Local radio follows local newspapers down the drain of corporate chain ownership

Photo (cc) 2017 by Ray Sawhill.

Local radio stations, like local newspapers, are under siege. Newspapers are struggling because the internet undermined the value of advertising and because social media proved more alluring than the latest goings-on at city hall.

Likewise, radio is fighting to be heard in an audioscape increasingly dominated by streaming services and podcasts.

But radio and newspapers have something else in common, too: Corporate greed is making their problems much worse and preventing the kind of investments that are needed to position them for the future.

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My half-hearted argument in favor of The New York Times’ double endorsement

I’m not going to try to defend The New York Times’ decision to punt and endorse two Democratic candidates for president.

In watching the endorsement process play out Sunday night on “The Weekly,” it seemed to me that the editorial board members’ main goal was to stop the frontrunner, Joe Biden, whom they see as too old and too vague. By endorsing both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, the Times diluted the boost it might have given to Warren, who is — along with Bernie Sanders — the strongest challenger to Biden.

But if you read the entire 3,400-word editorial, you’ll find a semi-respectable argument for the double endorsement at the very end:

There will be those dissatisfied that this page is not throwing its weight behind a single candidate, favoring centrists or progressives. But it’s a fight the party itself has been itching to have since Mrs. Clinton’s defeat in 2016, and one that should be played out in the public arena and in the privacy of the voting booth. That’s the very purpose of primaries, to test-market strategies and ideas that can galvanize and inspire the country.

Essentially the Times sees itself as endorsing candidates in two separate Democratic primaries — the progressive primary and the moderate primary. Seen in this light, the Times is hoping ahead of the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses to give a boost to Warren against Sanders and to Klobuchar against Biden and Pete Buttigieg. That makes some sense, though I still think a single endorsement would have been better. Still, if the two-primaries argument had been stated more explicitly, in the lead, the Times could have spared itself some of the head-scratching and mockery it’s being subjected to today.

As for “The Weekly,” I found the hour fascinating, with the participants — led by deputy editorial-page editor Katie Kingsbury, subbing for James Bennet, whose brother Michael is (believe it or not) a presidential candidate — coming across as thoughtful and serious. I saw some Twitter chatter suggesting that the participants seemed elitist and out of touch, but that strikes me as an inevitable consequence of the the setting and the process. How could it be otherwise?

And let’s give the Times credit for dragging the traditionally secretive endorsement process out into the open, including transcripts of the interviews with each of the candidates.

Let’s just hope the Times restricts itself to one endorsement this fall.

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Pundits wonder if Warren’s good night may have come too late

Elizabeth Warren in April 2019. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

Elizabeth Warren rose above her dispute with Bernie Sanders over who said what and offered a powerful argument about gender and politics at Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate. But it might be too late to matter.

That, at least, appears to be the consensus in my quick scan of political punditry following the final candidates’ forum before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.

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In Haverhill, WHAV lives — but a long-planned co-op for news folds up shop

The Haverhill riverfront. Photo (cc) 2008 by Fletcher6.

For some years now, Haverhill, a city north of Boston, has been the home of two innovative local-news projects.

One, WHAV Radio, ran into fundraising problems last fall and was in danger of going under by Thanksgiving. I wrote about that for WGBH News. The other, Haverhill Matters, was intended as the pilot for the Banyan Project, an effort to establish cooperatively owned news sites around the country.

The committee organizing Haverhill Matters recently announced that it was shutting down. More on that below. But first, the good news from WHAV, whose president and general manager, Tim Coco, is soldiering on. (Disclosure: I made a small donation.) WHAV is a nonprofit with a low-power FM signal at 97.9 FM, a streaming internet presence and a robust website. Coco told me in an email:

Although I have been a board member and chairman of nonprofits over the years, they’ve all had endowments. I’m still getting used to actually operating a nonprofit without a safety net. One lesson learned this time around is crises never end and fundraising mode has to be perpetual.

