Gannett Media’s CEO: Sorry for the layoffs, and get ready for some more

Paul Bascobert, chief executive officer of Gannett Media Corp. (apparently number two to Mike Reed in the reconfigured New Media-GateHouse-Gannett structure), has issued a memo to the troops about the just-announced layoffs.

Tom Jones of Poynter relays the news that employees have apparently been ordered to sign non-disclosure agreements as a condition of receiving severance, and that employees have been told to stop tweeting about their corporate overlords.

A copy of Bascobert’s email floated in through a window at Media Nation a little while ago. The full text is as follows:

Team,

Over the past few days, we implemented a series of staff reductions across the company. I wanted to personally let you know this happened and give you some context for the months ahead.

First, to colleagues who are leaving, I want to offer a sincere thank you for your contributions to our company. There are no easy words to say here and I am sure “thank you” probably rings a bit hollow. Please know this is not related to performance. This is the reality of trying to create an operating structure that can support our journalistic mission of protecting, connecting and celebrating local communities.

For our remaining colleagues, I would ask you to be considerate and supportive. As I have said in my town halls, we may not be able to change the reality of staff reductions, but we can define ourselves by the care and professionalism we show in the process. Please be there for people. Reach out to friends who may be hiring. Let’s take it on ourselves to get our colleagues settled into new roles as soon as possible.

The natural question at this point is “are we done?” The honest answer is No. I have tried to be very transparent with you all and not spin things in a way that you wouldn’t believe anyway, so let me tell you where we are.

We just named our leadership team and while we were able to identify this reduction, the new team will need some time to finalize their organizations and I expect there will be some additional reductions. It will take a few months to work through this process and I expect this will conclude the bulk of the synergy actions. There will be some projects that could extend beyond this time but we should be able to provide visibility to those as well.

Longer term, it should be no surprise that we will always be looking for ways to run the business more efficiently. That’s our obligation, not just to shareholders but to our employees who want us to invest in a sustainable future and our customers who want the best value in a competitive market.

These necessary actions enable us to invest in the digital talent, products and services that I have alluded to in our town halls; this is how we plan to reverse the cycle of revenue declines. We will be launching some new products over the next few months as we start to build the foundation for future growth.

In closing, I remain very optimistic and confident in our return to growth. For today though, my thoughts are with all of you during this period of transition. I can’t thank you enough for your continued dedication to delivering for our customers and for each other. It is with this kind of commitment to excellence that we build our bright future together.

With great appreciation,

Paul

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How Fox News is helping to destroy the planet

Photo (cc) 2015 by Johnny Silvercloud

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Want to fight climate change? Tell your elderly relatives to turn off Fox News.

new survey about global warming by the Pew Research Center provides reasons for optimism. A majority of Americans favors more federal action on environmental issues, including climate change. Most respondents said we should put more emphasis on developing alternative energy sources than on expanding our use of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas.

But there is one huge caveat: older, conservative respondents aren’t inclined to do much of anything — and many of them continue to believe the fiction that climate change has more to do with natural causes than with human activities.

“A strong majority of liberal Democrats (84%) say human activity contributes a great deal to climate change, with near consensus among them that human activity contributes at least some amount to climate change (96%),” according to the survey report. “In contrast, about half of conservative Republicans (53%) say human activity contributes a great deal (14%) or some (39%) to climate change. Another 45% of this group says humans play not too much or no role in climate change.”

Indifference to doing something about climate change, the survey adds, increases with age — the older the respondents, the less likely they are to want the government to take action.

Although Pew doesn’t say it, these findings coincide perfectly with the demographics of Fox News, which caters to older, conservative viewers. Cable news viewers in general are old — MSNBC, which appeals to liberals, has an even older audience than Fox. But it’s Fox, not MSNBC, that pumps out a steady stream of climate-change denialism and skepticism.

Earlier this year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported on findings that showed rejection of climate science among ordinary people is uniquely American — and that Fox News was the likely reason.

Citing survey data, the author, Dana Nuccitelli, wrote that “Republicans who watch Fox News are more than twice as likely to deny human-caused climate change than Republican non-viewers, and 62 percent of Republicans watch Fox News.” Nuccitelli added that the data “suggests that the presence of Fox News and other conservative media outlets may be the primary explanation for why climate denial is more prevalent in the United States than in other developed countries.”

