Media Nation

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

‘The Greatest Night in Pop’ should be a call to generosity

I’m late to this, so you may have seen it already. I finally got around to watching “The Greatest Night in Pop” (here’s the trailer) on Netflix, and it’s terrific. It’s about the making of “We Are the World,” the 1985 song and video with an all-star cast that raised more than $60 million for famine relief in Africa.

If you always thought the song was a bit treacly, well, blame Stevie Wonder. He was supposed to be involved in writing it, but no one could find him, leaving songwriting duties to Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie. And as you may have heard, there’s a scene of Stevie showing Bob Dylan how to sing his part — employing a dead-on Dylan imitation — that has to be seen to be appreciated.

The interviews with Ritchie, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, Sheila E. and Huey Lewis are especially insightful. That the entire project came together in one night is a testament to the professionalism of everyone involved, especially Ritchie and Quincy Jones, who was involved from the start and oversaw the whole thing. Well worth your time.

Famine in Africa continues — in Sudan and in Gaza, which is right at the nexus of Africa and the Middle East. “The Greatest Night in Pop” shouldn’t be just an exercise in nostalgia. It should be a call to generosity.

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Great Barrington teacher sues town, school district and police over classroom search

Photo (cc) 2022 by John Ramspott

When we handed out a New England Muzzle Award last December in connection with a needless middle school controversy over the book “Gender Queer,” we had to settle for anonymity: it wasn’t clear who had contacted the Great Barrington Police Department to complain that they’d found a copy in a classroom at the W.E.B. DuBois Middle School.

Well, now we have a candidate. According to a federal lawsuit filed by eighth-grade English teacher Arantzazú Zuzene Galdós-Shapiro, the complaints were filed by a “disgruntled homophobic Middle School janitor,” which led to a search of her classroom. The janitor is not named in the suit, but a report commissioned by school officials identified him as Adam Yorke and said he was no longer employed by the school district, according to a Feb. 24 article by Berkshire Eagle reporter Heather Bellow. We invite Yorke to contact us so that he can make arrangements to pick up his prize.

News of the lawsuit was broken earlier this week by Bellow, who’s been following this story from the beginning. The Boston Globe’s John R. Ellement picked up on it as well.

According to the lawsuit, Yorke may have instigated the incident, but others are far from blameless. The suit also names the town, the school district, Police Chief Paul Storti, Police Officer Joseph O’Brien and School Superintendent Peter Dillon. As Bellow reports, “Yorke had accused Galdós-Shapiro of letting a student sit on her lap and to keep information from parents. He also had provided police with photos of some content of the book that shows the explicit sexual images.” Bellow adds:

A criminal investigation was quickly dismissed after Storti and Dillon and the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office determined that the book was not “pornographic,” and after Yorke was revealed to have an “axe to grind” against the district. But the allegations “left her devastated and profoundly shaken, ill, distressed, and fearful, her reputation publicly destroyed,” the court document says.

Among other allegations against the school district, the teacher said Dillon “knew well and failed to follow the established process for challenging classroom content.”

In other words, Galdós-Shapiro alleges that the defendants backed off only after trampling on her rights. That happened, she charges, because she had been singled out as “a queer Mexican-American.”

“Gender Queer” is an illustrated book by Maia Kobabe that aimed at kids who are questioning their sexuality and that is among the country’s most frequently banned books.

Note: My original post in December mistakenly said that “Gender Queer” had been found in the school library rather than in a classroom. I’ve gone back and corrected that post.

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Local news and public access TV in Massachusetts: Let us know what you’re doing

Photo (cc) 2012 by Michael Coghlan

By popular request, I’ve decided to add a second tab to our Mass. Indy News spreadsheet, available here or by clicking in the upper right either at Media Nation or on the What Works website. What we’d like to do is add public access television operations that have a real news component — not just carrying governmental meetings in full (though that’s incredibly valuable) but also a daily newscast or some other programming that summarizes community news and makes it understandable, as journalists do. Just let me know about your operation and why we should include you (with relevant URLs) by using the contact form at the top of this site.

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Talking about ‘What Works in Community News’ with Adam Reilly of ‘Greater Boston’

I was on GBH-TV’s “Greater Boston” Wednesday evening to talk about “What Works in Community News,” the book I co-authored with Ellen Clegg. And though it was great to see old friend Adam Reilly, we were, unfortunately, up against the Celtics (Al Horford!), which is what we were all watching. (Yes, our segment was prerecorded.) So if you’d like to catch up with our conversation, here you go.

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The Globe’s subscription growth stalls: Digital is up a little, print is down by more

The Boston Globe’s digital subscription growth continues, but at a slower pace, while print keeps on sliding. Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal has been looking at numbers from the Alliance for Audited Media and reports that the Globe has added 22,000 digital subscribers over the past three years while losing 24,000 print customers. Paid digital circulation is now at about 257,000, well below CEO Linda Henry’s “North Star” goal of 400,000, although she has not set a timeline for reaching that number.

Weekday print circulation is now below 54,000, according to a chart accompanying Seiffert’s story. Although he didn’t include a number for Sunday print, it was about 116,000 as of last October.