During this latest episode, Haverhill Mayor Jim Fiorentini called me and predicted I wouldn’t give up. He called it a “labor of love” and I responded, “No, it’s just a labor.” I guess he was correct.

I also learned WHAV has friends it didn’t know it had. A large, regional contractor, Early Construction not only stepped up with contributions, but challenged others to do the same. Early is a business that bids on public contracts and has no need to advertise. Dick and his wife, Mary Rose, Early believe in what WHAV is doing and their words and deeds helped motivate me.

One existing underwriter, Covanta, represented by Mark VanWeelden, stepped up with technical support and ideas. He renewed his company’s pledge on the condition … that I paid myself.

Another great supporter turned out to be former Mayor Jim Rurak and his wife Kathy. The original WHAV AM 1490 went away during his time as mayor and he was advised at that time (1995), it was impossible — technically, legally, financially — to bring it back. He brought more contacts and resources to the table.

For me, it was like the end of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” where residents of Bedford Falls come to the aid of George Bailey. It was truly heartwarming.

Beyond this, I cut costs —pretty much eliminating live weeknight programming that didn’t support the local news effort. I also renegotiated credit card rates so more of listener/reader donations came through. The membership drive — particularly asking for monthly, recurring donations — delivered almost 50 percent more income than a year ago. It isn’t enough, but it is a base WHAV will build on.

The idea behind the Banyan Project is to set up news co-ops similar to food co-ops or credit unions — that is, news sites owned by the members, who could join by paying a fee or contributing labor, perhaps in the form of a neighborhood blog.

The person behind Banyan is Tom Stites, a veteran editor who has worked at newspapers such as The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. I hope to have more from Stites in the days ahead. For one thing, I’m interested in knowing whether he plans to try out his concept elsewhere. But for now, here is a recent email sent to supporters of Haverhill Matters from John Cuneo, who chaired the local board of directors:

Dear Lover of Independent News,

On behalf of the Board of Directors of Haverhill Matters Cooperative, I write to inform you that we are regretfully closing up shop. We worked hard seeking various routes to build a new cooperative business model for a local news and information service.

As print journalism withers and digital journalism struggles, testing many different forms, the prize of an informed community is ever more important. Let no one mistake the demise of our efforts to signal that the application of a coop business model to local journalism isn’t feasible. Aside from our devoted mentor [a reference to Stites], none us are journalists; none of us are experienced cooperators. This is the more likely cause.

We thank all who rendered us support in many forms, moral, logistical, monetary and otherwise. We are very grateful for this. We urge all those working to build platforms for democratically shared local information and news not to be discouraged. Our goal deserves the greatest persistence. We’ll see you on the path.

Thanks again so much for your shared interest.

Cuneo did not respond to an email I sent to him seeking comment.

I’ve written a lot about news efforts in Haverhill over the years. For an index, please click here.

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Chuck Todd wrestles with disinformation

It has not been a good week in the war on disinformation — which is to say that it’s been a week pretty much like all the ones before it.

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Making sense of the Portland Press Herald’s elimination of its Monday print edition

Those of us who have followed the transition of newspapers from print to free digital and, now, to paid digital have long predicted that seven-day print will eventually morph into one weekend print edition supplemented by digital the rest of the week.

Last week the Portland Press Herald announced it would take a step in that direction, eliminating its Monday print edition starting in March. Like many papers, the Press Herald has been emphasizing paid digital, so a cutback on print should be seen as an inevitable next step rather than the beginning of the end.

Still, I was curious about the decision to cut print on Monday. Among those of us who follow such things, the speculation usually involves eliminating the Saturday paper, or publishing the big Sunday paper on Saturday as an all-weekend edition. (The Sunday edition of the Press Herald is called the Maine Sunday Telegram.)

According to the Press Herald’s latest filing with the Alliance for Audited Media, the Saturday print edition is slightly larger than the Monday edition (25,450 to 25,358). The Saturday edition, though, gets an artificial boost — the Press Herald offers a four-day Thursday-through-Sunday print subscription as a cheaper alternative to seven-day (soon to be six-day) print. Paid Sunday print circulation is 40,091.

