How three newspaper moguls responded to the end of free digital content

New Haven at night. Photo (cc) 2007 by Matt Krause.

Author Dan Kennedy will talk about the future of the news — and his new book “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century” — with Independent Editor Paul Bass at an event at the Book Trader Cafe, 1140 Chapel St., Wednesday, May 23, at 6:30 p.m. An excerpt from Dan’s book follows.

Communities can’t thrive without strong, independent journalism.

When the business model that pays for news fails, we need alternatives. That was the idea behind my 2013 book, The Wired City, which explored new forms of online local journalism, with a focus on the New Haven Independent.

But traditional newspapers still matter, whether in print, online, or both. A good daily paper can reach an audience and command attention more effectively than most other types of media. Newspapers are often seen as dinosaurs lumbering toward extinction, laid low by technological advances, the collapse of advertising revenues, and greedy hedge-fund owners seeking to squeeze out every last drop of profit before discarding them like yesterday’s news. In such an environment, can newspapers be saved?

Read the rest at the New Haven Independent. And talk about this post on Facebook.

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Talking about ‘Moguls’ with Emily Rooney at the BPL

My WGBH News colleague (and “Beat the Press” host) Emily Rooney and I talked about “The Return of the Moguls” Tuesday in a Facebook Live event at WGBH’s Boston Public Library studio. You can watch by clicking here.

Book excerpt: How John Henry overcame his doubts about buying The Boston Globe

John Henry

WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy’s new book, “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century,” examines whether a new generation of wealthy owners can help solve the financial crisis that threatens the beleaguered newspaper business. In this excerpt, Kennedy, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University, tells the story of how Red Sox Principal Owner John Henry decided to buy The Boston Globe from the New York Times Co.

Please join us either in person or via Facebook Live Tuesday May 15 at 4:30 p.m., when Kennedy will be interviewed by Beat the Press Host Emily Rooney at the WGBH studio at the Boston Public Library.

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Rumors that The Boston Globe might be for sale began circulating as far back as 2006, when a group headed by retired General Electric chief executive Jack Welch, who was a Boston-area native, and local advertising executive Jack Connors was reported to be nosing around. At the time, the Globe was said to be valued at somewhere between $550 million and $600 million, vastly more than the price John Henry paid seven years later. But the New York Times Co. wasn’t selling — at least not yet.

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No, the Digital First approach to newspaper ownership is not defensible

Politico media columnist Jack Shafer has written, if you can believe it, a semi-defense of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and its principal, Randall Smith, who are in the midst of running their newspapers into the ground. Alden owns the Digital First Media chain, whose Denver Post is the locus of an insurrection against hedge-fund ownership. The 100-paper chain also owns three Massachusetts properties: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

Shafer’s argument is a simple one: the end is at hand for the newspaper business, no one has figured out how to reverse its shrinking fortunes, and so therefore Smith can’t be blamed for squeezing out the last few drops of profit before the industry collapses. “Smith may be a rapacious fellow,” Shafer writes, “but his primary crime is recognizing that print is approaching its expiration date and is acting on the fact that more value can be extracted by sucking the marrow than by investing deeper or selling.”

Now, it’s possible that Shafer is right. But I’m considerably more optimistic about the future of newspapers than he is. Let me offer a few countervailing examples.

1. I certainly don’t want to sound naive about GateHouse Media, a chain of several hundred papers controlled by yet another hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group. GateHouse, which dominates Eastern Massachusetts, runs its papers on the cheap, too, and I’ve got a lot of problems with its barebones coverage of the communities it serves.

But GateHouse, unlike Digital First, is committed to newspapers. That’s why both insiders and outsiders were hoping GateHouse would buy the Herald. I genuinely think the folks at GateHouse are trying to crack the code on how to do community journalism at a profit for some years to come — and yes, its journalists are underpaid, and yes, I don’t like the fact that some editing operations have been centralized in Austin, Texas. But it could be worse, as Digital First demonstrates. For some insight into the GateHouse strategy, see this NPR story.

2. Smaller independently owned daily papers without debt can do well. The Berkshire Eagle is in the midst of a revival following its sale by Digital First to local business interests several years ago. In Maine, a printer named Reade Brower has built an in-state chain centered around the Portland Press Herald that by all accounts is doing well.

