John Widdison, a former executive managing editor of the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, died Tuesday at the age of 84. Mr. Widdison oversaw the merger of the morning Worcester Telegram and the Evening Gazette, later serving as director of public affairs for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, where he worked until retiring in 2001.
In 2019, Mr. Widdison was inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame, administered by the New England Newspaper and Press Association. According to the citation he received, “He led with compassion and intelligence thereby engendering a teamwork, we’re-all-in-this-together work atmosphere. John’s impact was felt not only in the newsroom but also in the community where he welcomed feedback from readers on everything from missed deliveries to spelling errors.”
Boston Globe metro columnist Tom Farragher is retiring after more than 25 years at the paper, according to an email to the staff sent by managing editor Jennifer Peter. Farragher, who was part of the Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting of the pedophile-priest scandal, later went on to serve as editor of the investigative Spotlight Team.
“I have loved my work here alongside dedicated professionals who come to work each day to produce the best newspaper in New England,” Farragher told his colleagues.
One of the more interesting business models for local news that Ellen Clegg and I have encountered in our work is what you might call the hybrid for-profit/nonprofit. For-profit organizations such as The Mendocino Voice in Northern California, The Colorado Sun, the Storm Lake Times Pilot in Iowa and The Provincetown Independent have either set up nonprofit arms or are working with existing nonprofits to raise tax-exempt money that can be used to support certain types of public interest journalism.
This past Monday, Fredric Rutberg explained how that model is working at The Berkshire Eagle, the Pittsfield, Massachusetts-based paper that he and several other business leaders rescued from the hedge fund Alden Global Capital back in 2016. A retired judge, Rutberg is now publisher and president of the Eagle. He spoke at the spring conference of the NorthEast Association of Communication Executives, held in Meredith, New Hampshire.
After Rutberg and his partners acquired the Eagle, he said, they considered — and rejected — the nonprofit model. Among other things, they wanted to maintain the paper’s editorial voice, and nonprofits aren’t allowed to endorse political candidates or specific pieces of legislation.
“Our editorial page is very important to us,” he said. “We were very proud to be among the first five or six papers in the country nationally to endorse Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.” And though he conceded the impact of that endorsement was “marginal,” the paper’s editorial voice really matters when it comes to candidates for local office. “We think we have something to say,” he said. “We don’t want to give that up.”
But with advertising on the wane, the paper faced a dilemma — especially when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, wiping out the Eagle’s nascent events business. Just before COVID, the paper raised four times the $10,000 it asked for in order to hire a Report for America corps member to cover the Statehouse. With that in mind as “proof of concept,” the Eagle set about looking for a more comprehensive way of seeking donations to bolster its news coverage.
What it hit upon was the Berkshire Eagle Local Journalism Fund, in partnership with the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation. The nonprofit foundation, Rutberg explained, accepts donations to help the Eagle pay for coverage of education, health, economic development, and arts and culture. The Eagle held back from a public campaign during COVID, with Rutberg saying he thought that would be “impolitic” given that the pandemic had forced the paper to cut back the number of days it appears in print (from seven to five).
Last November, though, the Eagle launched its first public drive, raising nearly $80,000 from the community as well as a major gift of $150,000. The Eagle is planning a second public drive this October and has established an endowment fund, as well, although Rutberg said that’s gotten off to a slow start.
Following several cutbacks during COVID, the Eagle is expanding, Rutberg said. Though print circulation continues to shrink, paid digital circulation has risen from 2,700 pre-COVID to about 7,200 today. An arts reporter was hired recently, and the Eagle has started a quarterly magazine — The B.
Some of the largest for-profit papers in the country, including The New York Times and The Boston Globe, accept grant money to cover certain beats or publish journalism produced by nonprofits like ProPublica. The Philadelphia Inquirer, a for-profit, is owned by a nonprofit, the Lenfest Institute, which helps pay for coverage at the Inquirer and other news outlets.
What makes smaller for-profits like the Eagle unique is that they’re making use of nonprofit money to help pay for their journalism on an ongoing basis and not just for a few narrowly defined beats. After all, the four areas Rutberg identified comprise a substantial part of his paper’s coverage.
Nonprofit journalism has emerged as a leading solution to the local news crisis. But it’s important for there to be a viable for-profit alternative as well — even if they are bolstered in part by nonprofit funding.
A recent report by NewsGuard, a project that evaluates news organizations for reliability and transparency, found that clickbait generated by artificial intelligence is on the rise. McKenzie Sadeghi and Lorenzo Arvanitis write:
NewsGuard has identified 49 news and information sites that appear to be almost entirely written by artificial intelligence software. A new generation of content farms is on the way.
