Bay Windows and the South End News are put up for sale

Well, this is sad news, but not exactly shocking. Sue O’Connell and Jeff Coakley are putting Bay Windows and the South End News up for sale after 18 years of ownership. Sue and Jeff were both colleagues of mine at The Boston Phoenix. They’ve had a great run, and of course Sue has gone on to considerable success as a host at NBC 10 and NECN as well as at GBH News. Here’s the announcement.

BAY WINDOWS AND SOUTH END NEWS ARE UP FOR SALE!

What a time to be alive.

It doesn’t matter if you read this phrase as a meme or think we’re quoting Drake, this really is an amazing time to be alive.

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing will become clear, if it hasn’t already: we’re living in a new world. This means new ways of doing business and accessing health care and education. Innovations in art, cultural, and culinary spaces. Wholesale reimaginings of community life and work space.

Nothing will ever return to “normal.” Nor would we want it to. Over the past year, movements for social justice based on race have accelerated. Our schools, businesses, nonprofit institutions, government agencies, elected officials, and community-based organizations are incorporating demands for change. In many cases, they are leading it.

In these times of change, we invite one more. After publishing Bay Windows and South End News for 18 years, we are putting both publications up for sale.

The business of local news has changed in the two decades we’ve owned both papers. But the news and its importance to the community has not. That is why we are inviting community leaders, business owners, nonprofits, educational institutions and others to consider purchasing Bay Windows and South End News, either separately or together. We are committed to thinking creatively and working with potential buyers to provide an equitable path to ownership.

Models to consider including nonprofit conversion, government support, a public and/or digital media merger, and community ownership.

When we purchased Bay Windows and South End News in 2003, we’d like to tell you that we did it out of a high-minded commitment to the vital role that community newspapers play in our communities. But that would not be true.

We bought these papers because we thought it would be fun.

Was it? Absolutely.

Almost immediately after purchasing the papers, Bay Windows became the primary source of news and information related to the political, legal, and public opinion battles being waged to bring marriage equality to Massachusetts. This role was similar to the one the paper had played in its early years as a source of information about AIDS that could not be found anywhere else. Since its founding, the paper has been home to information about political, arts, entertainment, and cultural news relevant to the LGBTQ community.

South End News has played the same role in the life of the South End, a neighborhood that has shaped the city of Boston’s nonprofit sector, biomedical research, culinary scene, and arts and cultural offerings. It has also been home to groups and individuals who have played influential roles in Puerto Rican, Black, and LGBTQ activism in the city of Boston.

Over the past two decades, we have met business owners, nonprofit leaders, artists, activists, chefs, politicians, city employees and community members. It has been the experience of a lifetime.

Now it is someone else’s turn.

We can promise you three things: It will take a lot of work to make it work. You will exercise great influence in the South End and the state’s LGBTQ community. And you will have fun.

Want more information? Email Jeff at jcoakley@baywindows.com or jcoakley@southendnews.com.

Taking dictation from the police is no longer good enough. In fact, it never was.

Photo (cc) 2013 by Victoria Pickering

As you may have read elsewhere, the original police account of George Floyd’s death was mostly accurate and completely false. It read in part:

Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.

Floyd’s murder at the hands — or, rather, at the knee — of Derek Chauvin is likely to have long-lasting repercussions. One of those repercussions should be a rethinking of how journalists report routine police news. It has long been the custom for reporters at small community news organizations to visit the police station every morning, flip through the publicly available log, and report what’s there. If something seems interesting, the journalist might ask to see the incident report written up by an officer. And then this gets regurgitated, the ultimate in one-source reporting.

That’s how I did it in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s how we were all taught to do it. And in a large city like Minneapolis, a man who, according to police, died from medical issues while being arrested for forgery would probably not warrant a follow-up. You’d report it, and then you’d be on your way.

Interestingly enough, one of the papers I worked for in the early part of my career would not publish the names of people who’d been arrested and charged with a crime unless it was fairly big news. We younger reporters thought it was ridiculous, and we chafed at not being able to tell the whole story. But the editor, who was also one of the owners, explained that since our coverage of the court system was spotty at best, we’d likely never know if the person had been convicted or acquitted — and if it were the latter, we’d have smeared their reputation without cause. My editor was right, and ahead of his time. We were wrong.

