I knew I wasn’t going to get around to reading “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?,” a wild piece published recently by The New York Times Magazine about plagiarism, narcissism and the nature of art. But after someone I interviewed last week started raving about it, I knew I couldn’t ignore it any longer.
Fortunately, the Times has posted the audio. The nearly 10,000-word article, by Robert Kolker, clocks in at slightly more than an hour. But it flew by, as it is beautifully written with compelling lead characters. I loved the ambiguity, too. At the end, I found the two writers at the heart of the story, Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson, to be more or less equally sympathetic and flawed.
The story has a significant Boston angle, too, as the writers met and became friends — or at least acquaintances — at GrubStreet, a well-known creative writing center based in Boston.
Everyone’s been talking about it, but the sheer length might have put you off as it did me. Give it a read — or a listen. You’ll be glad you did.
Among those of us who have obsessively followed Alden Global Capital’s destruction of newspapers over the years, there was very little that was new in McKay Coppins’ 7,000-word magnum opus that The Atlantic published this week. Still, Coppins is a gifted writer, and he’s pulled together the full story in a manner that is both elegant and comprehensive.
The arc of Coppins’ narrative is familiar. Alden, a hedge fund, got into the newspaper business about a decade ago. At first, Alden indulged the chief executive it inherited from one of the chains it acquired, John Paton, and then turned on him when he wasn’t willing to go along with the drastic cost-cutting they insisted on. I imagine Alden co-founder Heath Freeman was initially impressed with the blunt, profane Paton, who was not averse to slashing expenses to align them with revenues. The problem was that Paton actually cared about journalism and was not on board with Freeman’s insistence on endless rounds of cuts in order to enrich himself and the other co-founder, Randall Smith.
One fact I hadn’t known previously is that Randall Smith, secretive and a generation or so older than Freeman, is the brother of Russ Smith, founder of the now-defunct New York Press. Russ also founded the Baltimore City Paper, the Washington City Paper and now runs the website Splice Today.
The New York Press was a big deal in the 1990s, as Coppins notes, publishing 10,000-word columns by Smith that attacked the elite media establishment. Smith also once published a lengthy takedown of The Boston Phoenix by another writer that infuriated all of us. I wish I still had a copy. No complaints by me about Smith, though — he wrote a favorable review of my first book for The Wall Street Journal, and I enjoy bantering with him on Twitter about music and baseball.
But back to our story. Coppins’ description of Freeman, the more active and public of the two partners in running Alden’s newspapers, is priceless:
People who know him described Freeman — with his shellacked curls, perma-stubble, and omnipresent smirk — as the archetypal Wall Street frat boy. “If you went into a lab to create the perfect bro, Heath would be that creation,” says one former executive at an Alden-owned company, who, like others in this story, requested anonymity to speak candidly. Freeman would show up at business meetings straight from the gym, clad in athleisure, the executive recalled, and would find excuses to invoke his college-football heroics, saying things like “When I played football at Duke, I learned some lessons about leadership.” (Freeman was a walk-on placekicker on a team that won no games the year he played.)
And Coppins’ description of Alden’s business model is right on target:
What threatens local newspapers now is not just digital disruption or abstract market forces. They’re being targeted by investors who have figured out how to get rich by strip-mining local-news outfits. The model is simple: Gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring as much cash as possible out of the enterprise until eventually enough readers cancel their subscriptions that the paper folds, or is reduced to a desiccated husk of its former self….
Alden’s calculus was simple. Even in a declining industry, the newspapers still generated hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenues; many of them were turning profits. For Freeman and his investors to come out ahead, they didn’t need to worry about the long-term health of the assets—they just needed to maximize profits as quickly as possible.
Where I have a bit of a problem with Coppins is that though he credits some of the earlier reporting he relies on, he’s haphazard about it. I winced at his sole reference to Julie Reynolds, whom he quotes indirectly a single time and identifies only as a former reporter for the Monterey Herald in California. In fact, since leaving the paper Reynolds has been indefatigable in reporting on Alden. It was because of her 2017 cover story for The Nation, for instance, that we know Randall Smith used his ill-gotten newspaper gains to buy 16 mansions in Palm Beach, Florida. Just recently she reported for Nieman Lab that Alden’s acquisition of Tribune Publishing was tainted by dubious gamesmanship of the sort that should have prompted a do-over.
