Today’s America is more broken than our parents’. But a new book gives us reason to hope.

Illustration by Emily Judem / GBH News.

Life in the 21st century is defined by certain toxic realities. Extreme income inequality, political polarization, the breakdown of community life and the rise of narcissistic individualism have all helped create a meaner, more narrow-minded America than the one we — or, depending on your age, your parents — grew up in.

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Northeastern journalism faculty supports creation of a state news commission

Photo (cc) 2017 by Ted McGrath.

We’re down to the wire with a legislative proposal to create a special commission that would study the condition of local news in Massachusetts. You can learn more about it here. Currently a conference committee is hashing out the details of an economic bond bill; the commission has been included as an amendment to the House version.

My colleagues in Northeastern University’s School of Journalism have signed a letter to the six members of the conference committee urging them to support the amendment creating the news commission. If you are so inclined, I hope you’ll add your voice. Some disclosures: I was involved in proposing the commission; I testified in favor of it last year; and I would be a member if the measure is adopted as written.

There’s never been a more crucial time for local news. Gannett, a national corporate chain that owns dozens of daily and weekly papers and websites in Greater Boston and environs, is staggering under debt and continues to cut, as Don Seiffert reports in the Boston Business Journal. This is also the time of year when you can donate to a local nonprofit news organization through NewsMatch and have your contribution doubled. And don’t forget that today is #GivingTuesday.

Our letter to the conference committee follows:

***

November 30, 2020

To the members of the conference committee:

  • Senator Eric Lesser, Co-Chair
  • Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, Co-Chair
  • Senator Michael Rodrigues
  • Senator Patrick O’Connor
  • Representative Aaron Michlewitz
  • Representative Donald Wong

Community life and civic engagement are not possible without reliable, verified news and information. Unfortunately, local journalism is in the midst of a crisis. According to one widely cited study, more than 2,100 American newspapers have closed their doors over the past 15 years as Craigslist, Google, and Facebook have scooped up most of the advertising revenues that once paid for journalism. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation worse. And newspaper chains owned by Wall Street speculators and hedge funds have robbed local news executives of the revenues they need to invest in the future.

Which is why we faculty members at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism urge you to approve an amendment sponsored by Representative Lori Ehrlich — part of the House version of the Economic Bond Bill — that would create a special commission to study local news in Massachusetts and recommend some possible courses of action. The commission would comprise legislators, academics, journalists, and news-industry experts.

Massachusetts remains well-served by regional sources of news, including a robust daily newspaper, public media companies, and multiple television newscasts. At the local level, though, the picture is grim. Corporate ownership has resulted in the hollowing-out of dozens of newspapers across the Commonwealth. In all too many cases, these news outlets are failing to meet the information needs of the communities they ostensibly serve.

A commission could, among other things, shine a light on a number of independent news projects that are doing well in the hopes that they might inspire residents of other communities to undertake similar projects. A commission could also identify best practices and recommend legislation and policies to encourage local ownership or make it easier to start a nonprofit news organization.

Such efforts are urgently needed. Please approve the amendment and allow the commission to be formed and to begin its important work.

Sincerely,

Jonathan Kaufman, Director
Belle Adler, Emeritus
Mike Beaudet
Rahul Bhargava
Matt Carroll
Myojung Chung
Joanne Ciccarello
Nicholas Daniloff, Emeritus
Charles Fountain
Michelle Hagopian
Meg Heckman
Carlene Hempel
Jeff Howe
Dan Kennedy
William Kirtz, Emeritus
Laurel Leff
Dan Lothian
Peter Mancusi
Meredith O’Brien
Walter V. Robinson, Emeritus
Jim Ross
Jody Santos
Alan Schroeder, Emeritus
Jeb Sharp
John Wihbey
Dan Zedek

Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.

Bedford Depot

Twenty-three-mile-plus ride, mostly along the Minuteman.

A simple step to ease the transition of ex-prisoners returning to society

The lack of an official ID isn’t necessarily the first thing you’d think of when it comes to the challenges facing ex-prisoners returning to society. In fact, though, the lack of an ID can prevent them from starting work or getting an apartment — key steps in moving forward with their lives. As Alexis Farmer writes for CommonWealth Magazine:

Removing the time lag between leaving a correctional facility and restarting one’s life with the necessary documents in hand is critical to a successful transition. During a global pandemic, the urgency to remove bureaucratic hurdles to re-entry is more important.

This past summer and fall I had the privilege of serving as Farmer’s mentor through the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. I serve on the board of advisers at the institute, which places brilliant young graduate students at state and local government agencies for summer internships in the hopes that they’ll consider public service as a career.