The report didn’t specifically identify any local news websites that are using AI to write low-quality stories aimed at getting clicks and programmatic advertising. Perhaps non-local stories about health, entertainment and tech, to name three of the topics for which content farms are using AI, more readily fly under the radar. If you’re going to use AI to produce articles about the local tax rate or the women’s track team, you’re going to get caught pretty quickly when the results prove to be wrong. Still, the use of AI to produce some forms of local news, such as routine articles about real-estate transactions, is not new.
According to the NewsGuard report, there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort yet to use AI in order to produce deliberately false stories, although there have been a few examples, including a celebrity death site that claimed President Biden had “passed away peacefully in his sleep.”
Call this Pink Slime 3.0. Version 1.0 was low-tech compared to what’s available today. Back in 2012, the public radio program “This American Life” found that a company called Journatic (pronounced “joor-NAT-ik,” though I always thought it should be “JOOR-nuh-tik”) was producing local content for newspapers using grossly underpaid, out-of-town reporters — including cheap Filipino workers who wrote articles under fake bylines.
Pink Slime 2.0, of more recent vintage, consists of hundreds of websites launched to exploit the decline of local news. Under such banners as “North Boston News” (!), these sites purport to offer community journalism but are actually a cover for political propaganda. Nearly all of them serve right-wing interests, thought there were a few on the left as well.
Pink Slime 3.0 threatens to become more insidious as AI continues to improve. As Seth Smalley wrote for Poynter Online, this is “pink slime on steroids.”
Of course, AI could prove to be a boon for local news, as Sebastian Grace wrote last week for What Works, our Northeastern journalism project tracking developments in community journalism. By eliminating repetitive drudge work, AI can free journalists to produce high-value stories that really matter.
Still, bottom-feeders like CNET — not exactly a content farm, but not much better than that, either — have already been caught publishing error-laden stories with AI. You can only imagine what sort of advice these content farms are going to give people about dealing with their medical problems.
OpenAI, which likes to portray itself as a responsible player in discussions about the future of AI, would not respond to NewsGuard’s inquiries. Neither would Facebook, which is amplifying AI-generated content.
The only thing we can be sure of is that a new, more insidious version of pink slime is coming to a website near you — if it hasn’t already.
Web publishers are notorious for violating our privacy, and news organizations are no exception. Now, though, one of those organizations, The Boston Globe, is being held to account. The paper has agreed to a $5 million settlement of a lawsuit brought by a California man named David Ambrose over the Globe’s practice of hoovering up the identifying information of users who watch videos on its website and sending it to Facebook.
The proposed settlement, now pending in U.S. District Court, would encompass $4 million to compensate subscribers, who could receive $22 to $44 apiece, and another $1 million to extend the subscriptions of affected users for one week. News of the proposed settlement was first reported Friday evening by Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub. The Globe has denied any wrongdoing.
Before paid digital subscriptions overtook free news, it was understood that the only way news organizations could make money online was to barrage readers with popups, pop-unders, autoplay digital ads and other forms of obnoxious, intrusive commercial messages. That set up a downward spiral, with users fleeing and news orgs ratcheting up the ads even more. You’d think those days would be in the past — but they’re not.
Now that the Globe has agreed to end one of those privacy-violating practices, I hope the paper’s business-side executives will think about how much inconvenience and privacy violations they want to inflict on their digital subscribers, who pay an industry-high $30 a month. I hope other news outlets take heed as well.
Scott Allen, a top editor at The Boston Globe (his title is assistant managing editor for projects), is leaving the paper, according to an email sent to the staff Thursday afternoon by editor Nancy Barnes. Here’s the email, sent to me by several trusted sources.
Scott Allen is leaving the Globe after 30 years to work with his son, John Allen, better known as MrBallen, whose hit podcast on Amazon Prime and his videos on YouTube reach millions each week.
It’s nearly impossible to sum up 30 years of Boston Globe journalism in a few paragraphs, but here goes: At the Globe, Scott has helped edit four Pulitzer Prize finalists and one Pulitzer winner, the Quick Strike Team’s “Blind Spot” series, which won for investigative reporting. Most recently, he worked closely with Janelle Nanos on her heart wrenching Pulitzer finalist “Kate Price remembers something terrible.”
Scott has also served as Spotlight Team leader and editor of the Globe’s medical, science and environmental coverage. He joined the Globe as a cub environmental reporter back in 1992.
And in recent years, Scott has led the newsroom’s effort to make the most of our intellectual property, pursuing creative ways to repurpose the Globe content in podcasts, on TV and in other media.
“My colleagues at the Globe have been like family to me and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished together,” he said. “It’s bittersweet to say goodbye, but the opportunity to work with my son was just too good to pass up. I wish my friends here nothing but continued success.”