3. Large regional papers like The Denver Post are the most endangered. Transforming The Washington Post into a profitable national news organization, as Jeff Bezos has done, was a piece of cake compared to saving metros. As I describe in “The Return of the Moguls,” billionaire owner John Henry of The Boston Globe is pursuing a strategy that could result in a return to profitability: charging as much as the market will bear for print delivery (now up to more than $1,000 a year) and digital subscriptions ($30 a month). Globe executives say the paper is on track to pass the 100,000 mark for digital subscriptions in the first half of this year, and that the business model will start to look sustainable if it can reach 200,000.

In other words, reinventing the newspaper business is not a hopeless task. Randall Smith and Alden Global Capital have taken the easy, cynical route — but not the only route. There are better ways.

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Could a newspaper rebellion against hedge-fund ownership spread to Massachusetts?

It looked like a one-off last month when The Denver Post rebelled against its hedge-fund owner. In publishing an editorial and several commentaries denouncing Alden Global Capital as “vulture capitalists,” the Post’s journalists took what was seen by most observers as a courageous but futile stand.

But now the rebellion is starting to spread. And there is hope, however slight, that Digital First Media — the newspaper chain controlled by Alden — can somehow be pushed into doing the right thing. As CNN media reporter Brian Stelter writes, there were protests scheduled for today in Denver and New York City, the latter to take place outside Alden’s headquarters.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

It’s time to drive a stake through the heart of the White House Correspondents Dinner

Previously published at WGBH News.

You are forgiven if you thought this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner was a rerun. As with previous episodes, it featured a comedian whose entirely predictable raunchy fare came in for harsh, hypocritical denunciations; revulsion over the spectacle of media elites partying with politicians, lobbyists, and celebrities; and, of course, the ritual calls to end this benighted bacchanal once and for all.

“It never has been a particularly good idea for journalists to don their fanciest clothes and cozy up to the people they cover, alongside Hollywood celebrities who have ventured to wonky Washington to join the fun,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. “But in the current era, it’s become close to suicidal for the press’s credibility.”

My purpose here today is not to offer yet another critique of the comedian Michelle Wolf’s routine. For what it’s worth, I thought she was pretty good. Despite what you may have heard, she did not mock the physical appearance of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Instead, she delivered an R-rated political monologue of the sort that should have surprised no one. “It’s like going to a Billy Joel concert and being shocked he played ‘Piano Man,’” Judd Apatow, a writer, director, and comedian, told The New York Times.

So why the fake outrage? It has a lot to do with what the event has become: a celebration of money and power so cut off from the lives of ordinary people that it has come define everything that we hate about Washington.

Earlier this week I rewatched “Nerd Prom: Inside Washington’s Wildest Week,” a 2015 documentary by the former Politico journalist Patrick Gavin. The film offers an exhaustive (and, at times, exhausting) look behind the scenes at how the dinner metastasized from the first modest gathering in 1921, attended by 50 people, to the bought-and-paid-for spectacle it has become: a five-day affair marked by some two dozen parties and, of course, the dinner itself, which now draws some 2,600 people. I have showed it to several of my classes, and they are invariably appalled by the wretched excess that’s on display.

Not to mention the rude manners. Gavin devotes part of the film to showing us Washington reporters and their guests talking over virtually everything that’s taking place on the podium: kids winning scholarships (a total of $100,000 is awarded each year, which is, as Gavin notes, a pittance compared to the opulence of the event itself), Ray Charles performing “Georgia on My Mind,” even a Marine color guard.

“Washington audiences liquored up want to talk to each other,” explains George Condon of National Journal. “They don’t want to listen to the entertainers.”

What is truly revolting, though, takes place away from the dinner. Because, as Gavin shows, the event has long since devolved into decadence. The real stars of the week aren’t the reporters, aren’t the politicians, aren’t even the celebrities. Rather, they are the corporations and lobbyists. “It’s about influence and playing the Washington game,” the publishing and advertising executive Kenny Day tells Gavin.

As Gavin acknowledges, even at the time that he was making his film there was a sense that the dinner had begun its slow slide to irrelevance. A signal moment in that decline, he says, was former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw’s outspoken criticism in 2012. “If there’s ever an event that separates the press from the people that they’re supposed to serve, symbolically, it is that one,” Brokaw said. “It is time to rethink it.”