Henry told Seiffert that the Globe is making investments that she expects will lead to future growth:

Our subscribers can see this investment with our expanded daily news videos, our new weather center, better games, new podcasts, deeper geographic expansion, and more. We do not expect growth to follow a linear pattern — we have a long-term strategy for continuing to serve our community as a strong and sustainable organization.

Of those initiatives, moving into new regions strikes me as the one with the most promise in terms of driving subscriptions. The Globe has had success with its Rhode Island and New Hampshire coverage. And though those areas were easy pickings (especially Rhode Island), there are certainly other parts of New England where residents might welcome a regional edition of the Globe.

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Publishers sound alarm over Google’s AI search plans. But let’s dial it back a bit.

What does AI say about RFK Jr.’s anti-vax activism? Photo (cc) 2023 by Gage Skidmore.

The latest freakout inspired by artificial intelligence has hit the news business. On Tuesday, Google announced that it will merge its AI tool, Gemini, with its search engine. What that means for publishers is that someone seeking information about, say, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vax crusade will receive an answer right in Google rather than being prompted to click to a news source. Let’s try it:

First, I entered <Robert F. Kennedy Jr. anti-vaccine activism> in Google Search. The top five results were from The Associated Press (two), Scientific American, the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the PBS “NewsHour.” In other words, good, respectable sources of independent journalism.

Next, I entered the same search at Gemini and got this: “I’m still learning how to answer this question. In the meantime, try Google Search.” OK! But then I tried the same thing at the free version of ChatGPT, which provided the following answer:

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of former U.S. Senator and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, has been known for his anti-vaccine activism. He has been a prominent figure in the anti-vaccine movement, particularly regarding his views on the safety of vaccines and their alleged connection to autism.

Kennedy founded the Children’s Health Defense organization, which has been criticized for spreading misinformation about vaccines and promoting unfounded claims about their dangers. He has spoken at numerous events and rallies, advocating against vaccination and promoting alternative views on the subject.

It’s important to note that the overwhelming scientific consensus supports the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, and the alleged link between vaccines and autism has been thoroughly debunked by multiple scientific studies. Kennedy’s activism has been met with criticism from public health officials and medical professionals, who argue that his views are not supported by scientific evidence and pose a danger to public health.

I think we can agree that’s pretty good — and it includes exactly zero links to any of its sources, depriving some excellent news organizations of web traffic. I should note that, according to CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy, Google is promising to include links in Gemini, so it may end up looking something like Perplexity, an AI-powered search engine that provides plain-English answers and reliable links.

When I tried our RFK Jr. search at Perplexity, I got a very good answer — as good as ChatGPT, if not better — along with links to Wikipedia, The AP, the “NewsHour” and NBC News. But would I click on them? At the moment, I would, because of AI’s well-known proclivity for providing fake answers. At some point, though, that problem will be solved.

“This will be catastrophic to our traffic, as marketed by Google to further satisfy user queries, leaving even less incentive to click through so that we can monetize our content,” Danielle Coffey, chief executive of the News/Media Alliance, told Darcy. The alliance represents some 2,000 news publishers.

I also took a look at the internal metrics of the only news site I have access to: this one. According to Google Analytics, over the past month Media Nation received 40% of its traffic from “organic search” — that’s traffic from search engines, nearly all Google, that I didn’t boost by paying for ads on Google. And yes, that’s a lot. Next up was direct traffic (25.6%), organic social (21.2%) and referrals (12.1%), which are links from other websites.

Now, I happen to think that some of the lamentations we’re hearing from publishers are overblown. It’s fine to complain that Google is taking steps that will result in fewer clicks on your website. But how much money does that really bring in? These days, you’re likely to hit a paywall when you try to click through from a search. Programmatic ads on news sites are terrible and bring in very little money.

In the end, there is no substitute for building a relationship with your audience. For-profit publishers need to persuade their readers to become digital subscribers and local businesses to advertise. Nonprofits must convince their audience to become voluntary supporters and to raise money from underwriters, foundations, events and whatever else they can think of.

To use Media Nation as an example again: I currently have more than 2,300 subscribers who receive new posts by email. I consider those to be my most engaged readers. I don’t do much to monetize this site, although I have a modest paid supporter program, which, needless to say, you are invited to join. The future of news, though, is being built right now by serving our communities — not through Google search.

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How a private equity firm that destroyed newspapers helped Trump in Chicago

Trump’s Chicago tower under construction. Photo (cc) 2006 by JeremyA.

A private equity firm that helped destroy local newspapers was also involved in building Donald Trump’s Chicago tower, a fiasco that was the subject of an in-depth investigative report over the weekend produced by The New York Times and ProPublica. The story, published in the Times, found that Trump may owe $100 million because he used “a dubious accounting maneuver to claim improper tax breaks from his troubled Chicago tower.” That conclusion is based on an Internal Revenue Service investigation whose details the two news organizations uncovered.