Farmer, a master’s student in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, was an intern in Boston’s Office of Returning Citizens (ORC), which supports formerly incarcerated citizens in their transition to the community. Her commentary is a significant contribution to our thinking about criminal justice.

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Everything you know is wrong (Facebook edition)

Like many observers, I have often cited Facebook, along with Fox News, as one of the most dangerous forces promoting disinformation and polarization. Its algorithms feed you what keeps you engaged, and what keeps you engaged is what makes you angry and upset.

But what if most Facebook users don’t even see news? Nieman Lab editor Laura Hazard Owen conducted a real-world experiment. And what she found ought to give us pause:

Even using a very generous definition of news (“Guy rollerblades with 75-pound dog on his back”), the majority of people in our survey (54%) saw no news within the first 10 posts in their feeds at all.

Moreover, the top three most frequently seen news sources weren’t the likes of Newsmax, Breitbart and Infowars — they were CNN, The New York Times and NBC News, which epitomize the mainstream.

I asked Owen to clarify whether her definition of news popping up in people’s feeds was restricted to content that came directly from news organizations or whether it included news stories shared by friends. “It was ALL news,” she replied, “whether shared by a news organization or a friend.”

Is it possible that we all misunderstand the effect that Facebook is having (or not having) on our democracy?

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HuffPost hasn’t died, but it sure did fade away. Here are three reasons why.

HuffPost founder Arianna Huffington. Photo (cc) 2010 by JD Lasica.

Maybe BuzzFeed will save The Huffington Post. Frankly, though, it feels more like the end than a new beginning. Who has given much thought to HuffPost in recent years? Even with a sharp editor, Lydia Polgreen, at the top until recently, the site hasn’t seemed relevant for a long time.

So what happened? Your guess is as good as mine. But I’d argue that HuffPost was built on three pillars, and all of them are gone:

Unpaid contributions. For a long time, HuffPost was a blogging platform as much as it was a publisher. The site took a lot of heat for not paying its writers, but I always thought that critics were making a category error. If you’re going to blog and not get paid for it, why not do it at a site where you’re more likely to be seen rather than on your own?

Maybe eight or so years ago, when I was between paid column-writing gigs, I wrote a few free pieces for HuffPost just to keep my hand in. There was a huge variety of contributions to HuffPost, some great, some terrible. They gave the site a vibrancy that it has lacked ever since such content was discontinued.

Abusive aggregation. The Huffington Post originally made its mark with extremely aggressive aggregation — it would, for example, summarize a 5,000-word investigative piece published by another news organization in so much detail that you really didn’t need to click through to the original. As Jeff Bezos lamented shortly after announcing he would buy The Washington Post, HuffPost could rewrite a story “in 17 minutes” that had taken the originating media outlet weeks or months to report and write.

Over time, HuffPost’s approach to aggregation became more conservative even as it added more original reporting. That may have been the ethical thing to do, but I’m sure it cost them a substantial part of their audience.

Social over search. HuffPost absolutely nailed search back when that mattered above all else. Remember the infamous “What time does the Superbowl start?” headline, which the rest of the internet reacted to with a mixture of rage and awe?

Well, search-engine optimization has long since given way to social-media engagement as the metric that really matters. And BuzzFeed perfected the latter, which is why it’s the senior partner in this particular deal. What the two sites have in common is BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti, who helped HuffPost master SEO before founding BuzzFeed and embracing social.

All of this is why I’m not particularly optimistic about HuffPost staging a comeback. It was hugely influential for about a half-dozen years after Arianna Huffington launched it in 2005. But it was a creature of its time, and that time may have expired.

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3 reasons why it matters that Linda Pizzuti Henry was named CEO of the Globe

Surprising though the news may have been, there was a certain inevitability to Linda Pizzuti Henry’s being named chief executive officer of The Boston Globe’s parent company.

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Globe union rips management for using Trump law firm in contract negotiations

In a press release sent out earlier today, the Boston Newspaper Guild rips John Henry, Linda Pizzuti Henry and Boston Globe management for using the controversial law firm of Jones Day in contract negotiations.

This is not a new complaint, as Jones Day is sometimes characterized as a union-busting operation. But now the firm has been called out for representing President Trump in his efforts to overturn the election results.

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Why the crisis within the Boy Scouts of America could lead to a scouting revival

2010 photo by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Could the Boy Scouts of America be heading into its final days? It sure looks that way. After decades of horrendous and widespread sexual abuse, documented in secret reports known as the “perversion files,” it appears that the moment of reckoning has arrived.

Read the rest at GBH News. Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.