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

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Apple News Plus: Promising, or just another example of promises, promises?

Photo (cc) 2019 by Lisa Main Johnson

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when news organizations were all-in on social media as a way to distribute their journalism. But that was then. In recent years, Facebook has fiddled with its algorithm repeatedly in order to play down the amount of news that will show up in users’ feeds. Actual partnerships with the likes of The Washington Post are a thing of the past. Google is unreliable. And let’s not get started with what has happened to Twitter/X, the other main source of click-throughs to news stories.

To compensate, media outlets doubled down on newsletters, which don’t drive as much traffic as social but which do have the advantage of being under their control. Of course, all this is playing out at a time when many if not most newspapers and magazines have put their journalism behind paywalls, which further degrades the value of relying on social. A click from Twitter doesn’t mean much if the clicker can’t read the story they’re interested in or — more to the point — see the ads.

Now we’re experiencing a bit of excitement over a newish platform: Apple News Plus. The free version comes preinstalled on everyone’s iPhones and Macs. For $12.99 a month, you get a whole lot more (though not The New York Times, which is skeptical).

Apple News Plus got a big boost earlier this week when Semafor media reporter Max Tani wrote a mostly favorable story. He begins with quite an anecdote about The Daily Beast, which had been on the ropes as its reliance on Facebook and Google was resulting in a dwindling number of clicks. Thanks to its partnership with Apple News Plus, though, the Beast is on track to earn between $3 million and $4 million this year, more than its own in-house subscription program.

Better yet, you don’t have to click through. Stories load instantly and in many cases are more attractive than the publications’ own websites. Tani writes:

The Beast is hardly alone in its increased reliance on the iOS [and Mac] news aggregator. The free version of Apple News has been a source of audience attention for news publishers since it launched in 2015. But while many publishers have come to the conclusion that traffic has less business value than they once thought, they’re still desperate for revenue. Executives at companies including Condé Nast, Penske Media, Vox, Hearst, and Time all told Semafor that Apple News+ has come to represent a substantial stream of direct revenue.

Which raises a question: Haven’t we been down this road before? Indeed, Facebook and Google both experimented with partnering with news organizations and republishing their content on its own platforms, but those arrangements ultimately came to a bad end. Needless to say, Apple News Plus also privileges national publications over local media outlets. Tani mentions partnerships with large regional newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but it’s hard to imagine that they’ll get down to the level of hyperlocals that cover small communities and neighborhoods.

Chris Krewson, the executive director of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers put it this way on Twitter: “Every time I watch this movie the ending is the same.”

Let me point out another problem. A few large newspapers, both national (principally the Times and The Wall Street Journal) and regional (including The Boston Globe and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis), have achieved profitability on the strength of digital subscriptions. Key to that is that they get all the revenue. The Globe’s non-discounted digital subscription rate of $30 a month is more than double what you’d pay Apple, and that money is being split among all of the media partners that are taking part, as well as with Apple itself.

Journalism is expensive, and news organizations with large reporting staffs need as much subscription revenue as they can get. What Apple is offering, essentially, is iTunes for news, an idea that the late David Carr was promoting 15 years ago. There are good reasons it’s never caught on — until now, maybe.

Long-term, no tech company is going to be a reliable partner for news organizations. Apple is attractive in ways that Facebook and Twitter never were: it’s not a social network, and charging subscriptions for users provides a more solid underpinning than anything the platforms offered. And of course journalism should take advantage of what Apple is offering. At this late date, I think every news executive knows the rug could be pulled out from under them at any moment. But they ought to take the money while it’s there.

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Things that make you go hmmm…

CNHI, the Alabama-based newspaper chain that owns four daily newspapers north of Boston, is selling 10 papers in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi as well as a printing plant in Georgia. Locally, the company owns The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times. Does CNHI intend to keep its Massachusetts holdings even while selling off papers in its backyard?

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Joshua Macht and Ronnie Ramos tell us about their big plans for MassLive

Joshua Macht

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Joshua Macht and Ronnie Ramos. Both are leading an expansion by the MassLive Media Group, which operates MassLive.com.

Macht, the president, previously led the digital transformation of the Harvard Business Review. Ramos is the vice president of content and executive editor of MassLive. Ramos comes to Massachusetts after leading newsrooms in Miami, Indiana, Memphis and Chicago.

