Regrets, Walsh has a few

Then-Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Photo (cc) 2014 by Joe Spurr.

Good to know that Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh regrets having dumped the Dennis White mess into Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s lap. But he still hasn’t explained why he refused to release former police officer and accused child molester Patrick Rose’s personnel records despite having been ordered to do so by the secretary of state’s office.

Marilyn Schairer of GBH News reports that Walsh, who preceded Janey as mayor, addressed the White matter during a swing through Boston, saying:

I made it very clear I wanted to resolve that situation before I left. And unfortunately, wasn’t able to. But, you know, Kim took action. I watched what she did. And now there’s a search for a commissioner. And that’s the right way to go.

Walsh left behind a disaster within the Boston Police Department. White was the police commissioner for a few days before claims of domestic abuse were surfaced, leading Walsh to suspend him. Janey ended up firing him. Rose, a former president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, has been charged with multiple counts of child sexual abuse, a spree that was enabled by an apparent failure to act on an internal investigation in the mid-’90s that found one of his alleged victims was most likely telling the truth.

Both White and Rose have denied any wrongdoing.

Walsh’s stonewalling in the Rose matter earned him a New England Muzzle Award from GBH News last month.

Dog days hit Media Nation

Happy August! We’re going on vacation this week, and blogging will be light. I’ll be semi-working the week of Aug. 9, and then it’s back to the salt mine the following week. Behave yourselves.

A tabloid legend signs off

I love this profile of Keith Kelly, who recently retired as the New York Post’s media columnist. The Post is a toxic-waste pit, but Kelly enjoyed a well-earned reputation for accuracy. And pugnacity. The Kelly anecdotes in Shawn McCreesh’s New York Times profile are gold, but McCreesh’s own writing pulls you in as well. For instance:

Mr. Kelly came up in an age when a handful of glamorous editors in glittering towers told the country how to eat, think and dress. Today’s media landscape is an artless and unsexy place by comparison, a lowveld of SPACs and substacks. Newsletters badly in need of editing lard inboxes, while journalists spend their days flinging mud on Twitter.

 

NYTBR reviewer asks a question she easily could have answered. So why didn’t she?

This rather odd section caught my eye in the print edition of today’s New York Times Book Review. It’s in the midst of a review of Michael Burlingame’s “An American Marriage: The Untold Story of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd.” The reviewer is Amy S. Greenberg, a historian at Penn State. She writes:

Burlingame aggressively criticizes scholars who have suggested otherwise by interrogating the objectivity of their sources. Whether his own would withstand similar scrutiny is impossible to determine, given that the volume provides no citations (although an appendix suggests that research notes can be accessed online).

Well, can the research notes be accessed online or not? Did Greenberg try? Perhaps all of her doubts about Burlingame’s sourcing would have been answered. If she’s going to raise the question, she has an obligation to try to answer it.

Dumping the notes onto the web isn’t that unusual. When I was writing my first book, “Little People,” my editor at Rodale told me they wanted to publish my chapter notes online rather than waste money on precious extra pages. I pushed back and got them included in the book. This was in 2003, before most of us had broadband.

And if you’re thinking that Greenberg’s easily answered question slipped by an editor at the last minute, the review was first published on the Times’ website on June 1. Needless to say, there was plenty enough time to re-edit the review if anyone cared to do so.

Update:

In case you’re counting, that’s 152 pages of notes. In the comments, Iain Goddard found them, too.

NPR’s new policy on activism is smart — but will inevitably lead to confusion

Bonita Yarboro of Hamden, Conn., at the Boston demonstration against racism in August 2017. Photo (cc) 2017 by Dan Kennedy.

Four years ago this summer, I walked alongside upwards of 40,000 demonstrators in Boston who were protesting their anger and disgust at Donald Trump over his racist response to the deadly right-wing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia — and to a few cranks who had gathered on the Boston Common to express their racist views. The crowd chanted; I did not. The crowd held signs; I did not. I was careful to keep my press pass visible as well.

I wasn’t there to be “objective,” to invoke a much-misunderstood word. Besides, as an opinion journalist, I’m free to say and write what I believe. But the tradition in journalism is that all us, whether we work the straight-news or the opinion side of the street, need to maintain our independence. We don’t contribute money to political candidates or put partisan signs on our lawn. We don’t write or talk about who we’re going to vote for. (I’ve made one exception during my career, making it clear that I would vote for whoever was opposing Trump.) And we don’t take part in protests or demonstrations.

