Saving local news: Some ideas from philanthropy, business and technology

Photo (cc) 2016 by Dan Kennedy

Could the example of the late Gerry Lenfest save Tribune Publishing’s newspapers from the avaricious clutches of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital?

About a half-dozen years ago, Lenfest, a billionaire investor, unexpectedly became the owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer and its related media properties. It’s an incredibly convoluted story that I tell in “The Return of the Moguls,” but essentially he had acquired a piece of the Inquirer with the intention of flipping it, and he ended up instead with the whole thing.

Lenfest’s next move saved quality journalism in Philadelphia: In early 2016 he donated his media properties to the Philadelphia Foundation, which in turn set up a nonprofit that, after his death, became known as the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Today the Inquirer is in far better shape than many metro dailies.

Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, Jim Friedlich, executive director and chief executive of the institute, argues that Tribune newspapers could be saved if deep-pockets philanthropists acquired them and then emulated Lenfest — or simply ran them as for-profit enterprises, as with John and Linda Henry at The Boston Globe and Patrick Soon-Shiong at the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune. Friedlich writes:

An Alden purchase of all of Tribune doesn’t have to be a fait accompli. In fact, the threat of such a deal represents an opportunity for civic-minded local investors across the country, who could use this case not only to save a critical local news institution, but to reinvent it.

Soon-Shiong continues to be a major Tribune shareholder, and I recently wrote that he should consider rescuing the chain, which includes papers such as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in America.

***

As we know, local news is in crisis, and that has produced a considerable amount of ferment. Most of the attention right now is on Alden’s bid for a majority share of Tribune, which involves regional rather than strictly local news organizations. But there’s a lot happening at the grassroots as well.

For instance, Sarah Scire reports for the Nieman Journalism Lab on an ambitious effort to provide local news start-ups with the support they need to launch and continue operating. Imagine a journalist who’s been laid off by a corporate-owned newspaper and who wants to start something at the hyperlocal level. Where to begin?

According to Scire, the Tiny News Collective takes care of a lot of the back-end details that journalists are usually not trained to attend to themselves. “The project,” Scire writes, “will offer entrepreneurial journalists a tech stack, business training, legal assistance, and back-office services like payroll for around $100 a month.”

The Tiny News Collective, a collaboration between News Catalyst and LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, is hoping to have a hand in starting news projects in 500 communities, half of them covering underserved populations.

***

Also worth watching is the Crosstown Neighborhood Newsletter project in Los Angeles — an effort to make smart use of data in order to produce a multitude of newsletters, each aimed at a tiny slice of the public. The editor, Gabriel Kahn, a professor at USC Annenberg, writes that Crosstown — “a collaboration between software engineers, designers and journalists” — recently launched 110 such newsletters in one day. He explains:

Our formula starts with data. We collect data about everything we can in Los Angeles, from traffic and crime to COVID-19 cases and building permits. Much of this data is hiding in plain sight, housed on local government dashboards that are hard to navigate. We divvy up the data by neighborhood. One citywide dataset about parking fines becomes 110 stories about how many more or fewer tickets were issued in each neighborhood during the COVID lockdown.

Crosstown reminds me of EveryBlock, a project started in 2008 by the pioneering data journalist Adrian Holovaty that was also heavily dependent on publicly available data. EveryBlock never really caught on, and it shut down in 2013. But far more information is online today than was the case a decade ago, and the tools for presenting it have improved considerably. It could be that the time for Holovaty’s idea has arrived.

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Proposal to create local news commission is sent to governor’s desk

I’m excited to report that the Legislature has approved the creation of a special commission to study the state of local news in Massachusetts and make some recommendations. This is an effort that has been two years in the making, and I’m looking forward to serving. Some background here. What follows is a press release from the co-sponsors, Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn.

Legislature Sends Journalism Commission to Governor’s Desk
Commission language included in Economic Development  Package

BOSTON (1/8/2021) — State Representative Lori Ehrlich (D-Marblehead) and State Senator Brendan Crighton (D-Lynn) announced Thursday the inclusion of their journalism commission legislation, An Act establishing a commission to study journalism in underserved communities, as part of the Economic Development bill that was passed by the legislature and sent to the Governor’s desk.

