Margaret Low of WBUR tells us how public radio fits into Boston’s regional news environment

Margaret Low

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Margaret Low, the CEO of WBUR, one of Boston’s two major news-oriented public radio stations. Margaret started as CEO in January 2020. She has had a 40-plus-year career with NPR, and started as an overnight production assistant at “Morning Edition.”

At NPR, Low rose through the ranks and ended up in the top editorial job, where she oversaw 400 journalists worldwide, covering events like the Arab Spring, the re-election of Barack Obama, and the Boston Marathon bombing. She also led a digital transformation of her newsroom. She turned “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!,” the Saturday morning quiz show, into a live production. She came to WBUR from The Atlantic, where she was president of AtlanticLIVE and produced more than 100 live events a year.

Ellen has a Quick Take on the launch of Signal Cleveland. It’s well-funded, with $7.5 million to start with, and Rick Edmonds of Poynter Online writes that the news outlet has big goals: It wants to expand throughout Ohio within a few years.

My Quick Take is on a case in New Hampshire that is of interest to those of us who ascribe to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. We’d like to think that if the First Amendment means anything, it means that you may not be punished criminally for criticizing the government. But that’s not what the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit decided recently. InDepthNH has a story here. The case, which has been ongoing for a number of years, garnered a New England Muzzle Award in 2019.

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An ugly week of cuts at The Washington Post, CNN and — of course — Gannett

It’s an ugly week for cuts in the media, including two news organizations that had been flying high in recent years and one that just keeps sinking lower and lower.

First up is The Washington Post, where executive editor Sally Buzbee announced Wednesday that its Sunday magazine will be shut down at the end of the year. Ten staff members will lose their jobs.

Now, you could make an argument that Sunday newspaper magazines have outlived their usefulness. The Boston Globe has kept its alive, but only because its lifestyle-oriented content appeals to advertisers. It seems like 40 times a year the cover is devoted to Your Home, Your Wedding, Your Home Wedding or whatever. But it is also an occasional outlet for serious long-form journalism. So, too, with the Post’s Sunday magazine. According to the Post’s Sarah Ellison:

Five of the 40 Washington Post stories that drew the most online readers over the past year were produced by the magazine. They include a profile of then-Senate candidate J.D. Vance, the tangled saga of several separated siblings reunited through DNA testing, and longtime staff writer David Montgomery’s portrait of the shifting political demographic in Wyoming, “the Trumpiest state in the nation,” as its voters turned on Rep. Liz Cheney.

In 2020, the magazine won a National Magazine Award in the single-issue category for the special issue “Prison.” The issue “was written, illustrated and photographed by people who have been — or are currently — incarcerated, allowing readers to hear from voices that are often invisible in the debate around prison and criminal justice,” The Post said at the time.

Can stories like these appear elsewhere in the Post? Sure, and I hope they will. But Buzbee is shutting down something that’s working. She described the cut as part of the Post’s ongoing “global and digital transformation,” and said some of the magazine’s content will move to “a revitalized Style section” that will be unveiled in a few months. But let’s not forget that this move comes not long after Buzbee got rid of the Post’s venerable Sunday Outlook section; at least that was accompanied by a return to a standalone Book World.

***

I want to think well of CNN’s newish chief executive, Chris Licht. His predecessor, Jeff Zucker, may have been beloved by the staff, but he left behind a profoundly broken institution.

Licht has made some moves that I really don’t like, such as getting rid of Brian Stelter’s “Reliable Sources” media program and, for that matter, Brian Stelter. But Licht has also talked about returning CNN to less opinion and more reporting, which I’d love to see. I found much of what Licht told Kara Swisher on a recent podcast encouraging, although I don’t think he grasps the crisis of democracy in which we find ourselves when he talks about bringing on more Republican voices. Still, Licht isn’t Elon Musk; he seems like an earnest, well-meaning executive who wants to do well but who must also negotiate some treacherous terrain, such as keeping right-wing investor John Malone happy.

