From Azerbaijan to Boston, Northeastern students identify undercovered stories

Demonstrators in Baku, Azerbaijan, show their support for the war with Armenia. Photo (cc) 2020 by Interfase.

From time to time I like to ask my journalism ethics students to identify stories that they think have been undercovered. I always learn something. My graduate students dug deep last week, unearthing stories that had received some coverage — especially in the mighty New York Times — but not enough to break through into the public consciousness. At a time when the media are focused on important stories such as the police killing of Tyre Nichols and trivia such as Harry and Meghan (or was that the week before?), here is what is on my students’ minds:

The renewed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. At a moment when the world is riveted by Russia’s unprompted war of aggression in Ukraine, the military conflict between these old rivals has received very little coverage. The Times reports:

Barely two years later, the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan is heating up again, and Russia, distracted and weakened by the war in Ukraine, has not stepped in. Defying the Russian presence, Azerbaijanis are testing whether Moscow is still able and determined to impose its will on other, smaller neighbors amid its struggles in Ukraine.

It’s not easy being fake green. Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, signed legislation recently that designates natural gas as a source of “green energy” — and we can expect to see similar legislation pop up in other states. As The Washington Post reports, citing documents it has seen:

The Empowerment Alliance, a dark money group with ties to the gas industry, helped Ohio lawmakers push the narrative that the fuel is clean, the documents show. The American Legislative Exchange Council, another anonymously funded group, assisted in the effort.

Deadly pro-democracy protests in Peru. The unrest in Brazil following an attempt by supporters of the former authoritarian president, Jair Bolsonaro, to overthrow the democratically elected government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is apparently all the South American news that U.S. audiences can handle. Yet protests have also been mounting in Peru over the removal of that country’s leftist president, Pedro Castillo. The authorities have killed 50 demonstrators. The Times again:

Rather than fade, protests in rural Peru that began more than a month ago over the ouster of the former president have only grown in size and in the scope of demonstrators’ demands, paralyzing entire sections of the country and threatening efforts by the new president, Dina Boluarte, to gain control.

Hundreds of sexual assaults in the Boston Public Schools. The Boston Globe reported that hundreds of sexual assaults are taking place in the city’s school system every year, noting that City Councilor Erin Murphy has said that there were 744 such assaults during the 2021-’22 school year alone. The Globe’s story, though, zeroed in on whether Murphy’s claims were accurate and how the district tallies sexual assaults — overshadowing what would appear to be the larger issue, which is that the BPS has a serious problem on its hands. From the Globe account:

Between 2018 and 2022, reports of student-on-student sexual misconduct rose in BPS from 371 to 759, an increase that Murphy and three other councilors also have pointed to in advocating for tighter security in schools, including bringing back a police presence on campuses.

District officials attribute the rise in reported incidents to more people in the district’s actively reporting incidents since returning to in-person learning.

The Church of England and same-sex marriage. The Church of England recently apologized for its past mistreatment of LGBTQ people and said it would now bless same-sex unions — but that it would continue with its policy of not performing same-sex marriages. Once again, from the Times:

The Church of England is the original church in the global Anglican Communion, which now claims tens of millions of members in 165 countries. The communion has been engaged in a bitter debate over how to treat its L.G.B.T.Q. members since 2003, when the American branch — the Episcopal Church — consecrated an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. The communion has struggled to avoid schism as some provinces have moved to welcome L.G.B.T.Q. members and celebrate their relationships, while others — mostly in the global South — have remained vehemently opposed.

A shocking story about foster care and juvenile detention. In Illinois, the state foster care system has been locking up children in juvenile detention solely because the system’s social workers have been unable to find a suitable placement for them. Now the system is being sued by the Cook County public guardian. The Illinois Answers Project, a nonprofit news organization, reports:

The Illinois Answers investigation showed a steady increase in the number of Illinois foster children held for weeks or months after a judge ordered their release from detention centers. A total of 73 foster children were locked up for weeks or months in the Cook County juvenile temporary detention center without pending charges during 2021, according to an analysis of court and DCFS records.

