The local-news start-up 6AM City is coming to Boston. Try not to get too excited.

Like Axios Local, 6AM City is being described as a response to the decline of legacy newspapers. Like Axios Local, 6AM City employs two journalists in each of the cities in which it operates. So how are they going to compete with even the most hollowed-out daily newspaper, public radio station and digital start-ups that are already on the scene in most places?

The answer is that they’re not. Which is why the news that 6AM City is going to ramp up from eight to 24 markets (including Boston) later this year, broken by Sara Fischer of Axios earlier this week, should be taken with a grain of salt.

At Poynter Online, Rick Edmonds quotes 6AM City co-founder Ryan Heafy as saying that his project has little interest in the sort of journalism that actually matters. Edmonds writes:

As time goes on, Heafy continued, the selective editorial focus has sharpened. “We don’t do investigative reporting, and we steer completely clear of politics” — topics newspapers continue to emphasize as their strategic strength.

Instead, 6AM City is heavy on news about small businesses and development, local events and the dining scene and charity and philanthropy. That draws advertising interest in the local business community. “We even are beginning to have development groups — in Lakeland, Florida, for instance — invite us to come in.”

Take a look at LALToday, the 6AM product that covers Lakeland. I can see where some people might like that sort of thing, but it pretty much defines the term “non-essential.” This press release has a rather mind-boggling sentence explaining how the new markets were picked: “These cities were identified as expansion markets for 6AM City because of their level of Pride in Place™.” Yes, that’s right. A trademark symbol.

Fundamentally, 6AM City is about money — money it’s raising from private investors and money it hopes to pull in from advertising. Fischer’s piece is all about the $9 million they’ve raised, the $5 million they expect to earn this year, and the investors they’ve attracted.

Well, good luck to them. Local news is being rebuilt from the bottom up — not from the top down by masters of the universe whose interest begins and ends with what they can extract from other people’s work.

And, as always: Local doesn’t scale.

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Probe of Gannett’s overtime practices needs to include smaller papers as well

The Burlington Free Press of Burlington, Vt. Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy.

The NewsGuild is investigating Gannett for allegations of unpaid overtime work, according to Kerry Flynn of CNN. Flynn writes:

NewsGuild President Jon Schleuss sent a letter to Gannett CEO Mike Reed last Friday about the union’s plan to launch an investigation and requested the company do the same. The union also called on Gannett, which owns USA Today and more than 260 local publications including The Arizona Republic, the Detroit Free Press and The Indianapolis Star, to agree to other labor protections proposed in the ongoing union bargaining taking place in some of its newsrooms.

This is long overdue, and I hope the Guild doesn’t limit itself to Gannett’s unionized papers, which tend to be the larger dailies. Small dailies and its 1,000 or so community weeklies, many of which are in Eastern Massachusetts, need to be investigated as well.

Gannett journalists are grossly underpaid even at 40 hours a week. The only way Gannett has been able to keep its debt-addled ship afloat is by  demanding sacrifice after sacrifice from its employees. It’s great that the Guild is taking action. Now let’s see federal authorities get involved as well.

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David Joyner leaves as executive editor the North of Boston newspapers

David Joyner is leaving his position as executive editor of the North of Boston Media Group newspapers, which comprise four dailies — The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times — as well as some affiliated publications. His announcement to the staff, which I obtained from a trusted source earlier today, is as follows:

Good morning,

I hope this note gets ahead of the rumor mill but it may only serve to confirm it. I want to let you all know that I will be moving on from my role as executive editor of the North of Boston Media Group, effective Oct. 1. John Celestino, our publisher, will announce plans as to my successor in the near future.

I want to take this opportunity to tell you all what a privilege it’s been to work with you. The work we do is important. When news breaks or we land a big story, it’s super-energizing. But the most rewarding part of this job is — always has been — working with you.

I’m not certain of next steps, apart from taking a few days to finish a couple of books and go to hockey practice and the bus stop. But we’re not planning to leave Andover. So, if I don’t get a chance to see you in the next couple of weeks, please don’t be a stranger.

My best to all of you,

David

The North of Boston papers are owned by the CNHI chain of Montgomery, Alabama.

How events help local news organizations connect with their audience

Bedford Citizen managing editor Julie McCay Turner, right, takes a photo of students and staff from Shawsheen Tech along with Bedford Police Chief Robert Bongiorno.

