsewhere. In Boston, where “What Works” is based, GBH News, the local news arm of the public media powerhouse GBH, has imposed some devastating cuts. But they’ve also brought in new leadership that could lead to a brighter future.

Ellen looks at a new use of print by the all-digital Texas Tribune, the nonprofit news outlet based in Austin.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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Despite cuts, GBH leaves executive salaries intact

While GBH was laying off 31 people, the high salaries of 16 top execs were left untouched. Top-paid host Jim Braude, who makes $345,000, tells Aidan Ryan of The Boston Globe: “We all would have been willing to take pay cuts to save costs if we had been asked.” So why weren’t they asked?

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Let’s not overlook Will Lewis’ ‘controversial’ decision to pay £110,000 to a source

Washington Post publisher Will Lewis. 2019 public domain photo by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Although it’s been previously reported, it’s been lost amid the outrage over Washington Post publisher Will Lewis’ aggressive attempts to play down his role in the Murdochian phone-hacking scandal: 14 years ago, as editor of Britain’s Telegraph, he was involved in paying a source £110,000 for a database that contained information about dubious expenses incurred by members of Parliament. At the current exchange rate, that would equal about $140,000.

The payoff has been overlooked to some degree because British and U.S. ethical standards are different. NPR media reporter David Folkenflik, who mentioned the payoff last week in a larger story about the phone-hacking turmoil, put it this way: “It was hailed as a huge story, leading to resignations and reforms. But it violated a key component of major U.S. news outlets’ ethics codes against paying sources.”

That may be true, but even in the U.K. it was noteworthy enough to warrant a story in The Guardian, which in 2009 called it a “controversial payment.” Two other British papers, The Times and The Sun, both refused to pay for the information, although The Guardian did not specify whether ethical considerations had anything to do with that.

Not only was Lewis involved in the payment but so, too, was Robert Winnett, a reporter for The Telegraph back then and now its deputy editor. Lewis announced last week that Willett will become executive editor of The Washington Post this fall while interim executive editor Matt Murray will move over to head up a new operation devoted to service journalism and social media.

Correction: Matt Murray is not a Brit. I’ve updated this post and also corrected Winnett’s name.

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Suggestions welcome for our new spreadsheet tracking public access and local news

Public domain photo taken in 2015

I’ve taken a first cut at a new tab on our Mass. Indy News spreadsheet listing public access television outlets in Massachusetts that cover local news. It’s linked here and is in the upper right-hand corner of Media Nation and What Works,

A lot of these come down to judgment calls. Virtually every access organization offers live and archived video of city council, school committee, select board and other public meetings. Few people, though, are going to sit down and watch a two-hour video of local officials doing their thing. One of the purposes of community journalism is to sift through such meetings, boil them down and make sense of them in a fair and impartial manner.

The ideal offering would be a weekly or daily newscast, and there are a few listed here. But not many outlets have such a newscast, and I’ve tried to be generous. For instance, I’ve included “SouthCoast Matters,” a talk show in Taunton, Berkley and other communities, because the program often features conversations with elected officials and other newsmakers. (Besides, they’ve had me on a few times, ha ha.)

Other programs I checked out, though, haven’t posted anything new for months. Those didn’t make the cut.

Why a separate tab? Public access is funded through a fee assessed to cable television providers such as Comcast and Verizon, but rather than going directly to the access organizations, it’s administered by local officials. These operations are vitally important part of any city or town’s media ecosystem, but they’re not entirely independent.

If you’re knowledgeable about public access in Massachusetts, I invite you to look this over and get in touch with me about additions or corrections. Just use this form. And share this post widely!

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Lewis keeps digging and demands a bigger shovel

Photo (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy

Embattled Washington Post publisher Will Lewis not only keeps digging but he’s demanding a bigger shovel. CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy, whose coverage of the Post’s meltdown has been exceptional, writes that Lewis’ response to his own paper following Thursday’s bombshell NPR story has only made things worse — much worse. Darcy writes:

At The Post, according to more than half-dozen staffers I spoke with Thursday, morale has fallen off a cliff since Lewis abruptly ousted Executive Editor Sally Buzbee on Sunday. “It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it, truly,” one staffer confided in me Thursday, noting that The Post has hit “rough patches” before, but that the stormy atmosphere hanging over the Washington outlet is unprecedented.

In an interview with the Post, Darcy notes, Lewis labeled NPR’s respected media reporter, David Folkenflik, as “an activist not a journalist,” which is just astonishing.

Darcy also ties up another loose thread. After Folkenflik reportedly rejected Lewis’ offer last December for an interview in exchange for not writing about Lewis’ role in the Murdochian phone-hacking scandal, that first interview went instead to Dylan Byers of Puck. Darcy writes: “Byers told me Thursday night that no restrictions were placed around the interview and he would ‘have never agreed to anything like that.’”

Are Lewis’ days numbered? I think so. The Post is taking a terrible hit to its reputation, and owner Jeff Bezos has to realize that Lewis is no longer the right person to rebuild the sagging news outlet — if he ever was. Bezos might see this as a public relations problem rather than a genuine ethical quandary. Well, fine. But it’s a PR disaster that’s not going away as long as Lewis is in charge. And if Lewis goes, what happens to his handpicked editors, Matt Murray and Robert Winnett?

What a mess.

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Can Lewis hang on?

The Will Lewis Resignation Watch has officially begun. David Folkenflik of NPR has devastating new details about the Washington Post publisher’s attempts to cover up his role in the Murdoch phone-hacking scandals, including offering an exclusive interview to Folkenflik last December if he’d agree to drop a story he was working on.

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