River ride

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

At Columbia, clashing views over the value and even the meaning of objectivity

Masha Gessen. Photo (cc) 2017 by the MIT Media Lab.

I was struck by an argument that Masha Gessen made earlier this week at a panel  about objectivity. Back in March, Gessen wrote a harrowing 7,000-word account for The New Yorker about Russian atrocities in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Her editors, she said, wanted to include a comment from the Russian government — a statement in which officials would deny the horrific reality of what she and photographer Jérôme Sessini had documented.

“The objective style would demand that we give the Russian government a platform to lie,” she said. She told her editors that it would have “contaminated” the entire story to include a few lines of official denial. She prevailed; but she added that if she had been writing about any other topic, “I would have lost that battle.”

At another point in the discussion she said, “If we’re going to have an ideal, then moral clarity would be a much better ideal than objectivity.”

Gessen made her remarks last Tuesday at a discussion sponsored by the Columbia Journalism Review and Columbia’s Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights called “The Objectivity Wars.” For the most part, the discussion was familiar and predictable, but there were a few moments of genuine insight.

The panelists were David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers University; Lewis Raven Wallace, author of “The View from Somewhere,” best known for losing his job at public radio’s “Marketplace” after writing a blog post that was critical of journalistic objectivity; author and journalist Wesley Lowery, who left his job at The Washington Post after clashing with then-executive editor Marty Baron over his opinionated Twitter feed; and Andie Tucher, the H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of Journalism at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Moderating was Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the CJR.

The most outspoken defender of traditional objectivity was Greenberg, who said that opinion journalism and objective journalism have long co-existed, and each has an important place. He noted that, at many newspapers, journalists who had paid their dues by working as straight-news reporters were often rewarded with columns in which they could express their opinions. “There’s a certain prestige and freedom attached to that position,” he said.

Tucher added that objectivity arose as an antidote to the sensationalism of the 19th century. “Journalism was terrible,” she said. “It was embarrassing.” Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the lurid New York World, founded the Columbia School of Journalism, she said, out of a sense of “remorse.”

Lowery, whose critique of objectivity was best expressed in a New York Times op-ed piece published in 2020, argued that objectivity can’t be separated from race and gender, saying that the decisions that go into any conversation about what’s newsworthy and how stories should be covered are still overwhelmingly made by white men. “My piece will be different from your piece because we will make different subjective decisions,” he said. He said, too, that most news organizations have stopped providing information on how diverse their reporting staffs are (or aren’t) “because they don’t want to be embarrassed by it.”

Indeed, my Northeastern colleague Dr. Meredith Clark resigned from running the News Leaders Association’s diversity survey, she wrote earlier this year at Nieman Lab, because so few newsrooms were willing to respond. (Clark talked about her findings with Ellen Clegg and me on the “What Works” podcast a few months ago.)

Wallace said his turn against objectivity was grounded in his experience in coming out as transgender when he was a teenager. He wanted his identity to be part of what he did, he told the audience, saying, “Objectivity has been a silencing force — literally, in my case.”

Objectivity will continue to be a fraught subject. Properly understood, it simply means a fair-minded pursuit of the truth, with journalists adopting unbiased methods of reporting in order to get past their biases. Unfortunately, objectivity is too often reduced to the mindless reporting of “both sides” and of engaging in false equivalence.

The Columbia panel shows that those various understandings and misunderstandings of objectivity persist to this day.

Boston Globe employees told to return to the office starting next Tuesday

Like many organizations not dependent on face-to-face contact with the public, The Boston Globe has delayed bringing its employees back to the office. Several attempts have been made in the past, only to be set aside in response to a new COVID-19 surge.

Those days now appear to be over. Starting Tuesday, Sept. 20, non-production employees have been told to report for in-person work. Most employees, including journalists, will be expected to come in Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays with the option of working at home on Mondays and Fridays. This three-day schedule seems to be the new norm. It also coincides with the restoration of Orange Line service.

Here’s part of a memo sent to employees by Rodrigo Tajona, the Globe’s chief people officer:

I hope this note finds you safe and well. First of all, I would like to appreciate and recognize everything that each one of you has been doing for the company, before, during and post COVID. We understand that it hasn’t been easy, but we’ve managed to navigate through these unprecedented times by working together. This is a tremendous credit to each one of you and we are grateful in acknowledging these efforts.

