How alt-weeklies are surviving pandemic and recession

In late 2015 I traveled to Burlington and Montpelier, Vermont, to report on a heartening development: though Gannett had hollowed out the state’s major daily, the Burlington Free Press, several other news organizations had arisen to fill the gap.

VT Digger, a nonprofit website, and Vermont Public Radio were expanding. And towering above all was Seven Days, a thick alt-weekly with a vibrant website. As someone who had worked for many years at The Boston Phoenix, which closed in 2013, I was agog at the size of the staff and the number of ads. Somehow, Seven Days had become the largest news organization in the Burlington area. And it was turning a profit. As Paula Routly, the publisher, co-editor and co-owner told me in an interview for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” the paper had never lost money since its founding in 1995. She explained:

When the recession hit, we invested. That’s when we ramped up in news. And that is when the Free Press visibly diminished. They just made different business decisions. “Let’s make it smaller, let’s lay people off.” That’s where I think they made their mistake.

So it was great to see Seven Days get prominent mention by The Daily Beast in a round-up of alt-weeklies that are somehow surviving despite the pandemic and the recession. Sophia June reports in The Daily Beast on four — Seven Days, the Cleveland Scene, The Stranger of Seattle and The Austin Chronicle. According to June, Seven Days was able to reverse the cuts that it had made within six weeks, suggesting that the newspaper apocalypse that seemed to be upon us in the early days of the shutdown didn’t quite come to pass. Here’s a key excerpt:

The paper had to stop hosting events and printing several of their guides, but they reached out to businesses like the Department of Health, a local hospital, and banks to find new advertisers. They pitched new guides, including a travel guide for the Vermont Department of Tourism, encouraging safe travel in the state. They were also able to keep revenue-generators like monthly parenting and real-estate inserts.

Also getting a mention is DigBoston, which has kept the alt-weekly scene alive here in the post-Phoenix era. The Dig stopped publishing its print edition last March but then started up again in June, as Poynter’s Kristen Hare reported at the time. It’s notable that all of the papers I’ve mentioned are for-profit entities, although the Dig shares content with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, a sister organization.

Does this mean that happy days are here again? Of course not. But these stories are yet another sign that independent newspapers unburdened by corporate and hedge-fund ownership can find a way to survive. Once the pandemic is behind us, maybe they’ll even thrive.

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A podcast that makes sense of Australia’s new social media law

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. Photo (cc) 2017 by Tuija Aalto.

If you get a chance, you should listen to this Lawfare podcast featuring Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute and professor of political communication at the University of Oxford.

Nielsen covers a lot of ground, but the most interesting part comes toward the end, when he discusses Australia’s new law that (to way oversimplify) requires Facebook and Google to pay for news.

What makes this worthwhile is Nielsen’s calm rationality. For instance, he pronounces the Australian law a success if success is defined as extracting revenue from Big Tech and giving it to large incumbent news organizations. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since those news orgs are where the social media giants have been getting a lot of their content.

But Nielsen says we should look at other definitions of success, too — such as finding ways for Google and Facebook to support local and nonprofit news organizations as well as those that serve undercovered communities.

And thanks to Heidi Legg for calling this to my attention.

First day of meteorological spring

Sunset where the Mystic Lakes spill into the Mystic River. Medford side, looking toward Arlington.

McNeil speaks out — at length

Where is Slate’s old “series saver” when you need it? Don McNeil has written a four-part blog post on his departure from The New York Times that Medium says will take you 82 minutes to read. McNeil resigned after it came to light that he’d used the N-word during a trip with students to Peru.

Rep. Cicilline to push bill allowing news publishers to negotiate with Big Tech

Could Australian-style rules to force Google and Facebook to pay for news be coming to the United States?

U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., told the CNN program “Reliable Sources” over the weekend that the House will soon take up legislation that would give news publishers an antitrust exemption allowing them to bargain collectively with the Big Tech platforms. The purpose would be negotiating a compensation system.

“Local news is on life support in this country,” said Cicilline, who chairs the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee. “The monopoly power of these two platforms is resulting in a significant decline in local journalism.”

More broadly, he said his committee will also take up parts of a 450-page report, compiled over 16 months, to rein in the power of the giant platforms. He told host Brian Stelter that many of the recommendations in the report have bipartisan support and are aimed at breaking up the tech companies’ monopoly power.

The most intriguing of those ideas, according to a recent story by Cat Zakrzewski in The Washington Post, involves “interoperability and data portability, which would make it easier for consumers to move their data to new or competing tech services.”

Facebook has massive market dominance, and it would be difficult for a competitor to get a toehold in the market in any case. But it would be at least somewhat more feasible if users could easily transfer all their data over to a new service and delete it from Facebook, something that is almost impossible to do at the moment.