Famine in Africa reaches a new crisis level. About 20% of Africans, or 278 million people, were facing hunger in 2021, according to a report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. The situation has only gotten worse since then — especially in Somalia and other parts of East Africa. Reuters reports:

Conflict and climate change are the long-term causes. Heavy debt burdens following the COVID-19 pandemic, rising prices and war in Ukraine have made things much worse as European aid has been sucked away, data and testimony from more than a dozen experts, donors, diplomats, medical staff and men and women in farms and marketplaces across nearly a dozen countries in Africa and beyond shows.

The West continues its slow escalation in Ukraine. The war in Ukraine and the West’s support for that country’s existential battle against Putin’s Russia is hardly undercovered. But there’s been a slow escalation in terms of both the weapons that are being provided to Ukraine and in the war aims, with the U.S. and its allies now talking about helping Ukraine take back Crimea, which Russia overran in 2014 — something the public may be less than fully aware of. Here’s the Times:

The new thinking on Crimea — annexed illegally by Russia in 2014 — shows how far Biden administration officials have come from the start of the war, when they were wary of even acknowledging publicly that the United States was providing Stinger antiaircraft missiles for Ukrainian troops.

A new drug menace hits the streets. A drug known as “tranq,” a mix of fentanyl and the animal tranquilizer xylazine, is wreaking havoc in urban centers where homeless people congregate, resulting in the loss of life and — literally — limb. Tranq was the subject of a recent in-depth report in the Times, but the news has not yet become widely known among the public. From the Times story:

Xylazine causes wounds that erupt with a scaly dead tissue called eschar; untreated, they can lead to amputation. It induces a blackout stupor for hours, rendering users vulnerable to rape and robbery. When people come to, the high from the fentanyl has long since faded and they immediately crave more. Because xylazine is a sedative and not an opioid, it resists standard opioid overdose reversal treatments.

What’s behind the Boston housing crisis? Though it’s well-known that there is a critical shortage of housing in the Boston area and that rents are skyrocketing, the causes and possible solutions are poorly understood. An article in Forbes found that the average monthly rent in Boston is now in the range of $3,400, making the city as expensive as San Francisco, long known for its out-of-control housing costs. Mayor Michelle Wu has introduced a rent-control audience, and she has also proposed abolishing the Boston Planning and Development Agency. A Boston magazine profile of Wu’s choice to head the BPDA (at least until it’s abolished), Arthur Jemison, looks at whether the agency could possibly be part of the solution:

As Jemison began to speak, there was no doubting the enormity of the task before him. He knew that reforming the system was unavoidable. Business as usual had left too many people behind during Boston’s resurgence, and the city needed more environmentally friendly and affordable housing. At the same time, some disgruntled developers were suggesting that taking their business from Boston to less-demanding regulatory environments such as New Hampshire would spare them the headache—and profit loss—of complying with Boston’s aggressive requirements, especially given the sky-high construction costs and rising interest rates that were making real estate projects increasingly difficult to get off the ground just about everywhere.

Harassing the homeless at Boston’s South Station. I was so impressed by what my students found that I decided to add one of my own: Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung’s report that homeless people are being chased out of South Station by private security guards at midnight even on nights when the temperature falls below 32 degrees, thus violating an agreement reached with city and state officials in 2015. What’s worse, the MBTA gave the Globe information that turned out to be wrong. Leung writes:

In an e-mail, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo insisted that “the station is not ‘locked up’ at 11 p.m.” Pesaturo would later add that the property management firm confirmed to him that it’s “a 24/7 operation.”

I decided to see for myself and went with a Globe photographer to South Station one evening earlier this month. Shortly after 11 p.m., as the last of the day’s commuter trains departed, we heard a message over the public address system: “This building and the commuter rail will be closing soon. Thank you.”