Still, anyone who’s paged through the Monday edition of a local daily newspaper knows that advertising on that day is virtually non-existent. So, for a variety of reasons, the Press Herald probably made the right choice.

Also, Kris Olson offers this:

The Press Herald isn’t the first daily paper to cut print days. It’s worth watching, though, because the owner, Reade Brower (who also owns most of the daily newspapers in Maine as well as a few weeklies), seems committed to coming up with a long-term strategy for economic sustainability. Press Herald publisher Lisa DeSisto tells her paper that the Monday move will enable the paper to avoid cutting staff.

Perhaps he might consider emulating the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which last year eliminated print except on Sundays and gave its paid subscribers free iPads so they could continue to read the paper online.

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The Times profiles right-wing media figure Dennis Prager. Here’s some background.

Dennis Prager. Photo (cc) 2018 by Gage Skidmore.

The New York Times today profiles Prager University, a right-wing meme factory founded by media figure Dennis Prager. In case you don’t know anything about Prager, I thought you’d be interested in some background.

In 2017, I gave a WGBH News New England Muzzle Award to YouTube and its owner, Google, for restricting access to a pro-Israel video made by Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz for Prager University. The video could still be accessed, but by installing a speed bump, YouTube sent a clear signal that there was something transgressive about it — a ridiculous stance regardless of what you think of Dershowitz’s views.

In 2016, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby mixed it up with Prager after Jacoby accused his fellow conservatives of hypocrisy for throwing in with Donald Trump despite his well-documented moral depravity. That led to some back-and-forth between Prager and Jacoby in which Prager accused Jacoby of “gratuitous hatred.” Jacoby responded:

For me, the most disheartening aspect of the whole Trump phenomenon has been the sight of so many good, principled people deciding that their good principles need not keep them from marching behind Trump’s squalid banner.

As you’ll see from Nellie Bowles’ Times story, Prager is quite a piece of work.

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Yes, Bret Stephens really did write that there might be something to eugenics

Over the weekend, media Twitter was aflame over a column by Bret Stephens of The New York Times in which he appeared to endorse the notion that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically more intelligent than other people. You can read the original here.

Stephens, who should have already been on probation for past offenses, appears to have gotten away with it again. After the column appeared in print, it was appended with an Editor’s Note saying that Stephens intended to say no such thing. The column was edited after the fact to remove the offending reference as well as a link to a study he was citing. You can see the new version with the Editor’s Note here.

I had intended to write a full post. But this piece by Jack Shafer in Politico is so comprehensive and spot-on that I’m going to suggest that you read it in full. I’ll just offer a few points that I think deserve emphasis, especially among those who’ve been inclined to give Stephens the benefit of the doubt.

  • Stephens’ original column links to a 2005 study whose executive summary claims, over and over, that the Ashkenazi may well have certain genetic advantages with regard to intelligence. For instance: “In particular we propose that the well-known clusters of Ashkenazi genetic diseases, the sphingolipid cluster and the DNA repair cluster in particular, increase intelligence in heterozygotes. Other Ashkenazi disorders are known to increase intelligence.”
  • One of the co-authors of that paper, Henry Harpending, has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “white nationalist” and a longtime advocate of eugenics — that is, discredited science that argues for the genetic superiority (and inferiority) of certain races and ethnic groups.
  • Stephens did not dismiss the study. Rather, he glossed over it, writing that whether it’s true or not, it’s less important in explaining Ashkenazi intelligence and achievements than their environment. Thus Stephens piously claims that the genetic theory matters less than other factors, but that there might nevertheless be something to it. Here is the key quote from Stephens: “Aside from the perennial nature-or-nurture question of why so many Ashkenazi Jews have higher I.Q.s, there is the more difficult question of why that intelligence was so often matched by such bracing originality and high-minded purpose.”
  • The Times’ re-editing of Stephens’ column goes far beyond correcting errors or clarifying ambiguities and raises ethical concerns of its own. Moreover, it signals that publisher A.G. Sulzberger and editorial-page editor James Bennet are once again prepared to walk away rather than deal with the mess they created when they hired Stephens away from The Wall Street Journal in 2017. Stephens is not just a Pulitzer Prize-winning #NeverTrump conservative; he is also someone who regularly engages in trollish behavior seemed mainly designed to call attention to himself at the expense of the Times’ reputation.