This legislation, filed for the first time this session, would create a state commission to assess the state of local journalism in Massachusetts, including the adequacy of press coverage in the Commonwealth’s cities and towns and the sustainability of local press business models.

According to research at the University of North Carolina, almost 1,800 local newspapers have closed since 2004, creating growing “media deserts” with insufficient local news coverage. Hedge funds, which have higher profit margin requirements than journalism tends to generate, have recently purchased several news outlets in Massachusetts subsequently consolidating outlets and cutting staff.

“A lack of local news coverage is a fundamental threat to our democracy and civic society,” said Ehrlich. “Citizens rely on hardworking journalists to tell the stories that bind us together as communities. Trusted news sources provide a public square where shared facts and thoughtful opinion enable us to hold power to account and govern ourselves.”

“With this commission, the Commonwealth will facilitate a serious discussion among experts, reporters, and industry members about the state of local news in Massachusetts, and what fortification efforts can take place,” Ehrlich added.

“Now more than ever we need a strong and robust news media to keep our citizenry as informed as possible and to ensure accountability,” said Crighton. “It was great to work with Representative Ehrlich on this pivotal piece of legislation and I’m excited for the Commission to get to work.”

“I would like to thank Representative Ehrlich for her unremitting commitment to journalism within the Commonwealth,” said State Representative Edward F. Coppinger (D-Boston), House Chair of the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Business. “Many communities here in Massachusetts both rely on and benefit from local news sources to obtain important information relevant to their livelihoods. These uncertain and trying times have had a significant impact on local news reporting agencies and their ability to disseminate necessary facts. We are honored to join Representative Ehrlich in combating these negative results through this crucial legislation.”

“This is great news for the future of local journalism in Massachusetts. It gives us an opportunity to study where the problems are, who’s doing it right and how we can encourage the growth of independent community news organizations,” said Dan Kennedy, Professor at the School of Journalism at Northeastern University.

“Local news outlets are the bedrock upon which American democracy is built, yet they are collapsing from the negative effects of decades of corporate media consolidation and now the coronavirus pandemic,” said Jason Pramas, Executive Director at the  Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and Executive Editor and Associate Publisher at DigBoston. “The passage of the journalism commission language into law gives hope to Massachusetts journalists and the public-at-large that state government will take a serious look at this ongoing crisis and then take steps to support news organizations around the Commonwealth–in ways that keep the press free and independent, as the Founders intended.”

“Thanks very much to Representatives Ehrlich and Coppinger and Senator Crighton for their leadership on this signal piece of legislation and to all the dozens of journalists, journalism educators, and media activists that worked hard for its enactment,” he added.

The commission will conduct a comprehensive, non-binding study relative to communities underserved by local journalism,  including, but not limited to, the 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.

Hyperlocal outrage at the violence in Washington

I thought it was interesting that the folks at The Bedford Citizen, a hyperlocal community news site that I track, decided to editorialize about the violent pro-Trump insurrection in Washington. The editorial reads in full:

A Message of Deep Concern from The Bedford Citizen

Although The Bedford Citizen does not ordinarily comment on events happening outside of Bedford, we, the Editorial Committee, feel compelled to express our shock and dismay at the threat to our democracy witnessed at the US Capitol yesterday.

Whatever your political views, and we respect and acknowledge a range of opinions among our readers, we hope you will join with us in condemning the mob violence that threatens our democratic institutions. How can we teach our children to uphold the rule of law when the very heart of our government was held hostage yesterday?

The Citizen is a nonprofit, mostly volunteer project founded in 2012.

Also, Grafton Common reports that the town’s select board issued a statement denouncing the violence in Washington. The statement begins:

The Select Board denounces in the strongest possible terms the violence and destruction that took place at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. today.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. If voting is the lifeblood of democracy then the peaceful transition of power is the beating heart of the republic. Without it, the principles upon which this nation are founded are destroyed.

