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

Category: Local News Page 1 of 48

Cooperatively owned local news outlets are still an unfulfilled dream

Good to see that some journalists are trying cooperatively owned news projects, as Lauren Mechling reports for The Guardian. One of our frustrations in finding news organizations to write about in “What Works in Community News” was that there were no examples we could find of a successful local news co-op.

The for-profit Mendocino Voice in Northern California considered it but got overwhelmed during the COVID pandemic. As I was wrapping up my reporting, publisher Kate Maxwell told me she was more likely to shift to the nonprofit model rather than pursue a co-op. I spent years following efforts to start a co-op in Haverhill, which were eventually wound down because of fundraising problems. And The Devil Strip in Akron, Ohio, fell apart.

It’s still an interesting idea. Co-author Ellen Clegg and I believe that we need diversity in ownership models. For-profit startups tend to be tiny, and most of the ones with much in the way of reporting capacity are nonprofits. A news outlet owned by the staff and the community would be an interesting alternative. Maybe someday.

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Our next book event is this Friday evening in Acton

If you’re north of Boston, I hope you’ll drop in at the Silver Unicorn Bookstore in Acton this Friday, March 1, at 7 p.m., when Ellen Clegg and I will be hosting an event for our book, “What Works in Community News.” Please click here for more information.

How a former Iowa newspaper’s name was hijacked to produce AI-generated clickbait

Clayton County, Iowa. Photo (cc) 2011 by Jsayre64.

The Clayton County Register was a respected Iowa newspaper. Founded in 1926, it lives on, having merged with The North Iowa Times in 2020. The new paper was named the Times-Register.

But that’s not the only way that the paper lives on. Kate Knibbs reports in Wired that the domain name, claytoncountyregister.com, is being repurposed to generate investment-oriented clickbait using artificial intelligence. Indeed, if you look at the Register’s homepage right now, you’ll find a gigantic headline, “New York Community Bancorp Faces Uphill Battle Amid Regional Banking Crisis,” accompanied by what is almost certainly an AI-generated image and a byline attributed to Emmanuel Ellerbee.

Ellerbee, Knibbs tells us, has some 30,845 articles to his credit, which is a level of output that even the greediest corporate newspaper owner would respect.

Although Knibbs doesn’t use the term “pink slime,” what she found would appear to fit: it’s garbage content, written under apparently fake bylines, taking advantage of a legacy newspaper’s brand and reputation in order to suck people in. Not that whoever is behind the faux Clayton County Register much cares about trying to lure the locals.

Knibbs begins her story by telling us about an investor named Tony Eastin who stumbled upon the Register while researching a pharmaceutical stock. Much of the story is devoted to how Eastin and his friend Sandeep Abraham tried to get to the bottom of this weird tale. They weren’t entirely successful, but they did find that a Linux server in Germany and a Polish website appeared to be involved. So, too, was a Chinese operation called “the Propaganda Department of the Party Committee of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” Knibbs writes:

Although Eastin and Abraham suspect that the network which the Register’s old site is now part of was created with straightforward moneymaking goals, they fear that more malicious actors could use the same sort of tactics to push misinformation and propaganda into search results. “This is massively threatening,” Abraham says. “We want to raise some alarm bells.”

One of the dangers of the local news crisis is that bad actors can move in and create what appears to be local content that is really anything but. There’s Pink Slime 1.0, going back about a dozen years, which employed low-wage workers in far-off locations like the Philippines to write stories for zombie newspapers. There’s Pink Slime 2.0, in which mostly right-wing websites are given semi-plausible-sounding names like the North Boston News (!) to spread political propaganda. And now, increasingly, we’re seeing examples of Pink Slime 3.0, which adds AI to the mix.

Although these sites don’t represent much of a threat at the moment, that could change. After all, the infrastructure is being put into place.

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A local news activist lashes out at big funders: ‘Psst! Look under your seat!’

An actual news desert. Photo (cc) 2008 by Stefano Brivio.

As nonprofit news becomes an increasingly important part of community journalism, there’s a rift developing between large foundations and small publishers who say that they’re being left behind. Sophie Culpepper wrote about this recently for Nieman Lab, and a new organization called the Alliance of Nonprofit News Outlets has been founded to represent those overlooked media outlets.