Now, in a move that had been telegraphed well in advance, CNN is implementing some pretty major cuts that will claim the jobs of possibly hundreds of staff members at a media company that employs about 4,000 people. Tom Jones of Poynter has the details.

CNN is one of our great news organizations — far better than what you see on prime time every night. As Licht told Swisher, one reason he got rid of CNN Plus, among the more ludicrous of Zucker’s debacles (along with the Chris and Andrew Cuomo Show, of course), is that the excellent CNN Digital is already the most trafficked news website in the U.S., and he didn’t want to shift attention away from that asset. But it’s hard to see how Licht can move ahead with a renewed emphasis on reporting if he’s working with a drastically downsized news division. Opinion is cheap; news is expensive. And Licht is going to be sorely tempted to take the path of least resistance.

One final note: The Boston Globe’s Mark Shanahan today interviews Randolph’s own Audie Cornish about her new CNN podcast. Cornish was lured away from NPR earlier this year as part of Zucker’s push to staff up CNN Plus and has been at loose ends every since the shutdown. But a podcast? Really? How about making her the anchor of a prime-time newscast, as I suggested earlier this year?

***

Today’s the day for yet another in an endless round of layoffs at Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds estimated that the body count could be around 200 of the chain’s 3,400 news employees.

Gannett publishes more than 200 daily newspapers around the country, including a number of titles in the Boston metro area. At one time it published dozens of weeklies as well, but many of those have been closed or merged, with virtually all of their reporters reassigned to regional beats.

Fortunately, Gannett’s withdrawal from community journalism in Eastern Massachusetts has led to a number of independent start-ups. Christopher Galvin had a good piece in Boston.com earlier this week about several of those projects. (He interviewed me.) And here is a link to a spreadsheet I maintain of independent local news organizations in Massachusetts. As you’ll see, the numbers are impressive.

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Black by God: How Crystal Good is providing a voice to Black West Virginians

Crystal Good (via LinkedIn)

On our latest podcast “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Crystal Good, the founder of Black by God, the West Virginian. She’s a sixth-generation West Virginian, and she’s a storyteller and poet. She has also been a model and an advocate. She describes Black by God as an “emerging news and storytelling organization centering Black voices from the Mountain State.” She wants to provide a more nuanced portrayal of Black residents in the Appalachian region.

Northeastern graduate student Dakotah Kennedy (no relation) and I first heard Good speak in September at the Radically Rural conference in Keene, New Hampshire — not from the stage but from the audience. We wished she had been onstage, so we invited her onto the podcast, and she graciously agreed. Black by God has a lively website and publishes periodic print editions — which Crystal sometimes delivers herself.

I’ve got a Quick Take on social media. It’s in free fall. Is that good for local news? Bad? Or does it just mean a changed environment that they’re all going to have to navigate? Ellen’s Quick Take is on a hyperlocal mogul named Mark Adams. He’s expanding his empire into Montana.

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There they go again: Gannett to lay off journalists just in time for the holidays

Within the past hour I’ve received copies of an email from multiple sources about yet another round of layoffs that our largest newspaper chain is planning. The hammer is scheduled to drop on Dec. 1 and 2, just in time for the holidays.

The email comes from Henry Faure Walker, a Gannett executive who is described on the company’s website as “the Chief Executive Officer of Newsquest Media Group since 2014, managing more than 165 regional brands in the U.K. with an audience of 30 million.” He is also chair of the News Media Association, a British industry group. His operational role at Gannett is not listed in his company bio.

The most recent round of  cuts was announced only last month. At that time, the chain imposed unpaid furloughs, a 401(k) freeze, a hiring moratorium and other measures on its beleaguered employees, so this really adds insult to injury. The text of Walker’s email follows:

Dear Gannett News Division:

First and foremost, I want to thank you all for your commitment, hard work and professionalism during these unsettling times.

I have begun working with … the team to address the challenges and opportunities ahead and put the News operation on a sounder footing.

It’s important to provide you with visibility into current conditions and the next steps for our News division, as we are not immune to the economic conditions many industries and companies are facing, particularly in the media sector.