And it’s further proof that Rupert Murdoch, whose family runs Fox News, is one of the most dangerous people on the planet.

Looking for some specifics? In just the past few months, Fox prime-time host Sean Hannity has mocked U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., for linking the severity of Hurricane Dorion to climate change. Another host, Tucker Carlson, referred to the September climate strike as “adults hoping to exploit children for political purposes.” And Laura Ingraham called climate activism by Greta Thunberg and others “globalist” and “socialism in a new mask.”

It sounds ludicrous. But when your Uncle Bert and Aunt Gertrude watch hours upon hours of this stuff, the effect is to produce a combination of anger, cynicism and inertia that makes it nearly impossible to break through with serious ideas about how to save the planet. And let’s not forget that Fox functions as state television for a president who declared on Twitter in 2012 that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

Nor is there anything new about Fox News viewers believing things that just aren’t true. Last spring, a poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found that solid majorities of respondents who get most of their news from Fox believed that President Trump was telling the truth about the Russia investigation. They also said they weren’t worried about future Russian interference in U.S. elections. Half of Fox News viewers believed that the Mueller report had cleared Trump of wrongdoing — even though Mueller drew a virtual road map for the House to impeach Trump on charges that he obstructed the investigation.

Then again, you could go back to the early days of the war in Iraq, when 67% of Fox News viewers believed the falsehood promoted by the Bush-Cheney administration that Saddam Hussein had worked closely with Al Qaeda.

Despite overwhelming scientific consensus that time is running out to avoid the worst effects of climate change, the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to rise. As one of the two worst polluters (China is the other), the United States has to lead if anything is going to be accomplished. Unfortunately, Trump’s response has been to pull out of the Paris climate-change accords and to torment California for taking action at the state level.

The role of Fox News in preventing serious action on climate change shouldn’t be underestimated. From propping up the Trump presidency to mocking science as a bastion of liberal elitism, Fox is hastening the day when parts of the planet will become uninhabitable.

The Pew survey shows that a majority of Americans wants to do something serious about climate change. It also shows that the same Foxified minority keeping Trump in office is blocking the wishes of the majority. It’s further proof that our media system, like our electoral system, is undermining our democracy.

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Mystic-ism

Upper Mystic Lake from the Winchester Boat Club, 7:35 a.m. today. Click here for a bigger, sharper image.

Local news isn’t dying — it’s being murdered by greed

Illustration by Thomas Nast

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There are two elephants in the room that are threatening to destroy local news.

One, technological disruption, is widely understood: the internet has undermined the value of advertising and driven it to Craigslist, Facebook and Google, thus eliminating most of the revenues that used to pay for journalism.

But the other, corporate greed, is too often regarded as an effect rather than as a cause. The standard argument is that chain owners moved in to suck the last few drops of blood out of local newspapers because no one else wanted them. In fact, the opposite is the case. Ownership by hedge funds and publicly traded corporations has squeezed newspapers that might otherwise be holding their own and deprived them of the runway they need to invest in the future.

The last several weeks have been brutal for local newspapers. GateHouse Media and Gannett merged (the new company is known simply as Gannett), a union of two bottom-feeding chains that are reported to be considering at least another $400 million in cuts. MediaNews Group, owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, acquired a 32% share of the Tribune newspapers. McClatchy may be moving toward bankruptcy.

And yet, here and there, independent community news projects are thriving. Free of the debt that must be taken on to build a chain and of the need to ship revenues to their corporate overlords, the indies — both for-profit and nonprofit — are meeting the information needs of their communities.

The narrative about the death of local journalism is an easy one to grasp, because the tale of technological disruption used to explain it has quite a bit of truth to it, as Lehigh University journalism professor Jeremy Littau wrote in a widely quoted Twitter thread over the weekend. The narrative of the ongoing vitality of local journalism doesn’t get heard often enough because it’s harder to wrap your arms around. It’s happening here and there, with different approaches and without a one-size-fits-all solution.

As such, examples are necessarily anecdotal — and you know the saying that anecdotes aren’t data. Still, good things are happening at the grassroots. For instance:

• The small daily newspaper where I worked for my first 10 years out of college, The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, is still owned by the founding Haggerty family and still providing decent coverage of the communities it serves. The paper is smaller than it used to be, but it’s doing far better work than a typical chain-owned paper.