The most recent development on this front is a scorching piece at Local News Blues by Alice Dreger, an author, historian and a founder and former publisher of East Lansing Info. Dreger takes note of the recent Knight Media Forum, whose organizers she describes as being more interested in developing software tools of dubious merit than in providing operating funds to hyperlocal publishers. She writes:

The KMF has always been a towel-slapping, country club locker room with waiters coming by to offer bacon-wrapped shrimp, but this year was particularly troubling. As local news publishers are desperately trying to keep from laying off staff and closing up shop, representatives of the Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and their joint Press Forward venture got up on stage to assure the world they’re going to save us.

“We are in it with you, and together we will crack the code of sustainability,” said Maribel Pérez Wadsworth, the president of the Knight Foundation. You know, the Knight Foundation — the behemoth sitting comfortably on a multi-billion-dollar endowment.

Psst, Maribel! Look under your seat!

She also quotes Nancy West of InDepthNH as saying that Knight seems more interested in artificial intelligence than in paying for news. West, a past guest on our podcast, “What Works,” promptly republished Dreger’s piece. That led to a response from John Palfrey, the president of the MacArthur Foundation, which is the lead foundation in Press Forward. “Thanks for the tag and the feedback,” he wrote on Twitter/X. “I know the team will bear these critiques in mind as grantmaking ramps up.”

The bottom line is that there isn’t enough national money for everyone. Dreger notes that Press Forward has decided to make a priority of funding projects that serve communities of color, which I think makes a lot of sense, even if that leaves other projects behind. Ultimately, nonprofit news outlets have to educate philanthropic organizations in their own backyards that quality journalism is as worthy of funding as youth programs and the arts. And yes, I realize that’s easier to do in some places than in others.

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Some good news from Rhode Island on the local news front

Ted Nesi of WPRI-TV (Channel 12) in Providence reports some good news from Rhode Island on the local news front. In his weekly “Nesi’s Notes” column (item 10), he writes that the seven local newspapers and other properties that comprise the East Bay Media Group are thriving, and that The Valley Breeze in northern Rhode Island is also doing well. East Bay publisher Matt Hayes tells Nesi that his properties now have 145,000 weekly readers, while Breeze publisher James Quinn says he’s now distributing 50,000 copies each week and is expanding.

The East Bay papers are paid and the Breeze is free, a sign that different types of for-profit business models can work. As Nesi observers, this comes at a time when even relatively healthy national papers such as The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post are cutting their newsrooms.

It may be too soon to declare a trend, but with even Gannett in hiring mode after years of devastating cuts, it could be that people are rediscovering the importance of local news.

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Teri Morrow and Wayne Braverman track the future of The Bedford Citizen

Teri Morrow

On our latest podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Teri Morrow and Wayne Braverman of The Bedford Citizen in the Boston suburb of Bedford, Massachusetts. Wayne is a longtime journalist who is now serving as the managing editor of the Citizen. Teri, the executive director, has lived in Bedford since 1996 and has been active in local government.

I wrote the chapter on this homegrown, grass-roots news site in “What Works in Community News.” In the book, I tell the story about how the free digital site grew out of what three members of the League of Women Voters — Julie McCay Turner, Meredith McCulloch and Kim Siebert — saw as a need to provide their community with reliable news. Julie stepped down as managing editor in 2022, and Meredith is still involved as a volunteer.

Wayne Braverman

I’ve got a Quick Take on an unlikely good news story. The media industry is in the midst of another painful downturn, with news organizations from The Washington Post to the Los Angeles Times to CNN cutting their newsrooms and with The Messenger, a high-profile national startup that never seemed to make sense, shutting down after less than a year. But there’s one news organization that’s hiring journalists and that says it’s succeeding at the very tough job of selling ads. You won’t believe who I’m talking about, so stay tuned.

Ellen talks about the robots that may come to steal our jobs — or at least help us compile real estate listings and police blotters. It’s all part of an initiative undertaken by that venerable journalistic organization The Associated Press.

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

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The Boston Globe interviews Ellen Clegg and me about our local news book

Many thanks to Kate Tuttle for her Boston Globe interview with Ellen Clegg and me about our book, “What Works in Community News.” We’ll be hosting two book events in the Boston area next week. On Monday, Feb. 26, at 7 p.m., we’ll be at the Harvard Book Store, right outside of Harvard Square, and on Friday, March 1, we’ll be at the Silver Unicorn Bookstore, also at 7 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public.

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Illinois seeks to bolster community journalism. Plus, a local news round-up.

The Illinois Statehouse. Photo (cc) 2023 by Warren LeMay.