MassLive is part of Advance Local, a privately owned chain that operates newspapers and websites around the country, including New Jersey, Alabama, Oregon. Advance also owns The Republican newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts, but Josh and Ronnie tell us that MassLive — for which they have statewide ambitions — is operated separately.

Ronnie Ramos

In Quick Takes, I discuss an announcement Google made last week that could prove to be pretty harmful to local news publishers. Essentially Google is going to merge its search engine with Gemini, its artificial-intelligence tool, which is similar to ChatGPT. Soon, anything you search for on Google will give you not just links but an AI-generated answer. Most people aren’t going to bother with those links, thus depriving news outlets of much-needed traffic.

Ellen reviews the findings from a recent Pew Research Center poll that studied local news habits. It’s perhaps no surprise to see that the U.S. adults surveyed increasingly turn to websites and social media for their news.

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

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GBH cuts claim three local TV shows, including its only Black-oriented program

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy

There are many things to say about the cuts announced Wednesday at GBH, so pardon the random nature of this post. As Aidan Ryan reports in The Boston Globe, 31 employees were laid off, comprising 4% of the staff. Now, 4% doesn’t sound like a lot, especially at a large operation that encompasses national and local programming across television, radio and digital. But management chose to decimate its local TV operation covering news and public affairs. “Greater Boston,” a Monday-to-Thursday program featuring interviews with newsmakers, was canceled; so were two weekly shows, “Basic Black” and “Talking Politics.” All told, a reported 10% of the cuts came at GBH News, as the local operation is known.

Shuttering “Basic Black” is inexplicable. Originally called “Say Brother,” it was GBH’s only local television show devoted to covering the region’s communities of color. There’s nothing in the regular radio lineup, either. This is an abdication of GBH’s responsibilities as a public media institution supported by grants, donations from “viewers like you” and taxpayer dollars. Yes, I know that chief executive Susan Goldberg says the three shows will come back as digital programs, but no one knows what that’s going to look like.

“Talking Politics” was a weekly program on local politics and public policy ably hosted by Adam Reilly, with whom I worked both at The Boston Phoenix and, later, at GBH News. It was launched after the August 2021 cancellation of “Beat the Press with Emily Rooney,” an award-winning program I was part of almost from its inception in 1998. There’s a lot I could say about the decision to end “Beat the Press,” but I’ll leave it at this: The program was pulling in strong viewership numbers right up to the end, and I still hear from people wherever I go who lament its passing.

Getting rid of “Greater Boston” strikes me as a rerun of past events. The show, with Emily Rooney at the helm, was created in 1997, six years after the cancellation of “The Ten O’Clock News,” which was anchored by Christopher Lydon and Carmen Fields. Emily presided over a compelling program characterized by her intelligence and quirky appeal. But let’s not forget that it was also cheaper to produce than “The Ten O’Clock News,” which was a full-fledged newscast. (I wrote about those early days in a long Phoenix feature.) “Beat the Press” was born a year later when the Friday slot became available and Emily was able to fulfill her ambitions of putting a media-criticism show on the air.

As Emily moved closer to retirement age, she gave up “Greater Boston” while keeping “Beat the Press.” Jim Braude, who also co-hosts GBH’s “Boston Public Radio” with Margery Eagan, took her place and proved to be popular and successful in that slot. But he gave it up in 2022 in order to concentrate on radio, and “Greater Boston” has been helmed by a rotating series of hosts ever since. One of those irregulars was Adam, and I was on with him May 15 to talk about “What Works in Community News,” the book I wrote with Ellen Clegg. We knew cuts were coming, but I certainly didn’t realize I’d be one of the last guests.

Another observation: From the moment that WBUR Radio and GBH reported financial problems earlier this year, some have questioned whether Boston could accommodate two news-focused public radio stations. In April, two dozen people took early-retirement buyouts at ’BUR while another seven were laid off. The Globe’s Ryan even raised the possibility that the two radio stations could merge.

So it’s striking that when GBH finally brought down the hammer, it was on the television rather than the radio side. Of course, television is much more expensive, and the entire institution reportedly had an operating deficit of $18.7 million last year. Still, it seems like an odd choice given that GBH has no direct public television competition while on radio it lags well behind ’BUR.