Of course, that slide has only accelerated under President Trump, who — unlike virtually all of his predecessors — has stayed away from the dinner. No doubt his absence added to the controversy over Michelle Wolf. Whereas previous comedians who got rough directed their barbs at the president (Don Imus with Bill Clinton, Stephen Colbert with George W. Bush), Wolf was stuck with picking on Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, and Ivanka Trump. As CNN media analyst Brian Stelter put it, “The president is usually the center of gravity at the dinner, and the comedian serves as the counter-balance. But with Trump absent, the dinner is off-balance.”

The result was an impossible situation for the press corps, which came off as sycophantic and nasty at the same time. “It takes some doing to emerge from one event painted as simultaneously partisan and toothless, elitist and crude, adversarial and complicit,” wrote New York Times television critic James Poniewozik. “But the dinner somehow pulls it off.”

The White House Correspondents Dinner and all that goes with it became an embarrassment years ago, and it’s only getting worse. So what is the solution? Get rid of it. Just get rid of it. Drive a wooden stake through its corrupt and malignant heart.

Enough.

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‘Moguls’ world tour coming to New York and Cape Ann

I’m very excited to let you know that I’ll be the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the American Association of Newspaper Distributors, or AAIND, in New York at noon this coming Thursday, May 3.

On Sunday, May 6, I’ll be part of a free panel discussion called “Journalism in the Age of Fake News and Truth Telling,” to be held at 3 p.m. at the Rockport Public Library, 17 School St. The event is being sponsored by Literary Cape Ann. A book signing will follow.

A complete list of events is online here.

What we know so far about the Kevin Cullen investigation

With Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen’s fate in the hands of outside investigators, I thought I would pull together what we know so far. I’ll begin with an internal memo that editor Brian McGrory sent to the staff late last week, a copy of which I obtained from several sources. We talked about the memo Friday on “Beat the Press” (above).

I hope you can understand our desire to seek facts before we address the assertions that have been publicly raised about the work of our colleague, Kevin Cullen. That said, I want to offer an update on the process. We’ve enlisted Kathleen Carroll and Tom Fiedler to oversee the review. Their involvement will help assure objectivity as well as speed. Kathleen is the former executive editor of the AP and someone universally respected across the industry. Tom is the dean of the BU College of Communication, the former executive editor of the Miami Herald, and someone whose calling card has always been his integrity. In addition, Daniel Okrent, the former public editor of the New York Times, has agreed to read their report and weigh in as necessary.

The review will consist of two-prongs. First, Kathleen and Tom will focus on marathon-related issues. Separately, we’re undertaking a broader review of Kevin’s work, initially in-house, but we’ll bring in outside help if needed. The first part I’m hoping will be completed within a couple of weeks.

You may see Kathleen and Tom around the newsroom. If they seek your help, please give it to them.

This work, unpleasant as it is, is important to our institutional credibility. I’ll be back to you again when I have more to report.

The investigation was prompted by Cullen’s April 14 column marking the fifth anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings. The column has several problems. First, a reader would almost certainly think Cullen was claiming that he was at the finish line in 2013, even though he has said on other occasions that he was about a mile away. As I’ve said several times, the language strikes me as deliberately ambiguous, as though Cullen wanted to create that misimpression, even though he doesn’t come right out and say it. Second, there are apparent reporting errors as well, particularly regarding the actions and identities of the firefighters he mentions.

All of this has been fodder for two weeks on the “Kirk and Callahan” show on WEEI Radio (93.7 FM), which was the first to pick up on the discrepancies. The full details can be found in this blog post by Minihane, which combines fact, speculation (“It may be all true, though I seriously doubt it,” he wrote of a different Cullen column), and vitriol. But give Minihane his due. There are real problems with Cullen’s column, and we wouldn’t be here if not for WEEI. Cullen has been placed on paid leave pending the outcome of the investigation.

We talked about the Cullen situation on “Beat the Press” last Friday, April 20, and again on April 27 (clip above). Last week my colleague Emily Rooney added her own analysis, reporting that WEEI deceptively edited a Cullen interview that appeared in an HBO documentary. In the more recent clip, we all agreed that the Globe should be more transparent in letting the public know what’s going on beyond this editor’s note, which was published a week ago online and in print.

Also last week, Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal reported on the investigation and spoke with Marcus Breen of Boston College and me. Make of it what you will, but I was struck that Bill Richard, father of the late Martin Richard, whose family is mentioned in Cullen’s column, declined through a spokeswoman to comment.

And that, for the moment, is where things stand. As for myself, I’m a longtime admirer of Cullen’s work. Though I don’t know him personally, we’ve exchanged a few friendly greetings over the years. We should all be willing to wait and see if the investigation finds that the April 14 column represents a momentary lapse — or is an example of something more pervasive.