Local journalism and community life can be powerful forces in overcoming the polarization that has brought the country to such a low point. There are times, though, when it’s impossible not to speak out about national events.

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Mystery solved

Karen Andreas, who abruptly left her position as publisher of the Eagle-Tribune newspapers north of Boston last month, has been named chief executive officer of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce.

Can the union representing Tribune’s workers stop Alden Global Capital?

The union at most of Tribune Publishing’s newspapers are making a bold move to stop Alden Global Capital from destroying local journalism in their communities.

Lukas I. Alpert reports in The Wall Street Journal that the News Guild, which represents workers at seven of Tribune’s nine daily newspapers, is demanding that three of the members of Tribune’s seven-person board of directors step down for violating Securities and Exchange Commission rules. The three members were appointed by Alden, a New York-based hedge fund.

One of the three is none other than Randall Smith, the subject of a brutal takedown in The Nation several years ago for pillaging his newspapers and using the money to buy 16 homes in Palm Beach, Florida, for $57 million. (OK, you can’t prove that there was a direct transfer of funds. But money, as they say, is fungible.)

Alden denies any wrongdoing in the would-be Tribune deal, in which it would acquire a majority share of some of our most important newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant, for an offer valued at $521 million.

Earlier:

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Ben Franklin would be horrified at what the Postal Service is doing to newspapers

Benjamin Franklin, publisher and postmaster general

As if local newspapers didn’t have enough to contend with, they are now being threatened by the Postal Service. According to Jacob Bogage of The Washington Post, newspapers are simply not being delivered in some parts of the country because of the recent mail meltdown. And publishers are facing a rate increase of as much as 9% in 2022, cutting deeply into their already precarious bottom lines.

“These are little, tiny rural communities, and typically papers like mine are the only sources of information about that community,” Brett Wesner, chair of the National Newspaper Association and publisher of 12 papers in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, told Bogage. “Most don’t have digital coverage of any kind. Most don’t have radio stations. We are the source of community information, both in terms of covering community events but also the city council, the school board, the county commission.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that American newspapers were built on reliable postal service and affordable rates. As the Post notes, the first postmaster general was Benjamin Franklin, who was himself a newspaper publisher. Paul Starr, in his sweeping history of journalism, “The Creation of the Media” (2004), wrote that newspapers were given a boost starting in Colonial times through postal subsidies. By contrast, European governments, more wary of the press, kept postal rates artificially high.

In his book “Democracy without Journalism?” (2019), Victor Pickard put it this way:

Because the postal system served a higher civic purpose as a news and information infrastructure upon which a self-governing populace depended, policymakers determined that the state would directly subsidize the dissemination of newspapers with low postal rates.

That policy, Pickard wrote, was supported by founders such as George Washington and James Madison and prevailed until the “market fundamentalists” of the Reagan era began to argue that the Postal Service should be run like a business and turn a profit. And, of course, that move was hypercharged under President Donald Trump, who appointed an unqualified (at best) postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, who undermined postal operations in what may have been an attempt to suppress mail-in voting and help Trump win re-election.

So why not shift to digital delivery? That option is available to larger daily papers, especially as the steep decline of advertising takes away one of the last remaining reasons for having a print edition. The Salt Lake Tribune, our only nonprofit major metro, is moving from daily to weekly print in order to save money.

But the tiny newspapers, mostly weeklies, to which Brett Wesner refers most likely don’t have that option. Their communities may not have broadband, and the papers themselves may not even have websites. Print is vital for them to be able to serve the public. Unfortunately, it looks like one of Trump’s final legacies will be to make it that much harder for them to survive.

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In year-end message, Linda Henry announces that the Globe is expanding

The Boston Globe is expanding, according to chief executive officer Linda Pizzuti Henry.

The news comes in the form of a full-page ad in Sunday’s print edition — an odd choice, given that the Globe has about 220,000 digital-only subscribers and, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, has a Sunday print circulation of about 140,000. But maybe a lot of those digital subscribers use the e-paper and saw it anyway. (Update: I’m told Henry’s message was emailed to digital subscribers last week. I can’t imagine why I didn’t see it, but there you go.)