Scott has agreed to stay on for a few weeks to help me with transition issues. I want to personally thank Scott for welcoming me to the Globe long before I arrived, and for being such a supportive partner as I made my way around the organization.
On the new “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Howard Owens, the publisher of The Batavian, a digital news organization in Genesee County, New York, way out near Buffalo. When I first met Howard, he was the director of digital publishing for GateHouse Media, which later morphed into Gannett. Howard launched The Batavian for GateHouse in 2008. In 2009, GateHouse eliminated Howard’s job, but they let him take The Batavian with him, and he’s been at it ever since.
The Batavian’s website is loaded with well over 100 ads, reflecting his belief that ads should be put right in front of the reader, not rotated in and out. He’s also got an innovative idea to raise money from his readers while keeping The Batavian free, which we ask him about during our conversation with him.
We’re also joined by Sebastian Grace, who just received his degree in journalism and political science from Northeastern. Everyone in journalism is freaking out about ChatGPT and other players in the new generation of artificial intelligence. Seb wrote a really smart piece, which is up on the What Works website, assuring us all that we shouldn’t worry — that AI is a tool that can allow journalists to work smarter.
Ellen has a Quick Take on Mississippi Today, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting for stories that revealed how a former Mississippi governor used his office to steer millions of state welfare dollars to benefit family and friends. Including NFL quarterback Brett Favre! We interviewed Mary Margaret White, the CEO of Mississippi today, on the podcast in November 2022. And reporter Anna Wolfe has a great podcast about her prize-winning series.
I observe that journalism these days is often depicted as deep blue — something that liberals and progressives may pay attention to, but that conservatives and especially Trump supporters dismiss as fake news. But Steve Waldman, the head of the Rebuild Local News coalition, says it’s not that simple, and that the local news crisis is harming conservatives even more than it is liberals.
Several people have raised questions as to why the local press didn’t blow the whistle on U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins over what the Justice Department has characterized as her attempts to influence the Suffolk County district attorney’s race between interim DA Kevin Hayden and Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo. Rollins favored Arroyo over Hayden, who was the eventual winner and is now the elected district attorney.
As documented in the inspector general’s report, Rollins leaked like a broken faucet to The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald in an attempt to influence their coverage. The report makes clear that was a serious ethical violation, and that it has possibly landed her in legal trouble as well. Isn’t that a story in and of itself?
Well, now. The relationship between journalists and sources is often not pretty, and this is one of those rare instances of the public being given an inside look. Sources have all kinds of motives, sometimes less than pure. Reporters want to get the story, and they generally don’t worry much about whether their sources are doing the right thing.
As Bruce Mohl and Michael Jonas write at CommonWealth: “These sorts of back-channel communications are commonplace in the world of political journalism, where reporters and political figures often use each other for their own ends. But rarely do these exchanges come to light.”
The most famous example I can think of is Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and The Washington Post. The journalists who received those documents knew that Ellsberg was breaking national-security laws. But rather than turning him in, they published the government’s own secret history of the Vietnam War, thus performing a public service. The government later prosecuted Ellsberg, although the case fell apart. Of course, the motives in the Rollins case were hardly that grandiose.
Keep in mind, too, that reporters in the Rollins case were unaware of the full extent of Rollins’ alleged wrongdoing. Probably the most damaging allegation to come out of the Justice Department report is that Rollins is said to have lied under oath when she was asked by investigators about leaking a confidential document to the Herald. Journalists had no way of knowing about that until Wednesday, when the government released that report.
Finally, there’s the matter of what would have happened if the press had decided to report on Rollins’ leaking. There’s actually a 1991 Supreme Court case that speaks to this — Cohen v. Cowles Media. In that case, a political operative named Dan Cohen leaked information about his client’s opponent to the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press, papers in Minneapolis and St. Paul; the Star Tribune at that time was owned by Cowles Media and the Pioneer Press by Knight Ridder. The reporters were so appalled at Cohen’s attempt to get them to write about a politician’s petty crimes that they decided the real story was Cohen’s sleazy tactics.
Cohen sued at having been outed, and the court sided with him, citing the doctrine of promissory estoppel: Cohen acted the way he did on the belief that his anonymity would be respected. Essentially, the reporters violated a verbal contract with Cohen, and a $200,000 judgment Cohen had been awarded in state court was reinstated. Justice Byron White’s decision began:
The question before us is whether the First Amendment prohibits a plaintiff from recovering damages, under state promissory estoppel law, for a newspaper’s breach of a promise of confidentiality given to the plaintiff in exchange for information. We hold that it does not.
I don’t know what federal or Massachusetts law says about promissory estoppel, but it seems likely that reporters would have run afoul of their legal obligations if they had promised Rollins anonymity and then blew her cover. In any case, there’s no reason to think they even considered doing such a thing. Nor should they have. Promising anonymity to a source is something that should not be undertaken lightly, but once that agreement is in place, no journalist should even consider violating it.