Community events give local news organizations an opportunity to connect with their audience — and to expand their audience as well. With that in mind, I drove to Bedford, Massachusetts, on Saturday morning for Bedford Town Day in order to check in with The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit website that combines paid and volunteer staff.

The Citizen, like about 100 other organizations, had set up a booth. Four or five volunteers rotated in and out while managing editor Julie McCay Turner and staff reporter Mike Rosenberg made their way through the crowd, which I’d estimate in the hundreds but could have been larger.

“We hope to get a few sign-ups,” said executive director Teri Morrow. She added that another goal was to get story ideas from community members. One person she had talked to, she said, had suggested profiles of interesting but relatively unknown people and organizations.

On the table were business cards and a larger sign with a QR code taking you to the Citizen’s website as well as free copies of the Citizen’s 2020 and 2021 Bedford Guide, a glossy publication that’s fill with ads and that serves as a fundraiser for the organization.

Turner was making her way through the fairgrounds, taking pictures and greeting people. She connected with Brian O’Donnell, a Bedford representative on the Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in nearby Billerica. O’Donnell introduced her to Allison Cammarata, the school’s brand-new director of community services and workforce development, who serves as the school’s public relations person.

Table sign with QR code

“We are relentlessly local,” Turner told Cammarata, explaining that she wants to run stories about Shawsheen in the Citizen but only if they feature Bedford students. Turner then called out “Bob! Bob!” Police Chief Robert Bongiorno, was walking by, and he stopped and chatted.

The Citizen competes with a Gannett weekly, the Bedford Minuteman, a once independent paper that now provides minimal coverage of the town. The Minuteman did not have a booth at Town Day, although it did send a photographer.

O’Donnell praised the Minuteman’s coverage of Shawsheen, saying that the school, which serves five towns, fits with the paper’s mission of reporting on regional news. “But in terms of what’s happening in Bedford — events, issues, discussions, exchanges — that’s happening in the Citizen now,” he said.

As I made the rounds and talked with people about where they get their local news, I found a high level of awareness about the Citizen, which was founded in 2012.

“The thing I like about the Citizen is that if there’s anything with the school committee or the select board or any issues that come up, they report on both sides of the issue,” said Alice Churella. “It seems to me to be totally unbiased.”

Others, though, said they got their news mainly through word of mouth, Facebook groups, the official town website and emails from the school department.

“I don’t read it regularly,” said Anna Smiechowski of the Citizen. “If I know something’s happening in town or I want to look something up, I’ll search it.”

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In the rural heartland, indie newspapers survive with a back-to-basics approach

It’s something I’ve seen over and over in tracking the state of local news for the past dozen years. Despite the very real challenges community journalism faces from technological and cultural change, news organizations that are not burdened by corporate chain ownership can continue to serve as vital, financially sustainable operations.

A new report by Tony Baranowski, director of local media for Times Citizen Communications in Iowa Falls, Iowa, makes the point. While he was a fellow at the West Virginia University Reed College of Media and the West Virginia Press Association’s NewStart Program, he studied several newspapers in the Upper Midwest in depth and surveyed more than 50 small newspaper publishers across the country.

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What he found was that, despite the narrative that local newspapers are dying, these independent papers were keeping their heads above water. Baranowski writes:

The strongest community news outlets are locally owned and managed by families or individuals with local ties that stretch back decades. That’s not an easy circumstance to replicate for a would-be publisher looking to buy or launch a news organization in a rural town, but it’s not a prerequisite, either. In fact, the common denominator is less longevity than fostering community spirit and pride within both staff-generated content and advertising in a traditional newspaper’s pages.

Among the people interviewed in Baranowski’s report is Jim Slonoff, the co-founder and publisher of The Hinsdalean, a free paper launched in suburban Chicago in 2006. I wrote about The Hinsdalean a couple of months ago to highlight its practice of signing up members of the community to write essays on a variety of topics. Although running unpaid columns is hardly new territory for local newspapers, The Hinsdalean actively recruits writers and limits them to a two-year term, ensuring a steady stream of fresh voices.

