By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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On at least two occasions, Jack Connors was part of efforts to buy The Boston Globe

Steve Bailey’s profile of Jack Connors in The Boston Globe Magazine of June 3, 2007

In his obituary of Boston businessman and philanthropist Jack Connors, who died Tuesday at 82, Boston Globe reporter Bryan Marquard reminds us that Connors was part of several failed attempts to buy the Globe from the New York Times Co., which finally sold it to financier and Red Sox principal owner John Henry in 2013. Marquard’s obit, by the way, is remarkable, and includes quotes from an interview Connors gave just last week as he was dying of cancer.

The first time Connors’ name came up in connection with an attempt to purchase the Globe was in the fall of 2006, when he partnered with retired General Electric chief executive Jack Welch and concession magnate Joseph O’Donnell. But with Times Co. chief executive Janet Robinson all but coming right out and saying the Globe was not for sale, talk of a Welch-led sale faded away. O’Donnell died earlier this year, and Welch — who died in 2020 — does not enjoy the sterling reputation he had back when he was at the height of his power and influence.

Connors’ second run at the Globe came in 2011, when he was part of a group headed by entrepreneur Aaron Kushner, who tried to convince the Times Co. to sell him the paper even though the paper’s executives were adamant that it wasn’t available. Former Globe publisher Ben Taylor and his cousin Steve Taylor, himself a former top Globe official, were involved in the Kushner bid as well. At that time Poynter business analyst Rick Edmonds wrote that with the Globe’s business having stabilized following a crisis in 2009 and the Times Co.’s debt burden eased, “It looks to me like a keeper for the company — unless someone comes forward with cash and is prepared to way overpay.”

Ultimately Kushner was spurned, and then he lost out on a bid to purchase the Portland Press Herald in Maine. In 2012, a Kushner-headed group bought The Orange County Register in Southern California, and he quickly ran it into the ground with a hiring spree that he mistakenly believed would result in a massive influx of new readers and advertising revenues. (I wrote about Kushner’s misadventures in Boston, Portland and Orange County for my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls.”) Today the Register is a shell of its former self, having been acquired out of bankruptcy by Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group.

Connors’ name also came up in 2013 before the Globe was purchased by Henry.

What kind of a newspaper owner would Jack Connors have been? He was kind and generous, according to all accounts, but he would have been a minority owner with only a limited say in the Globe’s direction. Globe readers should be glad that the paper was never headed by “Neutron Jack” Welch or by Kushner, whose business plan for the Globe — a copy of which I obtained and wrote about in “Moguls” — was utterly unrealistic, depending on the same sort of unaffordable expansion that led to disaster in Southern California.

The praise that is now flowing for Connors is well deserved. He was, by all accounts, a kind and generous man. And I have one suggestion for the Globe. On June 3, 2007, the Sunday magazine published a terrific profile of Connors by then-business columnist Steve Bailey. You have to do a deep dive into the archives in order to find it. Why not republish it online?

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Newsletters move to the fore as tech platforms spurn community journalism

1923 photo via the Library of Congress

If we’ve learned anything about news publishing in recent years, it’s that the giant tech platforms are not our friends. Google is embracing artificial intelligence, which means that searching for something will soon provide you with robot-generated answers (right or wrong!), thus reducing the need to click through. Facebook is moving away from news. Twitter/X has deteriorated badly under the chaotic leadership of Elon Musk, although it still has enough clout that President Biden used it to announce he was ending his re-election campaign.

So what should publishers do instead? It’s no secret — they’re already doing it. They are using email newsletters to drive their audience to their journalism. A recent post by Andrew Rockway and Dylan Sanchez for LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers reports that 95% of member publishers are offering newsletters, up from 81% in 2022. “The decline in referral traffic,” they write, “will likely lead to more direct engagement by publishers with their audiences.”

Some observers worry about newsletter overload as our inboxes fill up with email we may never get around to reading. That’s potentially a problem, but I think it’s a more serious problem for larger outlets, many of which send out multiple newsletters throughout the day and risk reaching a point of diminishing returns. By contrast, users will value one daily newsletter from their hyperlocal news project with links to the latest stories.