The tower, built on the former site of the Chicago Sun-Times, was plagued by cost overruns and overly optimistic estimates of the revenues that would be brought in. But this post isn’t about Trump’s problems. It’s about this:

As his cost estimates increased, Mr. Trump arranged to borrow as much as $770 million for the project — $640 million from Deutsche Bank and $130 million from Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund and private equity company. He personally guaranteed $40 million of the Deutsche loan. Both Deutsche and Fortress then sold off pieces of the loans to other institutions, spreading the risk and potential gain.

Fortress Investment Group is the firm that launched the era of private equity firms’ owning newspapers, described by Margot Susca in her book “Hedged: How Private Investment Funds Helped Destroy American Newspapers and Undermine Democracy,” which was published earlier this year. I reviewed it for The Arts Fuse. As Susca wrote, Fortress paid $530 million in 2005 to purchase Liberty Group Publishing, which it renamed GateHouse Media.

GateHouse built a nationwide network of community newspapers, taking them in and out of bankruptcy twice and slashing newsrooms in order to goose revenues and fuel the acquisition of still more papers. That culminated in 2019 when GateHouse merged with Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, a $1.1 billion deal that saddled the new Gannett with an enormous pile of debt. Fortress kept right on profiting, Susca wrote, as the firm continued to extract millions of dollars in managment fees. And Gannett kept right on cutting. Susca put it this way in describing what Fortress and other masters of the universe have done to newspapers, and what that has meant for democracy:

Researchers have shown that investments in sustainability, diversity, and community suffer when profit is the only goal; companies involved in those efforts to improve the world around them may actually inspire hedge funds to target them; hedge funds see line items in those businesses that, if eliminated, could lead to more profits….

At a time when government accountability and truth itself are at a crucial nexus, news organizations in the private investment era have failed citizens as these organizations have boosted private investment funds’ bottom lines.

To organizations like Fortress, it makes no difference whether they’re helping to bail out Trump or destroy newspapers. The bottom line is the bottom line, and nothing else matters.

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A great night in Dorchester

Many thanks to Joyce Linehan, who hosted Ellen Clegg and me for a book reading for “What Works in Community News” Monday evening in her Dorchester home. About 70 people atternded, including some old friends from The Boston Phoenix. Among the highlights: Ed Forry, founder of the Dorchester Reporter, showed up, bearing a copy of the Reporter’s 40th anniversary edition. I asked him to sign it.

Joyce has been hosting book readings since 2015, and here, in her newsletter, she explains how she does it. She certainly knows what she’s doing, and Ellen and I were honored to be her guests. And the Celtics won!

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Huntington News editors tell Nieman Lab how they covered the encampment at NU

From The Huntington News’ Instagram feed.

The Huntington News, the independent student newspaper that covers all things Northeastern, is featured in a Nieman Lab roundup of how college papers have been covering pro-Palestinian encampments and protests on their campuses. Lab reporter Sophie Culpepper interviewed outgoing editor-in-chief Eli Curwin and his successor, Sonal Cutler, as well as student journalists at The Daily Texan at UT Austin, the Daily Trojan at the University of Southern California and The GW Hatchet at George Washington University.

The Northeastern encampment ended almost as quickly as it began — it popped up on Centennial Common on Thursday, April 25, and was cleared out by police that Saturday morning. But though the protest may have been shorter than on many other campuses, which in some cases are ongoing, it was no less fraught.

“It was very intense, and you kind of just were full of adrenaline until you had to step away,” Curwin told Culpepper. He added, though, that the chance to cover such an important story “was really cool, because it was like, this is what we’ve been learning about; this is what we’ve been practicing for.” The News had students at the site reporting around the clock right from the beginning. I should note, too, that Northeastern co-op students have been on the team covering the encampments for The Boston Globe, and Cutler has been covering protests for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Culpepper also wrote about the difficulty of reporting on pro-Palestinian demonstrators who are protesting the actions of the Israeli government and how that has gotten caught up in the Jewish identity of many of the students — including journalists:

Curwin and Cutler are both Jewish, and Curwin has family in Israel. Well before October 7, “this issue has been … something I constantly think about,” Curwin told me. The divided campus, “people constantly criticizing or scrutinizing our coverage,” and his personal background all amounted to “a very stressful semester.”

Many of the critical Instagram comments the publication has received are along the lines of “you guys must hate Jewish people,” as Curwin said, or “you don’t care about Jewish voices,” as Cutler put it. They, like all five student journalists I spoke with across four publications, described a deep commitment to doing their best to represent everyone’s perspectives fairly and accurately.

Two other points I think are worth nothing. First, The Huntington News has been unable to get arrest records from the campus police because they are a private agency not bound by the state’s public records law. That ought to change, since they have some official police powers. Second, even with social media having falling into a morass over the past few years, the News still relies heavily on Twitter/X and Instagram. Cutler and Curwin said the News’ website is mainly accessed by parents and faculty, while the students themselves rely on social media.


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Harvard rescinds suspension of a student journalist

Harvard has rescinded the suspension of a student who had been reporting for the Crimson on the pro-Palestinian emcampment, raising questions about how that particular student was identified in the first place. According to the Crimson, the student had not taken part in the protest and had only “infrequently” reported on the encampment.

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