The day of reckoning at GBH also came just two days after GBH News general manager Pam Johnston announced she was leaving after four years of running all local programming — radio, television and digital. And her departure, in turn, followed a Globe story in February by Mark Shanahan in which he reported that Johnston ran a newsroom beset by turmoil and a toxic culture.

Sadly, all of this comes just as GBH News had won its first Peabody Award, for its excellent “The Big Dig” podcast. Ambitious, deeply reported podcasts are expensive, and even the best of them draw relatively small audiences — so it could be a while before we hear anything like it again.

Finally, being a part of GBH News for many years was one of the highlights of my career. My roles over the course of 24 years included being a panelist on “Beat the Press,” writing a column for the GBH News website and appearing occasionally on radio. Wednesday was a sad day. My best wishes to those who lost their jobs and to my friends and former colleagues who are still employed.

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Broadcast nets highlight Trump’s latest Nazi dalliance while newspapers fall short

Assert, deny, project. Repeat. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

Whenever Donald Trump erupts with rhetoric that is disturbing and offensive, questions are raised as to whether the media should amplify it. My own view: Yes, usually, although it shouldn’t be repeated over and over to the point at which it drowns out all other news. President Biden is struggling to get his own message out, and surely one of the reasons is that Trump is dominating just about every news cycle — not in a good way, of course, but that hardly seems to matter.

Yet how can we ignore the reality that, on Monday, his campaign promoted Nazi rhetoric on Trump’s own Truth Social platform? Among other things, the 30-second video that was posted refers to “the creation of a unified Reich” and says that Trump will reject “globalists,” code for Jews among the far right. The Trump campaign responded with the usual drivel. According to The New York Times (free link), the response was that the video was shared by a campaign staffer who didn’t notice the Nazi content and that Biden, naturally, is “the real extremist.” The post was reportedly left up for many hours, though it was taken down Tuesday morning. Trump himself has not addressed the matter.

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What’s interesting is that, far from giving the story too much attention, our major mainstream newspapers have actually paid little attention to it. Our three national papers, the Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, all published stories about it online. But only the Times saw fit to include it in its print edition, relegating it to page A17 of today’s paper, with no tease on the front. By contrast, there’s nothing on page one or inside the print editions of the Post or the Journal, either today or Tuesday.

Locally, The Boston Globe actually has two stories in its print edition today, as it’s the lead item in its political roundup and the subject of a metro-front story on Biden’s speech in Boston. Neither, though, is on page one.

It seems like a classic case of being caught between news cycles — too late for Tuesday print, too old for Wednesday print. The Nazi story certainly dominated the political conversation on Tuesday, but for casual news consumers who aren’t constantly plugged into social media and cable news, that’s scant consolation. Print still matters, if only as a way for editors to communicate what they think are the most important stories of the day.

The Big Three national evening newscasts actually did better on Tuesday. I downloaded the audio and plugged the files into Otter, which uses artificial intelligence to produce reasonably good transcripts. I also watched a few minutes to fill in the gaps. Here’s what I found:

  • ABC’s “World News Tonight” had a story about 12 minutes into its newscast and stuck with it for almost a minute and a half. It included both the “N”-word (Nazi) and the “H”-word (Hitler) and incorporated Biden’s outraged response. There’s also this straightforward assertion by reporter Mary Bruce: “The Trump campaign is adamant this was not a campaign video, that it was reposted by a staffer who clearly did not see the word while the President was in court. But that video that included three instances of the word Reich remained on Trump’s page for more than 18 hours.”
  • The “NBC Nightly News” actually mentioned the Nazi story three times. Anchor Lester Holt teased it in his opening, and reporter Laura Jarrett referred to it at about the 10-minute mark in beginning her roundup of that day’s Trump-related news before offering a 30-second story at about 11:30. Again, the word “Nazi” is used several times.
  • On the “CBS Evening News,” anchor Norah O’Donnell teased the story about six minutes into the newscast, straightforwardly asserting that the term “Reich” is associated with Nazi Germany. Reporter Robert Costa then offered up some Trump news that provides the most thorough overview of the three networks, pivoting from the post and Biden’s reaction to this: “It’s not the first time Trump has used rhetoric prompting outrage for its echoes of hateful extremists.” That’s followed by some of Trump’s worst comments over the years, from saying that immigrants “are poisoning the blood of our country” to “radical left thugs that live like vermin.”