Then there’s the Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum, whose bid to buy Tribune fell short this past spring. In August, Rick Edmonds of Poynter reported that Bainum was launching a well-funded digital news nonprofit in order to compete with Alden’s Baltimore Sun. Coppins writes about that without giving any credit, and it’s being repeated in media circles as though it was his scoop.
But these are quibbles. Coppins is a gifted writer and has done a prodigious amount of reporting of his own.
Recently The Atlantic published an essay by Elaine Godfrey about the damage done to her hometown newspaper in Iowa by Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain. (Alden’s holdings come in second.)
The Atlantic deserves credit for using its prestige to focus on the local news crisis, and on the Wall Street greed that has transformed it into a catastrophe.
Update II: And the paragraph has been restored. I’m told there was nothing nefarious about its disappearance.
Update: Oh, my. The nutty last paragraph that prompted this post has been deleted. Not a good look, Harvard.
In an otherwise unremarkable story from Harvard Business School about a study into the effects of local newspaper closures on corporate wrongdoing, I ran into this bizarro closing paragraph. The story quotes Professor Jonas Heese, a co-author of the study:
Saving local newspapers isn’t Heese’s specialty, but he points to a recent trend of hedge funds buying up distressed local media outlets as having the potential to stabilize the market and resurrect local news. And that makes him wonder: “Is this a reason to be hopeful?”
No, Professor Heese. It is not a reason to be hopeful. I suggest you stick to statistical analysis, which you seem to be pretty good at. Here’s the abstract, from the Journal of Financial Economics, titled “When the Local Newspaper Leaves Town: The Effects of Local Newspaper Closures on Corporate Misconduct”:
We examine whether the local press is an effective monitor of corporate misconduct. Specifically, we study the effects of local newspaper closures on violations by local facilities of publicly listed firms. After a local newspaper closure, local facilities increase violations by 1.1% and penalties by 15.2%, indicating that the closures reduce firm monitoring by the press. This effect is not driven by the underlying economic conditions, the underlying local fraud environment, or the underlying firm conditions. Taken together, our findings indicate that local newspapers are an important monitor of firms’ misconduct.
Reading this leads me to think about our work at The Daily Times Chronicle in Woburn, when we uncovered a massive toxic waste problem in the early 1980s that may have led to an outbreak of childhood leukemia and other illnesses. Charlie Ryan’s reporting was crucial to breaking the story wide open. In 1998, he recounted in The Boston Phoenix the sequence of events that led the world to understand that Woburn had an environmental and public health disaster on its hands:
Ryan’s most important story came in December 1979, on a development he thought he’d been beaten on. The state’s Department of Public Health was about to release the results of a study on Woburn’s leukemia rate, and Ryan arranged to interview DPH officials. That morning, the Boston Herald American published a front-page story reporting that the leukemia rate was within the normal range for a city of Woburn’s size.
“I was a little pissed,” Ryan remembers, “but I went in there anyway.” He sat down with a DPH statistician, who explained the results to him: essentially, the DPH had taken the number of leukemia cases and divided it by the total population of Woburn, based on the 1970 census. Ryan stopped him. 1970? The population of Woburn, Ryan knew, had fallen from 40,000 to around 36,000. Ryan asked a simple question: What would happen if the lower figure were used? The statistician recalculated the numbers — and, all of a sudden, the number of leukemia cases appeared to be “statistically significant,” the bland-sounding phrase used to describe what was obviously a very real problem.
“That story drastically changed everything,” says Ryan, who got out of journalism a few years ago and now helps run the computers for Essex County Newspapers. “To that point, everyone had considered Anne Anderson to be just a hysterical mom. I think without that story, the Centers for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the state never would have pushed that hard.”
Yes, local journalism is crucial in holding corporations to account, just as it is in keeping an eye on government and other large institutions. But no, hedge funds are not the solution. They’re the problem.