Henry begins by thanking readers following a difficult year of pandemic, economic collapse and “an overdue reckoning around race, equity and social justice.” And, of course, she praises the Globe as a “local, independent news organization,” citing highlights such as the paper’s COVID coverage, Mark Shanahan’s article and podcast about recovering from prostate cancer and “A Beautiful Resistance,” a celebration of Black life in New England by culture columnist Jeneé Osterheldt.

Now about the expansion:

  • Reporters and editors will be added to beef up the paper’s innovation, political and investigative beats.
  • A new Health and Science section will be launched, featuring coverage from Stat News and the Globe’s staff. (Perhaps something to keep an eye on: Stat News is non-union, whereas the Globe’s union and management have been at loggerheads over a new contract for several years.)
  • The Rhode Island bureau is being expanded, an initiative that had been announced previously.

Particularly welcome is the news that the Globe will be “improving our mobile app experience.” I hope those improvements extend to tablets as well as phones.

We all have our quibbles with the Globe, but the past few years have been extraordinary in putting the paper on a sustainable financial footing.

Publisher John Henry announced in late 2018 that the Globe had become profitable after years of losses and cost-cutting. The paper passed the 200,000 digital-subscription mark in early 2020, a long-sought measure of viability. And when Linda Henry was made CEO of Boston Globe Media Partners in November, the company said it currently employs more than 300 full-time journalists across its three platforms — the Globe, Stat News and Boston.com.

That is an impressive number at a time when The Denver Post’s newsroom, to cite just one example, has been slashed to about 60 by its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital.

The full-page ad appears below.

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Could Patrick Soon-Shiong save Tribune’s newspapers from Alden’s clutches?

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Photo (cc) 2014 by NHS Confederation.

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Could the billionaire surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong save Tribune Publishing’s newspapers?

A report in today’s Wall Street Journal on Alden Global Capital’s bid to grab majority control of the company notes that Soon-Shiong is Tribune’s second-largest shareholder. Soon-Shiong bought the Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune and a bag of balls from Tribune in 2018 for about $500 million. Alden proposes to pay $521 million to up its share of Tribune from 32% to more than 50%.

Despite a somewhat rocky tenure, Soon-Shiong has invested in the L.A. Times similar to the way John and Linda Henry have with The Boston Globe and Jeff Bezos with The Washington Post. Saving Tribune papers such as The Baltimore Sun, the Daily News of New York and, closer to home, the Hartford Courant would be a tremendous act of civic leadership. And maybe an owner who’s actually interested in journalism could figure out a way to turn a small profit without stripping their newsrooms.

Soon-Shiong has plenty of money, but there are two big questions: Does he have the ambition to be a newspaper mogul on the order of William Randolph Hearst? (Even the modern-day mogul Rupert Mudoch owns just a handful of U.S. papers, including the Journal.) And can anyone restore Tribune’s papers to their former glory?

Alden Global Capital wants to take another big bite out of Tribune Publishing

The iconic Chicago Tribune Tower, sold for mixed-use development in 2016.

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It looks like 2020 is going to end on a suitably terrible note for the future of local and regional news.

The New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital, notorious for depriving its newspaper chain of staff, resources and even office space, is planning to make a play for majority control of Tribune Publishing Co., which owns such storied titles as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and New York’s Daily News. The Wall Street Journal broke the news on Wednesday.

Alden has owned 32% of Tribune for a while and, as Julie Reynolds reports for the union publication NewsMatters, has essentially been calling the shots. She writes:

The hedge fund has left its classic stamp of profiteering across the news chain’s operations — letting Tribune’s digital efforts flounder where other chains have thrived, shutting down newsrooms and offices after defaulting on rent, slashing reporter and other staff pay during the pandemic crisis, and now being sued by shareholders — all while Alden’s officers on the board are handsomely rewarded for this “performance.”

