The proliferation of Republican-backed, secretive local-news sites is not a new story. We’ve talked about it on “Beat the Press” several times. Just a few weeks ago, I had to do some research to determine whether a digital newspaper I was writing about might be one such site. (It wasn’t.)
But a front-page story in today’s New York Times takes an unusually deep dive into the phenomenon. Davey Alba and Jack Nicas report that about 1,300 of these sites are under the control of Brian Timpone, “a TV reporter turned internet entrepreneur who has sought to capitalize on the decline of local news organizations for nearly two decades.”
Alba and Nicas carefully document what looks like something awfully close to “pay to play.” For instance, a Republican congressional candidate from Illinois named Jeanne Ives has paid Timpone’s operations $55,000 over the past three years. “During that time,” they write, “the Illinois sites have published overwhelmingly positive coverage of her, including running some of her news releases verbatim.” (Ives claims the money was for web services and Facebook ads rather than for favorable coverage.)
For me, the wildest angle was learning that Timpone is the guy who was behind Journatic, a much-loathed project that produced automated local news stories as well as content using grossly underpaid, out-of-town reporters — including cheap Filipino workers who wrote articles under fake bylines. As I wrote in 2012, Journatic’s work product was widely known as “pink slime” journalism, and it’s hard to see how Timpone’s news project is much better.
The new pink slime — which I should say is not limited to Republican sites, though they seem to comprise the overwhelming majority of them — takes advantage of the collapse of local news and the rise of news deserts throughout the country. Unsuspecting readers are no doubt grateful to run across some local news, and it’s only later (if at all) that they find out they’re reading propaganda. In that sense, Timpone’s operations are similar to Sinclair Broadcasting, which promotes a right-wing line but which, unlike Fox News, does so under the cover of a network of local television stations.
According to the map accompanying the Times story, there are 16 such pink-slime sites in Massachusetts. I’d love to see a list, and will add one if someone can point me to it.
After Alden Global Capital destroyed The Denver Post, everyone assumed it was lights out. A city that had long had two vibrant daily papers (the Rocky Mountain News closed down in 2009) now barely had one.
Suddenly, though, news sources are proliferating in Denver. Today the all-digital Denver Gazette makes its debut, joining an earlier start-up, The Colorado Sun. The alt-weekly Westword continues to publish.
The lesson, as always, is that when legacy media fail, entrepreneurial journalists seize the opportunity to move in.
Among those of us who follow the business of local news, there is a tendency to lump the two most notorious corporate chain owners together. Gannett Co. and Alden Globe Capital, after all, are both notorious for slashing their newsrooms to the bone. Their newspapers and websites in too many instances fail to meet the information needs of the communities they purportedly serve.
Yet there is a difference. And I was reminded of that difference recently by Rick Edmonds, who analyzes the media business for the Poynter Institute.
After a decade’s worth of cuts, Gannett is planning to bolster its reporting corps in the near future, Gannett chief executive Mike Reed told Edmonds — although he didn’t provide any numbers. Currently, Gannett employs about 5,000 journalists at its properties, which include USA Today, about 260 regional dailies and many other weekly papers and websites, including dozens in Greater Boston.
“We need to get even better,” Reed was quoted as saying. Well, OK. I would replace “even” with “a lot.” Still, such talk would be unimaginable at Alden Global Capital, whose MediaNews Group chain of about 200 papers has sparked newsroom revolts as well as demands from 21 U.S. senators that the company stop its “reckless acquisition and destruction of newspapers,” according to a recent story by Sarah Ellison in The Washington Post.
The difference between how Gannett and MediaNews are perceived may have something to do with their ownership structures.
The current Gannett is the result of a merger late last year between Gannett and GateHouse Media. Despite keeping the Gannett name, it was clearly GateHouse that got the better of the deal: Reed was the chief executive at GateHouse before assuming the same position at Gannett. The new Gannett immediately embarked on an estimated $400 million in cuts in order to pay down the debt it had taken on in financing the merger, according to the media-business analyst (and newly minted entrepreneur) Ken Doctor at Nieman Lab.
Gannett is a publicly traded corporation, which means that Reed’s ultimate goal is long-term growth and sustainability — albeit with as little journalism as the company can get away with. Reed hopes to do that by leveraging Gannett’s media holdings with digital marketing subsidiaries the company owns as well as an events business, which is obviously on hold during the COVID pandemic.