Earlier this week The Washington Post reported on a case in Loveland, Colorado, where police last year arrested a 73-year-old woman who’d walked out of a Walmart with $13.88 worth of stuff without paying. It turns out that she had dementia and, as is clear from the police video, presented no threat to anyone. Yet she was thrown to the ground and handcuffed, with an officer twisting her arm in such a way that she suffered from a broken bone and a dislocated shoulder.

Can you imagine what the police log item might have looked like? No big deal, right?

The problems presented by taking the police at the word was the subject of an exchange the other day involving my GBH News colleague Saraya Wintersmith, South End News and Bay Windows publisher Sue O’Connell and me. (Note: Within the last few minutes I received a press release saying that O’Connell’s papers are up for sale. More to come.)

That, in turn, drew a comment from Julie Manganis, who covers the courts for The Salem News and its sister papers.

Manganis is right, but the News is unusual in its ongoing dedication to court reporting — and even then, most routine police news doesn’t rise to that level.

An additional complication is that many police departments now post their logs online. Under the state’s public records law, police departments must keep daily records of incidents and, in the case of arrests, the name, address and charge against the person who was detained. Members of the public, including journalists, are entitled to see this information. But now these items don’t even get the light vetting that might take place when a reporter asks an officer to explain something. It’s right out there for everyone to see.

Indeed, as I’m writing this, I’m looking at a report from one of the larger cities in the Boston area about a woman who was arrested and charged with trespassing. It’s a pretty thorough entry, and yes, it includes her name, age and address. It is probably accurate. I have no idea if it’s also true — that is, if it offers all the context we need to know to understand what happened.

Major crimes will always receive journalistic scrutiny. Official sources may have the upper hand early on, but as reporters keep digging, they’ll generally ferret out the truth. But we need a serious rethink of how we cover routine police news. And we need to do it at a time when local news resources are stretched to the limit.

One rule we might follow is that if an incident is so minor that it’s not worth devoting the resources to getting all sides, then it’s probably not worth reporting in the first place. But this is just the beginning of a conversation about how to practice ethical journalism at a time when the old ways of doing things are no longer good enough. And never were.

Is government-funded local journalism an idea whose time has come?

U.S. Treasury. Photo (cc) 2007 by Adam Fagen.

The local news crisis has some people talking seriously about government funding for journalism. The idea isn’t entirely new. Nonprofit news organizations enjoy tax benefits, and public broadcasters receive some federal money. As I recently reported for GBH News, federal pandemic relief actually meant that 2020 was a better year than 2019 for some media outlets.

But what comes next? Local media are being squeezed on one side by technology and on the other by avaricious chain ownership. Ideally, you would want to find ways to help independent news organizations without rewarding the corporations and hedge funds that are cutting newsrooms without conscience. But it’s hard to imagine how you would draw distinctions between the two.

Moreover, direct government assistance raises serious questions about how journalism can play its traditional watchdog role if it’s receiving money from the watchdog. It strikes me that it would be a hard sell with taxpayers, too. Nevertheless, some smart people are thinking about how we can provide communities with the news and information they need in an era of market failure.

One idea was offered recently by Osita Nwanevu in The New Republic. Under the headline “The Next Infrastructure Bill Should Save Local Journalism,” Nwanevu writes:

Really, the administration’s push for a more capacious definition of infrastructure should encourage us to think even more creatively about what else should qualify for the next package as it takes shape. Can it seriously be argued, for instance, that access to the news isn’t an important feature of any well-functioning society? We all depend upon a steady stream of accurate information; obviously, we owe much of our awareness that America’s infrastructure is crumbling to the work of journalists who helped alert policymakers and the public to the problem in the first place.