Meaningful participation in civic life isn’t possible without access to high-quality news and information. Consider the most fundamental aspect of community engagement: voting in local elections. If prospective voters lack the means to inform themselves about candidates for the select board, the city council, the school committee and the like, then it follows that they will be less likely to vote.
But is the reverse also true? Does the presence of a reliable news source result in a higher level of voter participation? To find out, I compared two towns, Bedford and Burlington, both northwest of Boston.
At the heart of a bombshell report showing that AT&T nurtured and enriched the far-right One America News cable network is a larger, more ominous issue: a broken media system that forces all of us to subsidize content we don’t want — and that, in this case, is actually undermining democracy.
Last week Reuters uncorked the results of a massive investigation into the tangled relationship between the two companies. Reporter John Shiffman, delving deep into court records, showed that OAN’s 2013 launch came at AT&T’s instigation and that the telecom giant’s continuing patronage is responsible for some 90% of OAN’s revenues.
“They told us they wanted a conservative network,” OAN founder Robert Herring Sr. said of AT&T executives during a 2019 deposition. “They only had one, which was Fox News, and they had seven others on the other side. When they said that, I jumped to it and built one.”
OAN first came to prominence last fall, after Fox (briefly) refused to lend credence to Donald Trump’s claims of election fraud. OAN and another far-right cable net, Newsmax, soared in the ratings by embracing Trump’s falsehoods. Today both networks, along with Fox, have positioned themselves as firehoses of misinformation and disinformation about the election, the Jan. 6 insurrection and COVID-19.
At a time when the reach of even small media outlets can greatly exceed their core audience through amplification on Facebook and other social networks, what OAN tells its audience matters a great deal.
But why would a major corporation like AT&T subsidize a shady operation like OAN? After all, high-powered business executives tend to be conservative in the old-fashioned sense of the word — they don’t like taxes or regulations, but they do like stability. The second to last thing a company like AT&T wants is for a Confederate flag-waving mob to storm the Capitol. And the last thing it wants is to be associated with a media outlet that revels in such anarchy.
The answer may lie in our perverse cable television system, which forces us to pay for channels we don’t want and which in turn depends on favors from the government in order to keep the money spigot flowing.
According to Shiffman’s reporting, in 2014 AT&T was attempting to acquire the satellite service DirecTV, and its executives were concerned about whether they might run afoul of regulators. OAN and another network owned by the Herrings, WealthTV, were already running on U-verse, a smaller outlet that AT&T owned. So AT&T suggested that it run both channels on DirecTV as well.
By doing so, court documents suggest, AT&T could allay worries that the acquisition would make it more difficult for independent networks to be carried by major cable providers. The optics of reaching out to carry a conservative network may have been helpful even though Barack Obama was president at the time.
“What we seem to see here,” writes Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, “is that regardless of personal politics AT&T was operating in and expanding in one of the most regulatory-dependent industry spaces — telecom, cable TV, internet service, content — and they wanted more conservative programming because that helps get regulatory help.”
Now, it’s also true that AT&T is a fading player in the cable wars, and that OAN is carried by other providers. So it’s not necessarily a slam dunk that AT&T enabled OAN for the sole purpose of obtaining regulatory goodies from the FCC. But if Marshall’s theorizing is correct, then it’s a good illustration of how our media system works on behalf of giant corporations and against the rest of us.
There is a simple solution to this, which I’ve written about before: breaking the connection between cable services (and, in the case of DirecTV, satellite) and programming. Beyond basic local channels, require that cable companies offer additional channels on an à la carte basis. If you want the Food Channel but don’t want HGTV, you shouldn’t have to pay for both. You could pay only for the news channels you want as well.
Of course, all of this comes at a time when we can see that cable TV will eventually go away as more and more people cut the cord and get all their video programming through the internet. So the problem I describe is one that will eventually be solved on its own.
Yet technologies can take a long time to die. AM radio is still with us, as are print newspapers. Similarly, we may assume that cable TV will be with us for years to come, even as its audience shrinks and ages.
Given that, it makes sense to let us pay only for the channels we want. Such a move would be pro-consumer and pro-democracy. And it would remove incentives for corporations like AT&T to promote dangerous propaganda for the sole purpose of appeasing their regulatory overlords.