Like many of the people Baranowski spoke with, Slonoff said The Hinsdalean’s emphasis remains on print rather than digital. Slonoff said:

That’s the thing I don’t get about newspapers in general, because so many of them put so much money and resources into their websites with no return. We took the 180 degrees approach and said our money is coming from display advertising and real estate advertising. Why would we not focus on that? Facebook doesn’t bring us any money, Twitter and Instagram don’t. There’s nothing I get out of it that I know of, except we’re there. And we get a lot of likes and things and get a lot of this and comments and that feels good.

That might seem like a retrograde approach, but it’s one I’ve heard from a number of publishers who have to figure out how to break even.

The Provincetown Independent actually charges more for digital subscriptions than for a print-plus-digital combination, telling readers that “if we were to go online only, the savings in not having to print and mail the paper would not be anywhere near enough to make up for the loss of print advertising revenue.”

Last week I interviewed Jerry and Ann Healey, who sold their Colorado Community Media newspaper group earlier this year to The Colorado Sun, a start-up digital news organization, in a deal put together by the National Trust for Local News. They told me that, in many cases, when they offered a package combining digital and print, their advertisers weren’t interested — they wanted to be seen in the print newspaper. “In the community newspaper space, print is still a viable thing,” Jerry Healey said, “and the advertisers know that too.”

Then there’s Kris O’Leary of Central Wisconsin Newspapers, who told Baranowski that her readership includes Amish and Mennonite communities. Not much digital potential there.

Another of Baranowski’s findings is that newspapers with offices in the communities they cover tend to be healthier than those that have consolidated operations far from the people they serve.

If this sounds like Baranowski is recommending a back-to-the-future approach, it may be because he’s surveying local journalism in the rural heartland. A digital-first approach makes sense in affluent urban and suburban areas where readers can be persuaded to sign up for online-only subscriptions.

But in some parts of the country, technological advances have not changed the media all that much over the past several decades. It is in such places that journalism can do well by following a model that would have been familiar to our grandparents — independently owned newspapers, rooted in the community and supported by local businesses.

An ambitious plan to save local news by investing in community journalism

Golden, Colo., is among the cities and towns served by Colorado Community Media

Rick Edmonds of Poynter interviewed Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro and Lillian Ruiz about the National Trust for Local News, a project they founded to invest in community journalism projects around the country.

Their goal is to raise $300 million in order to finance deals like the purchase earlier this year of Colorado Community Media, a chain of two dozen weekly and monthly papers in the Denver suburbs. The papers are now being run by The Colorado Sun, a start-up website founded by a number of former Denver Post journalists.

My colleague Ellen Clegg and I interviewed Hansen Shapiro recently to ask her about the National Trust. We especially wanted to learn more about how she had arrived at the $300 million figure, which she had told Ben Smith of The New York Times might be enough to save every independent community paper in the United States that is at risk of shutting down or being sold off to a chain owner.

She told us that her estimate was based on research showing that there are about 4,000 independent weekly and daily papers — what she called “sub-large-chain titles,” to include those held by small regional chains — with perhaps as many as 2,400 owners. Here is how she described the National Trust’s strategy:

We’re approaching it two ways. One is inbound interest from publishers who are ready to retire and want to figure out what the next move is. Some of them have successors lined up, but they don’t have financing. Some of them don’t have successors lined up and their businesses are failing. And that’s the house-on-fire version. And some of them have great businesses. They don’t have a successor. They think they want to be out of the business in two years, and they’re like, could we start a conversation now so that so we can figure out something?

Any paper can be kept out of the hands of a hedge fund or a corporate chain is a victory.

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‘News Matters’ is now available via Kanopy and universities

Recently I wrote about “News Matters,” a documentary that tracks Alden Global Capital’s evisceration of The Denver Post and the rise of The Colorado Sun. Unfortunately, my post came just as Rocky Mountain PBS was about to take it down from its website.

But there’s good news. If you want to see it and you have a library card or university log-in, you can watch it by clicking here.

How public pension funds are helping to finance the destruction of local news

This is Cerebrus, not Cerberus. Photo (cc) 2006 by Andrew Becraft

Public employee pension funds are investing — perhaps unwittingly — in the destruction of local news.