• Several months ago I had an opportunity to attend the fall conference of the New York Press Association, which comprises upstate independent publishers. Those folks told me that though business was more challenging than ever, their papers were doing reasonably well.

• New Haven, Connecticut, may enjoy the best coverage of any medium-sized city in the country. Why? One veteran journalist, Paul Bass, had the vision to create the nonprofit, online-only New Haven Independent, supported by grants and donations, and still thriving 14 years after its founding. (The Independent is the main subject of my 2013 book, “The Wired City.”)

• For-profit digital news sites are doing well in some places, too. Among them: The Batavian, in Western New York, also profiled in “The Wired City.” Overall, there are enough for-profit and nonprofit sites that they have their own trade organization, LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers. No, their numbers are too small to offset the overall decline. But the opportunity is out there for entrepreneurial-minded journalists. The chains, sadly, are creating more opportunities every day.

• Among the regions I reported on in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls,” was Burlington, Vermont, whose daily, the Burlington Free Press, had been decimated by Gannett. What happened? An excellent, for-profit alternative weekly, Seven Days, bolstered its online news coverage. Two nonprofit news organizations, Vermont Public Radio and VT Digger, beefed up their local coverage as well.

• In Western Massachusetts, the once-great Berkshire Eagle is being rebuilt by local owners who bought it from MediaNews Group several years ago. That could provide a roadmap for other communities — at some point, chain owners will no longer be able to keep cutting their way to profits and will presumably be looking for a way out.

• Regional newspapers are experimenting with new forms of ownership. The Salt Lake Tribune recently won IRS approval to become a nonprofit organization. The Philadelphia Inquirer, though still a for-profit, is now owned by the nonprofit Lenfest Foundation. Neither of these moves guarantees salvation. But it has bought them time to shift to a new business model built less on advertising and more on support from their readers.

• Speaking of which: It’s been nearly a year since The Boston Globe announced it had achieved profitability despite continuing to employ a newsroom far larger than any chain owner would tolerate.

No, there is little hope of returning to the old days. Newspapers will never be as richly staffed as they were before the early 2000s, when the internet began to take a toll on revenues. Papers will continue to die. Nonprofits will have to become an increasingly important part of the mix.

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote the other day that “the recent news about the news could hardly be worse. What was terribly worrisome has tumbled into disaster.”

She’s right. But in all too many instances, local news isn’t dying — it’s being murdered. The solution, if there is to be one, has to start with getting the corporate chains out of the way and paving a path for a new generation of independent publishers.

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A reinterpretation of Title IX threatens student journalism about sexual assault

Photo (cc) 2016 via Wikimedia Commons

My Northeastern colleagues Laurel Leff and Meg Heckman report on a new, serious threat to freedom of the press on college campuses: a federal reinterpretation of Title IX that puts faculty members at risk if they advise students who are reporting on sexual assault. They write at The Conversation:

At issue are increasingly common policies that require virtually every university employee to alert school officials if they hear even the slightest rumor of sexual misconduct — on or off campus — involving students or employees.

On most campuses, clergy members, mental health counselors and health care providers are exempt from such mandatory reporting requirements. University-affiliated journalists are not despite the fact that they also often need confidentiality to do their jobs effectively.

Yet, journalism professors routinely learn of possible sexual misconduct in their roles as advisors to student newspapers, or in critiquing students’ classroom work. (It’s also increasingly common for journalism educators to serve as editors in charge of school-sponsored news organizations designed to fill gaps in the local media ecosystem.)

I heard about this for the first time last week. I immediately went through a mental checklist as I tried to remember whether any of my students was working on a story about sexual misconduct. They weren’t. But I’ve dealt with such stories in the past, and apparently I will not be dealing with them in the future.

This is an outrageous attack on the First Amendment. It even pertains to NPR affiliates associated with colleges and universities, which is to say most of them. What’s needed, as Leff and Heckman write, is a state law “exempting university-affiliated journalists and journalism educators from mandatory reporting requirements when they are advising student journalists.”