As Reynolds notes, Tribune has been closing newsrooms — including just this week at the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published daily paper in the country, according to Western Mass. Politics & Insight. The move comes not long after the Courant outsourced its printing to The Republican of Springfield.

Alden’s own MediaNews Group papers have been shutting newsrooms as well. In Massachusetts, the Enterprise & Sentinel of Fitchburg was rendered homeless several years ago. During the summer, Northeastern journalism student (and “Beat the Press” intern) Deanna Schwartz and I learned that the Braintree office of MNG’s Boston Herald had apparently closed, with operations moved to The Sun of Lowell, another MNG property.

Of course, it’s at least theoretically possible that new newsrooms will be found for some of these papers after the pandemic has ended. A number of papers — including The Boston Globe — have kept their offices even though nearly all of their employees are working from home. That’s an expensive proposition. Still, it would hardly be a surprise if Alden decides that what few journalists it still employs can work from home indefinitely.

That would be a mistake. News organizations, like most businesses, thrive on collaboration and ideas that bubble up from teamwork. Then again, there is no sign that Alden executives care.

Tribune’s daily newspapers are, for the most part, larger and have more vitality than MNG’s collection of dailies and weeklies. The metros that MNG publishes, such as The Denver Post, The Mercury News of San Jose and the Orange County Register, have already been trashed beyond recognition. Earlier this fall, Larry Ryckman, co-founder of the start-up Colorado Sun, said at a conference that at one time the Post and its now-defunct daily competitor, the Rocky Mountain News, employed about 600 journalists. Today, he said, the Post has about 60.

If Alden succeeds in grabbing majority control of Tribune, it will represent the latest step down in a long fall that began with its acquisition by the foul-mouthed Chicago real-estate mogul Sam Zell in 2008. The Zell years were the subject of a monumental takedown by the late New York Times media columnist David Carr in 2010, with Carr describing a culture that “came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk.” Oh, and they were pillaging the company, too.

Later, under new owners, the company was renamed tronc Inc. — and yes, that’s a lowercase “t” that you see.

In 2018, the billionaire surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong managed to wrest the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune from tronc’s clutches. And though the Soon-Shiong era has not been without bumps in the road (including an ugly internal dispute over racial justice), his wealth has given his papers a future.

As for the papers now controlled or soon to be controlled by Alden Global Capital, the future is likely to be nasty and brutish, to take John Locke Thomas Hobbes out of context. Whether it will also be short remains to be seen.

Poynter shines a light on GBH News series about minority businesses and state spending

Gov. Charlie Baker. Photo (cc) 2020 by Josh Qualls / Governor’s Press office.

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Poynter has rounded up some of the highest impact local stories of 2020 — and among them is “The Color of Public Money,” a series produced by my friends at GBH. Paul Singer, investigations editor for the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting, recounts his work revealing that the state had failed to live up to its promises in helping minority-owned businesses. Singer writes:

We first established that the value of state spending with minority-owned businesses has DECLINED over the past 20 years (adjusted for inflation). We then established that during Baker’s administration, the state began padding those numbers, taking credit for a bunch of stuff that is not actually “spending” by state agencies.

As a result of Singer’s work, Gov. Charlie Baker created a new state agency and has promised improvements.

Other stories in the Poynter roundup include secrecy over inmate deaths in Montana, a foundation in Miami that provides bloodhounds to law-enforcement agencies, a motorcycle gang that incited violence at a Black Lives Matter rally in Ohio, child hunger in West Virginia, and fake news about a bus in Columbus, Ohio, that was falsely claimed to have been used by rioters.

The Poynter roundup underscores the importance of local and regional journlism. National news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal are doing well, but community news is shrinking. During these final two days of 2020, I hope you’ll consider a donation to NewsMatch, which will double what you give to support nonprofit news. I gave earlier this week.

This year, NewsMatch added a new feature — rather than trying to figure out which nonprofits you want to support, you can just give to NewsMatch and let them figure out where your dollars can be put to the best use.