Regardless of what happens, it seems that Google and Facebook may soon no longer be able to operate with impunity. I’m far from certain that the Australian system is the best way to go given that it privileges entrenched publishers like Rupert Murdoch. But the idea that the platforms should pay something for what they use is long overdue.

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The template for the Bezos-Baron revival of the Post was set early on

Marty Baron, center. Photo (cc) 2017 by the Knight Foundation.

I was struck by how little new information there was in this New York Times overview of Marty Baron’s years as executive editor of The Washington Post. As described by Times reporter Marc Tracy, the Post succeeded under Baron and owner Jeff Bezos by switching its focus from regional to national, and from print to digital.

There’s more to it than just that, of course, and Tracy’s piece is worthwhile if you’re not familiar with the subject. The ground that Tracy covers is laid out in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” The Bezos-Baron template was set early on. In recent years, the Post has continued to grow (its digital subscriber base now exceeds 3 million, and more than 1,000 journalists work in the newsroom), but that’s simply a continuation of earlier trends.

Likewise, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has been touting a comment Baron made to CNN’s Brian Stelter about what he learned from Bezos: “One thing that Jeff emphasized at the beginning is that we really should be paying attention to our customer more than our competitors.” As Rosen says, “Sounds simple, like banal business advice. It’s not.”

In 2016 I asked Baron about the Post’s competition with the Times, and he answered the question in a manner similar to what he told Stelter. I compressed Baron’s answer in my book, but here’s a fuller quote:

Well, we don’t obsess about The New York Times in that sense. We don’t see that as our only competition. We see other people as our competition and, frankly, we see all calls on people’s time and in terms of getting news and information as being a competition for us, not to mention all the other competition for people’s time.

One aspect of the Bezos-Baron era that Tracy leaves out is the role of technology in the Post’s revival. Under chief technologist Shailesh Prakash (like Baron, a holdover from the Graham era), the Post developed state-of-the-art digital products that are fast and a pleasure to use — better than the Times’ very good products, quite frankly.

Overall, the Bezos-Baron partnership has been good for the Post, good for journalism and good for the public. I hope the next editor can build on Baron’s legacy.

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Biden flinches after report ties Saudi leader to the murder of a journalist

Photo (cc) 2019 by POMED

On Friday, shortly after the Biden administration declassified documents tying the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists released statements urging President Joe Biden to take action.

Sadly, Biden flinched, imposing a variety of lesser sanctions but leaving Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman alone — even though Biden, during the 2020 campaign, had referred to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state with “no redeeming social value.” As the Post reported:

The Biden administration will impose no direct punishment on Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, despite the conclusion of a long-awaited intelligence report released Friday that he “approved” the operation, administration officials said.

Here’s what the Committee to Protect Journalists had to say before it became clear that Biden was not going to do anything to punish MBS, as the crown prince is known:

“By releasing this intelligence report, President Joe Biden’s administration has reinforced what we have long believed: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” said CPJ Senior Middle East and North Africa Researcher Justin Shilad. “Now, the U.S. and its allies should sanction the crown prince and other royal court members to show the world that there are tangible consequences for assassinating journalists, no matter who you are.”

And here’s the Society of Professional Journalists:

“Many Americans have now read — and all should read — the four-page declassified intelligence report on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” said Matthew T. Hall, SPJ national president. “Seeing its conclusions in print under government letterhead make me angry all over again. This reprehensible action needs a strong response from the Biden administration. We appreciate Biden Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s recent assurances that ‘a range of actions’ are ‘on the table.’ But we hope the president chooses one quickly and decisively to send the message to Saudi Arabian leaders and people everywhere that the killing of a journalist is unacceptable anywhere on this planet.”

(My emphasis above.)

Sadly, Biden’s actions parallel those of his predecessor, Donald Trump, although for different reasons. Trump didn’t care; Biden is too tied up in outmoded considerations about alliances and interests, such the supposed need to placate Saudis so they’ll help us in our confrontation with Iran.

As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof puts it:

It’s precisely because Saudi Arabia is so important that Biden should stand strong and send signals — now, while there is a window for change — that the kingdom is better off with a new crown prince who doesn’t dismember journalists.

Friday was the worst day so far for President Biden — and for anyone who cares about the U.S. commitment to human rights and to the fate of journalists at the hands of repressive governments.

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Don’t censor right-wing disinformation. Just stop making us pay for it.

Photo (cc) 2007 by Jason Eppink

Two Democratic members of Congress are asking giant cable providers like Verizon and Comcast some uncomfortable questions about their business dealings with three right-wing purveyors of toxic misinformation and disinformation — Fox News, Newsmax and OANN.