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A Northeastern study takes the measure of our controversy-driven political coverage

Illustration by Emily Judem for WGBH News

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

For observers of the media, there are few spectacles more dispiriting than the way the press covers presidential campaigns. Rather than digging into what really matters, such as the candidates’ experience, leadership ability and positions on important issues, reporters focus on controversies, attacks on one another, gotcha moments and, of course, polls, polls and more polls.

Now a study conducted by the School of Journalism at Northeastern University has quantified just how bad things are. Looking at about 10,000 news articles from 28 ideologically diverse news outlets published between March and October, my colleagues and I found that coverage of the Democratic candidates “tracks with the ebbs and flows of scandals, viral moments and news items.”

Our findings were posted last week at Storybench, a vertical published by the School of Journalism that covers media innovation. The data analysis was performed by Aleszu Bajak with an assist from John Wihbey. Among the key points in our report:

• The televised debates have driven some of the issues-based coverage. For instance, mentions of the candidates’ positions on immigration and health care increased during and immediately after the debates but then quickly subsided.

• Kirsten Gillibrand made reproductive choice one of her signature issues — and after she dropped out of the race, that issue faded from media coverage. Similarly, coverage of gun control was tied mainly to Beto O’Rourke’s now-defunct campaign. LGBTQ rights and climate change have been virtually ignored.

• The Ukraine story has dominated recently coverage of the Democratic candidates, with much of it focused on President Trump’s false accusations that Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden acted corruptly.

Of course, to some extent the media can’t help but be reactive. It would be irresponsible not to cover what the candidates are saying about themselves and each other. But the press’ urge to chase controversies at the expense of more substantive matters shows that little has been learned since its disastrous performance four years ago.

As Thomas Patterson of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy wrote in an analysis of the 2016 campaign, coverage of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was unrelentingly negative, creating the impression that the controversy over Clinton’s emails was somehow equivalent to massive corruption at Trump’s charitable foundation, his racist remarks and his boasting about sexual assault as revealed on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape.

“The real bias of the press is not that it’s liberal,” Patterson wrote. “Its bias is a decided preference for the negative.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. Earlier this year, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen proposed campaign coverage built around a “citizens agenda.” Rosen proposed that news organizations should identify their audience, listen to what they believe the candidates should be focusing on, and cover the race accordingly.

“Given a chance to ask questions of the people competing for office, you can turn to the citizens agenda,” Rosen wrote on his influential blog, Press Think. “And if you need a way of declining the controversy of the day, there it is. The agenda you got by listening to voters helps you hold to mission when temptation is to ride the latest media storm.”

Some coverage of presidential politics has been quite good. Quality news organizations such as The New York Times and The Washington Post have published in-depth articles on challenges the candidates have overcome and how that helps shape their approach to governing. The Boston Globe has been running a series called “Back to the Battleground” in which it has reported on four key states that unexpectedly went with Trump in 2016. Reports aimed at making sense of the Ukraine story, explaining Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare for All plan and the like are worthy examples of campaign journalism aimed at informing the public. But such efforts tend to be overshadowed by day-to-day horse-race coverage.

The latest poll-driven narrative is the rise of Pete Buttigieg, who’s emerged as the clear frontrunner in Iowa, according to a Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom survey. You can be sure that he’ll be watched closely at this week’s televised debate. Will his rivals attack him? Will he fight back? Can he take the heat?

Little of it will have much to do with what kind of president Buttigieg or any of the other candidates would be. The horse race is paramount. Who’s up, who’s down and the latest controversies are what matter to the political press.

The data my Northeastern colleagues have compiled provides a measurement of how badly political coverage has run off the rails. What’s needed is a commitment on the part of the media to do a better job of serving the public interest.

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Two pioneering women editors take on gender inequity in the newsroom

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Where are all the women? For those of us who’ve spent much of our lives working in newsrooms, it’s a question that has no good answer. As far back as the 1970s, when I was in journalism school, women outnumbered men in the classroom by a substantial margin — a phenomenon that, if anything, has become even more pronounced. Yet at news organizations everywhere, men predominate. And that is especially true in leadership positions.