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Trump’s revenge: How tariffs on Canadian paper are killing journalism

Illustration via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It is the height of irony. President Trump, who detests the news media so much that he labeled them “the enemy of the American people,” has proved to be better for the journalism business than free scratch tickets tucked inside the “A” section. Thanks to the so-called Trump effect, newspapers and magazines have reported digital-subscription gains, cable news audiences have grown, and nonprofits such as NPR and ProPublica have gotten a boost.

But now Trump is getting his revenge. The U.S. Department of Commerce imposed tariffs on Canadian newsprint, as the grade of paper used in newspaper publishing is known, earlier this year, according to CNN.com. The tariffs have resulted in a 30 percent rise in the price of newsprint, which is the last thing the struggling business needs.

How bad is it? According to Tampa Bay Times chairman and chief executive Paul Tash, the tariff could increase the amount of money his paper spends on newsprint by $3 million for the year. As a result, the Times is eliminating about 50 jobs.

“These tariffs will hurt our readers, because they create pressure to raise our prices, and they will force publishers to re-examine every other expense,” Tash wrote, adding: “These tariffs will also hurt our employees, because payroll is the only expense that is bigger than newsprint.”

And in case you’re wondering, the Tampa Bay Times is not one of those corporate chain dailies controlled by a hedge fund. Rather, the Times is owned by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education organization, and is one of our more highly regarded papers. Tash would not be cutting unless there were no alternative.

At one time the price of newsprint was a regularly recurring lament in the newspaper business. From the 1970s until about 2000, as papers expanded their coverage and classified-ad sections grew fat, the cost of paper exerted a drag on what otherwise would have been even higher profits. Newspaper owners responded by shrinking the size of their pages. The modern broadsheet is not very broad. I recently got a copy of the Mashpee Enterprise, one of a small group of old-fashioned community weeklies on Cape Cod. The width was enormous — nearly 14 inches — and it reminded me of what newspapers looked like when I was growing up. By contrast, The Boston Globe is 12 inches across, typical for the industry these days but tiny by historical standards.

Then, too, the price of newsprint wasn’t supposed to matter by 2018. Surely papers would have gone all-digital by now. As we know, it hasn’t happened. Although papers like the Globe, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others have bet the future on digital subscriptions, they remain tied at the present to the revenues generated by their print editions. Print advertising, though plummeting, has maintained its value better than digital advertising, and it exists outside the death grip of Facebook and Google. Print subscribers still outnumber digital subscribers, too, and they pay a lot more — although obviously the cost of printing and distribution is higher too.

All of which created a situation that left the newspaper business vulnerable to the latest depredations of the Trump administration. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the current situation originated with a complaint filed with the Commerce Department by the North Pacific Paper Company, known as Norpac, which is based in Washington State. Norpac claimed that Canadian newsprint manufacturers have an unfair advantage over their American counterparts. But though Norpac argued that the Canadians paper mills should be punished because they receive government subsidies, other American newsprint manufacturers disagree — and argue that Norpac is seeking short-term profits for the benefit of its (you guessed it) hedge-fund owner. The details were reported by Bloombergin late December.

Norpac’s single plant employs about 300 people, the CNN report says. Meanwhile, the News Media Alliance, which represents some 2,000 newspapers in North America, says that some 600,000 American workers are dependent on Canadian paper for their jobs at newspapers and in commercial printing. Norpac, according to an op-ed piece written by David Chavern, president and CEO of the alliance, “is not acting in the best interests of newsprint consumers or the U.S. paper industry at large — it is acting in its own interest and no one else’s.”

The alliance is hoping to persuade the Trump administration to reverse the tariff on Canadian newsprint. We’ll see what happens. On the one hand, the president has been flexible to the point of chaotic with his on-again, off-again approach to which tariffs he wants to impose and which countries he wants to punish. On the other hand, he may see the newsprint tariff as a two-fer: Not only does he get to make life more difficult for the newspapers he so loathes, but the move benefits his fellow wealthy plutocrats as well.

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Pulitzer round-up: Race, #MeToo and the ever-present Trump story

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The 2018 Pulitzer Prizes are likely to be remembered as the Year of #MeToo, as courageous reporting on Harvey Weinstein and other predatory men sparked what may prove to be an enduring change in relations between the sexes. But the awards, announced Monday at Columbia University, covered a wide of subjects. And perhaps none of those is more difficult than race.

