A deal in Denver’s suburbs points the way toward a solution for local news

This is one of the most exciting developments I’ve seen in local news in a long time — certainly more exciting than the news that Substack and Facebook were going to toss some spare change in a tin cup in the hopes of enticing community journalists to set up shop on their platforms.

Earliest this week David Folkenflik of NPR reported that The Colorado Sun, a digital startup that arose from the ashes of The Denver Post, would acquire a chain of 24 small newspapers in the Denver suburbs in partnership with a new nonprofit organization called the National Trust for Local News. As Sun editor and co-founder Larry Ryckman told Folkenflik:

These are the folks who are covering school boards, city councils, county commissions that no one else is covering. They provide unique local coverage. And we’re doing this so that we can preserve those voices.

Denver is the best-known example of the damage inflicted on newspapers by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Three years ago, journalists at The Denver Post rebelled at Alden’s brutal budget cuts. But guess who won? That led Ryckman and others to leave and launch the Sun. Ryckman described what happened last fall at the Radically Rural conference sponsored by the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel, which I covered for the Nieman Journalism Lab:

We endured cut after cut after cut. I had to lay people off. We were under assault, really, from our own owners, and nothing that we did — not being faster, smarter, more digital — none of those things really matter when a hedge fund doesn’t really care about the community or the journalism that the newspaper it owns produces. It’s really about this quarter’s return.

At one time, Denver’s newspapers employed about 600 journalists, Ryckman said. But the Rocky Mountain News shut down in 2009, and, as of last fall, Ryckman estimated the head count at the Post as being somewhere around 60. The Sun employs 10 people. But as a public benefit corporation, it can reinvest whatever money it makes in improving its journalism.

Could such a model work elsewhere? I don’t see why not. Take Eastern Massachusetts, whose weekly and daily community newspapers are nearly all owned by Alden’s rival in cost-cutting, Gannett. Could some sort of nonprofit entity be formed that would attempt to buy back Gannett’s properties in the Boston area? Gannett does sell papers from time to time. Maybe it’s possible to make them an offer they wouldn’t refuse.

The situation is dire. And what’s taking place in Denver suggests a possible way forward.

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There he goes again: Why DeSantis’ Fox News stunt may be unconstitutional

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to give Fox News an exclusive as he signed his state’s new voter-suppression law was a sleazy piece of political gamesmanship. But was it unconstitutional? Maybe. A 1974 court ruling established the principle that government officials may not ban members of the press from events that are customarily open to the media. I wrote about it a year ago in a case involving — yes — DeSantis.

What makes this unusual is that the law envisions an official who singles out a specific reporter or news outlet for exclusion. DeSantis’ stunt involves the granting of special privileges to one news outlet. That’s generally allowed, as with agreeing to an interview. But a bill-signing is the sort of public event that is almost always open to the press, so it’s possible that DeSantis may have stepped in it again. Anyway, here’s my earlier item.

Florida governor’s ban on reporter violates the First Amendment

March 30, 2020

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to bar a reporter for the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times from a news conference that was otherwise open to the press was a flat-out violation of the First Amendment.

Although the question of whether public officials can ban specific journalists from media events has never been taken up by the Supreme Court, a 1974 federal district court ruling is generally regarded as good law. I wrote about it a few years ago when a similar situation arose in New Hampshire.

Several decades ago, a similar situation unfolded in Hawaii, where an aggressive reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin named Richard Borreca butted heads with the mayor, Frank Fasi. Fasi decided to ban Borreca from regularly scheduled news conferences at his City Hall office. The Star-Bulletin went to court. And in the 1974 case of Borreca v. Fasi, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel King ruled that Fasi had to open his news conferences to all reporters. King wrote:

A free press is not necessarily an angelic press. Newspapers take sides, especially in political contests. Newspaper reporters are not always accurate and objective. They are subject to criticism, and the right of a governmental official to criticize is within First Amendment guarantees.

But when criticism transforms into an attempt to use the powers of governmental office to intimidate or to discipline the press or one of its members because of what appears in print, a compelling governmental interest that cannot be served by less restrictive means must be shown for such use to meet Constitutional standards. No compelling governmental interest has been shown or even claimed here.

Judge King made it clear that no member of the press was entitled to special privileges. If the mayor wanted to grant interviews to some reporters but not others, that was his prerogative. If he refused to answer a reporter’s questions, that was within his rights as well. But he could not discriminate against some members of the press when scheduling a formal, official event such as a news conference.

Local news is in crisis. What can we do to save it?

As noted yesterday, I spoke last night at a Zoom event sponsored by the Waltham Public Library on the crisis in local news. You can watch it here.

Please join me for a conversation about the local news crisis today at 7 p.m.

Photo via Pillar to Post

I’ll be talking about the crisis in local news today at 7 p.m. in a conversation sponsored by the Waltham Public Library. You’ll be able to watch here.

