How a Chicago civic organization became home to a Pulitzer-winning newsroom

David Greising

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with David Greising, the president and chief executive of the Better Government Association, a century-old civic nonprofit organization that is also home to a Pulitzer Prize-winning newsroom as part of a new collaboration with the Illinois Solutions Partnership.

The new partnership is funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. The BGA separates its investigations team and policy team in order to wall off its journalism from its advocacy work. In May 2022, Madison Hopkins of the BGA and Cecilia Reyes of the Chicago Tribune won the Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting for an investigation of the city’s history of failed building and fire-safety code enforcement, which proved lethal many times over.

I’ve got a Quick Take on a new development at The Provincetown Independent. Co-founder and editor Ed Miller was a guest on the “What Works” podcast earlier this year. The Indie is trying something really interesting: A direct public offering, or DPO.

Ellen has a Quick Take on the INNYs — the Institute for Nonprofit News Awards. A reporter named Sally Kestin won for best investigative journalism in a small newsroom. We’re talking really small: She works for the Asheville Watchdog, a nonprofit news outlet in North Carolina with only one paid employee. The rest are retired journalists, many of them quite well-known. Kestin won the 2013 Pulitzer for Public Service at the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

A Texas daily is rescued with the help of public radio and the National Trust

The Denton County Courthouse in downtown Denton. Photo (cc) 2014 by Kent Kanouse.

Of the various new business models that are emerging for community journalism, mergers between public broadcasters and existing news outlets are among the most promising.

One of the projects that Ellen Clegg and I are tracking for our book-in-progress, “What Works,” is NJ Spotlight News, a nonprofit digital startup covering politics and public policy in New Jersey that was acquired several years ago by WNET. They’ve merged their operations, continuing to offer deep coverage on their website while rebranding the daily half-hour newscast that appears on NJ PBS.

There are other examples, the most ambitious of which is the acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times by WBEZ, which is converting the storied tabloid to a nonprofit. On a smaller scale, the mobile-first website Billy Penn is now part of WHYY in Philadelphia and Denverite was acquired a few years back by Colorado Public Radio.

Now comes another move that’s well worth keeping an eye on. Public radio station KERA announced earlier this week that it intends to acquire the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily newspaper that covers the suburbs north of Dallas. In a statement, owner and publisher Bill Patterson said, “This arrangement gives us the opportunity and the ability to preserve local journalism for the people of Denton County. As our population continues to grow, it’s imperative that we grow as well. With KERA’s commitment and expertise, our organization will be able to serve our audiences well into the future.”

What’s especially encouraging about the move is that it was facilitated by the National Trust for Local News, which raises money and connects legacy newspaper owners with possible buyers in order to keep them from either shutting down or falling into the hands of corporate chain owners. Terms of the Denton deal weren’t announced, but according to the National Trust, it was one of four that will be supported through a $17.25 million fund. According to Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, the co-founder and CEO of the National Trust:

Communities across the country are clamoring to ensure the long-term sustainability of their local and community news. This expected acquisition of a beloved and storied community newspaper by a strong public media station shows another way forward. This new “public media community anchor” model to keep local news in local hands has important implications for media sustainability that reach far beyond the hills of North Texas.

Hansen Shapiro, by the way, was a recent guest on the “What Works” podcast.

The National Trust is best known for helping to purchase 24 weekly and monthly newspapers in the Denver suburbs. The papers are now owned by a nonprofit organization (the papers themselves remain for-profit) and managed by The Colorado Sun, a for-profit digital startup.

The population of Denton is about 148,000, according to U.S. Census data. The Record-Chronicle doesn’t report its circulation to the Alliance for Audited Media, but this Wikipedia article claims that, as of 2011, it was about 12,500 on Sundays and 9,200 on weekdays. If the paper is like nearly every other daily, the circulation is no doubt smaller today.

