In Vermont, a journalistic conflict too far

Now here’s a bad idea. The Commons, a monthly, non-profit newspaper that covers the Brattleboro, Vt., area, recently applied for — and received — a $25,000 loan from the town government in order to relaunch as a weekly and refurbish its website.

As Bill Densmore observes at the New England News Forum, Brattleboro is something of a hotbed for citizen journalism, as it is the home of the pioneering DIY news site iBrattleboro. The town is also covered by the Brattleboro Reformer, owned by Dean Singleton’s financially ailing MediaNews Group.

According to this story by Susan Keese of Vermont Public Radio, Jeff Potter, The Commons’ executive editor, says his paper is an example of a news organization that is “more of a public utility and less of a commercial enterprise.” Select Board chairman Dick DeGray sees no problem with the town’s funding a newspaper, saying:

We viewed it as a small business loan. It didn’t have any bearing that it was a newspaper. Since I’ve been on the board we’ve given money to a local brewery we’ve given money to a bagel start up. So as long as they meet the criteria, which they did.

DeGray adds that the loan does not come with any strings attached with respect to how The Commons covers Brattleboro.

Well, then. First, let’s acknowledge that this isn’t a simple question. In an e-mail exchange yesterday, Densmore reminded me that many for-profit community newspapers are heavily dependent on legal ads placed by the local government. And as we struggle toward new models for sustaining journalism, conflicts will inevitably arise.

For instance, the New Haven Independent, a non-profit news site that I follow closely, has come under criticism for allegedly favoring a Latino parents group that receives funding from the same foundation that also pays the Independent to cover education reform.

Last year, you may recall, the Bay State Banner, a for-profit paper that covers Boston’s African-American community, staved off a crisis with the help of a $200,000 loan arranged by Mayor Tom Menino. As Adam Reilly reported in the Boston Phoenix, the Banner quickly morphed from a harsh Menino critic into Sergeant Schultz.

Journalism is rife with conflicts, starting with the daily conflict of not wanting to offend advertisers. And I’m sure the folks in Brattleboro are earnest and well-intentioned — we are talking about Vermont, after all. But it still seems to me that rule number one is you can’t take money directly from the very government you are supposed to be keeping an eye on.


Greatest test question of all time

“Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?”

Gradations of stupid

See if you can follow the logic here. Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr whacks U.S. Sen. John Kerry’s “breathtaking smugness” for saying that voters are too stupid to understand what President Obama and the Democratic Congress have accomplished. Carr then turns around and criticizes Massachusetts voters for being too stupid to understand they shouldn’t have sent Kerry to the Senate five times.

Is Howie even trying to make sense anymore?

Talking about the news on WFNX

I’ll be talking with old friend Henry Santoro tomorrow at 8 a.m. on WFNX Radio (101.7 FM), doing something called “3-2-1 Henry.” He gave me homework. Unbelievable.

Bringing together citizens, government and media

SeeClickFix is an interactive website that lets users report problems in their communities and plot them on a Google map. Because it’s an open forum, local officials can check in to see where trouble spots are, and news organizations can track them as well. The New Haven Independent is one of many news sites that posts the RSS feed for its community. The interactive pothole map at is powered by SeeClickFix as well.

On May 18 I had a chance to sit down with SeeClickFix co-founder and chief executive Ben Berkowitz in his second-floor office in downtown New Haven. Berkowitz, a hyperkinetic 31-year-old, had forgotten we were supposed to meet, but he graciously agreed to a video interview despite having a full agenda.

Berkowitz describes SeeClickFix as “citizens working collectively,” and explains that he started it three years ago when he was trying to get graffiti cleaned up in his neighborhood. The site has been growing rapidly since the New York Times published a feature story on it in January.

Today, the company has some 400 media partners and employs five people thanks to a $25,000 We Media prize and several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of venture capital. Although the basic service is free, SeeClickFix charges media sites for certain premium services, and posts advertising as well.

One aspect of Berkowitz’s philosophy that I found particularly interesting was his insistence that SeeClickFix is not just for holding government accountable — citizens, too, should take responsibility. As an example, he pointed to a similar project, the British website FixMyStreet — a great name that he nevertheless doesn’t like, he says, because it removes accountability from citizens and places it entirely on the government.

Does Berkowitz, who previously worked as a Web designer, consider himself a journalist? He pauses before answering. “I think SeeClickFix is a tool for journalists,” he replies. “I don’t think that I am a journalist. I don’t think of us as a news organization.”

For a good example of how journalists can use SeeClickFix as a reporting tool, see this story on “the ugliest storefront on Chapel Street” in the New Haven Independent.

Hoyt eschews the “holier-than-thou approach”

Clark Hoyt

New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt isn’t as flashy as Dan Okrent, the first person to hold that job. But to my mind he’s been a solid in-house critic of Times journalism, and a considerable improvement over his plodding predecessor, Byron Calame.

So I enjoyed this profile of Hoyt that appeared in an alumni publication, Columbia College Today, written by David McKay Wilson, a Northeastern classmate of mine in the 1970s. Hoyt explains his philosophy thusly:

I want to talk about how something happened so we could learn from it, instead of wagging a finger and taking a holier-than-thou approach. You also have to make sure you talk about the work, not the person. The New York Times is a great newspaper and it produces great journalism every day, under very trying circumstances. In certain cases, it doesn’t live up to those standards.

The most recent case, of course, is the paper’s botched reporting on Connecticut Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal’s exaggerations regarding his military service. Hoyt, admirably, dove right in — too early, as it turned out. Now that the story is fading away, I hope he’ll take another, more considered look.

Talking Facebook with Emily Rooney

If you have a chance to tune in, I’ll be on “The Emily Rooney Show” today sometime between noon and 1 p.m. on WGBH Radio (87.9 FM) to talk about mounting privacy concerns over Facebook, which I wrote about last week for the Guardian.