Newsletters are crucial to the success that Ellen Clegg and I have seen both in the projects we write about in our book, “What Works in Community News,” and on our podcast, “What Works: The Future of Local News.” Essentially, we’ve seen three newsletter strategies.

  • By far the most common approach publishers use is to offer a free newsletter aimed at driving users to their website, which may be free or subscription-based. The Massachusetts-based Bedford Citizen, for instance, sends out a daily newsletter generated by its RSS feed and a weekly human-curated newsletter. The Citizen is a free nonprofit, but once they’ve enticed you with their top-of-the-funnel newsletter, they hope they can lure you into becoming a paying member. Ellen and I interviewed executive director Teri Morrow and editor Wayne Braverman on our podcast last February.
  • The Colorado Sun, a statewide nonprofit, offers a series of free and paid newsletters, while the website itself is free. The paid newsletters represent an unusual twist: Some of them feature deeper reporting than you can get from the website on topics such as politics, climate change and outdoor recreation. At $22 a month for a premium membership, users pay no more than they would for a digital subscription to a  daily newspaper. Editor Larry Ryckman talked about that in our most recent podcast.
  • In some places, the newsletter is the publication. An example of that is Burlington Buzz, a daily newsletter that covers Burlington, Massachusetts. Founder, publisher and editor Nicci Kadilak recently switched her newsletter platform from Substack to Indiegraf, and her homepage looks a lot like a standard community website — which shows that it’s a mistake to get too caught up on categories when newsletters have websites and websites have newsletters. Ellen and I talked with Nicci last year.

What’s crucial is that news publishers have direct control of the tools that they use to connect with their audience. Gone are the days when we could rely on Facebook and Twitter to reliably deliver readers to us. We have to go find them — and give them a reason to keep coming back.

Correction: Burlington Buzz has moved to Indiegraf, not Ghost.

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Biden’s age and health: A legitimate story that was marred by media excess

Photo (cc) 2020 by deckerme

We were on our way back from a family gathering in upstate New York when we learned that President Biden had stepped aside from his re-election campaign and endorsed Vice President Kamala Harris. I was checking social media at the Lee rest stop on the Mass Pike eastbound; I think I was about an hour behind. We’d been anticipating the moment for days, if not weeks. Still, it came as a surprise.

I’m hearing some people grouse that Biden should have acted sooner, but this had to be incredibly difficult. No doubt he believes he can still do the job. What he couldn’t do was govern and campaign simultaneously. Nor was it reasonable to expect voters to believe he could serve more than a fraction of a second term. He’s now given us the best chance of beating Donald Trump and the authoritarian menace he represents.

Harris is an accomplished leader who, after all, is already the elected vice president. Opening up the process to some sort of vague celebrity bakeoff could have led to disaster. Can Harris win? I don’t know. Every possible choice was a risk, but I think giving her a chance of claiming the nomination quickly is less of a risk than continuing with Biden or having an open convention. (To be clear: It will still be an open convention.)

There’s one important media angle to all this that I think needs to be addressed. It really looks like Biden was driven out of the campaign by the press, and that’s not a good perception. There have been stories over the past year or two suggesting that Biden shouldn’t run for re-election because of his advanced age, the three most notable being a Mark Leibovich piece in The Atlantic in 2022, an Ezra Klein commentary in The New York Times this past February, and a Wall Street Journal article in early June. But Biden’s age-related problems have been a 24/7 obsession since about 9:10 p.m. on June 27, when it became clear in the presidential debate that something was seriously wrong.

Many diehard Biden supporters have erupted in fury at the media, and especially the Times, for publishing story after story after story about Biden’s infirmities while not dwelling nearly as much on Trump’s far worse deficits. There are many on the left who’ve come to the conclusion that the corporate media — I’m not using quotation marks because there really is a corporate media — want to see Trump back in office for ratings and circulation. I don’t think that’s the case. Biden’s age, questions about his cognitive health, and fading electoral prospects were a huge and entirely legitimate story. But that doesn’t mean the media covered themselves in glory.

My own belief is that the media — again, led by the Times — were shocked and horrified by the prospect of Trump’s return to the White House, so they embarked on an overwrought effort to bring Biden’s campaign to a close. The Times put it this way in an editorial today: “Had he remained at the top of the ticket, he would have greatly increased the likelihood of Mr. Trump retaking the presidency and potentially controlling both houses of Congress as well.” That’s not just a statement of truth; it’s also an explanation for the media behavior we’ve seen over the past three weeks.