While we have taken several steps already, we must enter the new year in a stronger economic position, and the reality is that our News cost base is currently too high for the revenues it generates. Regretfully, this means we will be implementing further reductions.

I appreciate that this will impact valued colleagues, and we are committed to ensuring they are treated with the utmost respect and courtesy throughout this difficult process. Our goal is to be as transparent as possible. Notifications will occur on Dec. 1 and 2.

Please know that many non-payroll savings have also been targeted, and reducing our workforce is not the preferred course of action. In addition, other similar actions are being taken in other divisions across our organization.

We are going through challenging times, but we will get through this, and build a stronger business that underpins the phenomenal, trusted journalism you do and ensure that we can continue to deliver for our communities for many years to come. Thank you.

Henry

Mary Margaret White of Mississippi Today talks with us about journalism and southern culture

Mary Margaret White

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Mary Margaret White, the CEO of Mississippi Today, a nonprofit digital news outlet that has been covering the state for more than six years. The staff has a robust presence at the statehouse in Jackson and provides cultural and sports coverage as well.

Mary Margaret is a Mississippi native. She has a bachelor’s in English and journalism and a master’s in Southern studies from the University of Mississippi. She also spent almost 10 years working for the state, with jobs in arts and tourism. Her work has appeared in The Listening Post CollectiveThe New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and on Mississippi Public Broadcasting radio.

I’ve got a Quick Take on a major transition at the New Haven Independent. Last week the indefatigable founder, Paul Bass, announced he was stepping aside as editor of the Independent. The new editor will be Tom Breen, currently the managing editor. Luckily, Bass isn’t going anywhere but will continue to play a major role.

Ellen’s Quick Take is on another big transition at The Texas Tribune. Economist Sonal Shah is becoming CEO at the Tribune in January. Shah, who has had leadership roles at Google, the White House, and other high-impact organizations, replaces co-founder Evan Smith, who is taking a role as senior adviser to the Emerson Collective. It’s a big change at a pioneering nonprofit newsroom. Smith says he’ll continue to spread the local news gospel in his new role.

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Advance to go digital-only at four of its papers in Alabama and Mississippi

The sun is setting on print in Birmingham, Albama, and several other communities served by Advance newspapers. Photo (cc) 2020 by drjoshuawhitman.

When I speak to audiences about the future of local news, inevitably I’m asked if I think newspapers at some point will end their print editions once and for all. I always respond that I’m not a good person to answer that question — 25 years ago, I assumed they’d be long gone by now. Not only are they still here, but even as digitally focused a news outlet as The Boston Globe was still making more than half of its money from print as recently as a year ago.

I do think that we’re going to see newspapers cut back on print days, eventually moving to one big weekend print paper with digital distribution the rest of the week. But that’s not going to happen as long as publishers believe there’s still money in print advertising and circulation, both of which command a premium compared to digital.

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Which is why I was intrigued by an announcement by the Advance chain last week that its three Albama and one Mississippi newspaper will end their print editions altogether by early 2023.

“We remain deeply committed to serving our local communities and are producing high-quality journalism and reaching more people than ever before,” said Tom Bates, president of Alabama Media Group, in a statement published by AL.com. “At the same time, we’re adjusting to how Alabama readers want their information today, which increasingly is on a mobile device, not in a printed newspaper.”

I’m not going to snark. Advance is a privately held company owned by the Newhouse family, and I think they are genuinely trying to find a way forward. In Massachusetts, Advance owns The Republican of Springfield and MassLive.com, which are run more or less as separate operations.

A better analogy to Alabama and Mississippi, though, is Advance’s New Jersey properties. Advance publishes the largest daily newspaper in that state — The Star-Ledger of Newark — and two smaller dailies, The Times of Trenton and the South Jersey News, as well as several smaller publications. All of them operate under the NJ.com banner, and the emphasis is on digital subscriptions. There’s a unified newsroom of about 115 journalists who feed stories to both NJ.com and to the print editions. It’s similar to what Hearst is doing in Connecticut with one newsroom serving the New Haven Register, the Connecticut Post, several smaller papers and the digital-only CTInsider.