For The Boston Globe, the Pulitzers brought a near-win as well as a haunting voice from the past. The paper’s Spotlight Team was a runner-up in the Local Reporting category for its series on the city’s racial tensions, a painful part of our cultural DNA. And Patricia Smith, a lyrical African-American writer who left the Globe in 1998 after she was discovered to have fabricated characters and situations in her column, was herself a finalist in Poetry.

The Globe’s series, “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality.,” was a massive effort that explored the city’s troubled racial past and present from a variety of angles, including the nearly all-white Seaport District, our newest neighborhood; racial disparities in health care; and how African-Americans fare in higher education and in sports.

For those of us who urge news organizations to reconceptualize journalism as a form of civic engagement, the series was a landmark, sparking deep online discussion and forums at which members of the Spotlight Team met with members of the public. The Pulitzer judges called it “a poignant and illuminating exploration of the city’s fraught history of race relations.” I thought it might win a Pulitzer, perhaps in the Explanatory Reporting category. And though it fell short, it should nevertheless lead to conversation and follow-up stories for some time to come.

Patricia Smith, for those of you who weren’t around during the Globe’s Summer from Hell in 1998, was one of two star columnists who left in the midst of ethical lapses — Smith and Mike Barnicle for writing fiction, and Barnicle for plagiarism as well. Barnicle has remained an outspoken presence during the intervening 20 years, in recent years as a talking head on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Smith, though, largely disappeared from public view.

To her credit, Smith did the hard work of rebuilding her career. In 2015, The New York Times published a profile of Smith, by then a prize-winning poet as well as a professor at the College of Staten Island. Her selection as a 2018 Pulitzer finalist is for her collection “Incendiary Art,” described by the Pulitzer judges as a “searing portrait of the violence exacted against the bodies of African-American men in America and the grief of the women who mourn them.”

Although perhaps less well-known to those of us whose main interest in the Pulitzers is journalism, the most striking prize of all may have been the one awarded to the rapper Kendrick Lamar, who won in the Music category for his album “DAMN.” According to NPR.org, “It’s the first time in the prize’s history that it has been given to an artist outside of the classical or jazz community.” The Pulitzer judges called the album “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”

It is often said that the story of race is the story of America. At a time when our culture is becoming increasingly diverse, and when nearly half of our fellow Americans have made it clear that they fear that diversity, it’s heartening that the 2018 Pulitzers do so much to highlight it.

And congratulations to the Globe and to Patricia Smith.

The media and #MeToo

When considering the charged politics of gender in the workplace, it seems like the world began anew after the Times and The New Yorker exposed the violence-tinged depravity of the former entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein.

The list of once-powerful men who’ve been laid low since the Weinstein revelations is a long one, and includes Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Garrison Keillor, Louis C.K., Al Franken, and others. Locally, Tom Ashbrook of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) would probably still be at the “On Point” mic were it not for #MeToo, even though an investigation of his behavior found that he was a bully, not a sexual harasser.

The Globe has done good work in reporting the #MeToo story (such as columnist Yvonne Abraham’s exposure of former Massachusetts Senate president Stan Rosenberg’s husband, Byron Hefner) and has itself run afoul of rapidly changing workplace mores (consider editor Brian McGrory’s decision not to identify reporter Jim O’Sullivan after he left the paper — a decision McGrory later reversed).

The revelations have slowed down recently. It’s important that the momentum not be lost. By honoring Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey at the Times and Ronan Farrow at The New Yorker with the coveted Public Service Award, the Pulitzer judges have reminded us of how essential their work has been.

We live in a political world

I have made it to nearly the end of this column without mentioning President Trump. You’re welcome. Still, the overarching drama of our time is the chaotic Trump presidency, and the diligence with which that story is covered matters is of paramount importance to the fate of our democracy.

At a time when much of the news media is under siege because of its declining economic prospects, the Times and The Washington Post have both the resources and the competitive drive to try to get to the bottom of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The papers have been excoriated by Trump himself as “failing” and “fake,” but the Pulitzer judges awarded them the National Reporting prize for their “deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage.” The Post also won the Investigative Reporting prize for a related story: its exposure of the Trump-backed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore as a probable child molester.

Every week, it seems, brings new evidence of confusion, falsehoods, and possible wrongdoing emanating from the Trump White House. The Times and the Post, fortunately, show no signs of backing down.

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