WSJ columnist: Russian interference got Trump elected in 2016

Well, well, well. Someone needs to translate this into English, but I think that Holman Jenkins — a hard-right columnist for The Wall Street Journal — is saying that the Russians got Donald Trump elected in 2016. Here’s a free link. Jenkins’ main purpose is to rip the FBI for inserting itself into the electoral process, but this tumbled out in the process:

The fictitious email [between Debbie Wassserman Schultz, then head of the Democratic National Committee and Leonard Benardo of the Open Society Foundation] referred to a presumably equally fictitious conversation between the Clinton campaign’s Amanda Renteria and Obama Attorney General Loretta Lynch about making sure the Clinton server investigation didn’t “go too far.” The words found their way into a Russian intelligence document, which found its way to the FBI, becoming the justification for FBI chief James Comey’s chaotic actions in the 2016 election, which likely elected Mr. Trump.

The Herald boasts about pushing the state to remove gun records from public view

The Boston Herald is very proud of itself for getting the state to withdraw gun records from public view that could identify buyers and sellers. Under the headline “Herald Gets Action! Gun sale data shared by the state taken down,” Matthew Medsger writes:

The state has reversed course on a plan to share potentially identifying information contained in decades of gun transactions it had recently posted online following complaints by gun rights groups and inquiries by the Herald.

Last week, the Herald learned the state had released about two decades worth of firearms sales and transfer data via the mass.gov website and that a pair of gun rights advocacy groups were calling for the removal of the files from public review.

The two groups involved in pushing for the reversal were the Gun Owners’ Action League and Commonwealth Second Amendment.

Veteran investigative reporter Beth Healy, currently with WBUR Radio, tweeted, “It’s a dark day when a newspaper touts suppressing information for the public. Journalists work to shed light on things the government keeps secret. No more pressing issue in America than #GunViolence.”

Indeed.

 

The Friday reading list

On this Friday morning, I’ve got three stories that I think are worth sharing with you. This is not the debut of a regular feature, but from time to time I run across good journalism that I want to put out there without much in the way of commentary. That’s what we used to use Twitter for, right?

The Washington Post isn’t going to be fixed anytime soon. Those of us who follow the trials and tribulations of The Washington Post have assumed that longtime publisher Fred Ryan had at least one foot on the proverbial banana peel. But according to Clare Malone, writing in The New Yorker, Ryan has emerged as more powerful than ever since the retirement of Marty Baron as executive editor. He seems to have no fresh ideas for reversing the Post’s declining fortunes, but Bezos apparently likes him. It doesn’t sound like Baron’s successor, Sally Buzbee, shares Bezos’ affection for Ryan, but she lacks the clout that the legendary Baron had.

Questions about the police killing of Tyre Nichols. MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is among the projects that Ellen Clegg and I are writing about in “What Works in Community News,” our book-in-progress. The website, based in Memphis, focuses on social justice issues. In a list of questions that need to be answered about Nichols’ death, this one stands out: “Since 2015, Memphis police have killed at least 15 people. How many people would need to die at the police’s hands before city leaders concede that the latest incident isn’t an indictment of a few bad apples, but reflects an institution that requires immediate overhaul?”

The Durham investigation was as corrupt it appeared. New York Times reporters Charlie Savage, Adam Goldman and Katie Benner go deep (free link) into Bill Barr and John Durham’s years-long effort to discredit the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and to somehow drag Hillary Clinton into it. The best quote is from Robert Luskin, a lawyer who represented two witnesses Durham interviewed: ““When did these guys drink the Kool-Aid, and who served it to them?”

More details on Closing the Gap, the Globe’s new project on racial wealth disparities

Millions March Boston against police brutality and systemic racism. Photo (cc) 2014 by Tim Pierce.

Two weeks ago I broke the news that The Boston Globe is launching a grant-supported project called Closing the Gap, which will “explore the racial wealth gap in Boston and beyond.” Now the Globe itself is making it official, reporting that the paper will begin the project with a $750,000 grant from the Barr Foundation.