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Following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that old rule has been subjected to new scrutiny. Last July, for instance, The Boston Globe announced that it would amend its ethics policy to allow staff members to take part in Black Lives Matter rallies.

Although I have no affiliation with the Globe, the change did affect my thinking. Since then, I’ve participated in a local Black Lives Matter march and, just last week, a demonstration on behalf of transgender dignity.

And on Thursday, a large and overdue hole was punched in the wall when NPR public editor Kelly McBride wrote that its journalists could now participate in certain activities that had long been forbidden — not just by NPR but by practically all news organizations. She wrote:

NPR rolled out a substantial update to its ethics policy earlier this month, expressly stating that journalists may participate in activities that advocate for “the freedom and dignity of human beings” on both social media and in real life.

The new policy eliminates the blanket prohibition from participating in “marches, rallies and public events,” as well as vague language that directed NPR journalists to avoid personally advocating for “controversial” or “polarizing” issues….

The new NPR policy reads, “NPR editorial staff may express support for democratic, civic values that are core to NPR’s work, such as, but not limited to: the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press, the right to thrive in society without facing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability, or religion.”

As McBride describes it, the policy is going to lead to a lot of friction and questions in NPR-affiliated newsrooms. Taking part in demonstrations on behalf of a political candidate or a piece of legislation will still be forbidden, leading some to question whether the changes go far enough.

And though McBride cited Black Lives Matter and Pride as obvious causes that staff members would be allowed to support, there are plenty of causes that you could argue are related to “the freedom and dignity of human beings” that are also cultural hot buttons. For instance, what about pro-choice or pro-life rallies? Or Palestinian rights versus support for Israel? This isn’t going to be easy.

The irony is that NPR is probably the most balanced of our major news organizations. I don’t mean that as praise. Its devotion to both-sides-ism and false equivalence during the Trump years and their aftermath has at times driven me to distraction. Of course, in a large and diverse news organization like NPR, there are many exceptions, as well as an admirable devotion to truth-telling journalism. But, all too often, NPR has been at the forefront of normalizing the profoundly abnormal.

All things considered (see what I did there?), the new ethics policy strikes me as a smart move, despite the disputes it will inevitably lead to.

Despite spinning off a few papers, there are no signs that chains are walking away

Nantucket, where The Inquirer & Mirror is once again locally owned. Photo (cc) 2007 by Michael Galvin.

From time to time I’ve taken note of rare instances when Gannett has sold some of its 1,000 or so papers to local ownership. In Massachusetts, for example, The Inquirer & Mirror of Nantucket was acquired last fall by a group headed by the editor and a local businessman.

Kristen Hare of Poynter asked Gannett for some numbers, it turns out that the chain has sold 24 papers to community interests. (Be sure not to miss the correction. As you’ll see, Gannett can’t even keep track of how many papers it owns.)

Not that there’s any benevolent motive at work here. Gannett is going to do what’s best for its bottom line, and a few isolated weeklies don’t fit with its strategy of regional groups, dailies and stories shared across papers regardless of whether they have any local interest.

Just recently, Gannett shut down two weeklies west of Boston — the Marlborough Enterprise and the Hudson Sun. Maybe there weren’t any local buyers available. But those towns are also covered by Gannett’s MetroWest Daily News, so there was an incentive not to empower any possible competitors.

Writing for the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University, Mark Jacob speculates that the hedge fund Alden Global Initiative might sell off some of the nine major-market dailies it acquired when it gobbled up Tribune Publishing earlier this year. I suppose anything is possible, but that seemed to fly out the window when Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum’s efforts to buy Tribune fell short. Bainum planned to break up the chain, starting with The Baltimore Sun, which he wanted to donate to a nonprofit. In the end, though, Alden’s offer prevailed, even though it was loaded with undisclosed debt.

Jacob also profiles The Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, a rare instance of a newspaper that Alden was willing to sell to local interests, and The New Bedford Light, launched despite Gannett’s refusal to sell The Standard-Times.

And then there is this odd observation by Jacob:

In some ways, large chains can be beneficial for local news consumers. They often bring website expertise, technical support and consistent business practices. And they may have a greater ability to recruit talent.