During this time, when most of our non-production employees have been working from home, there’s no doubt that we have been executing positively towards achieving our goals as a company. However, there is also a clear sense that something is missing. We have welcomed over 200 new members of our community since the offices closed, and they haven’t had many opportunities to get to know their colleagues. There are follow-up conversations that don’t happen when a zoom window closes. The brainstorming and creative thinking that we need to continue to innovate as a modern media company is hindered by not being in the same room. The ability to learn from the expertise of our colleagues and to mentor newer colleagues is limited. And we have a civic duty to be part of the city that we cover. In the pages of the Globe, we have reported on the impact of closed offices on Boston. It is great to see that so many offices have returned, and our building at Exchange Place is bustling again.

We have had all of our BGMP [Boston Globe Media Partners] locations open for a while, and we have been happy to hear about the productive meetings and collaborations taking place in our beautiful offices.  As we have communicated in Town Halls and in company memos, we are ready and thrilled to have employees return to the office on a regular schedule effective September 20th 2022.

The following guidelines have been taken into consideration, understanding that life happens and flexibility is important to each one of us:

  • Although the offices will be open every day, we expect employees and managers to follow a 3/2 hybrid schedule; Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, to be at the office. Mondays and Fridays are flexible for location. This gives us the benefit of having people in the office at the same time to get the most out of in-person time. Employees will be expected to work from the office typical office hours for their role, or in some exceptions as agreed upon with their individual managers (such schedule to be approved at the manager’s discretion).
  • We expect employees and managers to schedule meetings for employees to attend in-person at the office, versus having an employee at the office, attending a virtual meeting.
  • Individual requests to work remotely will be managed by department heads. Requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis, based on the nature of the job, department needs, and in accordance with collective bargaining agreements, where relevant….

While we have done our best to anticipate how best to help you with your return to work, we count on your unique experience to help us help other employees too. We’re very excited to receive your feedback, and to seek how to move forward together in the best possible way.

Please connect with your manager or HR, if you have any questions or comments.

Welcome back! I am excited to see you.

‘Beat the Press’ takes on coverage of the queen’s death, the CNN shake-up and more

Photo (cc) 2009 by Commonwealth Secretariat

On the new “Beat the Press” podcast, we’ve got the lowdown on media coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the ongoing shake-up at CNN, the safety of journalists following the killing of Las Vegas Review-Journal investigative reporter Jeff German, and why a hot mic at the Little League World Series shows how far distrust of the media has gone. Plus we’ve got our panel Rants & Raves.

In the moderator’s chair, filling in for Emily Rooney, is former NECN anchor Mike Nikitas, joined by media consultant Susie Banikarim, Experience magazine editor Joanna Weiss and me. You can subscribe to “Beat the Press” at Apple Podcasts as well as other platforms.

Ethan Zuckerman on truth, trust and what it means for journalism

Ethan Zuckerman

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Ethan Zuckerman, associate professor of public policy, communication and information at UMass-Amherst. He’s also founder of the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, which is studying how to build alternatives to the commercial internet. And Ethan co-founded a local news initiative with global reach, a blogging community called Global Voices. 

An alum of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard and the MIT Media Lab, he is the author of two books. The latest is titled “Mistrust: Why Losing Faith in Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform Them.” It’s a powerful look at the rise of mistrust in institutions, especially media, and how that mistrust is provoking a crisis for representative democracy.

Ethan will be visiting Northeastern’s campus later this fall, so stay tuned for details.

I’ve got a Quick Take on Brian McGrory’s announcement that he will step down as editor of The Boston Globe to become chair of the journalism program at Boston University. Ellen checks out The Daily Catch, a hyperlocal news outlook covering Red Hook, New York.