Despite The Barr Foundation’s funding, the Globe will have complete editorial control over the initiative,” according to the Globe’s story about the project. “The team will operate similarly to The Great Divide, a team of Globe journalists focused on investigating race, class, and inequality in Boston-area schools, and that is also partially funded by Barr.”

The story also says that the intent is to build on its 2017 Spotlight series “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality,” which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. A search committee for an editor-in-chief will comprise metro editor Anica Butler, business columnist Shirley Leung and senior assistant managing editor Jeneé Osterheldt.

Although the story doesn’t say so, I would imagine that incoming editor Nancy Barnes will have a say as well. Barnes will succeed longtime editor Brian McGrory on Feb. 1, when McGrory leaves to chair Boston University’s journalism department. McGrory explained the purpose behind Closing the Gap in an email to the staff, a copy of which I received from a trusted source:

Hey all,

We’ve made issues of inequality a focus of our coverage for many, many years, a mandate because Boston is one of the most unequal places on the planet. We’ve done award-winning work, like Spotlight’s 2017 race series and the Valedictorians Project. We’ve dedicated the Great Divide team to looking at the manifestation of inequality in our public schools. We have imbued inequality into so many of our key beats. It has all been utterly vital.

Which is why I’m delighted to share the news that we’ve received a grant for $750,000 a year to build a team to focus on the racial wealth gap in Boston and beyond. The grant comes from the Barr Foundation. We’ll dedicate resources of our own, and use the grant to hire a team leader and several additional journalists who will probe the causes of this seismic gap in wealth, the impact it has on life in Boston, and how it can be addressed.

This won’t only be a news team, or an enterprise team, or a projects team. It will be all that and more. Its metabolism will be high. Its approach will be thoughtful. Its work will be approachable and provocative. The gap has been pondered in plenty of deeply researched white papers that sit on high shelves. We intend to bring it to life, vividly exposing its consequences and rigorously exploring solutions. In short, we’ll look at how we got to a place where the average Black family has a net worth of $8 and white families have $247,000, and how do we get out.

As Barr has recently focused much of its mission on issues of racial equity, we engaged them in conversation about our work. Anica Butler and Shirley Leung put together a brilliant proposal that will serve as a blueprint for what this team will be and should accomplish. The grant was made in swift fashion.

The Barr Foundation has funded a good part of our Great Divide team for the past three-plus years. That experience has shown us just how much Barr appreciates the role of journalism in civic life – and how much it respects the firewall between us. On the wealth gap team, as with the education team, Barr has no say, no role, in what we produce.

The first order of business is finding an editor to oversee the team, which will live in Metro. If you’re interested, or you want to recommend someone, please reach out to Anica, Shirley, or Jeneé. We’re launching an initiative that is breaking new ground in our industry and will have a massive impact on our region. More to come as it unfolds.

Brian

The (re)launch of Rebuild Local News is nothing new. It’s welcome nevertheless.

Steven Waldman

Tuesday’s announcement about a new organization aimed at helping to ease the local news crisis was a bit of a head-scratcher. Here’s the lead of Sara Fischer’s story at Axios:

Local journalism groups representing more than 3,000 local newsrooms have come together to create a new nonprofit that aims to save local news through bipartisan public policy initiatives.

The organization, Fischer continued, is being called the Rebuild Local News Coalition.

Well … OK. Except that the organization has been around for a few years. Way back in July 2021 I quoted Steven Waldman and noted that he was the co-founder of the coalition. Its main policy goals — tax credits aimed at boosting subscriptions and advertising as well as giving publishers incentives to hire and retain journalists — are also nothing new. That’s the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, or LJSA, a federal bill that kicked around for several years before dying at the end of the last Congress. With the House now controlled by press-hating right-wing Republicans, we are not likely to see it resurrected anytime soon.

But if the coalition wants to relaunch and call new attention to its work, so be it. According to this announcement, Waldman is taking a more prominent position — he’ll now be the full-time president, and he’s cutting back on his work at Report for America, which he also cofounded. The coalition has also reorganized as an independent nonprofit.