Illinois lawmakers this week unveiled a massive package aimed at bolstering local news. According to Mark Caro of the Local News Initiative, based at Northwestern University in Chicago, the package comprises two separate bills:

The Journalism Preservation Act would require Big Tech companies such as Google and Facebook to compensate news organizations for the content that they share, display or link to on their platforms. The Strengthening Community Media Act offers a broad array of incentives, tax breaks and scholarships intended to repopulate local newsrooms. Included in that bill is a provision that calls for 120 days’ written notice before a local news organization may be sold to an out-of-state company.

As I’ve said before, I’m less than enthusiastic about going after the tech platforms, which presupposes that they are somehow stealing journalistic content without paying for it. Facebook executives have made it clear that they can live quite nicely without news. With respect to Google, media outlets find themselves in the awkward situation of demanding compensation while at the same time depending on the search giant to drive traffic to their websites. Indeed, any one of them could insert a simple line of code in their sites that would make them invisible to Google. None of them does. I would like to see Google and Facebook do more for local news, and maybe it ought to be mandated. But this bill seems like too much of a blunt instrument, as does similar legislation being pushed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar at the federal level.

The second Illinois bill includes a number of different ideas. I particularly like the proposed requirement for a 120-day notification period. As Steven Waldman, the president of Rebuild Local News, said recently on the podcast “E&P Reports,” a mandatory delay can give communities time to rally and prevent their local newspaper from falling into the hands of chain ownership.

Other provisions of the Strengthening Community Media Act would mandate that state agencies advertise with local news outlets, provide tax credits to publishers for hiring and retaining journalists, enact additional tax credits for small businesses that advertise with local outlets, and create scholarships for students who agree to work at a local Illinois news organization for two years or more.

It’s good to see action taking place at the state level given that several federal proposals in recent years have gone nowhere despite bipartisan support. It’s also notable that the proposals were drafted by Illinois’ Local Journalism Task Force, which was created in August 2021. Here in Massachusetts, legislation was signed by then-Gov. Charlie Baker way back in January 2021 to create a commission that would study local news. I had a hand in drafting that legislation and would be one of its members, but the commission has yet to get off the ground.

There are several other developments in local news that are worth taking note of.

• Gannett is making a $2 million investment in its Indianapolis Star aimed at bolstering the newsroom and the advertising sales staff. Two top Gannett executives recently appeared on “E&P Reports” about Gannett’s plans to reinvest in its properties. Unfortunately, Holly V. Hayes of the Indy Star writes, “This is the only site in the USA TODAY Network, which includes more than 200 local publications across the country, where such an investment is being made.” My hope is that if the investment leads to a boost in circulation and revenues, then it will serve as a model for what Gannett might do elsewhere.

• A new hyperlocal news project has made its debut in Boston. The Seaport Journal, a digital news outlet, covers the city’s newest neighborhood. Meanwhile, the Marblehead Beacon, one of three independent projects covering that town, has announced that it’s ending regular coverage but will continue to “pursue periodic and unique pieces, and shift away from daily, weekly, or otherwise regular articles.” A reminder: We track independent local news organizations in Massachusetts, and you can find a link to our list in the upper right corner of this website. Just look for “Mass. Indy News.”

• Local access cable television plays an important role in community journalism by carrying public meetings, providing a platform for residents to make their own media, and, in some cases, by covering the news directly. Unfortunately, cord-cutting has placed access television at risk since stations’ income is based on a fee assessed to cable providers for each subscriber. In CommonWealth Beacon, Caleb Tobin, a production technician at Holbrook Community Access and media and a junior at Stonehill College, argues in favor of Massachusetts legislation that would impose a 5% fee on streaming services. “While often viewed as a relic of the past,” Tobin writes, “the services that cable access stations provide are more important now than they’ve ever been.”

• Many thanks to Tara Henley, host of the Canadian podcast “Lean Out,” who interviewed Ellen Clegg and me about our book, “What Works in Community News.” You can listen here.

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Gannett is ramping up on the advertising and editorial sides — but will it last?

For a long time I’ve heard an alternative explanation for why newspaper advertising collapsed over the past 15 years. The argument goes something like this: Yes, Craigslist, Google and Facebook offered a better deal and took most of the ads that used to belong to newspapers. But newspapers themselves were to blame, too. Ad salespeople had become so accustomed to sitting at their desks and taking the orders that came pouring in that they actually had no experience or incentive to get out and sell. The tech platforms were going to have a devastating effect on them in any case, but it was worse than it needed to be, so this argument goes, because they couldn’t shake themselves out of the lethargy that came with many years of enjoying a monopoly or, at worst, a duopoly.