If everything works out over time, it is possible to imagine Gannett’s local news outlets staffing up and providing better, more comprehensive coverage than they have in recent years. As good as what would be offered by independent newspapers and websites? Almost certainly not. But any improvements would be welcome.
Alden Global Capital, on the other hand, is a hedge fund. And as best as anyone can tell, the company has no strategy for MediaNews Group beyond extracting as much money as it can for as long as it can. Its Massachusetts papers, the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Enterprise & Sentinel of Fitchburg, operate on a shoestring. The Fitchburg office was closed several years ago. The Herald’s office in Braintree was recently shut down as well, although it’s unclear whether that was a temporary, COVID-related move or something permanent.
In Ellison’s Washington Post article, Alden managing director Heath Freeman tried to portray himself as a savior of journalism. “I would love our team to be remembered as the team that saved the newspaper business,” he was quoted as saying. Ellison, though, ran through a list of MediaNews papers across the country that have been so gutted that they have virtually no one to cover the news.
“Don’t buy the idea that Alden is trying to save newspapers. I don’t think any idiot would buy that,” said Dean Singleton, the owner of an earlier iteration of MediaNews Group whose own reputation as a cost-cutter looks benign by today’s standards. Freeman’s retort: “We’ve saved the very newspapers that Dean Singleton ran into bankruptcy, so take his recriminations with a grain of salt.”
Stop me if you’ve heard me say this before, but quality local news can be a key to reviving civic engagement, which in turn could help us overcome the hyperpolarization that defines our culture nationally. According to a recent survey by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, 70% of Americans believe the news media play a “critical” (30%) or “very important” (42%) role “in making residents feel connected to their local community.”
“While national press was perceived by residents of all political backgrounds as distant, privileged, and dismissive of local culture,” she wrote, “it was not uncommon for residents to have first- or secondhand interactions with local reporters. So while participants could identify shortcomings, there was a base-level familiarity and trust.”
Those interactions are important — but they are becoming increasingly rare at the local news organizations being run by Gannett and MediaNews Group. At least there’s some reason to hope that the situation might improve at Gannett. As for MediaNews, a former reporter for the chain, Julie Reynolds, put it this way in The Nation several years ago: “Don’t just blame the Internet for journalism’s decline. Old-fashioned capitalist greed also strangles newspapers.”
Philadelphia and its environs are emblematic of what’s gone wrong with local news. The area is served by a well-regarded metropolitan newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and a powerhouse public radio station, WHYY, as well as various television newscasts. But the focus of those outlets is regional, not local. At the grassroots neighborhood and community levels where people actually live, journalism is scarce and looked upon with suspicion.
Rebuilding local news in places like the Philadelphia area is the subject of Andrea Wenzel’s Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust.
The Pioneer Valley NewsGuild, the union that represents press and distribution employees at the Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton, will rally Monday afternoon to honor the 29 employees who are being laid off as the Gazette closes down its presses and outsources its printing. The work will be handled by Gannett, which owns the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester and a printing plant in nearby Auburn. The move was announced in mid-June by Gazette publisher Michael Moses, who wrote:
While our decision to get out of the business of manufacturing newspapers was economically motivated, it also reflects our desire to focus on the Gazette’s core mission. Content, particularly local news content, is unequivocally that mission. This is, without question, the business model that best positions us for the future, allowing us to continue the award winning coverage our readers require.
The Gazette — owned by a small independent chain anchored by the Concord Monitor of New Hampshire — becomes the latest daily paper to job out its printing. With press runs much smaller than they used to be, it makes little sense these days for a paper to operate its own presses unless it can take on enough outside work to make it economically viable. Still, it’s a sad day for the employees who are losing their jobs.
The text of the union statement is below.
WHO: The Pioneer Valley NewsGuild and YOU, the community
WHAT: A socially distant rally honoring the workers who have helped make our paper for years on their last day before a massive layoff.
WHEN: Monday, July 27 at 5:15 p.m.
WHERE: On the sidewalk in front of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, located at 115 Conz St. in Northampton
WHY: We are standing in solidarity with those who have worked shoulder to shoulder during a global pandemic to bring this community vital news every single day. After all of that hard work and risk, Newspapers of New England is eliminating their departments, ending the 233 year history of printing the paper in Northampton in order to outsource that work to media giant Gannett. This means 29 people, including 24 union members, will be laid off. Bring signs to show appreciation for these essential workers — the people who actually make this paper. (Signs telling Newspapers of New England how shameful their behavior is are also welcome.) For more information, please contact The Pioneer Valley NewsGuild at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
As the Legislature heads into its final days, a proposal to study the decline of local news in Massachusetts has been revived. A bill filed by state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, would create a special commission “to research and propose policy solutions.”