Ellen Clegg and I talked with Waldman about the Rebuild Local News Coalition and the LJSA on the “What Works” podcast in mid-2022. You can listen to it here, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Parents group says it’s against banning books, then calls for books to be banned

A Newburyport parents group denies it’s ever called for books to be banned, then immediately calls for the banning of books. From Jim Sullivan at The Daily News of Newburyport:

A spokesperson for Citizens For Responsible Education said in an email Monday that no member of the group has ever advocated for a book to be banned.

“We have made it crystal clear that sexually explicit books should not be made available on public school property or via the SORA app to minors. If a parent or child would like to purchase books such as ‘Gender Queer,’ ‘This Book is Gay,’ etc., with their own money, then so be it. There is zero educational value to these books and a waste of taxpayer dollars. In fact, giving a child instructions on how to hook up with an adult via a sex app is dangerous on its own merits,” the email reads.

I’m going to guess that no teenager lacks information on how to use a sex app.

Why rumors that Jeff Bezos would sell The Washington Post made no sense

Washington Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz. Photo (cc) 2022 by All-Pro Reels.

No sooner had I hit “publish” on Monday’s item about The Washington Post than a rumor started circulating that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was getting ready to sell. The New York Post claimed that Bezos would unload the Post in order to raise money so that he could buy the Washington Commanders.

The rumor made no sense. Bezos, the fourth-richest person in the world, is worth $120.7 billion, according to Forbes, and could presumably buy the Commanders with change he finds in his pants pocket. (The Commanders are valued at $5.6 billion, according to Statista.) Selling the Post would bring in very little — he paid $250 million for it in 2013, and though the paper enjoyed years of profits and meteoric growth, it’s been losing both circulation and money over the past year. Which is to say that he might not be able to get much more for the Post than he paid for it nearly 10 years ago.

As Chloe Melas reports for CNN, spokespersons for both Bezos and the Post denied the rumor immediately. CNN’s Oliver Darcy, in his media newsletter, notes that the N.Y. Post later toned down its headline.

If Bezos ever gets tired of being a newspaper mogul, I hope he’ll donate the Post to a nonprofit organization, as the late Gerry Lenfest did with The Philadelphia Inquirer. But a week after one of Bezos’ rare visits to the Post, there are no signs of that happening.

Should Jeff Bezos have sat in on a news meeting at The Washington Post?

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2010 by Steve Jurvetson.

Should someone from the business side of a major newspaper — up to and including the owner — sit in on a news meeting? Generally speaking, the answer is no, but I’m not sure that there’s any hard and fast rule. An ethical owner will not interfere in the news coverage in any way. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t listen.

In early 2017, when I was reporting for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” I was allowed to sit in on a Boston Globe news meeting presided over by the paper’s editor, Brian McGrory. I was somewhat surprised to see co-owner Linda Henry, now the CEO, sitting off to one side, taking notes. She said nothing, and it didn’t strike me as inappropriate — just a bit unexpected.

Another owner I was tracking, Jeff Bezos, was a different story. According to everyone I spoke with, Bezos was entirely hands-off with the news operations of The Washington Post, although he was deeply involved in various business and technology initiatives. By all accounts, Amazon’s founder was a model newspaper owner, leaving his journalists alone to cover the news — including Bezos’ own interests — as they saw fit.

So I was surprised to learn in The New York Times (free link) that Bezos had recently sat in on a news meeting at the Post and listened as executive editor Sally Buzbee and her lieutenants discussed several story ideas that no doubt piqued Bezos’ interest. According to the Times’ Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson:

Other than Mr. Bezos’ appearance, the news meeting proceeded as it might on any other day, with editors discussing news stories and readership trends, according to the people with knowledge of the meeting. At one point, an editor mentioned plans to run an article about the discontinuation of AmazonSmile, a charity program that Mr. Bezos championed. The editors also discussed the pending sale of the Washington Commanders. The Post previously reported that Mr. Bezos was interested in buying the National Football League team.