Now two longtime journalists have written a book aimed at explaining that imbalance and, more important, offering case studies and advice for young women seeking to survive and thrive. “There’s No Crying in Newsrooms: What Women Have Learned about What It Takes to Lead,” by Kristin Grady Gilger and Julia Wallace (Rowman & Littlefield, 216 pages, $32), ought to be required reading for journalism students (as it is for my ethics class at Northeastern) — and not just for women but also for men, who need to understand the obstacles that women face.

Gilger and Wallace are colleagues in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. More to the point, they both helped blaze a trail for women who seek to move up into the highest ranks of journalism. Wallace was the first woman to serve as editor-in-chief of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Gilger worked in top editing positions at The Arizona Republic, The Statesman Journal of Salem, Oregon, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.

“There’s No Crying in Newsrooms” comprises a series of chapters on the challenges that women must deal with, from proving their worth to pay equity, from sexual harassment to finding the right balance between work and life — something that ought to be taken as a given for journalists of any gender, but whose burden still falls more heavily on women. Each chapter ends with a personal essay and advice from one of the two authors, giving it the feel of a how-to book.

How bad can it get? According to Gilger and Wallace, “When one female reporter who covered health asked for a raise, the metro editor replied, ‘Your husband is a dentist. What are you worried about?’”

Among the many fascinating case studies (Gilger and Wallace interviewed more than 100 women) are those of Marcy McGinnis, who rose from working as a secretary at CBS News to senior vice president of news, and Wanda Lloyd, an African American journalist who was raised in the South during segregation and served for more than eight years in Alabama as executive editor of the Montgomery Advertiser.

Lloyd’s story is especially poignant. In an effort to make the Advertiser more welcoming to African American readers, Lloyd banished front-page mug shots of black men and ended the annual practice of photographing a birthday cake for Robert E. Lee Those initiatives were not always supported by the paper’s white readers — and Gilger and Wallace write about a moment after one of those readers complained that the Advertiser was giving too much coverage to African Americans.

“I had never in my life lost it like that before,” Lloyd is quoted as saying. “I sobbed uncontrollably for at least five minutes. My whole body was shaking. I just had never encountered anything like that. I had encountered racism all my life, but this racism was directed directly at me as an employee, as a journalist, as a person. Later, I was surprised they didn’t call an ambulance for me; that’s how bad it was.”

The Advertiser is a Gannett paper, and Gilger and Wallace go out of their way to praise the company’s late chief executive Al Neuharth for his commitment to diversity; both authors worked for Gannett at various times. Neuharth believed that appointing more women and people of color to leadership positions would broaden his papers’ audience.

Which leads to my only complaint about “There’s No Crying in Newsrooms.” The Neuharth years were profitable ones for Gannett — very profitable. As the late Ben Bagidikian documented in his oft-updated book “The Media Monopoly,” Gannett’s papers regularly ran up profits of 30% to 50%, margins that are wildly incompatible with quality journalism. When the bad times came, Gannett, like other chain owners, failed to invest in the future.

Today, Gannett is about to merge with GateHouse Media, another cost-slashing chain, while its Newseum is on the verge of closing. I don’t doubt Neuharth’s sincerity with regard to diversity. I just wish Gilger and Wallace had at least made a mention of Gannett’s role in the decline of the newspaper business — brought about by larger forces, to be sure, but worsened by corporate greed.

The authors devote a chapter to Jill Abramson, the first executive editor of The New York Times, who was fired by then-publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. under circumstances that have never been adequately explained. Gilger and Wallace come to roughly the same conclusion that Abramson herself did in her book “Merchants of Truth” — that is, it was a combination of sexism and her own shortcomings as a manager and a leader.

They also offer this choice tidbit about Abramson: “During one meeting, she pointed out that the headline on a story posted on the Times’ website was incorrect. When the editor responsible for the page didn’t get up immediately to fix it, Abramson asked him what he was still doing in the room.” If I were Sulzberger, I’d have been tempted to make her editor for life just for that.

The book ends on something of a down note, as the authors observe that, as of 2018, “women in media held fewer positions of power, were promoted more slowly, and made less money than their male counterparts.” Women in the news media also continue to deal with bad behavior in the workplace, ranging from disrespect to sexual harassment and assault.

