What ‘American Factory’ says about the soul of our nation — and the coming campaign

A scene from “American Factory”

The botched Iowa caucuses and the State of the Union mark the official opening of the presidential campaign. From now until November, you’re going to hear a lot about whether Democrats can take voters in the Midwest back from President Trump.

And so politics was very much on my mind when I watched “American Factory” over the weekend. The Netflix documentary, the first released by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground, tells the story of a glass factory opened by the Chinese in 2016 at the site of a former General Motors plant near Dayton, Ohio. The film has been nominated for an Oscar.

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A depressing moment

I can’t think of a more corrupt act any president has ever committed than illegally withholding military aid from a besieged ally until they agreed to claim they were digging up dirt on one of the president’s political opponents. I can think of more harmful acts, like ordering torture or launching a major war for no good reason. But more corrupt? No. The vote to remove Trump should be 100-0.

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The Boston Globe embraces uppercase ‘Black’ to describe race and culture

Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory sent this email to his staff last week, and it is just now wending its way in my direction:

Effective immediately, we’re updating the Globe stylebook to put the word Black in uppercase when it is used to describe a person’s race. After consulting with leaders in the Black community, we’re making this change to recognize that the word has evolved from a description of a person’s skin color to signify a race and culture, and as such, deserves uppercase treatment in the same way that other races — Latino being one example — are capitalized. Unless otherwise requested by a person we’re writing about, we’ll use Black, which is considered to be more inclusive, rather than African-American.

This is a good, progressive move. Will the Associated Press follow suit?

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When Clayton Christensen and Jill Lepore tangled over ‘disruption theory’

Clayton Christensen. Photo (cc) 2011 by Betsy Weber.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s ideas about why some businesses adjust to competition and some don’t were so controversial that a battle broke out on Twitter within hours of his death last Friday at the age of 67.

Christensen’s best-known critic by far, though, was Harvard historian Jill Lepore. Nearly six years ago, in a long essay for The New Yorker, Lepore lambasted Christensen’s theories as flights of fancy with little evidence to back them up.

I had read Christensen’s first book about disruption theory, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” and thought he had some provocative things to say about the struggling news business. So not long after Lepore’s piece appeared, I wrote a self-published essay for Medium about Lepore and Christensen’s battle of ideas, which I’m republishing here this week.

Obviously the world doesn’t look exactly the same in 2020 as it did in 2014. But if you’re wondering who Clay Christensen was and what disruption theory is all about, I hope you’ll find that this is a useful introduction.

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Can hopes for local news co-ops ever turn into reality? A conversation with Tom Stites

After nearly a decade of attempting to raise money and spark interest in the idea of a cooperatively owned community news site, a group of volunteers in Haverhill, Mass., announced this month that they were shutting down.

The site, which would have been known as Haverhill Matters, was to be a pilot for the Banyan Project, the work of veteran journalist Tom Stites, who hoped to seed co-ops in news deserts across the country.

I reached out to Stites with the idea of having a conversation that would mark the end of a long journey — except it might not be over yet. News co-ops remain an interesting idea that could help fill some of the gaps created by the failures of legacy media.

Here’s a lightly edited version of our interview over email.

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Local radio follows local newspapers down the drain of corporate chain ownership

Photo (cc) 2017 by Ray Sawhill.

Local radio stations, like local newspapers, are under siege. Newspapers are struggling because the internet undermined the value of advertising and because social media proved more alluring than the latest goings-on at city hall.

Likewise, radio is fighting to be heard in an audioscape increasingly dominated by streaming services and podcasts.

But radio and newspapers have something else in common, too: Corporate greed is making their problems much worse and preventing the kind of investments that are needed to position them for the future.

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My half-hearted argument in favor of The New York Times’ double endorsement

I’m not going to try to defend The New York Times’ decision to punt and endorse two Democratic candidates for president.

In watching the endorsement process play out Sunday night on “The Weekly,” it seemed to me that the editorial board members’ main goal was to stop the frontrunner, Joe Biden, whom they see as too old and too vague. By endorsing both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, the Times diluted the boost it might have given to Warren, who is — along with Bernie Sanders — the strongest challenger to Biden.

But if you read the entire 3,400-word editorial, you’ll find a semi-respectable argument for the double endorsement at the very end:

There will be those dissatisfied that this page is not throwing its weight behind a single candidate, favoring centrists or progressives. But it’s a fight the party itself has been itching to have since Mrs. Clinton’s defeat in 2016, and one that should be played out in the public arena and in the privacy of the voting booth. That’s the very purpose of primaries, to test-market strategies and ideas that can galvanize and inspire the country.

Essentially the Times sees itself as endorsing candidates in two separate Democratic primaries — the progressive primary and the moderate primary. Seen in this light, the Times is hoping ahead of the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses to give a boost to Warren against Sanders and to Klobuchar against Biden and Pete Buttigieg. That makes some sense, though I still think a single endorsement would have been better. Still, if the two-primaries argument had been stated more explicitly, in the lead, the Times could have spared itself some of the head-scratching and mockery it’s being subjected to today.