Which is why there’s some reason to be at least a little bit hopeful about the latest moves by a large media company that is hiring on both the business and editorial sides. At a time when many news organizations are in the midst of laying people off (CNN, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times) or shutting down (The Messenger), one media mega-corporation that is a household name is taking the opposite approach.

Would you believe it if I told you that the company is Gannett? The chain, which controls about 200 daily papers, anchored by USA Today, is rightly known for hollowing out newsrooms and using the savings to pay down debt and enrich their owners and top executives. These days, though, they are talking about trying something different.

Recently Mike Blinder of Editor & Publisher had two top Gannett executives on his podcast, “E&P Reports” — the chief content officer, Kristin Roberts, and Jason Taylor, the chief sales officer. After years of cutting at Gannett and the chain that it merged with several years ago, GateHouse Media, Gannett is now in expansion mode. Taylor said that Gannett has hired about two dozen local general managers since last August, with plans to hire more. These are the folks who are in charge of selling advertising, and they say it’s paying off with new accounts and with the return of some old accounts that left years ago.

Meanwhile, Roberts said that Gannett has hired 500 journalists since June of last year, with more to come in the months ahead. These are reporters, editors and visual journalists who, she said, will “bring strength back to local newsrooms, so that they can do the job of strengthening their local communities.” And yes, she mentioned the reporters that Gannett hired to cover Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, so make of that what you will.

Now, of course we should be skeptical. Axios has reported that the combined company eliminated fully half of its 21,000 employees after the 2019 merger, and the destruction it has wreaked in the communities it supposedly serves has been deep. I would love to hear from Media Nation readers whether they’ve seen any improvement in their Gannett paper’s coverage of local news in recent months.

The situation is especially dire in Eastern Massachusetts, where Gannett has closed and merged dozens of weekly papers and replaced local news stories with regional content from around the chain. Weeklies were at the heart of GateHouse, but the new Gannett doesn’t seem to have any interest in weeklies. If improvement is going to come, I suspect, it’s going to be at the dailies.

It’s also fair to be skeptical about whether the current upsurge is sustainable. Roberts and Taylor were recruited at a moment when the executives at the very top of Gannett decided to see if a little expansion might bring in more money than round after round of cuts. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, well, we know that the cutting will resume. Gannett remains heavily burdened by the debt it took on when it merged with GateHouse, which led the new Gannett to cut half its workforce.

The hiring that’s taking place now doesn’t come close to making up for what has been lost. But if they succeed, perhaps the hiring will continue.

Blinder has been on a roll with his podcast. His latest features Steven Waldman, the president of Rebuild Local News, and Jeff Jarvis, a journalist, author and the retiring director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University of New York. The discussion was billed as debate over whether legacy media is worth saving or if instead it’s time to let them go. They agreed more than I thought they would, though they diverged when the discussion turned to government assistance and efforts to force Google and Facebook to compensate news organizations. It’s well worth a listen.

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Congratulations to this year’s Yankee Quill Award winners

Ellen Clegg

I am excited to share some big news about my friend and collaborator Ellen Clegg. Ellen has won a 2024 Yankee Quill Award, given by the Academy of New England Journalists, for her “contributions to the betterment of journalism,” which include a long and distinguished career at The Boston Globe; her work on our book about local journalism, “What Works in Community News,” and our podcast; and her co-founding and ongoing leadership of Brookline.News, a digital nonprofit startup.

Ellen is not the only journalist I’m associated with who won a Yankee Quill. Ed Miller, the co-founder and editor of The Provincetown Independent, has built a unique news organization — a  print and digital outlet that’s a for-profit public benefit corporation, with a nonprofit arm known as the Local Journalism Project that supports certain types of public interest reporting at the Independent. (Disclosure: I’m a member of the Local Journalism Project’s advisory board.)

There were three other winners as well: George Brennan, a longtime editor on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard who also worked a stint at the Globe; Izaksun Larrañeta, executive editor of The Day in New London, Connecticut; and Mark Pothier, a veteran journalist and Globe alumnus who helped start the nonprofit Plymouth Independent and is now its editor and CEO. (A further disclosure: I’m a proud member of the Yankee Quill Class of 2019, and yes, I had a hand in picking this year’s honorees.)

The five will be honored at the New England Newspaper and Press Association convention on March 23. Here’s the press release, including bios of the winners. Congratulations to everyone!

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