Ultimately, though, Gilger and Wallace argue that the fight is worth it — that journalism and democracy are better served if newsrooms more closely reflect the broader culture. I hope this book is read not just by aspiring journalists but by newsroom leaders as well. A problem can’t be solved unless it’s first understood, and “There’s No Crying in Newsrooms” explains it well.

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How the media are setting the 2020 agenda: Chasing daily controversies, burying policy

By Aleszu Bajak, Dan Kennedy and John Wihbey

It’s a paradox of examining political coverage. Are news media just reporting what the political candidates are talking about? Or does political journalism really set the agenda by selecting stories around specific news items, scandals and issues du jour?

Our topic analysis of ~10,000 news articles on the 2020 Democratic candidates, published between March and October in an ideological diverse range of 28 news outlets, reveals that political coverage, at least this cycle, tracks with the ebbs and flows of scandals, viral moments and news items, from accusations of Joe Biden’s inappropriate behavior towards women to President Trump’s phone call with Ukraine.

Read the rest at Storybench, a media innovation vertical published by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Here are three new reasons to be optimistic about local news

Note: Make that four reasons. See update below.

The crisis in local news won’t be solved all at once. Rather, it will be solved community by community as entrepreneurial-minded journalists seek to fill the gaps left behind by corporate-owned chain newspapers. Here are three new reasons to be optimistic.

In Maine, the Portland Phoenix, the last of the great Phoenix alternative weeklies, is scheduled to relaunch this coming Wednesday under new ownership after ceasing publication earlier this year. The free paper and website are part of New Portland Publishing Co., headed by Marian McCue and Karen Wood.

The relaunch was announced Oct. 22 by Marian McCue and Karen Wood, principals of New Portland Publishing Co. McCue will serve as the editor and Mo Mehlsak, most recently executive editor of The Forecaster, American Journal and Lakes Region Weekly newspapers, will be managing editor.

“While we always admired the energy of the Phoenix, and the strong entertainment coverage, our focus will be more on news and analysis, and in-depth investigative stories that explore the challenges facing this area,” McCue said in a press release announcing the new venture.

Added Wood: “We’ve had a very positive response from early conversations with advertisers and people in the community. We are convinced that a free distribution newspaper will be successful, and provide an effective forum for our advertisers.”

The new Portland Phoenix has a stiff challenge ahead of it in the form of the daily Portland Press Herald, the flagship of a Maine-based chain. The Press Herald is considerably more robust than papers owned by the national chains, and the publisher — Lisa DeSisto — is an alumnus of The Boston Phoenix who knows how to put out a paper oriented toward arts and entertainment. (Note: I worked with Lisa at the Phoenix for several years.)

Still, it’s fantastic news that someone is going to try to revive the Phoenix in Portland, which is the sort of smaller city that ought to be able to support an alt-weekly.

***

Bill Wasserman is one of Eastern Massachusetts’ legendary local newspaper owners. Founder of the Ipswich Chronicle, he built that into a chain of about a dozen North Shore papers and sold them in 1986. Those papers eventually were acquired by GateHouse Media, and Wasserman has been grousing about what happened to them ever since. Earlier this year, GateHouse got rid of the Ipswich Chronicle as a standalone title, merging it with two other papers.

In an interview for CommonWealth Magazine in 2008, Wasserman told me the main problem with corporate ownership was a failure to understand that, even in the best of times, community journalism is little more than a break-even proposition. “I was paid a salary, which was modest,” said Wasserman. “The reward was not in the profit. The reward was having a lot of fun putting out a community paper.”

Now Wasserman has gone back to the future, lending his expertise as a consultant and ad salesman to a start-up called Ipswich Local News — a free paper and website that is seeking nonprofit status. The editor and publisher is John Muldoon.

***

Jenn Lord Paluzzi holds the distinction of being laid off by two national chains — GateHouse (at The MetroWest Daily News) and MediaNews Group (at The Sun of Lowell). Now she’s launched a community news site in her hometown of Grafton called Grafton Common that is loaded with local news.

Some years back, Lord Paluzzi was involved in a startup called Greater Grafton. But that venture ended up getting sold to a chain of local websites that ended up going out of business. Best of luck to her as she goes off on her own once again.

Update: And a fourth — how could I forget the recently launched Provincetown Independent?

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Political ads on Facebook can be fixed. Is Mark Zuckerberg willing to try?