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

Mass. hyperlocal comings and goings

Two hyperlocal notes for Massachusetts:

  • Dave Copeland has been publishing an independent news site called Andover News since June. Copeland is the regional manager for Patch, but this is unaffiliated. The News competes with the Andover Townsman, owned by the Alabama-based CNHI chain.
  • Jenn Lord Paluzzi, who’s been named editor-in-chief of the fledgling Concord Bridge, is giving up Grafton Common. Fortunately, the weekly Grafton News and three other Central Massachusetts papers were just acquired by CherryRoad Media, a New Jersey-based chain that seems committed to local news.

Looking back at 13 years of reporting on local news projects

Maya McFadden of the New Haven Independent interviews Victor Joshua, CEO of RespeCT Hoops, at the Farnham Neighborhood House in New Haven, Conn. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

I recently wrapped up my third book on the road ahead for local and regional journalism. “What Works: The Future of Local News,” a collaboration with former Boston Globe editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg, is scheduled to be published by Beacon Press in the fall of 2023.

“What Works” is my third book on the topic, preceded by “The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age” (2013) and “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century” (2018). My methodology has been similar for all three — starting in 2009, I’ve been visiting newsrooms across the country and interviewing editors and other news executives.

Although I may yet write another book, it will probably not be the same type of project. That sparked some nostalgia on my part as I thought back to the places I’ve been to over the past 13 years. I’ve compiled a list of places I’ve visited. Most involved interviewing people in their newsrooms. Some don’t have newsrooms. Some couldn’t meet me on site because of COVID-19. In all of these, though, I traveled to where they were, interviewing some people at their homes or in restaurants. It’s quite a list, and I look back fondly on every one.

  • The 016, Worcester, Massachusetts
  • Baristanet, Montclair, New Jersey
  • The Batavian, Batavia, New York
  • The Bedford Citizen, Massachusetts
  • Billy Penn, Philadelphia
  • The Boston Globe
  • Burlington Free Press, Vermont
  • Colorado Community Media, Englewood, Colorado
  • Colorado Public Radio, Denver, Colorado
  • The Colorado Sun, Denver, Colorado
  • The Connecticut Mirror, Hartford, Connecticut
  • CT News Junkie, Hartford, Connecticut
  • The Daily News, Batavia, New York
  • Fort Bragg Advocate-News, California
  • Haverhill Matters, Haverhill, Massachusetts
  • Inner-City Newspaper, New Haven, Connecticut
  • KZYX Radio, Philo, California
  • Los Angeles Times
  • Mendocino Beacon, Fort Bragg, California
  • The Mendocino Voice, Ukiah, California
  • Montclair Local, New Jersey
  • The Montclair Times, New Jersey
  • New Haven Advocate
  • New Haven Independent
  • New Haven Register
  • NJ Spotlight News, Newark, New Jersey
  • OC Weekly, Costa Mesa, California
  • Orange Coast Magazine, Newport Beach, California
  • Orange County Register, Santa Ana, California
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Philadelphia magazine
  • Portland Press Herald (Maine)
  • San Diego CityBeat
  • Seven Days, Burlington, Vermont
  • The Star-Ledger, Newark, New Jersey
  • Ukiah Daily Journal, Ukiah, California
  • Vermont Public Radio, Burlington, Vermont
  • Voice of San Diego
  • La Voz Hispana de Connecticut, New Haven, Connecticut
  • VTDigger, Montpelier, Vermont
  • The Washington Post
  • Washingtonian magazine
  • Westword, Denver, Colorado
  • Willits Weekly, Willits, California
  • WHAV Radio, Haverhill, Massachusetts
  • WNHH Radio, New Haven, Connecticut
  • Worcester Sun, Massachusetts

Catching up on some stories about local news that you might have missed

I don’t do this very often, but there are a number of important stories in local journalism that are flying by, and I want to put down a marker. No need to go into detail — just click on the links to find out more.