All of this matters because the three evening network newscasts are the closest thing we have left to a mass medium, with a combined audience of nearly 20 million. By contrast, Fox News, which attracts by far the largest audience of the three cable news stations, has an average of about 2 million viewers in prime time, generally defined as 8 to 11 p.m.

I harbor no illusions that Trump’s latest dalliance with Nazi and antisemitic rhetoric is going to have a lasting effect. It all played out in a manner that we’ve seen over and over: assert, deny and project — and then quietly remove the offending message after it’s accomplished its purpose of assuring the far right that he’s one of them. Stand back and stand by, everyone. It’s going to get a lot worse.

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Confusion reigns as regulations are drafted for that NY local news tax credit

State Capitol building in Albany, N.Y. Photo (cc) 2015 by Marcela.

A three-year, $90 million appropriation to boost local news in New York State is sparking a contentious battle over who is eligible and who isn’t, according to an article by Jon Campbell of Gothamist.

As originally touted by its supporters, the program was supposed to provide subsidies to offset the cost of hiring and retaining journalists at all manner of news organizations — print, digital and broadcast, for-profit and nonprofit. Now much of that is up in the air — so much so that Campbell says the only sure thing is that it would cover all or most for-profit print newspapers. Campbell writes:

As crafted, the law largely excludes many local news outlets it purports to support — aside from for-profit print newspapers — due to a crush of last-minute negotiations in the days before the budget passed. Those led to a final version that excluded most TV broadcasters and many commercial radio stations….

Also excluded were nonprofit news outlets, which were never included in the first place — to the surprise of some leading supporters who were convinced otherwise.

If nonprofits aren’t eligible, that represents a significant reversal of a principle everyone thought they understood. Indeed, Steven Waldman, president of Rebuild Local News and a prominent supporter of nonprofit journalism, praised the appropriation shortly after it was approved in late April. Now he tells Gothamist that leaving out nonprofits would be a major mistake.

“We missed something all along here, and it was never quite set up the way any of us thought it was,” Waldman is quoted as saying. He added: “Nonprofits — including both websites, news services and local public radio — are crucially important parts of the local news ecosystem. We will definitely work to get them included in future revisions.”

What about for-profit digital-only news projects? Unclear. What about newspapers owned by publicly traded corporations, such as Gannett? They are excluded under one provision but seemingly included in another — a contradiction first reported by Richard J. Tofel, writing in his newsletter, Second Rough Draft. As for broadcast, Gothamist reports that they may have been left out by mistake. Or not.

The rules governing how the money will be distributed are still being drafted by the state, so it’s possible that the final product will look something like what Waldman and others were celebrating just a few weeks ago. At a minimum, the system should not favor print over digital or for-profit over nonprofit. Excluding corporate chains that have deliberately hollowed out their papers, such as Gannett, makes sense, too.

Whether we’ll get there or not remains to be seen. And, frankly, what’s happening in New York ought to be regarded as a warning for what can happen when the government gets involved in helping to solve the local news crisis.

Earlier:

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Mein Gott

From The New York Times: “Trump Posts Video Online With Newspaper Headline About ‘Unified Reich’” (free link)

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GBH News general manager Pam Johnston is leaving at the end of the month

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

GBH News general manager Pam Johnston is leaving the station at the end of the month. A friend was filling me in even as Aidan Ryan was reporting on her departure for The Boston Globe. GBH News comprises the public media behemoth’s local programming across television, radio and digital. On the radio, GBH (89.7 FM) lags well behind WBUR (90.9 FM). Both stations emphasize NPR programming and local news; ’BUR is in the midst of buyouts and layoffs, and GBH may not be far behind.

Johnston’s announcement comes nearly four months after the Globe’s Mark Shanahan reported that GBH was in turmoil. Based on my own conversations with current and former station employees, I know that Johnston had both supporters and detractors among the staff. “With new leadership at GBH, there are new opportunities and new strategies for our newsroom,” Johnston said in an email to the staff that was obtained by Ryan. “I’m excited about what comes next. I will continue watching, listening, and cheering you on every step of the way.”