The difference in Alabama is that Advance is ending the print editions and focusing on its digital-only operations, shutting down three Alabama papers — The Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times and the Press-Register of Mobile — and The Mississippi Press.

Is this smart? In 2012, Advance cut The Times-Picayune back to three days of print at a time when broadband penetration in New Orleans and the surrounding area lagged behind other parts of the country. An outcry resulted, and the move was reversed the following year. But the damage had been done; The Times-Picayune, a once-great paper that had served as a lifeline following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, ended up being acquired in 2019 by an independent daily, The Advocate of Baton Rouge.

Even so, 2012 was a long time ago. Today, according to the Alabama Media Group, AL.com is in the top 10 of local news websites in the U.S., reaching about 11 million users each month. Statista reports that broadband penetration in 2019 was about 81% in Alabama and about 76% in Mississippi; no doubt those figure are higher today. (By comparison, that number was 88% in Massachusetts.) Still, Alabama and Mississippi are among our poorest states, and the move away from print is going to leave some people behind.

“The print side of our business does not make economic sense in Alabama,” Bates told Alexandra Bruell (free link) of The Wall Street Journal. Bruell reported that the circulation of Advance’s three Alabama papers is down to around 30,000, a drop from 260,000 a decade ago.

So this seems like a good time for Advance to try moving into a digital-only future. If it enhances the bottom line, then other publishers can be expected to follow suit. And if that, in turn, provides a boost to Advances local journalism, then that will be good news for everyone.

Nancy West talks about her entrepreneurial journey and the state of journalism in N.H.

Nancy West of InDepthNH

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Nancy West, executive editor of InDepthNH.org. 

Nancy was an investigative reporter during her 30-year career at the New Hampshire Union Leader. Nancy founded the nonprofit New Hampshire Center for Public Interest Journalism in 2015, and has taught investigative reporting at a summer program for students at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.

Ellen has a Quick Take on a recent article by Dan Froomkin in Washington Monthly. Froomkin, who is now editor of Press Watch, used to work for The Washington Post and has been critical of owner Jeff Bezos. Froomkin is taking aim at the content management system developed by the Post under Bezos. The Post licenses this system to other news outlets around the country. That kind of market power worries Froomkin.

My Quick Take is on the state of journalism in Vermont, a subject we talked about on a recent podcast with Anne Galloway, the founding editor of VTDigger, a well-regarded digital startup. Dan’s topic is about a good piece of media criticism. Bill Schubart, a journalist who writes a column for VTDigger, wrote a column critiquing a recent New Yorker piece by Bill McKibben on Vermont journalism. But Schubart also looked inward and wrote that Digger itself is having problems.

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Seismic change comes to the New Haven Independent as Tom Breen moves up

Tom Breen. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

There is huge news today in the world of independent community journalism. Paul Bass, the founder of the New Haven Independent, is stepping aside as editor while Tom Breen, currently the managing editor, moves up to the top position. Bass has been talking about making this change for a while, and on Tuesday he made it official.

Bass, 62, isn’t going anywhere. He’ll continue as executive director of the Online Journalism Project, the nonprofit organization he set up to oversee the Independent, the Valley Independent Sentinel in New Haven’s northwest suburbs, and WNHH Radio, a low-power FM station that specializes in community programming. He’ll also continue to report the news for the Independent and host a show on WNHH.

Paul Bass. Photo (cc) 2021 by Maaisha Osman.

Breen, 34, joined the staff of the Independent as a reporter in 2018 and later became managing editor. Breen is a dogged journalist; last November, I accompanied him as he knocked on the doors of houses that had been foreclosed on, a regular practice of his that has yielded important stories.

The Independent is one of the oldest and still among the best nonprofit local news startups in the country. It was the primary subject of my 2013 book, “The Wired City,” and it will also be featured in “What Works: The Future of Local News,” a book-in-progress by Ellen Clegg and me.

Congratulations to Paul and Tom. This is a big change for a news organization that has been remarkably stable over the course of its 17-year existence.