The news about COVID is good and getting better. It’s time to celebrate.

Photo (cc) 2020 by Province of British Columbia

The end of the pandemic in the United States isn’t going to be marked by a solemn announcement or a celebrity-studded fundraising event on TV. There are too many uncertainties.

Even as the situation improves in Massachusetts, the numbers are much higher — though dropping — in Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado and elsewhere. And, of course, the virus is causing unimaginable suffering right now in India and South America. We need to do all we can to help.

But even though there won’t be a clearly defined endpoint, I’m declaring an end to COVID-19 this week. Just about every adult in the U.S. who wants to be vaccinated has now done so or will be able to soon. Masks are coming off outdoors. Schools are filling up again — safely. Indoor restaurant dining is coming back. Our long national nightmare isn’t over, but we’re slowly beginning to wake up.

Read the rest at GBH News.

Why the Kevin Merida announcement is good news for the Los Angeles Times

Patrick Soon-Shiong may be the most important newspaper owner in the country after Jeff Bezos of The Washington Post. So Monday’s announcement that the next executive editor of the Los Angeles Times will be Kevin Merida of ESPN was significant as much for what it says about Soon-Shiong’s commitment to the paper as it does about Merida’s own considerable abilities. Given the Times’ size, influence and unrealized potential, its fate is crucial to the journalistic ecosystem.

It was just a few months ago that Lukas I. Alpert of The Wall Street Journal dropped a bombshell: Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon who bought the Times in 2018, was looking to get out. Soon-Shiong denied it, but actions speak louder than words — and now he has acted. The fact that he could recruit someone who is regarded as the best free-agent editor out there suggests he was able to reassure Merida about stability in the owner’s suite. The Times itself, in a story by Meg James, puts it this way:

His hiring reaffirms the Soon-Shiong family’s commitment to the paper they purchased, along with the San Diego Union-Tribune, for $500 million from Chicago-based Tribune Publishing in June 2018. The Soon-Shiong family has since invested hundreds of millions of dollars more to replenish the newsroom’s withered ranks, built a campus in El Segundo, upgraded the paper’s technology and covered financial losses that deepened last year when coronavirus shutdowns prompted a steep drop in advertising revenue.

Key to all this may be Soon-Shiong’s daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong, who, according to Katie Robertson’s report in The New York Times, “has become an active part of the newspaper’s management team.” In that regard, she may play a similar role to that of Linda Pizzuti Henry, who co-owns The Boston Globe along with her husband, John Henry. Linda Henry, named CEO of Boston Globe Media last year, is heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the Globe, thus serving as a guarantor of sorts that Henry won’t sell.

Merida will be the LA Times’ second Black editor, which is also significant because of the paper’s diversity issues under former executive editor Norman Pearlstine. It also raises the question of why The Washington Post didn’t push harder to hire Merida as a replacement for Marty Baron, who retired recently. Merida was a highly regarded top editor at the Post before leaving for ESPN.

One possible explanation is that Merida is just two years younger than Baron. As Tom Jones of Poynter writes, “Maybe the Post is looking for a long-term editor — someone who could take over for 15 or so years, and, perhaps, Merida’s age (64) didn’t align with that plan.”

The Soon-Shiong ownership of the LA Times has been a mixed bag thus far. The newsroom has been bulked up in the hopes that the paper could emerge as a national force. But that hasn’t happened, and its digital subscription numbers have proved disappointing as well. It could be that there’s just no room for a fourth national newspaper along with The New York Times, the Post and the Journal. But the LA Times could dominate the West, serving as a much-needed counterbalance to the East Coast media.

All in all, the appointment of Merida was very good news, not just because he’s a first-rate choice but because it signals that Soon-Shiong is committed to the LA Times’ long-range future.

Correction. The original post described Merida as the LA Times first Black editor. In fact, he is the second; New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet served in that role from 2005 to ’06.

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A Washington Post correction adds to confusion over Rudy Giuliani and the FBI

Rudy Giuliani. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore

When you have to publish a correction, be forthcoming about it. The Washington Post failed to do that over the weekend, thus compounding the harm it had done to Donald Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani. Here is the Post’s correction, published on Saturday:

An earlier version of this story, published Thursday, incorrectly reported that One America News was warned by the FBI that it was the target of a Russian influence operation. That version also said the FBI had provided a similar warning to Rudolph W. Giuliani, which he has since disputed. This version has been corrected to remove assertions that OAN and Giuliani received the warnings.

The correction makes it appear that the Post was backing down solely on Giuliani’s say-so. That led to a tweet from Caroline Orr Bueno in which she asked: “Why retract it instead of just adding in a statement saying Giuliani disputes it?” To which I responded: “Marty Baron has left the building,” referring to the recent retirement of the Post’s executive editor.