The 23-member commission would include legislators, academics, journalists and news-industry experts. As currently drafted, I would be a member of the commission. I wrote about the idea last year for WGBH News.
For many years, Greater Boston’s local-news ecosystem, though far from optimal, was nevertheless in better shape than was the case in other parts of the country. Now, though, corporate chains such as Gannett and Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group are decimating the state’s community newspapers. Though challenges created by technology and, now, the COVID-19 pandemic would be difficult to overcome in any case, corporate greed is compounding the collapse of local newspapers.
If you’re so inclined, I hope you’ll consider contacting your state representative and senator to urge them to support the legislation, which takes the form of an amendment to the state budget. It’s called “Amendment #40, An Act establishing a commission to study journalism in underserved communities.”
Below is the text of Ehrlich’s letter to her colleagues, followed by the language of the legislation:
I respectfully request your consideration for cosponsorship of Amendment #40, An Act establishing a commission to study journalism in underserved communities. This amendment would create a commission of experts, industry members, academics, and elected officials to research and propose policy solutions related to the state of local journalism in Massachusetts and the future sustainability of the industry.
Journalism is critical to a healthy democracy, and local journalism is an important part of the fabric of our communitie. In the last decade and a half, two trends of out-of-state corporate consolidation and layoffs have led to the disappearance of 1 in 5 newspapers nationwide while countless others have become shells of themselves. A new report from UNC found that since 2004 there has been a net loss of 1,800 local newspapers.
Newsrooms across the country and right here in Massachusetts have been subject to layoffs, asset selloffs, hedge fund takeovers, and cuts in coverage, a trend that is plaguing news organizations across the country. In some parts of the country, “news deserts” are popping up where there is little to no reporting on local issues and stories. Additionally, the journalism industry has faced significant layoffs – according to the Pew Research Center, “Newsroom employment dropped nearly a quarter in less than 10 years, with greatest decline at newspapers.”
The impact of COVID-19 on the newspaper industry is already worse than the toll of the 2008 financial crisis, which saw newspapers experience a 19% decline in revenue.While larger newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post have a large subscription base to curtail damage, local newspapers, many of which are owned by publicly traded companies saddled in debt even before COVID-19, are unlikely to survive.
This commission presents a vehicle for a public discussion allowing Massachusetts to lead a national conversation about journalism and how best to support it in a changing world. Establishing this commission and the report they will produce will be a critical step forward in revitalizing our state’s local news media and ensuring their sustainability as an essential part of our democracy.
If you would like to cosponsor, …
8th Essex District
The text of the bill follows:
Ms. Ehrlich of Marblehead moves to amend the bill by inserting after section 122 the following new section:
SECTION X. (a) Resolved, that a special legislative commission, pursuant to section 2A of chapter 4 of the General Laws is hereby established to: (i) conduct a comprehensive, non-binding study relative to communities underserved by local journalism in Massachusetts; (ii) review all aspects of local journalism including, but not limited to, the adequacy of press coverage of cities and towns, ratio of residents to media outlets, the history of local news in Massachusetts, print and digital business models for media outlets, the impact of social media on local news, strategies to improve local news access, public policy solutions to improve the sustainability of local press business models and private and nonprofit solutions, and identifying career pathways and existing or potential professional development opportunities for aspiring journalists in Massachusetts.
(b) The commission shall consist of the following 23 members: 2 of whom shall be the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on community development and small business; 1 member of the house of representatives appointed by the speaker of the house; 1 member of the senate appointed by the president of the senate; 1 of whom shall be a professor at the Northeastern School of Journalism; 1 of whom shall be a member of the Boston Association of Black Journalists; 1 of whom shall be a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists; 1 of whom shall be a member of the Asian American Journalists Association of New England; 2 of whom shall be representatives of public colleges or universities of the commonwealth with either a journalism or communications program jointly appointed by the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on community development and small business; 1 of whom shall be a representative of a private college or university of the commonwealth with either a journalism or communications program jointly appointed by the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on community development and small business; 3 of whom shall be representatives of journalism unions or associations appointed by the governor provided further that the appointees are selected from the following unions and associations: the NewsGuild – Communication Workers of America, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians – Communications Workers of America, the Association of Independents in Radio, the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, the New England Newspaper and Press Association, or the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists; 8 of whom shall be currently employed or freelance journalists, editors, or producers from independent community news outlets from across the commonwealth jointly appointed by the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on community development and small business provided further that the appointees represent communities underserved by professional news organizations, rural communities, immigrants communities, working-class communities, and communities of color; and 1 of whom shall be a representative from the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. All appointments shall be made no later than 30 days following the effective date of this resolve.