Correction: This post originally misidentified the owner of the Pioneer Press in 1991.
Earlier today the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General issued a 155-page ethics report regarding U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins, who announced Tuesday that she would resign from her position.
Much of the report details Rollins’ alleged attempts to influence the 2022 Democratic primary in the Suffolk County district attorney’s race between her successor, interim DA Kevin Hayden, and his challenger, Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo. Hayden, who had been appointed on an interim basis by then-Gov. Charlie Baker, defeated Arroyo and is now the elected DA.
The campaign was dominated by two major series of articles in The Boston Globe — one involving Hayden, who reportedly had slow-walked an investigation into serious problems with the MBTA Transit Police, the other pertaining to allegations of sexual assault brought against Arroyo. The Justice Department’s report details Rollins’ attempts to provide information to the Globe and the Boston Herald that would harm Hayden and help Arroyo.
The report is devastating in places, concluding that Rollins “knowingly and willfully made a false statement of material fact under oath when she testified on December 6 that she was not the federal law enforcement source cited in the Herald article and that she did know who the source was.” In that article, the Herald reported that Hayden could face a federal investigation stemming from the Transit Police matter.
Because the report provides a fascinating inside look at how the journalistic sausage is made, I’m reproducing the inspector general’s analysis of the evidence, which can be found on pp. 69-73. The report also includes mountains of information about the nature of Rollins’ contacts with the Globe and the Herald, which the Justice Department obtained voluntarily from Rollins’ cellphone. No journalists were asked for information, in accordance with Justice’s guidelines.
Based upon the facts described above, the OIG [Office of Inspector General] concluded that U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins used her position as U.S. Attorney in an effort to influence the outcome of a partisan political election, namely the September 6, 2022 Democratic primary election that would select her likely successor as Suffolk D.A. We further found that Rollins took an active part in Ricardo Arroyo’s primary campaign for the Suffolk D.A. position in an effort to help Arroyo defeat Interim D.A. Kevin Hayden. We concluded that, despite her assertion otherwise, Rollins was very much trying to put her “finger on [the] scale” in the race for D.A., a race that certain local media reports suggested was a referendum on the policies and programs Rollins instituted during her own tenure as Suffolk D.A. — with Arroyo being seen as someone who was more supportive of, and likely to continue, her policies than Hayden. Even Arroyo, moments after he lost the primary election to Hayden, sent a message to Rollins stating that her “legacy work deserved better.”
Additionally, we determined that days after Hayden prevailed in the September 6 primary election, Rollins sought to damage Hayden’s reputation by leaking to the Herald Reporter non-public and sensitive DOJ [Department of Justice] information that suggested the possibility of a federal criminal investigation into Hayden, a matter from which Rollins was recused. Finally, we concluded that Rollins lacked candor during her OIG interview when discussing her communications with the Globe Reporter and with the Herald Reporter, and falsely testified under oath when she initially denied that she was the federal law enforcement source who provided non-public, sensitive DOJ information to the Herald Reporter about a possible Hayden criminal investigation. Rollins only admitted to being the source during subsequent testimony after Rollins produced, in response to the OIG’s requests, relevant text messages, which definitively showed that Rollins had indeed been a source for the reporter. Continue reading “DOJ report on Rachael Rollins provides an inside look into journalistic sausage-making”→
The Wall Street Journal is ending its use of honorifics, leaving The New York Times as one of the very few news organizations that still describe someone with Mr., Ms., etc., on second reference.
Editor-in-chief Emma Tucker writes that “the trend among almost all news organizations and magazines has been to go without, as editors have concluded that the titles in news articles are becoming a vestige of a more-formal past, and that the flood of Mr., Ms., Mx. or Mrs. in sentences can slow down readers’ enjoyment of our writing.” An exception will be made for “occupational titles” such as Gen., Sen. or Dr. As is the case with AP style, Dr. will be reserved for medical doctors.
The Journal also offers this bit of silliness:
Honorifics have dishonorable aspects in history. At the worst, some newspapers had a practice to use courtesy titles for white people only. There were also courtesy-title policies that were sexist: Some newspapers in the past gave courtesy titles only to women, which had the effect of identifying women as either a Mrs. or Miss; meanwhile, the format for couples was Mr. and Mrs. John Smith.
All true, of course, but if you use honorifics without regard to race or gender, as the Journal, the Times and others have for many years, then the problem goes away.
I posted a query on Mastodon and Twitter to find news organizations other than the Times that still use honorifics and came up with an extremely short list. If you know of any others, please post it in the comments.
The Christian Science Monitor
The New York Sun
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Blade of Toledo
The Post-Gazette and the Blade share common ownership.