At a moment when Jews are under attack both in New York and nationally, it was unconscionable for Stephens, who is himself Jewish, to add fuel to pernicious, discredited theories about race and intelligence. I hope we learn in the days ahead that Stephens didn’t walk away quite as unscathed as it would appear.

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From the local-news crisis to Trump’s lies, 2019 was a year to put behind us

Tucker Carlson. Photo (cc) 2019 by Seth Anderson.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The devolution of Tucker Carlson. The MIT Media Lab’s entanglement with career sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. The ever-present threat to free speech. And, above all, the ongoing corporate-fueled crisis afflicting local news.

These are the themes that emerged in my most-read commentaries for WGBH News from the past year. We live in difficult times, and my list might provoke pessimism. But given that four of my top 10 are about the meltdown of local news, I’m at least somewhat optimistic. People really care about this stuff. And that’s the first step toward coming up with possible solutions. So let’s get to it.

10. Whatever happened to Tucker Carlson? (March 12). When Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson began his journalistic career in the mid-1990s, he built a reputation as a smart, unconventional conservative, a stylish writer and (as I can attest) a charming lunch companion. Today he is a racist, sexist hate-monger and a full-throated apologist for President Trump. What happened? Although I can’t read Carlson’s mind, it would appear that he values fame and fortune over principle. In that sense, Carlson is a metaphor for nearly the entire conservative movement, with the few conservatives of conscience having been exiled to #NeverTrump irrelevance.

9. Corporate newspaper chains’ race to the bottom (Jan. 16). One year ago, the cost-slashing newspaper chain Gannett was fighting off a possible takeover by Digital First Media (now MediaNews Group), owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and generally regarded as the worst of the worst. Gannett avoided that grim fate. But by the end of the year, Gannett had merged with another bottom-feeder, GateHouse Media. The first order of business: Cutting another $400 million or so from papers that had already been hollowed out, including titles that serve more than 100 cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

8. The move from no-profit to nonprofit journalism (May 15). A brief period of hope greeted Paul Huntsman after he bought The Salt Lake Tribune in 2016. Instead, the cutting continued, as Huntsman discovered that 21st-century newspaper economics were more of a challenge than he’d imagined. Then, last spring, he announced that he would seek to reorganize the Tribune as a nonprofit entity. Several months later, the IRS approved his application. Nonprofit ownership is not a panacea — the Tribune still must take in more money than it spends. But by removing the pressure for quarterly profits and keeping the chains at bay, Huntsman might point the way for other beleaguered newspaper owners.

7. Fact-checking and the dangers of false equivalence (Sept. 18). We have never had a president who spews falsehoods like President Trump. Much of what he says can be chalked up to old-fashioned lying; some of it consists of conspiracy theories from the fever swamps of the far right that he might actually believe. Fact-checkers at The Washington Post, CNN, PolitiFact and other news organizations have diligently kept track, with the Post reporting several weeks ago that Trump had made more than 15,000 “false or misleading claims” during his presidency. Yet the media all too often remain obsessed with balance in this most unbalanced of times. And thus Democratic presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, are inevitably held to a higher standard, being branded as liars for what are merely rhetorical excesses or even disputed facts.

6. Yes, millennials are paying attention to the news (July 24). Millennials are often, and wrongly, caricatured as self-absorbed and caring about little other than where their next slice of avocado toast is coming from. It’s not true. A study by the Knight Foundation, which surveyed 1,600 young adults, “shows that 88 percent of people ages 18-34 access news at least weekly, including 53 percent who do so every day.” The findings matched what I’ve seen in many years of teaching journalism students: they’re dubious about the news as a curated package, but they’re well-informed, highly quality-conscious and not wedded to the notion of loyalty to specific news brands. Can we put them in charge now, please?