Jon Keller of WBZ-TV asked me the other day if this was evidence of “bias.” I responded that yes, I suppose it was. But it was bias in favor of democracy, something that media observers such as Margaret Sullivan and Jay Rosen have been calling for from the start of the campaign. This is not Bill Clinton versus Bob Dole in 1996. Trump represents an existential threat to democracy.

Still, the media excesses were notable, especially a Times report that a physician who specializes in Parkinson’s disease had visited the White House repeatedly. That was just irresponsible journalism. It didn’t pan out, and no evidence has emerged that Biden has Parkinson’s. Another example of excess was published by The New Yorker last week, in which nine physicians were allowed to speculate anonymously about the state of Biden’s neurological health. Now, I have to say that the story was interesting and possibly shed some light. But that doesn’t mean it should have been published.

President Biden said he will address the nation later this week. He could do Harris a lot of good if he acknowledges that he’s leaving not because of the media, not because fundraising had dried up, not because Nancy Pelosi told him to, but because his age and his health had finally caught up with him. And the media should ask themselves how they once again managed to turn a legitimate story into the only story for the past three weeks, embarrassing themselves and calling their judgment and fairness into question.

Biden has been an outstanding president, and he cements his legacy by knowing when it’s time to leave. He deserves our respect and gratitude. We are all going to miss his steady hand come next January, regardless of who succeeds him.

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Talking Biden, debates and fact-checking with Jon Keller

Events overtook my conversation with WBZ-TV political analyst Jon Keller. These two segments ran earlier today, before President Biden stepped aside from the 2024 campaign and endorsed Vice President Kamala Harris. I hope you enjoy this anyway.

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A few more data points as we await Biden’s final decision

U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton. Photo (cc) 2019 by Marc Nozell.

Three data points this morning as we continue to wait for President Biden to decide whether he should step aside.

• Writing in The Boston Globe, U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton says that Biden — with whom he has spent quite a bit of time over the years — appeared not to recognize him during a recent encounter. The North Shore Democrat, who has called for Biden to end his candidacy, says:

More recently, I saw him in a small group at Normandy for the 80th anniversary of D-Day. For the first time, he didn’t seem to recognize me. Of course, that can happen as anyone ages, but as I watched the disastrous debate a few weeks ago, I have to admit that what I saw in Normandy was part of a deeper problem.

• In an interview with BET, the president appeared not to be able to remember Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s name, referring to him as “the Black man” when he couldn’t conjure it up. Now, again, that’s the sort of thing that could happen to anyone. But combined with Moulton’s experience and multiple other incidents, it shouldn’t be dismissed as just one of those things.

• Take a look at this clip from an interview President Biden did with “60 Minutes” in September 2022. He speaks with an easy fluidity that is entirely absent from his recent interviews with George Stephanopoulos and Lester Holt. The contrast is shocking. Again: this was less than two years ago.

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A silver lining for Evan Gershkovich?

There’s been some reporting in recent months to the effect that the Russian government wouldn’t be willing to talk about freeing Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich until after his case was resolved. Now that he’s been convicted at a sham trial (free link) and sentenced to 16 years in a penal colony, perhaps negotiations to win his release will get serious.

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Larry Ryckman on how The Colorado Sun is working to serve a large and diverse state

Larry Ryckman. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk to Larry Ryckman, editor and co-founder of The Colorado Sun, the subject of a chapter that I wrote for our book, “What Works in Community News.” The Sun was launched by journalists who worked at The Denver Post, which had been cut and cut and cut under the ownership of Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that the Post staff called “vulture capitalists.”

The Sun was founded as a for-profit public benefit corporation. A PBC is a legal designation covering for-profit organizations that serve society in some way. Among other things, a PBC is under no fiduciary obligation to enrich its owners and may instead plow revenues back into the enterprise. And we’ve found that for-profit models are rare in the world of news startups. But that changed last year, when the Sun joined its nonprofit peers. Ryckman explains.

In our Quick Takes, I give a listen to a New York Times podcast with Robert Putnam, the Harvard University political scientist who wrote “Bowling Alone” some years back. In a fascinating 40 minutes, Putnam talks about his work in trying to build social capital. He never once mentions local news, but there are important intersections between his ideas and what our podcast and book are focused on.