No. Some chains are better than others, but all of them are dedicated to the proposition that newspapers exist mainly so that the owners can squeeze out profits that could otherwise be invested in news and technology. Even in terms of digital publishing, I have rarely encountered an independent news website that is as clunky and intrusive as a typical chain site.

As the old saying goes: Local doesn’t scale.

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Mike Donoghue leaves First Amendment group’s board after dispute over church work

Mike Donoghue

Longtime Vermont journalist Mike Donoghue has resigned under pressure as vice president of the New England First Amendment Coalition’s board, according to Lola Duffert of the nonprofit news organization VTDigger. The issue was his ongoing involvement in helping the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington deal with issues of sexual abuse by priests.

Donoghue, who retired several years ago after a decades-long career at the Burlington Free Press, is a member of a lay committee appointed by the Catholic Church “to investigate the church’s personnel files and release the names of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse,” Duffert wrote.

Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC), told VTDigger that NEFAC was under the impression that Donoghue’s service on the church committee would wrap up in 2019. After it became clear that Donoghue had continued to work on church business, the NEFAC board concluded that Donoghue had to go.

Donoghue told VTDigger in a written statement that NEFAC misunderstood the committee’s purpose, saying it “was never given the job of determining what church records would be disclosed to the public.”

I’ve got all kinds of entangling alliances here. Donoghue is a friendly acquaintance who I interviewed for my book “The Return of the Moguls.” I’m also friendly with Silverman and NEFAC president Karen Bordeleau, a former editor of the Providence Journal, who — believe it or not — shared the same Northeastern co-op job with me at The Call of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, in the 1970s. I occasionally speak at NEFAC events.

In my experience, these are all smart, ethical journalists who are trying to do the right thing. Unfortuately, the difference in their perspectives proved to be too much to overcome.

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Why we need federal assistance to help save local news

Photo (cc) 2011 by Oregon Department of Transportation

Can government help solve the local news crisis? The notion sounds absurd, even dangerous. You get what you pay for, and if government officials are funneling money to media outlets, then it’s not unreasonable to expect that they’ll demand sticky-sweet favorable coverage in return.

Read the rest at GBH News.

National media are thriving while locals are dying — yet there’s hope at the grassroots

Photo (cc) 2011 by Wayne Hsieh

Axios has a story on “journalism’s two Americas” — the thriving national media and struggling local news outlets, mainly newspapers. “The disparate fortunes skew what gets covered,” write Sara Fischer and Nicholas Johnston, “elevating big national political stories at the expense of local, community-focused news.”

The data they present isn’t new, but it’s striking nevertheless. Local reporters earn an average annual salary of $49,000, compared to more than $65,000 for national reporters. Of course, many of those national jobs are in the ultra-high-cost New York era, which means the disparity may not be quite as great as those two numbers suggest. Still, the national media are growing and hiring, while local newspapers — most of them owned by corporate chains and hedge funds — continue to eliminate jobs.

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Fischer and Johnston note that CNN is hiring 450 people for its new CNN+ streaming service. And Fischer reported just a little while ago that NBC is “adding hundreds of jobs to its digital organization,” mainly for news-oriented positions.

Not all news on the community journalism front is bad, though. The apocalyptic stories about what’s taking place at the grassroots invariably focus on chains owned by the likes of Gannett and Alden Global Capital. By contrast, entrepreneurs are launching for-profit and nonprofit digital startups at a dizzying rate. Chris Krewson, the executive director of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers writes:

Research shows new newsrooms are launching fast, 50 a year for the last five years. They’re for-profit, non-profit, public-benefit corporations, and LLCs; they’re a husband-and-wife team covering a small town; they’re a staff of dozens holding politicians to account at the statewide level….

They’re not replacing the newspaper. They don’t need to. This nascent industry has the potential to grow beyond the limitations of newspapers, to truly reflect and serve communities large and small, rural, urban, Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer… and on and on. We just have to stop thinking about saving the unsaveable and build businesses that serve the needs of communities first. In fact, what these publications are starting to offer is just as good, if not better, than the legacies they’re increasingly supplanting.

I’ve been tracking such projects since the late ’00s. From New Haven to San Diego, from Burlington, Vermont, to Batavia, New York, community journalists step up when there’s a market failure on the part of the local legacy newspaper. Ellen Clegg and I are following similar projects across the country.

There’s no question that these are tough times for local news. But there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic as well.