  • California sets aside $25 million in government money to support local journalism.
    • The move follows the creation of the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, which this year will distribute $3 million for specific projects such as a plan to expand news coverage across Jersey City; an online radio program in Creole for the Haitian community; and an oral history on efforts to clean up drinking water in Newark.
    • Unlike New Jersey, the California initiative will be used to pay reporting fellows from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism to cover under-represented communities.
  • The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would set aside antitrust law to allow news organizations to bargain collectively with Google and Facebook for compensation, was dealt a huge setback.
    • U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, succeeded in adding an amendment that would make it more difficult for news organizations to moderate comments. The lead sponsor of the bill, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., responded by withdrawing the legislation but said she’ll be back.
    • LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers and a number of organizations came out in opposition to the proposal, calling it “ill-advised” and “enormously problematic.” A similar law in Australia has been criticized for lining the pockets of large publishers — mainly Rupert Murdoch — while doing little for smaller players.
  • Google News Showcase, touted as a source of revenue for news outlets whose content would be featured, has been stalled because the giant platform has been unable to reach agreements with several key publishers.
    • Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, was offered $6 million a year to feature journalism from its flagship USA Today  as well as its local papers, according to The Wall Street Journal. Gannett’s reported counter-demand: $300 million.
  • Speaking of Gannett, a nauseating development has surfaced in a sexual-abuse lawsuit against the company’s Democrat & Chronicle newspaper in Rochester, New York.
    • According to the independent Rochester Beacon, the company is arguing that seven former newspaper carriers who say they were molested by a supervisor should have filed for workers’ compensation at the time the alleged abuse took place.
    • The carriers were 11 and 12 years old at the time of the alleged incidents.

Terry Williams of The Keene Sentinel on journalism in rural communities

Terry Williams, right, speaks on rural journalism at the Knight Media Forum 2020 in Miami. Photo (cc) 2020 by the Knight Foundation.

The “What Works” podcast is back from its August hiatus. This week, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Terrence Williams, president and COO of The Keene Sentinel in Keene, New Hampshire, one of the oldest newspapers in the country.

Terry and the Sentinel are the creators of the Radically Rural conference, now in its fifth year, which will be held Sept. 21 and 22. The conference looks at issues such as housing, farming, the environment and — most important to us — community journalism.

I’ve got a Quick Take on The Salt Lake Tribune’s new venture, called Mormon Land, an interesting example of how a local news organization can leverage news in its own backyard in order to attract a national audience.

Ellen highlights a podcast called Shevotes, which recounts the battle for suffrage and recounts historic efforts at voter suppression. Award-winning journalists Ellen Goodman and Lynn Sherr cohost, and actress Christine Baranski makes a contribution, too.

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

New Jersey newspaper group buys four Central Mass. weeklies from Gannett

Millbury Town Hall, 1900. Photo (cc) 2017 by the State Library of Massachusetts.

Some really good news for Central Massachusetts: a small but growing newspaper chain based in New Jersey is buying four weeklies from Gannett. The sale of The Millbury-Sutton Chronicle, The Grafton News, The Landmark of Holden and the Leominster Champion to CherryRoad Media gives all four of them a new lease on life — literally in the case of The Landmark, which had been scheduled to shut down Sept. 15, David Dore reports in the Chronicle.

According to the CherryRoad website, the company “is focused on using technology to strengthen communities through their local newspapers. We believe the newspaper is an essential resource for developing strong communities. By using technology, we can supplement the printed newspaper with enhanced digital capabilities.”

“Very welcome journalism news in a place in need of it,” tweeted Mark Henderson, whose aggregation project The 016 tracks local media in the Worcester area.

In her recent “State of Local News” report, Northwestern University journalism professor Penny Abernathy identified the rise of regional chains such as CherryRoad as being among the trends to watch as money-losing Gannett unloads newspapers. “Two-thirds of the 82 papers Gannett sold in the past two years were snapped up by two regional chains, CherryRoad Media and Paxton,” she wrote. “Six of the 10 largest owners in 2022 are regional chains, with between 50 and 142 papers in their growing empire.”

Now, though, it appears that CherryRoad can no longer be regarded as a regional chain. Most of its 71 papers (including three it acquired in Michigan just last week) are in the central part of the country, from Minnesota to Texas. The Massachusetts papers are its first on the East Coast. There are plenty of other communities in Massachusetts that need reliable local news coverage, so I hope we see more. There’s no substitute for local ownership, but a chain that’s actually committed to local journalism is surely the next best thing.

Last fall, my “What Works” co-conspirator Ellen Clegg wrote about CherryRoad’s move into Minnesota.

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