My research work on the local news crisis often feels like a race against time. On the one hand, I try to highlight independent community journalism projects that are keeping their heads above water or, in a few cases, are actually thriving. On the other hand, chain owners like Alden Global Capital and Gannett keep hollowing out the hundreds of newspapers they own across the country, not because they’re not making money but because they want to make more.
Last week came the odd news that Gannett is seeking to sell The Providence Journal’s printing plant for $8 million, as well as several other plants that it owns across the country. The story was broken by Alexa Gagosz of The Boston Globe, a former student of mine. What struck me as odd is that the Journal isn’t outsourcing its printing; rather, it intends to lease the plant back for a period of five or 10 years.
No doubt Gannett executives are thinking ahead to the day when the Journal goes all-digital. But the sell-and-leaseback provision seems hard to explain, especially for a paltry amount like $8 million. That doesn’t put a dent in the massive debt that Gannett is struggling with.
Also last week, The Atlantic published an essay about The Hawk Eye, of Burlington, Iowa, the oldest paper in the state, which was acquired several years by GateHouse Media — the predecessor to Gannett — and is now being dismantled. Written by Elaine Godfrey and photographed by KC McGinnis, it is a lovely piece, haunting and elegiac, conjuring a lost way of life as much as a newspaper that’s been hollowed out. But Godfrey has a keen sense of Gannett’s business model as well. This gets right to the heart of it:
Readers noticed the paper’s sloppiness first — how there seemed to be twice as many typos as before, and how sometimes the articles would end mid-sentence instead of continuing after the jump. The newspaper’s remaining reporters are overworked; there are local stories they’d like to tell but don’t have the bandwidth to cover. The Hawk Eye’s current staff is facing the impossible task of keeping a historic newspaper alive while its owner is attempting to squeeze it dry.
None of this was inevitable: At the time of the sale to GateHouse, The Hawk Eye wasn’t struggling financially. Far from it. In the years leading up to the sale, the paper was seeing profit margins ranging from the mid-teens to the high 20s. Gannett has dedicated much of its revenue to servicing and paying off loans associated with the merger, rather than reinvesting in local journalism. Which is to say that southeastern Iowans are losing their community paper not because it was a failing business, but because a massive media-holding company has investors to please and debts to pay.
So what’s lost? Consider the experience of Tom Courtney, a former state senator, who lost his re-election bid after he discovered that his constituents, lacking any reliable local news, were judging him on the basis of national stories instead:
In the absence of local coverage, all news becomes national news: Instead of reading about local policy decisions, people read about the blacklisting of Dr. Seuss books. Instead of learning about their own local candidates, they consume angry takes about Marjorie Taylor Greene. Tom Courtney, a Democrat and four-term former state senator from Burlington, made more than 10,000 phone calls to voters during his 2020 run for office. In those calls, he heard something he never had before: “People that live in small-town rural Iowa [said] they wouldn’t vote for me or any Democrat because I’m in the same party as AOC,” Courtney told me. “Where did they get that? Not local news!”
Also last week, the trade magazine Editor & Publisher ran a story about Gannett papers that have actually been bought back by local owners. Written by Gretchen A. Peck, the story looks in on four people who’ve acquired former Gannett papers and are now reinvesting in news and in their communities.
Still, it hardly looks like a trend. Peck spoke with newspaper broker Sara April, who said Gannett is selling just a few papers here and there. “All the markets are typically smaller. Look at the size of the towns. That has been the charge: To find quality local companies, with high regard for journalism, to take ownership of these newspapers so they can continue to serve their communities,” April was quoted as saying. No doubt the papers don’t fit with Gannett’s current strategy, which seems to be filling up its papers and websites with regional news so it doesn’t have to put too much into local coverage.
The good news — and there’s always good news — is that local independent journalism is thriving in many parts of the country. The bad news is that the corporate chains and the hedge funds continue to strangle news organizations that would otherwise be doing much better.
An earlier version of this post was part of last week’s Media Nation Member Newsletter. To become a member for just $5 a week, please click here.