Ellen reports on an important transition at Sahan Journal in Minnesota, one of the projects we wrote about in our book. The founding CEO and publisher, Mukhtar Ibrahim, is moving on and a successor has been named. Starting in September, Vanan Murugesan will be leading Sahan. He has experience in the nonprofit sector and also has experience in public media.

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

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Unexpectedly, a good night for Democrats. Can they make the most of it?

If you watched Donald Trump deliver his meandering, 90-minute acceptance speech, then you know what the main takeaway is: The Democrats can still win this if they pull themselves together and figure out what to do about the top of the ticket.

My own view is that President Biden needs to step aside in favor of Vice President Kamala Harris, and he needs to do it soon. Today? This weekend? But regardless of what happens, the Trump we saw last night — after 15 minutes of play-acting at being a unifying figure — was the same angry, lying, grievance-filled figure he’s always been.

I like how David Brooks put it: “There is no cure for narcissism. The part after the assassination-attempt story was one of the truly awful and self-indulgent political performances of our time. My brain has been bludgeoned into soporific exhaustion.”

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An assassination attempt that could have been prevented

Donald Trump at a 2016 campaign event in Arkansas. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

The New York Times has published a visual investigation into the attempted assassination of Donald Trump that is absolutely unnerving. It’s impossible not to conclude that it could have been prevented; if it had, Corey Comperatore would still be alive. Here’s the video as well as the accompanying story. I’m pretty sure that both are free. And maybe it’s time to revisit The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of scandal at the Secret Service.

I’m not questioning the courage of either the Secret Service agents or of local police officers. What the Times’ reporting and other accounts are calling into question is their judgment. Their job is to anticipate and to act before the worst happens. In this case, the shooter was spotted ahead of time and flagged as suspicious — and then the Secret Service allowed the rally to go ahead after they lost sight of him. A police officer climbed up and spotted the shooter, by then wielding an assault rifle, only to fall back. Another opportunity to stop the rally.

Finally, a witness yelled out, “He’s on the roof! He’s got a gun!” By then, it was too late. From the Times report:

The call to let the rally go ahead while law enforcement looked for a potentially dangerous person is one of many Secret Service decisions now being called into question. The agency is also under scrutiny for allowing a building within a rifle’s range to be excluded from its secure perimeter, creating a blind spot close to the former president that the gunman exploited.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the main criticism of the Secret Service was that they allowed Trump to pop back up and rally the crowd rather than hustling him off immediately. And yes, that was a significant failure given that no one could be sure that the shooter had been disabled (in fact, he’d been shot and killed by that point). But this never had to happen.

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Former GBH News GM Pam Johnston to lead RI’s public TV and radio operations

Pam Johnston. Photo © 2021 by Dominic Gagliardo Chavez/GBH.

Following a tumultuous four years as general manager of GBH News, Pam Johnston has been named CEO of Rhode Island’s public television and radio operations, according to a report by Ian Donnis and Pamela Watts for The Public’s Radio.

Johnston left GBH in May, nearly four months after Mark Shanahan of The Boston Globe reported on discontent among some employees over her management style. Within days, GBH announced that the station’s three local television programs on public affairs, “Greater Boston,” “Basic Black” and “Talking Politics,” would be canceled, though they may be back as digital offerings at some point.

In Rhode Island, Johnston’s duties will be similar to those she had at GBH News, the local news arm comprising radio, digital and — until recently — television. She will head up both Rhode Island PBS and The Public’s Radio, outlets that have merged during the past year. In a statement, Johnston said:

I am honored to be stepping into this role at such a vital moment. At a time when trust in the media is eroding and societal gaps are widening, public media can play a critical role in fostering understanding, goodwill, and connection. I believe that here in Rhode Island we have the team, talent, and resources to redefine the very best of what public media can be.

In 2022 Johnston was a guest on “What Works: The Future of Local News,” a podcast that I host with Ellen Clegg.

My standard disclosure: I was a paid part-time contributor to GBH News for many years, mainly as a panelist on “Beat the Press with Emily Rooney,” a weekly TV show that was canceled under Johnston’s watch in 2021.

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