Nwanevu notes that the $3 per capita we currently spend on public broadcasting is a pittance compared to the $90 that is the average in many other developed countries. He also writes favorably of ideas that Andrew Yang put forth during his presidential campaign for a fellowship program for journalists and a “Local Journalism Fund” to help news outlets transition to sustainability. But Nwanevu is also thinking bigger than that, calling for $30 billion to $40 billion over the next 10 years.

Please support Media Nation. Membership is just $5 a month.

I’m not sold, though, mainly because Nwanevu only half-defines the problem. He cites the challenges posed by technology and the rise of Google and Facebook, but he makes no mention of corporate ownership, which has made the crisis much worse than it needed to be. With chains like Gannett and hedge funds like Alden Global Capital bleeding their newspapers dry, there is no money left over to invest in the future. Meanwhile, a number of independent news organizations across the country, for-profit and nonprofit, are doing a good job of serving their communities. We need more.

The Columbia Journalism Review recently published a conversation with the longtime media reformer Robert McChesney; Steve Waldman, the co-founder of Report for America; and the economist Andrea Prat. All of them offer their own ideas for providing some public assistance for news, with McChesney’s proposal for a “Green New Deal for journalism” being the most ambitious. He describes the challenge this way:

This is the public policy imperative facing the United States regarding journalism in 2021: we need the funding to support independent, competitive, professional local news media. That money must come from the government, but we cannot allow the government to pick and choose who gets the money. The policy must be like the postal subsidy of newspapers: large enough to get the job done, and it cannot discriminate on the basis of ideology or political viewpoint. Censorship is entirely unacceptable. It must allow the people to make of it what they will, and trust them in the process of self-government.

So how would McChesney accomplish that? Through elections at the county level (that wouldn’t really work in Massachusetts, which is pretty much county-free) to elect boards that would distribute between $32 billion and $35 billion a year over a five-year period to fund local news and foster the development of new nonprofit organizations. It’s pretty breath-taking, and McChesney admits there’s no support for such a plan in Washington at the moment. But the value McChesney has always brought to the table is that he thinks big and gives us a chance to wrap our minds around larger possibilities.

Waldman’s plan, by contrast, already has a great deal of support on Capitol Hill: a $250 refundable tax credit to pay for local news subscriptions or to donate to nonprofit media outlets. He would like to see a tax credit for hiring and retaining journalists as well, which is something currently being done in Canada.

Prat, though, argues that the tax credits would mainly benefit large news organizations, whereas “the most urgent problem is not the overall information level but its distribution across the population.” A voucher system, he says, “would give more access to information-poor people.”

So, has the moment come for government-funded news? My own guess is probably not, at least if we’re talking about the ambitious proposals put forth by Nwanevu and McChesney. But some modest assistance aimed at helping news organizations make the transition to a sustainable future might well be a good idea.

Waldman’s tax credits and Prat’s vouchers could be seen as extensions of the help we already provide through nonprofit tax incentives. And surely we can provide more funding for public media while broadening the definition to include community-based journalism.

Everything needs to be on the table.

A major setback in the quest to save Tribune Publishing from Alden Global Capital

Col. Robert McCormick, legendary publisher of the Chicago Tribune

There was some very bad news Saturday in the race to save Tribune Publishing from the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Hansjörg Wyss, who made his billions in the medical device field, ended his relationship with the hotel magnate Stewart Bainum, according to Katie Robertson of The New York Times.

Bainum insists he’s going to go it alone, but this is a major setback. Bainum and Wyss had outbid Alden, but it still wasn’t clear if they were going to succeed. Now Bainum has to find new investors.

Wyss’ main interest was the Chicago Tribune; apparently he got under the hood and discovered that the finances were a mess. He also reportedly came to the conclusion that his hope of transforming the Tribune into a national paper along the lines of what Jeff Bezos did with The Washington Post was unrealistic. Too bad that serving the third-largest metro area in the U.S. wasn’t good enough for him.

Back when this all started, Alden was going to increase its share in Tribune from 32% to 100%, keep eight of the chain’s nine major-market newspapers, and spin off The Baltimore Sun and several smaller sister papers to Bainum — who, in turn, planned to take them nonprofit. Bainum decided to bid for the entire chain after he concluded that Alden was chiseling him on fees, as Lukas Alpert reported in The Wall Street Journal.