(c) The commission shall hold public information sessions in order to explain the work of the commission and to solicit public comment pursuant to the work of the commission. The commission shall hold at least one public information session in each county of the commonwealth and shall provide at least one weeks notice from the date in which the public information session is occurring. The notice shall include, but not be limited to: (i) the date of the public information session; (ii) the time in which the public information session will take place; (iii) the location in which the public information session is occurring; (iv) a description of the format in which the commission will be accepting public comment; and (v) a point of contact. The public notice shall be sent by the commission to the clerks of each municipality of the county in which the public information session will occur and the commonwealth’s director of boards and commissions. In the case of a cancellation or postponement of a public information session, the commission shall provide at least 48 hours notice to the clerks of each municipality of the county in which the public information session will occur and the commonwealth’s director of boards and commissions.
(d) The commission shall accept written and oral comment from the public beginning at the first meeting of the commission.
(e) The commission shall meet a minimum of 5 times to review, study and analyze existing literature, quantitative and qualitative data on the status of journalism in the commonwealth , and submitted oral and written public comment.
(f) The commission shall submit its findings, along with recommendations for legislation, to the governor, the speaker of the house, the president of the senate, and the clerks of the house of representatives and the senate no later than 1 year after the effective date of this resolve.
(g) The special commission may make such interim reports as it considers appropriate.
Last fall I asked the lone full-time reporter for the Medford Transcript if he would take part in the mayoral debate I was helping to organize for the Medford Chamber of Commerce. He told me that he would have liked to, but that he couldn’t because he’d be covering it. A reasonable answer, although it also spoke to the Transcript’s lack of resources.
Not long after, he left the paper. The debate was covered by a part-time stringer. And today, more than a year and a half later, that full-time position still hasn’t been filled.
The Transcript does assign stringers to cover a few stories. They do a good job, and nothing I write here should be taken as denigrating their work. But in a city of nearly 58,000 people, we have enough news for a staff of two full-time reporters. Or four. Even when we had one, the young journalists who filled that position managed to write some important stories before moving on to bigger and better jobs. Zero, though, is just untenable.
Today Medford is very close to being a news desert, joining hundreds if not thousands of communities across the country that have so little coverage that they lack the reliable news and information they need to participate in local affairs in a meaningful way. Instead, we rely on Facebook, Nextdoor, Patch (which does have a little bit of original reporting), email lists, messages from the mayor, texts from the police department and reports by citizens who have the time and the inclination to sit through public meetings on Zoom and write them up. (Update: Since publishing this essay, I’ve learned about a free paper called the Medford News Weekly. Despite its name, there’s a lot of Somerville news in it, and the content is mostly press releases. Still, it’s worth keeping an eye on.)
As a longtime journalist and academic who studies the business of news, I want to share some thoughts on what might be done to solve the problem. Over the past few years, I’ve had several conversations with people in Medford about how to fill the gap created by the hollowing-out of our local newspaper. But solving the problem is a daunting task and, frankly, those conversations didn’t lead anywhere. First, though, a bit on how we got here.Continue reading “Together, we can do something about local news coverage in Medford”→
The New York Times has published an article about Evan Brandt, the last reporter covering Pottstown, Pennsylvania. His paper, The Mercury, has been decimated by its owner, the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital. It’s a great story, beautifully written by Dan Barry, with superb visuals by Haruka Sakaguchi.
And yet the air of inevitability bugs me. Barry offers nostalgia, not hope. I’m not going to suggest that Brandt quit and start his own local news project — he’s in his 50s, has a kid in college and his wife his sick. But why doesn’t the community get together, start a news project and make Brandt the first hire?
Better yet: Why can’t LNP, the newspaper in nearby Lancaster, which is independently owned and reportedly doing well, hire Brandt for a Pottstown edition? Lancaster is probably a bit too far away to justify firing up the printing presses and the trucks. But a digital edition wouldn’t cost much, and would allow them to expand their paid subscription base — much as The Boston Globe did in Rhode Island.