Among other things, according to Erik Wemple of The Washington Post, Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney want to know what “moral and ethical principles” are involved in carrying the channels and whether they intend to keep carrying them after their current contracts expire. This is not a good road to take. As Wemple writes:

The insertion of Congress into the contractual relationships of video providers with particular news/propaganda outlets, however, is frightening. Asking questions is a protected activity, of course — one that lawmakers use all the time. Yet these questions feel a lot like coercion by government officials, an incursion into the cultural promise of the First Amendment. Eshoo and McNerney’s letter hints that, unless the carriers proactively justify keeping OAN, Newsmax, Fox News and the like, the signatories would like to see them de-platformed right away.

The very real problem is that Fox News and its smaller competitors are unique in the extent to which they spout falsehoods and outright lies about everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to the outcome of the 2020 election. But what can we do about it without posing a threat to the First Amendment?

Liberal activists have pressured advertisers from time to time, which is well within their own free-speech rights. But Fox, in particular, is all but immune from such pressure because most of its money comes from cable carriage fees. As Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of the liberal media-watch organization Media Matters for America, recently told the public radio program “On the Media”:

They can have zero commercials and still have a 90% profit margin because they are the second most expensive channel on everybody’s cable box, and Fox is in the process right now of renegotiating 40 to 50% of all of their contracts.

A far more promising avenue is one suggested by the media-reform organization Free Press. Contained within its daily missives demanding that Congress take action against Fox, Newsmax and OANN for spewing “hate and disinformation into homes and businesses across the country” is a proposed solution that we all ought to support: mandating  à la carte cable so that consumers would only have to pay for the channels they want. (Bye bye, ESPN!)

The problem with these right-wing purveyors of lies isn’t that they exist. It’s that, unless we’re willing to cut the cable cord, we’re forced to pay for them whether we watch them or not, whether we’re appalled by them or not. It’s time to bring that to an end.

So yes, there’s a way to do something about cable hate without raising constitutional issues. Reps. Eshoo and McNerney should take note.

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Facebook to fund revenue models for community news projects

When Facebook has announced various initiatives to help news organizations, they have tended to benefit larger newsrooms that are less in need of assistance. For instance, when the News Tab was unveiled a year and a half ago, it was explicitly designed to benefit behemoths like The New York Times, The Washington Post and BuzzFeed.

As I wrote then: “At a time when local news is under unprecedented economic pressure, the News Tab will only widen the gap between relatively well-off, highly visible national news organizations and small local projects. The national sites will get paid; the local sites will be billed monthly.”

On Wednesday, though, LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers announced a $1 million, two-year initiative funded by the Facebook Journalism Project to help its members develop their revenue models. Anika Anand, deputy director of LION Publishers, writes:

Through an application process, we will select a group of LION member organizations that will receive up to two years of funding to hire someone who will focus primarily on revenue generation with the goal of making their position self-sustaining at the end of the two years. For our first cohort, we will prioritize news businesses pursuing sustainability through a revenue strategy focused on readers, major donors or advertisers. Every LION member will be considered eligible for this program — their tax status will not matter.

In other words, the program is open to for-profit and nonprofit ventures alike.

News organizations that are part of LION are sources of reliable journalism, and they’re providing it on the community level, where the news implosion has hit the hardest. With 262 members, $1 million isn’t going to go a long way. But we do seem to be at a moment at which Facebook and Google understand that they are going to have to pay for the news they’ve been using. The LION program is exceptionally worthy.

Let’s call this a good start.

New York Times diversity report describes a challenging workplace culture

Not so diverse: The New York Times in 1942. Photo in the public domain.

The New York Times has released the results of an internal study that finds the paper’s internal culture is often hostile to people of color and women. The entire report is here. A key excerpt:

Our current culture and systems are not enabling our work force to thrive and do its best work. This is true across many types of difference: race, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, socioeconomic background, ideological viewpoints and more. But it is particularly true for people of color, many of whom described unsettling and sometimes painful day-to-day workplace experiences.

Tom Jones of Poynter has been reading it over, and he finds some telling statistics: 48% of hires in 2020 were people of color, bringing the percentage from 27% to 34% in the past six years. The percentage has risen from 17% to 23% in leadership positions, and the percentage of women employed by the Times has risen from 45% to 52%.

I suspect those numbers are better than what you’d find at most news organizations, although I also suspect that the Times — among the very few that’s been staffing up in recent years — could have done better still. And I heartily agree with Jones’ conclusion: “It also would be good to see all news organizations do the kind of self-evaluation that the Times has done and work toward making sure their newsroom cultures are where they should be.”

We can start with The Boston Globe, Boston’s public media outlets and television news operations.

Finally, of note: One of the three co-authors of the report is deputy managing editor Carolyn Ryan, an alum of the Globe and, before that, The Patriot Ledger of Quincy — and the subject of a profile in Insider this week that touts her as a possible successor to executive editor Dean Baquet.

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