The Record-Chronicle traces its roots to 1892. In recent years, it’s had a close relationship with the Dallas Morning News, the major metro in that region: the Patterson family sold the paper to the Morning News’ parent company, A.H. Belo Corp. (now the DallasNews Corp.), in 1999, only to buy it back in 2018.

I hope the Record-Chronicle thrives under its new arrangement, which is scheduled to become official in 2023. And I hope it serves as a model for many more such arrangements.

Some smart questions about Jeff Bezos and the Post. But what’s the alternative?

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

Should one of the world’s most influential billionaires own one of our most influential news organizations? That’s the question Dan Froomkin asks in the Columbia Journalism Review about Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the owner of The Washington Post. It’s an important article, and you should read it. But I have some reservations, which I detail below.

Headlined “The Washington Post Has a Bezos Problem,” Froomkin’s piece argues that the situation has changed since the early years of Bezos’ ownership, when the Post’s news and editorial pages were edited by Graham-era holdovers (Marty Baron and Fred Hiatt, respectively) and the paper returned to glory with deep investigative reporting on Donald Trump, both before and after the 2016 election.

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Now, Froomkin writes, Bezos tweets critically about President Biden’s economic policies while the Post’s news coverage, whether coincidentally or not, appears to track with those tweets. Bezos also had a hand in hiring Baron’s successor as executive editor, former Associated Press executive editor Sally Buzbee, and editorial page editor David Shipley, a Bloomberg journalist who was hired following Hiatt’s sudden death. Froomkin writes:

Throughout history, newspapers have frequently been owned by moguls — and readers were at times appropriately apprehensive. In this era, Rupert Murdoch has created a powerful media empire, which includes Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, and his influence has been considerable.

But Bezos is in a different league even from Murdoch. The world has never seen wealth like this before, and it has never been so interconnected.

As I said, Froomkin makes some good points. We ought to be concerned about that kind of power concentrated in one of our leading news outlets. He quotes Edward Wasserman, a media ethicist at the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley, as saying that Bezo’s dual role as a master of the universe and as the Post’s owner as being “not compatible with the kind of independence we normally associate with independent news organizations.”

But I think we have to dig a little deeper. When I was reporting on the Post for my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls,” I could find no evidence that Bezos interfered with the paper’s news coverage or even its opinion operations. (The latter would be perfectly acceptable for an owner, and in fact John and Linda Henry are known to have their say in the opinion pages of The Boston Globe.) Nor did Froomkin find any evidence to the contrary.

What I have found as a reader of the Post is that though the paper will offer tough coverage of Amazon when warranted, it hasn’t gone out of its way to do any in-depth enterprise reporting on Amazon, as The New York Times has. As I told Froomkin, “I suppose nothing would answer the question more thoroughly than if they suddenly unveiled a real ass-kicking story about Amazon — a real in-depth piece of enterprise reporting that reflected pretty harshly on their owner.”

But every newspaper owner has conflicts of interest. Before Bezos bought the Post and took it private, it was a publicly traded company owner by the Graham family, who also owned the Kaplan testing company. The Grahams were often criticized for the Post’s soft coverage of the education testing industry. Of course, John Henry is the principal owner of the Red Sox. Glen Taylor, who revived the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, is a sports owner as well. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who owns the Los Angeles Times, is a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. And on and on.

All of these billionaires have improved their papers at a time when corporate chain owners and hedge funds like Gannett and Alden Global Capital are hollowing out their newspapers by the hundreds. Soon-Shiong’s ownership of the LA Times has been controversial, but he’s invested in the paper and he hired a fine newsroom leader, Kevin Merida, the most prominent Black editor in the country now that Dean Baquet has retired from the NY Times. Needless to say, none of these billionaires wields the sort of clout that Bezos does. But you have to ask: What is the alternative? Who is Dan Froomkin’s ideal owner?