But it turned out not to be so simple. Because The New York Times and NBC News had also run stories claiming that Giuliani had been warned, and they published corrections as well. Tom Jones of Poynter rounds them up. First, the Times:

An earlier version of this article misstated whether Rudolph W. Giuliani received a formal warning from the F.B.I. about Russian disinformation. Mr. Giuliani did not receive such a so-called defensive briefing.

Not much explanation there, but at least the Times isn’t attributing the reason for its correction to Giuliani. The clearest is from NBC News:

An earlier version of this article included an incorrect report that Rudolph Giuliani had received a defensive briefing from the FBI in 2019 warning him that he was being targeted by a Russian influence operation. The report was based on a source familiar with the matter, but a second source now says the briefing was only prepared for Giuliani and not delivered to him, in part over concerns it might complicate the criminal investigation of Giuliani. As a result, the premise and headline of the article below have been changed to reflect the corrected information.

That’s how you do a correction: explain exactly went wrong. Of the three, the Post’s is the worst, since the wording makes it appear as though the editors were responding solely to a complaint by Giuliani. The Times’ is OK, but its lack of clarity and falls into the “mistakes were made” category. So kudos to NBC News for doing it the right way.

Giuliani remains in a heap of trouble. His apartment and office were searched by the FBI last week as part of what appears to be a criminal investigation into his activities in Ukraine. There was no need for news organizations to pump it up with information that was unverified and, as it turns out, wrong.

And, as Oliver Darcy of CNN observes: “All the original reports were attributed to anonymous sources.”

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Q comes to the Texas border

This paragraph appears near the end of a story in The New York Times on Hispanic Republicans:

“I was following along the family tradition, my dad is a hard-core Democrat, my father was really for unions, and I thought the Democrats defended the union,” Ms. Rivera said, before adding: “But then I started to research myself and found out the Democrats are supporting witchcraft and child trafficking and things like that, things that get censored because they get labeled conspiracy theory.”

Along with another story about an anti-vaxx school in Miami that’s run by a socialite Trumper, I think I”m just about all set for today.

Has Biden’s press really been more negative than positive?

Joe Biden campaigning in February 2020. Photo (cc) 2020 by stingrayschuller

The Pew Research Center has released a massive study of how the media have covered the early days of the Biden administration. I am not going to do a deep dive, but I did find a few of the key findings interesting.

First, the study found that coverage was slightly more negative than positive (32% to 23%) — but that, in a separate survey of about 12,000 adults, about 46% thought the coverage had been mostly positive and only 14% assessed it as mostly negative. Here’s how the report put it: “Americans’ sense of the early coverage about the Biden administration tends to be more positive than the tone of the content that was studied.”

There was also a marked difference in coverage between media outlets with predominantly left- and right-leaning audiences as well as among the respondents themselves based on what media they consume. Pew chose 25 news organizations to study. Vox had the most left-leaning audience whereas Sean Hannity’s radio show had the most right-leaning.

My own sense is that coverage of President Biden and his administration has, in fact, been mainly positive, and that the perception of the survey respondents is closer to the mark than Pew’s assessment of the actual coverage. And I’d suggest that Pew reconsider its list.

Every Pew-chosen outlet appealing to left-leaning audiences is either a mainstream news organization or combines reporting with opinion. On the other hand, several of the outlets selected for study that appeal to right-leaning audiences consist of pure opinion that’s often combined with misinformation — among them Fox News, Breitbart, Newsmax and Hannity’s and Mark Levin’s radio shows.

The other finding that struck me was that most stories about Biden have focused on “his ideology and policy agenda,” whereas, four years earlier, stories about the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency centered on “his character and leadership.”

Needless to say, that’s far more a reflection of the two presidents than of the media. Biden represents a return to normality, and news organizations obviously are going to spend much of their time covering a normal new president’s beliefs and policy proposals. Trump’s entire presidency was about nothing but the cult of personality he encouraged — the consequences of which will be with us for some time to come.

Facebook joins Substack in tossing some peanuts to local news projects

Photo (cc) 2021 by Erich Ferdinand

All of a sudden, platform companies are deciding that local is the place to be.

Two weeks ago, Substack announced Substack Local, a program to seed $1 million worth of local news projects. It was a bit like Dr. Doom announcing he’d destroy the earth unless he was paid $1 million — the Substack initiative would only be enough to get 30 local journalists up and running. But no doubt there will be more to come if the first round proves successful.

Then, earlier this week, Facebook said it would pay $5 million to fund a similar program, with an emphasis on “Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian or other audiences of color.” You are free to conclude that this gives Mark Zuckerberg something positive to talk about the next time he gets dragged before a congressional committee. But I’m sure he’d like it to succeed as well, since anything that keeps people glued to Facebook is good for his bottom line.

In both cases, these are drops in the bucket — especially for Facebook, whose revenues in 2020 approached $86 billion. But even though the platforms themselves are paying next to nothing, it should help us find out whether they can help local news entrepreneurs solve some of the problems in building successful projects.