5. Stop letting Trump take up residence inside your head (Jan. 2). I kicked off 2019 with a list of five ideas for de-Trumpifying your life. Unfortunately, the president’s bizarre, hateful rants and policies can’t be ignored completely — but surely we can save our outrage for his truly important outbursts. Looking back, I think my best piece of advice was to pay more attention to non-Trump news, especially at the local level. We live in communities, and making them work better is a great antidote to our dysfunctional president.

4. Post-Jeffrey Epstein, some questions for the MIT Media Lab (Sept. 11). Joi Ito, a celebrated star in the media world, was forced to resign as director of the MIT Media Lab after his modified limited hangout about his financial entanglements with serial rapist Jeffrey Epstein, who committed suicide while in jail, turned out to be far more extensive than he had originally admitted. That, in turn, brought the Media Lab itself under scrutiny. In the post-Ito, post-Epstein era, questions remained about exactly how dependent the lab had become on Epstein’s money — and whether it was really producing valuable work or if some of it was smoke and mirrors aimed at impressing its mega-wealthy funders.

3. Don’t blame the internet for the decline of local journalism (Nov. 27). Following yet another round on academic Twitter arguing that we need new forms of journalism in response to the damage that the internet had done to local news, I was mad as hell and couldn’t take it anymore. Yes, technology has done tremendous harm to the business model that traditionally paid for the news. But equally to blame is the rise of chain ownership intent on bleeding newspapers dry before discarding them and moving on. From Woburn, Massachusetts, to New Haven, Connecticut, independent local news organizations are thriving despite the very real economic pressures created by the rise of Craigslist, Google and Facebook. Local news isn’t dying — it’s being murdered by corporate greed.

2. Calling out New England’s enemies of free expression (July 2). Since 1998, I’ve been writing an annual Fourth of July round-up of outrages against the First Amendment called the New England Muzzle Awards. For many years, the Muzzles were hosted by the late, great Boston Phoenix. Since 2013, they’ve made their home at WGBH News. The 2019 list included school officials in Vermont who tried to silence the high school newspaper (and lost) and a police chief in Connecticut whose officers arrested a journalist during a Black Lives Matter protest to prevent her from doing her job. And don’t miss the 2019 Campus Muzzles, by Harvey Silverglate, Monika Greco and Nathan McGuire, which focus on free-speech issues on college campuses.

1. GateHouse decimates its already-decimated newspapers (June 5). As I noted above, the Gannett newspaper chain managed to fend off the depredations of Alden Global Capital. But Alden, Gannett and GateHouse Media danced around each other all year. In the spring, GateHouse, already known for taking a bonesaw to its newspapers, eliminated about 170 positions at its papers nationwide and merged 50 of its smaller weeklies in Greater Boston into 18, a surefire way to undermine customer loyalty to the local paper. “We remain positive about the future for local media but certainly acknowledge that the business model for community news is under pressure,” GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis told me. But by year’s end, GateHouse had merged with Gannett, Davis was gone — and the cutting continued.

So what will 2020 bring? Call me crazy, but I think we’re going to see some good news on the local-journalism front. As for what will happen nationally, I think I can safely predict that the political press will continue to focus on polls and campaign-trail controversies at the expense of substance, continuing a trend documented recently by my colleagues Aleszu Bajak, John Wihbey and me at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

Finally, my thanks to WGBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2020.

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How paywalls have revived the idea of the newspaper bundle

Jeff Bezos was right. Photo by Grant Miller for the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

As newspapers have moved away from making their content freely available online, a lot of thinking that seemed forward-looking a few years ago needs to be re-examined. Near the top of the list is the future of the newspaper bundle — that combination of local, national and international news, sports, comics, the crossword puzzle, the school lunch menu and myriad other features that traditionally comprised a daily newspaper.