In fact, I asked Froomkin that on Twitter. His answer:A local foundation or a local philanthropist or a civic-minded billionaire or a union. Anything but the (near) richest guy in the world. This broken system is working for him just great.

Hmmm. Certainly the Henrys, Taylor and Soon-Shiong qualify as civic-minded billionaires — maybe even as local philanthropists. Presumably the only thing that rules out Bezos is scale. I’m not familiar with any unions that own newspapers, although it’s a great idea and there are some historical examples.

A local foundation? There are a few. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tampa Bay Times are for-profit newspapers owned by nonprofit foundations — the Lenfest Institute and the Poynter Institute, respectively. But that came about because the billionaires who owned those papers donated them. The Salt Lake Tribune is a nonprofit that was donated by yet another billionaire.

Frankly, I think the biggest worry about the Post is that Bezos might be losing interest, which — if you read between the lines of a recent NY Times story — is a real concern. If that’s the case, would Bezos donate the Post to a foundation, as Gerry Lenfest did in Philadelphia and Nelson Poynter did in Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg? I’d like to think he wouldn’t preside over the revival of The Washington Post only to turn around and deliver it into the arms of Alden Global Capital. But who knows?

It could well be that the only thing worse than the Post under Bezos is the Post under a different owner.

Two years after leaving Braintree, the Boston Herald has still not returned

This photo was provided to Media Nation in August 2020 by a trusted source.

More than two years ago, Northeastern journalism student Deanna Schwartz — at the time an intern at GBH News’ “Beat the Press — learned that the Boston Herald had moved from its headquarters in Braintree to The Sun of Lowell. Both papers are owned by MediaNews Group, which in turn is owned by the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

On Sunday, Mark Pickering and Scott Van Voorhis reported in Contrarian Boston that the Herald has not returned to Braintree. “The Herald? They’re long gone. Long gone,” according to one person who was interviewed. Frankly, I didn’t think coming back was in the cards. The question in my mind is whether they’re working at The Sun or out of their homes. Does anyone want to share that information? I’ll post an update.

How an escapade on a frozen pond led one newspaper to reform its crime coverage

Photos (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy

One February day in 2020, an obituary caught Paul Cuno-Booth’s eye. At that time the police and courts reporter for The Keene Sentinel in rural western New Hampshire, Cuno-Booth had two years earlier written about one of those wacky incidents that editors and readers love.

A 47-year-old woman had driven out onto the ice on a pond, doing donuts, knocking over fishermen’s equipment and leading police on a slow-motion chase, throwing things out of her window as she drove. She was arrested and charged with criminal mischief and disobeying an officer.

Now, reading her obit, he learned more about the woman who’d been arrested on the ice that day. She’d had surgery for a brain tumor in 2016. She’d worked with mentally disabled people. She was a triathlete. Hers was a deep, well-rounded life, and the Sentinel’s story had reduced her to a caricature for the entertainment of its readers.

Cuno-Booth and others at the Sentinel started talking about how they could cover criminal justice in a way that reflected the complexities of the people they were writing about — people who were, in many cases, suffering from substance abuse, trauma and poverty. Crime coverage at the Sentinel, he said, was typical of most papers, consisting of “a lot of quick-hit articles,” press releases from the police, “not a lot of reporting, not a lot of context.” They decided they needed to make some changes. But where to begin?

From Cuno-Booth’s slideshow

Cuno-Booth described the Sentinel’s dilemma and the steps that it took to improve its coverage at the Radically Rural conference last week in Keene, New Hampshire. Sponsored by the Sentinel and the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship, the conference, now in its fifth year, featured panels on agriculture, housing, the environment and community journalism. Ellen Clegg and I interviewed the Sentinel’s president and COO, Terry Williams, on the “What Works” podcast a few weeks ago.