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

If nothing else, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey proved himself to be a master of timing when he announced last week that his social network will ban all political ads.

Anger was still raging over Mark Zuckerberg’s recent statement that Facebook would not attempt to fact-check political advertising, thus opening the door to a flood of falsehoods. Taking direct aim at Zuckerberg, Dorsey tweeted: “It‘s not credible for us to say: ‘We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad…well…they can say whatever they want!’”

Not surprisingly, Twitter’s ad ban won widespread praise.

“This is a good call,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who had only recently tormented Zuckerberg at a congressional hearing. “Technology — and social media especially — has a powerful responsibility in preserving the integrity of our elections. Not allowing for paid disinformation is one of the most basic, ethical decisions a company can make.”

Added Hillary Clinton: “This is the right thing to do for democracy in America and all over the world. What say you, @Facebook?”

Oh, but if only it were that simple. Advertising on social media is a cheap and effective way for underfunded candidates seeking less prominent offices to reach prospective voters. No, it’s not good for democracy if we are overwhelmed with lies. But, with some controls in place, Facebook and Twitter can be crucial for political candidates who can’t afford television ads. To get rid of all political advertising would be to favor incumbents over outsiders and longshots.

“Twitter’s ban on political ads disadvantages challengers and political newcomers,” wrote University of Utah communications researcher Shannon C. MacGregor in The Guardian. “Digital ads are much cheaper than television ads, drawing in a wider scope of candidates, especially for down-ballot races.”

And let’s be clear: Facebook, not Twitter, is what really matters. Journalists pay a lot of attention to Twitter because other journalists use it — as do politicians, bots and sociopaths. Facebook, with more than 2 billion active users around the world, is exponentially larger and much richer. For instance, the 2020 presidential candidates so far have spent an estimated $46 million on political ads on Facebook, compared to less than $3 million spent by all candidates on Twitter ads during the 2018 midterms.

But is political advertising on Facebook worth saving given the falsehoods, the attempts to deceive, that go way beyond anything you’re likely to see on TV?

In fact, there are some common-sense steps that might help fix Facebook ads.

Writing in The Boston Globe, technology journalist Josh Bernoff suggested that Facebook ban all targeting for political ads except for geography. In other words, candidates for statewide office ought to be able to target their ads so they’re not paying to reach Facebook users in other states. But they shouldn’t be able to target certain slices of the electorate, like liberals or conservatives, homeowners or renters, white people or African Americans (or “Jew haters,” as ProPublica discovered was possible in a nauseating exposé a couple of years ago.)

Bernoff also suggested that politicians be required to provide documentation to back up the facts in their ads. It’s a good idea, though it may prove impractical.

“Facebook is incapable of vetting political ads effectively and consistently at the global scale. And political ads are essential to maintaining the company’s presence in countries around the world,” wrote Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy,” in The New York Times.

But we may not have to go that far. The reason ads spreading disinformation are so effective on Facebook is that they fly under the radar, seen by tiny slices of the electorate and thus evading broader scrutiny. In an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, Ellen L. Weintraub, chair of the Federal Election Commission, argued that the elimination of microtargeting could result in more truthful, less toxic advertising.

“Ads that are more widely available will contribute to the robust and wide-open debate that is central to our First Amendment values,” Weintraub wrote. “Political advertisers will have greater incentives to be truthful in ads when they can more easily and publicly be called to account for them.”

Calling for political ads to be banned on Facebook is futile. We live our lives on the internet these days, and Facebook has become (God help us) our most important distributor of news and information.

As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Nonprofit news update

Earlier this week The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the IRS had approved its application to become a nonprofit organization, making it the first daily newspaper to take that step. Unlike The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tampa Bay Times, for-profit newspapers owned by nonprofit foundations, the Tribune will be fully nonprofit, making it eligible for tax-deductible donations.

Nonprofit news isn’t exactly a novelty. Public media organizations like PBS, NPR and, yes, WGBH are nonprofit organizations. So are a number of pioneering community websites such as the New Haven Independent and Voice of San Diego. And if the Tribune succeeds, it could pave the way for other legacy newspapers.

Last May I wrote about what nonprofit status in Salt Lake could mean for the struggling newspaper business. This week’s announcement is a huge step forward.

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