Michael Reed tells E&P that everything is coming up Gannett

Photo (cc) 2008 by Patrickneil

You’ve seen plenty of bad news about Gannett here — layoffs, reassigning staff away from local news coverage, closing papers and, more recently, imposing furloughs, pension freezes and buyouts. With more than 200 daily newspapers across the country, what happens at Gannett matters. Its ongoing shrinkage is a significant part of the local news crisis.

So I was interested to see that Gannett chief executive Michael Reed talked — OK, exchanged emails — with Gretchen A. Peck of the trade publication Editor & Publisher. I wanted to see what sort of story he’s telling these days about the path forward for his debt-addled chain, which nevertheless found a way to pay him $7.7 million last year.

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Not surprisingly, it turns out to be a lot of the same old, same old — an emphasis on digital subscriptions despite having little journalism to attract new readers as well as ancillary businesses ranging from events to sports betting. At least he didn’t mention NFTs this time.

One thing I didn’t know was that Gannett’s consumer product website, Reviewed.com, is based in Cambridge, and that it employs more than 100 people, including scientists, product experts, writers and editors. The idea is similar to Wirecutter, founded as an independent site and later acquired by The New York Times. Buy something through Reviewed.com and Gannett gets a cut of the action. Reed told Peck:

If you look across the larger media landscape throughout the last decade, we have seen expansion beyond traditional news into varied product offerings and different types of content. As the traditional revenue streams we largely relied on, such as print advertising and print subscriptions, continue to transition to digital, we are also adapting to new revenue opportunities. These diversifying revenue streams help us to ensure we can support our ongoing news efforts in an increasingly digital world.

Reed added that progress continues to be made in paying down the debt that Gannett took on when it merged with GateHouse Media in 2019. Gannett these days is essentially GateHouse under a different name; Reed himself was the head of GateHouse before the merger.

Despite Reed’s happy talk, the company continues to throw newspapers and staff members overboard. According to Ray Schultz of Publishers Daily, Gannett is selling two papers in New Mexico and has put its Phoenix printing facility on the block for $47.4 million. Urban Milwaukee’s Bruce Murphy reports that six veteran journalists are leaving Gannett’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Local opinion content continues to be slashed as well, writes Mark Pickering in Contrarian Boston.

Essentially Reed is telling the same story he’s always told: Times are tough, and we have to keep cutting. Eventually, though, digital subscriptions and our non-news investments will begin to pay off and support our journalism. It’s just that “eventually” never seems to come. Still, there’s considerable value in reading about Reed’s assessment of how Gannett can pull out of its downward spiral; Peck and E&P deserve credit for getting him on the record.

Meanwhile, in Eastern Massachusetts and across the country, independent news projects are rising up to fill the gap left by Gannett’s retreat. The latest is The Concord Bridge, a digital-and-print nonprofit competing with Gannett’s Concord Journal, ghosted by the shift from local to regional coverage last spring.

You can access a complete list of independent local news outlets in Massachusetts by clicking here.

Are newspaper endorsements obsolete? Ellen and I kick it around with Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Jeff Jacoby, longtime columnist for The Boston Globe opinion pages. Jeff also writes the weekly “Arguable” newsletter.

Jeff holds degrees from George Washington University and from Boston University Law School, and before entering journalism, he briefly practiced law. He was also an assistant to John Silber, the prickly president of Boston University.

Prompted by a column Jeff wrote in June, and spurred on by the impending midterm elections, the podcast features a free-form discussion of whether newspaper editorial pages should endorse candidates in presidential races. It’s a hot topic these days — this piece by Joshua Benton in Nieman Lab is one of just several to observe that endorsements are on the wane.

I’ve got a Quick Take on a big story out of Woburn. That city has an independent newspaper and is covered by the Globe and other outlets. But this story wasn’t broken by any of the usual suspects. Ellen’s Quick Take is on an opinion column in The Washington Post by Perry Bacon Jr., who calls for $10 billion in government funding to support a news outlet in every congressional district in the country. As you’ll hear, we both have some problems with Bacon’s proposal.

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