Cuno-Booth said he left the Sentinel but stayed in touch with the paper; he’s now a freelancer, working with New Hampshire Public Radio and other outlets. The paper’s crime coverage, he told the audience, was reoriented with the help of Kelly McBride, an ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Essentially, it came down to being more deliberate — individual crimes would not be reported unless the paper was prepared to follow them all the way through the court system, which immediately ruled out minor offenses. They’d look for trends rather than writing about, for instance, an 18-year-old picked up on an alcohol violation. They’d give people a chance to have stories about their earlier misdeeds be removed from Google search, although they’d remain in the Sentinel’s archives — a step taken by a number of news organizations in recent years, including The Boston Globe. Mug shots would rarely be published.

“I think it’s still very much a work in progress,” Cuno-Booth said. Nevertheless, that one moment of infamy for a troubled woman in 2018 has led to some significant changes in the way that the Sentinel covers crime and serves its community.

Shot of love

We’ve been watching Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary “Baseball,” which certainly beats watching the Red Sox these days. Last night, as the story turned to the death of Babe Ruth’s first wife, Helen Ruth, in a Watertown house fire, I heard a familiar tune on piano. I couldn’t quite place it except that it was clearly a hymn.

Then I remembered. It was “Abide with Me,” which — in addition to being sacred music — is the first piece on Thelonious Monk’s 1957 album “Monk’s Music,” written, as it turns out, by a 19th-century English church musician named William Henry Monk. Thelonious Monk doesn’t play; instead, it’s lovingly rendered by his horn section, consisting of Ray Copeland on trumpet, Gigi Gryce on alto sax, and Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane on tenor sax.

Please give it a listen. It might be the most uplifting thing you do all day.

Hermione Malone tells us how philanthropies can partner with local news outlets

Hermione Malone, left, of the American Journalism Project

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Hermione Malone, vice president of strategy and startups for the American Journalism Project. The AJP describes itself as a nonprofit venture philanthropy organization that focuses on supporting the future of local news. The organization makes grants to nonprofit news organizations, partners with communities to launch new outlets, and coaches leaders as they grow and sustain their newsrooms.

Hermione oversees local philanthropy partnerships. In that role, she helps nonprofit news startups get launched and nurtures coalitions of community stakeholders and local philanthropies. Her career has included work in diversity and inclusion and in community outreach. As executive director of Go.Be, a New Orleans-based nonprofit, she coached businesses owned by people of color and women, helping them figure out how to grow.

Ellen’s got a Quick Take is on Permian Proud, a pink-slime site put up by Chevron that provides a gusher of one-sided PR spin. Mine is on new research by Josh Stearns, senior director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund. Josh has fresh evidence that shows that local news is vital for democracy.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

A conversation about the local news crisis in a time of polarization

I’d like to let you know about a special program coming up on the crisis in community journalism. Titled “The Decline of Local News and the Rise of Polarization,” the event is part of the Masterman Speaker Series and the Ford Hall Forum at Suffolk Law School. It will be held next Thursday, Sept. 29, at 5 p.m. in Sargent Hall, 120 Tremont St., in the Blue Sky Lounge on the fifth floor.

I’ll be moderating, and I promise to inject some optimism into the proceedings. We’ve got a great panel:

  • Joshua Darr, associate professor of political communication at Louisiana State University. Ellen Clegg and I interviewed Darr earlier this year on the “What Works” podcast about his research into polarization and local opinion.
  • Renée Loth, an opinion columnist for The Boston Globe and a former editorial-page editor of the Globe.She is currently an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
  • Charles St. Amand, practioner in residence in Suffolk’s communication and journalism department and a 31-year veteran of community journalism, most recently as editor of the Sentinel & Enterprise in Fitchburg.

The program is free, but you do need to register. Just click here.

Politico’s look at the LA Times has some interesting tidbits, but it’s hardly a takedown

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Photo (cc) 2019 by the World Economic Forum.

Patrick Soon-Shiong came along too late to make the cut. In mid-2018, the celebrity surgeon bought the Los Angeles Times and several other papers for $500 million. My book about a new generation of wealthy newspaper owners, “The Return of the Moguls,” had just been published.