What’s not clear is what happens if we return to the first iteration of the deal. Will Bainum still get The Baltimore Sun? Or is Alden now prepared to take charge of the entire chain — and start putting the squeeze on newsrooms that are already a shadow of their former selves?

Previous coverage.

Why I’m skeptical about the new Substack Local initiative

I’m of two minds about Substack. As a newsletter-and-blogging platform that is attractive and simplifies the task of writers charging readers for their work, it’s fine. As a venture capital-backed company whose leaders seem to have visions of world domination (and endless riches), well, I’m more than a little skeptical.

Which is to say that I’m dubious about Substack Local, a just-announced initiative under which 30 lucky local journalists will be able to get start-up funding and health insurance in order to cover their communities. Obviously the idea addresses the two biggest obstacles to going independent. And if it works, presumably there will be many more such Substack-backed local projects to come.

But is this really going to work? What happens when — as seems inevitable — the venture capitalists see no path to profitability and decide to cash out? I realize there may not be too many similarities, but this feels like Medium, with its ever-shifting business model, which has left many publishers holding the proverbial bag.

Speaking of business models: Please become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month

If I were starting such a site, I’d be much more interested in the Tiny News Collective, which is providing local news entrepreneurs with support for back-end services such as technology, business training and legal services for around $100 a month.

No, it’s not as lucrative as getting VC money via Substack. But as Sarah Scire points out at the Nieman Journalism Lab, the money isn’t all that much and is aimed at moving the sites toward sustainability — a goal that can be pursued without Substack’s help.

We seem to be moving toward peak Substack. My only advice to local news folks thinking about applying is that they should have a clear, detailed plan in place for how to move rapidly to a different platform if they wind up getting Medium’d.

A small town in Vermont will soon be served by three local news sources

Charlotte, Vermont. Photo (cc) 2014 by Rene Rivers.

Charlotte, Vermont, is an affluent community of 3,700 people about 13 miles south of Burlington that will soon be covered by three local news organizations.

Yes, you read that correctly. Last month, VTDigger reported on turmoil at the town’s nonprofit newspaper, The Charlotte News. The editor, Chea Waters Evans, resigned because of what she regarded as unethical interference by the publisher and the board.

Now Evans will serve as the editor of a startup nonprofit news project, The Vermont Bridge, whose journalism will be distributed via a free Substack newsletter. Evans tells VTDigger’s James Finn, though, that her intent is not to compete with her former employer:

Our main goal is transparency. And not in a way where we want to compete with The Charlotte News. Their focus is having community contributors, while I just want to focus on hard news. They can continue doing what they’ve done well for decades.

Among the Bridge’s board members are VTDigger founder and editor-in-chief Anne Galloway and several high-profile journalists who had quit the News’ board in support of Evans.

Become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month

And about that third news source? There’s also The Citizen, a for-profit newspaper that’s part of a Vermont-based chain and that covers Charlotte and neighboring Hinesburg.

It is fair to say that Charlotte is not a news desert.

Earlier:

In a Pennsylvania county, fear and rumor-mongering replace reliable local news

The information gap here in Medford is not much different when compared to the situation in hundreds, if not thousands, of communities across the country. Despite having a population of nearly 60,000 and five reasonably healthy business districts, our Gannett weekly has not had a single full-time staff reporter since the fall of 2019.

So we do what people do everywhere — we rely on a few Facebook groups, Nextdoor and Patch. Of course, there is no substitute for a news source that does the unglamorous work of sitting through governmental meetings (which the weekly does on a piecemeal basis), following neighborhood issues, and keeping tabs on the local police. A lot of times we simply ask questions. Why was a helicopter hovering over the Mystic Lakes? When will everyone be allowed back in the school buildings?

Earlier this week, Brandy Zadrozny wrote a lengthy feature for NBC News about what’s happened in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, where Gannett and its predecessor company, GateHouse Media, have decimated the The Times of Beaver County since acquiring it from local ownership in 2017.