Ellen Clegg and I interviewed Johnston on the “What Works” podcast in March 2022. My standard disclosure: I was a paid contributor to GBH News from 1998 to 2022, mostly as a panelist on “Beat the Press with Emily Rooney,” the award-winning media program that was canceled under Johnston’s watch in 2021.

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The progressive left takes to social media to battle with The New York Times

Maggie Haberman at the University of Louisville in 2023. Public domain photo by uoflphoto3.

Ask ordinary people whether they think The New York Times leans left, and nine out of 10 will tell you yes. The Times’ first public editor, Daniel Okrent, wrote a famous piece years ago with the headline “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” His lead: “Of course it is.” The website Media Bias/Fact Check rates the Times as having a “slight to moderate liberal bias,” although it also assesses its factual accuracy as “high,” the second-highest rating. My own view is that the Times’ news judgment is shaped in part by its embrace of cultural liberalism, but that its day-to-day political coverage is timid and marred by both-sides-ism at a moment when the Republican Party has devolved into authoritarianism.

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Now let me tell you about Threads. The Meta-owned would-be replacement for Twitter/X is my main stop these days for short-form, text-based social media. And it is filled with progressives who deride the Times as blinded by pro-corporate bias and fealty to Donald Trump. My feed is bombarded with progressives (that is, people I would regard as being somewhere left of liberal) who proudly announce that they’re canceling their subscriptions because of some perceived breach of left-leaning orthodoxy. They were particularly apoplectic over a recent interview that executive editor Joe Kahn gave to Semafor in which Kahn said, among other things:

To say that the threats of democracy are so great that the media is going to abandon its central role as a source of impartial information to help people vote — that’s essentially saying that the news media should become a propaganda arm for a single candidate, because we prefer that candidate’s agenda.

I will grant you that Kahn’s performance was suboptimal (democracy is kind of important) but liberal critics of the Times lost their minds over it. It happened again this week when it was revealed that reporter Maggie Haberman, a longtime target of the left, had coordinated with Michael Cohen back when he was Trump’s goon so that she could make sure she’d get a quote in time for her deadline. As a result, Haberman came under brutal assault on Threads — and apparently on Twitter, too, as described by CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy:

The message Cohen sent Haberman said Trump had approved him responding to the Stormy Daniels allegations back in 2018. “Please start writing and I will call you soon,” Cohen wrote. Some on the left have twisted that message to assert it is proof that Haberman takes orders from the Trump campaign. Which as Mother Jones’ Clara Jeffrey pointed out is “patently insane.” As Jeffery explained, “Guys, texting with sources is how you get the inside dope and ‘start writing’ isn’t an order from Trump HQ, it’s like, start your process and I’ll maybe feed you something.”

In response to all this, I posted, “Threads is driving me back to the NYT.” And though I got some likes, I also got this response: “Hope that’s sarcasm.” It was not. I’ll go so far as to say that we know more about Trump because of Maggie Haberman than perhaps any other journalist, and that the Times is still a great paper, though deeply flawed. And no, I’m not canceling my subscription. I wouldn’t even consider it.

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‘The Greatest Night in Pop’ should be a call to generosity

I’m late to this, so you may have seen it already. I finally got around to watching “The Greatest Night in Pop” (here’s the trailer) on Netflix, and it’s terrific. It’s about the making of “We Are the World,” the 1985 song and video with an all-star cast that raised more than $60 million for famine relief in Africa.

If you always thought the song was a bit treacly, well, blame Stevie Wonder. He was supposed to be involved in writing it, but no one could find him, leaving songwriting duties to Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie. And as you may have heard, there’s a scene of Stevie showing Bob Dylan how to sing his part — employing a dead-on Dylan imitation — that has to be seen to be appreciated.

The interviews with Ritchie, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, Sheila E. and Huey Lewis are especially insightful. That the entire project came together in one night is a testament to the professionalism of everyone involved, especially Ritchie and Quincy Jones, who was involved from the start and oversaw the whole thing. Well worth your time.

Famine in Africa continues — in Sudan and in Gaza, which is right at the nexus of Africa and the Middle East. “The Greatest Night in Pop” shouldn’t be just an exercise in nostalgia. It should be a call to generosity.

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