Too bad. Soon-Shiong is at least as interesting as the owners I wrote about: Jeff Bezos, who bought The Washington Post and re-established the legendary paper as a powerhouse; John Henry, who slowly transformed The Boston Globe into a growing and profitable enterprise; and Aaron Kushner, who poured money into the Orange County Register only to fail at attracting enough advertisers and readers to pay for his profligate spending.

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Now Politico has weighed in with a lengthy story about the Times under Soon-Shiong that portrays his ownership as something of a mixed bag. He’s invested in the paper, reversing years of cost-cutting by its previous owner, Tribune Publishing (which for a time was known as tronc), and he’s put a highly regarded editor, Kevin Merida, in charge of the newsroom. But his interest in the paper seems to wax and wane, and his daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong, is portrayed as interfering in the newsroom.

I have to say that I’m puzzled by some of the wailing. The Politico article, by Daniel Lippman, Christopher Cadelago and Max Tani, claims that Nika Soon-Shiong has inserted herself into the process of endorsing political candidates as though that were somehow a bad thing. Now, the Times may be making some dumb endorsements, such as its decision to back Nika Soon-Shiong ally Kenneth Mejia for city controller. Mejia, according to the Times’ own reporting, regards both Joe Biden and Donald Trump as “sexual predators.”

But a newspaper’s owners are free to insert themselves into the opinion pages as much as they’d like. A good owner will keep a distance from news operations, but the opinion section is their playground. John and Linda Henry are involved in the Globe’s editorial pages and no one thinks anything of it. Jeff Bezos’ lack of interest in the Post’s opinion operation is unusual.

Nika Soon-Shiong has also expressed her leftist views in a tweet (which she deleted) critical of her own paper’s crime coverage and in suggestions for story coverage. There is, for instance, this, which I find entirely benign, even salutory:

In 2020, Nika Soon-Shiong started participating in staff meetings about the paper’s failures in covering race and how it could become more inclusive in hiring. She suggested the paper avoid using the word “looting” when covering the unrest over police brutality, which inspired the paper to tweak style guidelines.

Times company leaders at the time asked then-top opinion editor Sewell Chan to brainstorm ways that Nika Soon-Shiong could get more involved in the paper. He talked with her about whether working with the opinion section would be a possibility. (Chan declined to comment.)

Politico quotes Merida as saying that Nika Soon-Shiong has “a right to critique our journalism, offer story ideas and other suggestions she believes will help make us better,” and that the “same right is extended to those we cover and to those who read us.” The fact-checker rates that statement as 100% true.

Patrick Soon-Shiong is a bit of an oddball. A profile in The New Yorker last year by Stephen Witt raised questions about his success as a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. But he has been a far better owner of the LA Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, a throw-in that was part of the Times deal, than Tribune Publishing had been. Indeed, Soon-Shiong’s one unforgivable act as a newspaper owner was a non-act — his decision to do nothing to stop the sale of Tribune to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which of course began gutting its papers as soon as the deal was consummated.

Tribune owns some of our most storied newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant — the oldest continuously published newspaper in the country. Soon-Shiong, a billionaire, could have stopped the transaction and helped Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum with his bid to buy the chain. Instead, Alden wound up with Tribune, and Bainum has launched a digital nonprofit called The Baltimore Banner. In an interview with Brian Stelter, then of CNN, Soon-Shiong protested that he was a “passive investor,” adding: “I’ve got my hands full and frankly, really committed to the LA Times and San Diego Union-Tribune.”

The Los Angeles Times is far better off under Soon-Shiong family ownership than it had been under years of Tribune mismanagement — mismanagement that would have turned into a rout under Alden. The Politico piece contains some interesting tidbits, but it’s hardly a takedown.

River ride

Twenty-one-mile ride along the Charles to the Museum of Science and back.