In the early years of online news, when it seemed reasonable to imagine that digital advertising could subsidize free journalism, the bundle was often described as a relic of the industrial age. Disparate content was brought together, according to this line of reasoning, not because it belonged in one place but because printing was a high-cost manufacturing enterprise. It was logical for the local newspaper to be a one-stop destination for all kinds of material. But with print receding into the past, readers could skip from a hyperlocal website for community news, to a dedicated sports site, to yet another site for comics and puzzles,

“The web wrecks horizontal integration,” wrote C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky in their influential 2012 report “Post-Industrial Journalism.” “Prior to the web, having a dozen good-but-not-great stories in one bundle used to be enough to keep someone from hunting for the dozen best stories in a dozen different publications. In a world of links and feeds, however, it is often easier to find the next thing you read, watch or listen to from your friends than it is to stick with any given publication.”

But at a time when readers are once again being asked to pay for newspaper journalism, some sort of bundling is necessary. The days of regularly surfing among multiple free websites are drawing to a close. For any one newspaper to stand out as something to which readers will be willing to buy a subscription, it almost certainly has to offer a wide variety of content.

From the newspaper business’ point of view, the ideal reader would buy digital subscriptions to national, regional and local newspapers. But that’s asking a lot. The reality is that most people aren’t going to subscribe to any newspaper, and those who do are likely to choose one, maybe two. Which means that the newspaper needs to be all things to most people in a way that we thought was obsolete just a few years ago.

In early 2016 I interviewed Bill Marimow, the editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, days after its billionaire owner, Gerry Lenfest, had donated the Inquirer and its related media properties to a nonprofit organization. (The Philadelphia story comprises a section in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls.”) The Inquirer was just getting ready to start charging for digital subscriptions. And I was struck by what Marimow told me he thought needed to be part of the daily mix.

“If you look at today’s paper,” he said, “you’ll see stories that represent the best of city news, Philadelphia suburbs, South Jersey, national and foreign.” I expressed some surprise at Marimow’s insistence on national and international news since the Inquirer relied almost exclusively on wire services for anything outside the Philadelphia area. His answer was that 90% of his readers did not read a national paper and thus relied on the Inquirer.

You see this at The Boston Globe, too. Before the internet began to take a toll on the newspaper business in the 1990s, the Globe — and many other large regional newspapers, including the Inquirer — had a number of U.S. and international bureaus. With the exception of a Washington bureau, those are all gone now. But the Globe continues to publish quite a bit of national and international news from wire services, both in print and online.

Ten years ago, that would have been described as old-media thinking. Now, with the Globe charging $30 a month for digital subscriptions, it makes a great deal of sense to position the paper as a single stop for most of its customers. After all, if the Globe forced its best readers to subscribe to The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal in order to get news from beyond the Boston area, there’s a real danger that they would decide to drop the Globe.

When Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013, he announced that he wanted to reinvigorate the traditional newspaper bundle. “People will buy a package,” Bezos said. “They will not pay for a story.” Bezos’ attitude seemed archaic for someone who had made his reputation as a tech visionary. One of the Post’s younger journalists, Timothy B. Lee, went so far as to disagree with his new boss in a piece headlined “Sorry, Jeff Bezos, the news bundle isn’t coming back.”

“Trying to recreate the ‘bundle’ experience in Web or tablet form means working against the grain of how readers, especially younger readers, consume the news today,” Lee wrote. “In the long run, it’s a recipe for an aging readership and slow growth.”

It turned out that Bezos was right and Lee was wrong — not because Lee was mistaken about how the web had changed news habits, but because paywalls were going up everywhere, thus forcing a change in those habits whether readers liked it or not. Under Bezos’ ownership, the Post’s digital bundle has led to profits and growth, re-establishing the paper as a serious competitor to the Times.

With Google and Facebook capturing the vast majority of digital advertising in recent years, paid content has become the last stand. It may not work for more than a handful of mostly national titles. But, if nothing else, paywalls have given new life to the idea of the bundle that has traditionally defined the general-interest newspaper.

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