Become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month

In particular, residents have turned to a Facebook group called The News Alerts of Beaver County, an occasionally useful forum with 43,000 members that all too often devolves into a cesspool of false rumors about murders, human trafficking and child molesters. Zadrozny writes:

The News Alerts of Beaver County isn’t home base for a gun-wielding militia, and it isn’t a QAnon fever swamp. In fact, the group’s focus on timely and relevant information for a small real-world community is probably the kind that Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg envisioned when he pivoted his company toward communities in 2017.

And yet, the kind of misinformation that’s traded in The News Alerts of Beaver County and thousands of other groups just like it poses a unique danger. It’s subtler and in some ways more insidious, because it’s more likely to be trusted. The misinformation — shared in good faith by neighbors, sandwiched between legitimate local happenings and overseen by a community member with no training but good intentions — is still capable of tearing a community apart.

Zadrozny also quotes Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor at Syracuse University, who tells her: “In a system with inadequate legitimate local news, they may only be able to get information by posting gossip and having the police correct it. One could argue this is what society will look like if we keep going down this road with less journalism and more police and government social media.”

The area does have an independent website, BeaverCountian.com, which took note of the NBC News story and has won a number of awards for its journalism. But it only posts once every couple of days or so, which isn’t enough for  county with nearly 164,000 people. Something more comprehensive is needed.

What’s at stake is our civic live and our ability to function in a democracy. This is why the fight to save local news is so important.

How a campaign to save The Baltimore Sun may topple Alden’s ambitions

Photo (cc) 2010 by Brent Payne

Washington Post reporters Elahe Izadi and Sarah Ellison have a terrific account of how the campaign to save Tribune Publishing from Alden Global Capital got started.

It began with Save Our Sun, a group launched by several Baltimore Sun reporters. And as recently as a few weeks ago, it looked like they had won a significant but limited victory: Alden would take ownership of eight of Tribune’s nine major-market dailies, spinning the Sun and several affiliated papers off to nonprofit ownership.

That’s when things got more interesting. When Stewart Bainum, the hotel magnate behind the nonprofit plan, grew frustrated with Alden’s terms, he put together a group of billionaires and outbid Alden for the entire chain. Though Bainum’s victory is not yet assured, things are moving in the right direction. The papers would be spun off to local owners, some of them nonprofits, which would represent the biggest victory over chain journalism in many years.

Among the papers that would be saved from Alden’s clutches: the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and the Hartford Courant.

Meanwhile, Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab explains how Alden can win even if it loses: the hedge fund already owns 32% of Tribune. So if the Bainum group ends up paying a premium, Alden will be among the beneficiaries.

Previous coverage.

 

Beyond scale: Looking for hope amid the media’s ongoing meltdown

Recasting a media future. Photo (cc) 2007 by Goodwin Steel Castings.

Previously published at GBH News.

Bad news about the media business is nothing new. From the moment that the commercial web slipped into view in the mid-1990s, news organizations have been on the losing end of a long war over how — and even whether — journalism should be paid for.

Some recent developments, though, offer reasons for hope amid the gloom. Consider:

• BuzzFeed recently acquired HuffPost and immediately took an axe to it, laying off 47 employees, with the threat of more cuts to come. I will concede there’s nothing positive about that. But the debacle points to the limits of media funded by venture capital and could encourage more sustainable models.

• The notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital was on the verge of acquiring Tribune Publishing, whose nine large-market daily papers include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and, locally, the Hartford Courant. But a group of billionaire investors led by Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum stepped forward to propose breaking up the chain and operating the papers locally, some of them on a nonprofit basis. And, at least at the moment, it looks like they might win.

• As media observers had long feared, the departure of former President Donald Trump from the White House led to an immediate decline in news consumption — not just at the cable news networks, but at national and regional newspapers too. Yet the post-Trump slump represents a chance to emphasize local news, which has more of an effect on readers’ actual lives and helps build community.