Several readers called this Washington Post piece to my attention over the weekend. It’s about a fundraising drive recently held by the Tampa Bay Times to offset some of the advertising revenue it lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Post reporter Elahe Izadi observes that the idea isn’t entirely new. The Seattle Times has engaged in community fundraising drives, and The Times-Picayune and The New Orleans Advocate (one entity) received $1 million over the summer from the Ford Foundation. For that matter, The Boston Globe pays for some of its education reporting with a $600,000 grant from the Barr Foundation.
What makes the Tampa Bay project unusual is that the paper asked for people to donate in support of individual journalists, by name. That makes me a little uncomfortable, and I hope the next time they do this they abandon that particular wrinkle.
As you may know, the Tampa Bay Times, a for-profit newspaper, is owned by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education institute. Back when Nelson Poynter melded the Times and the institute together, the expectation was that the newspaper — rolling in cash — could use some of its revenues to support the institute.
Needless to say, that stopped a long time ago. The Times has struggled for the past few years, and has cut back its print edition to twice a week. It’s still a great ownership model, though, emulated several years ago when Philadelphia Inquirer owner Gerry Lenfest donated his paper to the nonprofit Philadelphia Foundation. After Lenfest’s death, the organization that was set up to own the Inquirer and make investments in journalism was renamed the Lenfest Institute.
By the way, I really like the front page of today’s Tampa Bay Times. Let’s just hope they’re not fundraising off a commemorative issue later this week. Go Sox!
New York Times media columnist Ben Smith has a fun piece today on two retired Boston Globe stalwarts, Tom Palmer and Alan Berger.
In 1979, when Berger was writing media criticism for The Real Paper (a competitor to The Boston Phoenix), he called out Palmer for what he regarded as overweening objectivity following a dangerous accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. Berger called Palmer “thoughtful, honest, and entirely conventional” for failing to emphasize the dangers of nuclear power.
Palmer told Smith: “Journalists are simply not smart enough and educated enough to change the world. They should damn well just inform the public to the best of their abilities and let the public decide.”
I know Berger only by reputation, but I’ve known Palmer for years. He spoke to my graduate ethics class in February 2020 about his critique of liberal media bias, and he may have been my last in-person guest speaker before the pandemic.
Video of Boston Police Sgt. Clifton McHale bragging about driving his cruiser into protesters was at the heart of our lead GBH News Muzzle Award for 2021. The Muzzle was giving to the Boston and Worcester police departments for their violent suppression of Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Incredibly, McHale is being let off with a slap at the wrist and has returned to duty. Eoin Higgins, who obtained bodycam footage of McHale and other officers in the original story for The Appeal last December, broke the news of McHale’s unconscionably short suspension of eight to 10 days on Thursday for his newsletter, The Flashpoint.
“It makes you wonder what a Boston Police officer has to do to get fired,” attorney Carl Williams, who originally provided the bodycam footage to Higgins, was quoted as saying. “How in an unprecedented time of calls for police accountability can this be happening?”
In the video, McHale can be seen and heard excitedly telling a fellow officer about his exploits:
Dude, dude, dude, I fuckin’ drove down Tremont — there was an unmarked state police cruiser they were all gathered around. So then I had a fucker keep coming, fucking running, I’m fucking hitting people with the car, did you hear me, I was like, “get the fuck—”
But when McHale realizes he’s being caught on tape, he tries to back down:
Oh, no no no no no, what I’m saying is, though, that they were in front, like, I didn’t hit anybody, like, just driving, that’s all.
This is not the first time that McHale has crossed the line. Laura Crimaldi reports in The Boston Globe that McHale served a one-year suspension for a 2005 incident “after an internal investigation concluded he had engaged in ‘inappropriate sexual relations with [a] highly intoxicated woman.'” As Globe columnist Adrian Walker writes, “Clifton McHale still carries a badge, and that fact shouldn’t sit well with anyone in Boston.”
Despite his boasting, apparently McHale didn’t actually drive his cruiser into anyone. But that doesn’t mean he should have gotten off with such a light penalty. In fact, he should have been fired.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey denounced McHale’s light punishment. And whoever wins the mayoral election, Michelle Wu or Annissa Essaibi George, is going to have her hands full in attempting to reform the Boston Police Department.