As for “The Weekly,” I found the hour fascinating, with the participants — led by deputy editorial-page editor Katie Kingsbury, subbing for James Bennet, whose brother Michael is (believe it or not) a presidential candidate — coming across as thoughtful and serious. I saw some Twitter chatter suggesting that the participants seemed elitist and out of touch, but that strikes me as an inevitable consequence of the the setting and the process. How could it be otherwise?

And let’s give the Times credit for dragging the traditionally secretive endorsement process out into the open, including transcripts of the interviews with each of the candidates.

Let’s just hope the Times restricts itself to one endorsement this fall.

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Pundits wonder if Warren’s good night may have come too late

Elizabeth Warren in April 2019. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

Elizabeth Warren rose above her dispute with Bernie Sanders over who said what and offered a powerful argument about gender and politics at Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate. But it might be too late to matter.

That, at least, appears to be the consensus in my quick scan of political punditry following the final candidates’ forum before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.

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In Haverhill, WHAV lives — but a long-planned co-op for news folds up shop

The Haverhill riverfront. Photo (cc) 2008 by Fletcher6.

For some years now, Haverhill, a city north of Boston, has been the home of two innovative local-news projects.

One, WHAV Radio, ran into fundraising problems last fall and was in danger of going under by Thanksgiving. I wrote about that for WGBH News. The other, Haverhill Matters, was intended as the pilot for the Banyan Project, an effort to establish cooperatively owned news sites around the country.

The committee organizing Haverhill Matters recently announced that it was shutting down. More on that below. But first, the good news from WHAV, whose president and general manager, Tim Coco, is soldiering on. (Disclosure: I made a small donation.) WHAV is a nonprofit with a low-power FM signal at 97.9 FM, a streaming internet presence and a robust website. Coco told me in an email:

Although I have been a board member and chairman of nonprofits over the years, they’ve all had endowments. I’m still getting used to actually operating a nonprofit without a safety net. One lesson learned this time around is crises never end and fundraising mode has to be perpetual.

During this latest episode, Haverhill Mayor Jim Fiorentini called me and predicted I wouldn’t give up. He called it a “labor of love” and I responded, “No, it’s just a labor.” I guess he was correct.

I also learned WHAV has friends it didn’t know it had. A large, regional contractor, Early Construction not only stepped up with contributions, but challenged others to do the same. Early is a business that bids on public contracts and has no need to advertise. Dick and his wife, Mary Rose, Early believe in what WHAV is doing and their words and deeds helped motivate me.

One existing underwriter, Covanta, represented by Mark VanWeelden, stepped up with technical support and ideas. He renewed his company’s pledge on the condition … that I paid myself.

Another great supporter turned out to be former Mayor Jim Rurak and his wife Kathy. The original WHAV AM 1490 went away during his time as mayor and he was advised at that time (1995), it was impossible — technically, legally, financially — to bring it back. He brought more contacts and resources to the table.

For me, it was like the end of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” where residents of Bedford Falls come to the aid of George Bailey. It was truly heartwarming.

Beyond this, I cut costs —pretty much eliminating live weeknight programming that didn’t support the local news effort. I also renegotiated credit card rates so more of listener/reader donations came through. The membership drive — particularly asking for monthly, recurring donations — delivered almost 50 percent more income than a year ago. It isn’t enough, but it is a base WHAV will build on.

The idea behind the Banyan Project is to set up news co-ops similar to food co-ops or credit unions — that is, news sites owned by the members, who could join by paying a fee or contributing labor, perhaps in the form of a neighborhood blog.

The person behind Banyan is Tom Stites, a veteran editor who has worked at newspapers such as The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. I hope to have more from Stites in the days ahead. For one thing, I’m interested in knowing whether he plans to try out his concept elsewhere. But for now, here is a recent email sent to supporters of Haverhill Matters from John Cuneo, who chaired the local board of directors:

Dear Lover of Independent News,

On behalf of the Board of Directors of Haverhill Matters Cooperative, I write to inform you that we are regretfully closing up shop. We worked hard seeking various routes to build a new cooperative business model for a local news and information service.

As print journalism withers and digital journalism struggles, testing many different forms, the prize of an informed community is ever more important. Let no one mistake the demise of our efforts to signal that the application of a coop business model to local journalism isn’t feasible. Aside from our devoted mentor [a reference to Stites], none us are journalists; none of us are experienced cooperators. This is the more likely cause.

We thank all who rendered us support in many forms, moral, logistical, monetary and otherwise. We are very grateful for this. We urge all those working to build platforms for democratically shared local information and news not to be discouraged. Our goal deserves the greatest persistence. We’ll see you on the path.

Thanks again so much for your shared interest.

Cuneo did not respond to an email I sent to him seeking comment.

I’ve written a lot about news efforts in Haverhill over the years. For an index, please click here.

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Chuck Todd wrestles with disinformation

It has not been a good week in the war on disinformation — which is to say that it’s been a week pretty much like all the ones before it.

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