What a lot of this comes down to is the end of the idea that scale will save the digital news business. “Local doesn’t scale” has long been the motto of community-based entrepreneurs. But now it’s looking like scale doesn’t work at the national level, either, with a few notable exceptions like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Josh Marshall, founder of a small but successful political website called Talking Points Memo that depends mainly on reader revenue, described the dilemma in a recent essay for The Atlantic. For years, he wrote, venture capitalists kept pouring more and more money into digital news outlets hoping that they would someday become large enough to dominate their rivals, rake in a bounty of ad revenues and give the investors a chance to cash in.

Instead, the digital ad money went to Google and Facebook, leaving these outlets without any way forward.

“The whole digital news industry has been based on lies,” Marshall wrote, adding: “Investors realized that the tantalizing prospect of ad revenue lock-in that had always appeared just over the horizon was an illusion, so they shut off the investment spigot … In digital publishing, scale was the god that failed.”

If bigger isn’t necessarily better, that points to an opportunity for local news, whose tribulations have been the subject of considerable discussion over the past several years. Last November, I wrote that reviving community journalism could help overcome the angry polarization of the Trump era. Now three scholars have conducted a study showing there may be something to it.

According to an overview by Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab, the researchers — Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University, Matthew Whitt of Colorado State University and Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M — conducted a survey of readers after The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, California, decided to drop from its opinion pages all syndicated columns and references to national politics for one month.

Darr, Whitt and Dunaway compared The Desert Sun’s readers to those of a control paper and found that polarization was less than what might otherwise have been expected. The numbers were small and didn’t really prove anything one way or the other. But, as the three wrote, the effect was notably salutary regardless of the actual numbers, since the experiment pushed the paper to pay more attention to what was taking place in its own backyard.

“Local newspapers are uniquely positioned to unite communities around shared local identities, cultivated and emphasized through a distinctive home style, and provide a civil and regulated forum for debating solutions to local problems,” they wrote. “In Palm Springs, those local issues were architectural restoration, traffic patterns and environmental conservation. The issues will differ across communities, but a localized opinion page is more beneficial for newspapers and citizens than letters and op-eds speckled with national political vitriol.”

It’s worth noting, too, that The Desert Sun — a Gannett paper — is small enough to be regarded as a truly local paper. According to the Alliance for Audited Media, the Sun’s combined digital and print weekday paid circulation is 15,862, and 16,993 on Sundays. But will the experiment have a lasting impact?

According to Julie Makinen, the paper’s executive editor, the answer is yes. Although the ban on national politics lasted only lasted for a month, she wrote approvingly about the study last week and added that it “is useful to us in that it helps point the way for further improving our opinion pages as we bring on a new editor for the section.”

Which brings me back to where I started. If scale is “the god that failed,” as Josh Marshall puts it, and if local news and opinions are an answer to rebuilding both journalism and civic engagement, what should come next?

Damon Kiesow of the Missouri School of Journalism, whose professional stops include a stint on the digital side at The Boston Globe, recently tweeted out a link to a piece he wrote more than a year ago that seems even more relevant now than it did then.

Because most local newspapers are owned by national chains, he wrote, those papers often end up getting caught in a strategy of pursuing scale even though it makes no sense for them. Journalistically, it means loading up on syndicated content. On the business side, it means chasing advertising dollars — or pennies — that are going to go to Google and Facebook in any case.

“To succeed,” he wrote, “local media have to abandon scale and refocus on community. Advertising remains part of the equation. But reader revenue, donations, foundation funding — yard sales if necessary — are all in the mix.” He concluded that “the internet is infinite; your community is not. Go small, or we are all going home.”

For a generation now, much of the news media have been seeking magical one-size-fits-all solutions to the economic destruction created by technology and out-of-control capitalism. The problem is that there are no easy answers, and scaling up has only made things worse. Those who have succeeded have done so through the hard work of figuring out what their communities need — and then going about the business of serving those needs.

A new editor in Lowell and Fitchburg

MediaNews Group, the newspaper chain owned by Alden Global Capital, has named a new senior editor at The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg: Bruce Castleberry, who will remain as regional sports editor for Massachusetts.

Castleberry replaces Tom Shattuck, who left late last month.