Now, you might say that Buzbee’s predecessor, the legendary Marty Baron, never would have allowed such a breach of the wall between the news and the business sides. Well, maybe, maybe not. Because Mullin took to Twitter and reported that he’d heard the same thing had happened at least once during the Baron years. “For what it’s worth: Someone told me this happened in an editorial meeting under Marty Baron, who turned to Jeff and asked him for comment on the spot,” Mullin tweeted. “I’m told Jeff gave a big Jeff laugh and no-commented.”

After years of growth and profits under Bezos, the Post is now losing both circulation and money (another free link; hey, it’s almost the end of the month, when the meter resets). I’ve written before that I think the greatest risk to the Post is that Bezos may be losing interest, so at least his recent meeting suggests that it still engages him. But for someone who seems to have been scrupulous about not interfering in the Post’s news coverage, he ought to be self-aware enough not to sit in on news meetings.

By the way, I should note that though ethical owners and publishers keep their hands off news coverage, that’s not the case on the opinion side. The Post, the Globe and most other large dailies have a strict separation between news and opinion, with the top editors of those operations reporting directly to the publisher. It is entirely ethical for publishers to get involved in the opinion section, and both Linda and John Henry have done that over the years. Bezos, by all accounts, has been as uninvolved in the Post’s opinion operation as he is in news coverage — but that’s his choice. It’s not a requirement.

A final note: In Semafor on Sunday, Ben Smith wrote an item headlined “The Billionaire Era in News Is Fizzling,” building on the Times’ report about Bezos and the Post. Smith lists a bunch of them, from Bezos to Laurene Powell Jobs at The Atlantic and Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong at the Los Angeles Times.

But John Henry, a billionaire financier, is nowhere to be seen — even though in his own take-it-slow way he’s rebuilt the Globe into a growing and presumably profitable (he hasn’t said for several years, but he keeps hiring) enterprise. Sounds to me like bias against what is still seen in many quarters as a provincial outpost.

Gannett’s latest press closing will have a huge impact on its daily in Burlington, Vt.

Photo (cc) 2015 by Dan Kennedy

From the Department of You’ve Got to Be Kidding: Gannett has announced that it will close its printing plant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and move the work to its presses in Auburn, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island. The daily papers that will be affected are the Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily Democrat and — are you ready? — the Burlington Free Press, located not far from the Canadian border.

Word of the switch was published in the Portsmouth Herald on Wednesday. I have not been able to find it in the Free Press, either in print or online (my USA Today digital subscription gives me access to the replica editions of every Gannett daily in the country, which is why I was able to check). But assuming that Gannett’s own story is accurate, that is really a breathtaking move. According to Apple Maps, it’s a three-and-a-half-hour, 240-mile drive from Auburn to Burlington. Providence is even worse — about four hours and nearly 270 miles. And that’s right now, without any traffic to speak of.

The Herald offers this statement from Gannett:

As our business becomes increasingly digital and subscription-focused, newspaper printing partnerships have become standard. We are making strategic decisions to ensure the future of local journalism and continue our outstanding service to the community.

Ah, yes, digital subscriptions, Gannett’s standard answer to everything. Well, let’s look at the Burlington Free Press’ latest filings with the Alliance for Audited Media, shall we? For the six-month period ending last Sept. 30, the average weekday print circulation was 4,000, with another 6,012 on Sundays. Meanwhile, paid digital replica circulation was 1,051 on weekdays and 667 on Sundays. Nothing is listed for straight-up digital subscriptions, but in March 2021 the Free Press reported about 1,400 on weekdays and about 1,200 on Sundays for digital nonreplica. So, roughly, that’s a total of around 2,000 digital replica and nonreplica subscriptions. Not impressive, and clearly the Free Press’ print product is still what its readers are looking for.

Then again, Gannett has long since ceded the Burlington market to a terrific alt-weekly, Seven Days; a leading digital nonprofit, VTDigger; and Vermont Public Radio. I wrote about that in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” We also recently interviewed VTDigger’s founder, Anne Galloway, on the “What Works” podcast.