That’s the most important takeaway in a recent report by Julie Reynolds for the Nieman Journalism Lab. Reynolds writes that Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that has destroyed newspapers across the country, has financed a number of its deals with the help of Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm. That includes Alden’s acquisition earlier this year of Tribune Publishing, which owns major-market papers such as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and, in New England, the Hartford Courant.

Cerberus’ top investor is the California Public Employees Retirement System, followed by the Public School Employees’ Retirement System of Pennsylvania. Eight of Cerberus’ top 10 investors are public employee pension funds. “Perhaps it’s time to demand that public pensions divest from shadow banks that aid and abet the aggressive dismantling of the free press,” Reynolds writes.

Cerberus turns out to have quite a track record, and it extends well beyond its role in helping Alden destroy local news. As Reynolds reports:

The firm has been accused of profiting from the Sandy Hook school massacre, because it promised to unload its ownership in gun manufacturers but then didn’t — at least not until its company Remington Arms went bankrupt in 2018. And Cerberus is the owner and founder of Tier 1 Group, the company that trained four members of the Tiger Squad that assassinated and dismembered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The role of public pension funds in newspapers isn’t new. CNHI, based in Montgomery, Alabama, owns 89 local news outlets in 21 states, including The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover and its affiliated papers north of Boston. CNHI, in turn, is owned by the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

But though CNHI has cut deeply over the years, its track record isn’t nearly as grim as that of Alden. At least in Massachusetts, its newspapers remain well-staffed enough to do a reasonably good job of covering their communities.

In the trade magazine Editor & Publisher, Gretchen A. Peck reports that Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild-CWA, wonders if Alden’s purpose in buying up newspapers is to exert political influence aimed at staving off regulation:

Schleuss speculated whether there might be political play behind these newspaper acquisitions. The NewsGuild president also opined about legislative remedies that Congress might enact to force hedge funds like Alden to be “radically transparent” about their investors. That would allow the public to discern if investors are earnest and market-minded or if they’re bad actors attempting to hold sway over the press.

It’s a real concern, though to date I haven’t seen any signs that Alden has an agenda other than cutting its papers to the bone and squeezing out whatever profits remain.

Peck’s article is also accompanied by a “publisher’s note” that is interesting mainly because it represents one of the few occasions when Alden has deigned to address the way it’s running its newspapers:

Publisher’s Note: E&P reached out to Heath Freeman of Alden Global Capital, welcoming his comment and contribution. The company’s crisis manager responded, post-deadline, with the following remark he attributed to MediaNews Group’s COO, Guy Gilmore: “A subscription-driven revenue model, long overdue payments from tech behemoths including Google and Facebook for the use of our content and the modernization of non-editorial operations are some of the keys to ensuring local newspapers can thrive over the long term and serve the local communities that depend on them.”

Several Gannett papers, including the Worcester T&G, won’t print on Labor Day

The Telegram & Gazette of Worcester is taking a day off. According to an announcement in the print edition, the paper won’t publish tomorrow, which is Labor Day.

The 016, which has the story, observes that “the last date the Telegram & Gazette was not printed is not immediately known,” and that the T&G will be joined by some other Gannett papers, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Tallahassee Democrat.

A highly unusual move to say the least.

More: Add the Cape Cod Times to the list. It’s starting to look like this applies to many if not most of Gannett’s dailies.

Black newspapers across the country collaborate via Word In Black

The trade magazine Editor & Publisher reports that 10 Black newspapers have created a network to provide news in communities of color across the country. The Effort, called Word In Black, is part of the Fund for Black Journalism, which was launched a year ago by the Local Media Association, according to E&P’s Evelyn Mateos.

Word In Black, she adds, “covers racial equity, K-12 education, police reform, healthcare disparities, social justice, politics, opinion, sports and LGBTQ.” Nick Charles, who’s heading up the project, tells Mateos:

[These] 10 different publishers sometimes have different mindsets, different politics, and they live in different parts of the country. So, people in Texas don’t have the same ideas about a lot of things that people in New York may have. But their affection and love for communities are what binds them. Collaboration is going on because people realize that to survive and to meet our mission as journalists, we have to band together.

The papers range from New York to Sacramento, but nothing locally. It would be great to see The Bay State Banner become part of this. It would also be interesting to see if The Emancipator, a nationally focused website sponsored by The Boston Globe and BU’s Center for Antiracist Research, could find a way to collaborate.